Seven benefits of gratitude

Benefits of gratitudeNow we are coming up to Thanksgiving here in the United States, and apparently the word “thanks” is connected to the word “grateful”, no surprises there, really. (“Grateful” is also loosely related to the word “grace”.) So this is the time of the year to feel grateful, which is nice, as study after study shows that gratitude is an enormous predictor of happiness, a kind of happiness superpower, and we all like being happy.

Plus we need to feel happy if we are to avoid being a grumpy git and ruin everyone’s Thanksgiving. Have you noticed that we are far more likely to get annoyed if we are already not feeling happy inside? How when things feel good and we are connected to our own inner peace, happiness, and confidence, minor annoyances don’t worry us at all – but how on the other hand when we feel unsettled inside, not good in ourselves, not whole, split off from our own peace, the smallest thing can set us off? This might sound obvious, but that doesn’t seem to prevent us, the moment we do get annoyed, from casting around for something or someone else to blame, anything other than our own disgruntled state of mind.

Join the clubcontrol mind

Things are changing all the time, and I mean literally moment by moment – this is called impermanence – so is it any wonder that things don’t always change in the direction we want them to? We all have to keep re-adjusting to changing circumstances, we have no choice. However, if our mind is calm and we know we have everything we need inside, we hardly care. And one of the most powerful ways to get there is to train in gratitude. This means actually putting time aside to think about it.

Great-full

I sometimes think of “grateful” as “great-full”, ie, feeling full of all that is great. (Or something like that.) Dictionary.com says it means “warmly or deeply appreciative of kindness or benefits received; thankful” as well as “pleasing to the mind or senses; agreeable or welcome; refreshing.”

Gratitude does please our mind. It helps us enjoy our lives immensely. It helps us feel happy, whole, enriched, and confident. Instead of focusing on the things that are wrong with our life, and of course we can all come up with a long list, we focus on the things that are right.

How does that square with the need to focus on our suffering in order to develop renunciation? (Just in case you are wondering.) This is samsara after all, so what on earth are we supposed to be happy about? Generally the only time it is worth focusing on our own suffering is just for that reason, in order to develop the wish to get rid of it all and its causes. But at the times we are feeling hopelessly unhappy, bereft, annoyed, sorry for ourselves – the chances are that we are not focusing on our suffering in this constructive way at all. At which point we can either shift our focus to renunciation, or shift our focus away from what’s wrong to what’s right, developing gratitude instead.

The grass is not always greenergrass greener

Too often we pine over the things we haven’t got whilst neglecting the things we have. Counting our blessings is a way to focus on what we’ve got going for us, the green grass right under our noses.

By the way, I don’t know if this is relevant but I’ve been thinking lately about how there is never any point in trying to replace people and things we have lost. Better to tune into what is now and we’ll feel whole again. Not, “Oh this is just a pale imitation of the living conditions/relationship/job etc I had!” It is not a pale imitation, it is just different. It is not supposed to replace anything, and if we don’t set it up as a replacement we might just find that we are enjoying it in its own right. Be happy in ourselves and we can enjoy everything that comes our way.

Some scientifically proven benefits of gratitude

As I said, there are a ton of articles out these days about the power of gratitude. This article for example gives 7 scientifically proven benefits of gratitude, so I thought I’d give a quick unscientific comment on all of them.

Gratitude:

  1. Opens the door to more relationships. Hardly surprising really, who doesn’t like being around someone who appreciates them?!
  2. Improves physical health. All I’ll say here is that I was feeling very grateful this morning (hence this article) and my good mood made me go for a swim in a pool in the snow.
  3. Improves psychological health. Gratitude “effectively increases happiness and reduces depression” and “reduces a multitude of toxic emotions (read “delusions”), ranging from envy and resentment to frustration and regret.” That’s understandable, and cool.
  4. Enhances empathy and reduces aggression. For sure.
  5. Grateful people sleep better. Yup, I love sleeping!
  6. Improves self-esteem. And “reduces social comparisons”. Yes, if we are grateful to others, we tend to want to repay them, and it becomes natural to rejoice in them instead of comparing ourselves and falling short.
  7. Increases mental strength. Gratitude “reduces stress” and “fosters resilience”. There is nothing more resilient than a peaceful, controlled mind, which we get with gratitude.

That was only 7. This article gives 31 benefits of gratitude 🙂 But I’ll spare you my comments.

pigletNow I don’t know if this kind of thing impresses you or not, but I’ll mention it just in case. Gratitude also boosts our dopamine and serotonin levels. It is apparently even a form of emotional intelligence and “affects neuron density in both the ventromedial and lateral prefrontal cortex” (which apparently is a good thing).

Feel free to Google “gratitude benefits” or whatever and you’ll have a stack of bedtime reading.

Before teaching how to generate a positive state of mind, Buddha Shakyamuni would always talk first about its benefits to encourage us to go for it. So hopefully you’ve decided that gratitude is what you want, in which case, in the next article I carry on with this and share some Buddhist techniques for feeling more grateful.

Meanwhile, I am always (well, almost always) grateful for your comments …

Thank you for being there

I just finished an Annie Chun’s All Natural Asian Cuisine noodle bowl, bought not inexpensively at the local Whole Pay Packet, I mean Whole Foods (who went and put such a money-sucking store right next to my house?!) It was kind of untasty to tell the truth, seriously it looked nothing like the picture on the packet, but it only took three minutes to make, and has kept me fed for another couple of hours so I have the energy to write this. So far in all the days of my life I have been kept alive by mountains of food already, all provided to me by the kindness of others – at least, I sure didn’t have anything to do with my noodle bowl other than buying it with dollars given to me by others, warming up the water in a kettle provided by others, using water from goodness knows where coming out of a faucet whose plumbing I had zero to do with, and putting it in my mouth (provided by my parents) with a fork manufactured by others. And of course that is just scratching the surface of all the causes and conditions that went into my supposedly “instant” dinner and my ability to eat it.

kindness of others Buddhism

Just in the last ten minutes I have been entirely dependent on others, and I could take any ten minutes in my day and never get to the bottom of it. As Geshe Kelsang says in Eight Steps to Happiness, we are all interconnected in a web of kindness from which it is impossible to separate ourselves.

Mountain reflections

Buddhism home is where the heart isI saw a “Colorado Native” bumper sticker recently in the Rockies (where I live now!) Where am I native to, I thought? I seem to be a bit of a nomad. But I think I may be indigenous to the land of others’ kindness. We are all indigenous here. We are born into it naked, with nothing, and then supported by it. It is quite a big world. Can feel at home anywhere if we remember.

I was marveling at the feats of human ingenuity – the roads, tunnels, and bridges carved goodness knows how through the mountains next to the rivers, rocks, and frozen waterfalls, past Glenwood hot springs and the place called No Name, a Starbucks (yee haa!) in every wild west town. I watched the wheels of vehicles rotating on the highway as a moment by moment testimony to other people, each inch of the meeting of tire and asphalt coming from their kindness – I didn’t pay for even an inch of the journey between Denver and Grand Junction.

Buddhism in ColoradoI glanced at the driver – on the surface it looks like a driver is in charge of turning the steering wheel, but in fact the wheel has to turn in dependence upon the curving road, which is entirely dependent on others – not even the coolest driver has any autonomy. Driving, like any of our activities, merely reflects off a vast narrative of causes and conditions, karmic and environmental, just carved into the scene as a whole – the driving in this instance not other than the mountains, and the mountains not other than the drive. So with no inherently existent driving in all that, no findable driving, where is the inherently existent driver? Our constrained and seemingly findable self, whatever we are doing, is just an hallucination of self-grasping and self-cherishing.

These kinds of contemplations on our complete dependence on others and on our environment, which we can do anywhere, help us feel closer to others — more in our heart, and less fixated on a heady, dualistic sense of me and them. (Funny how the more in the heart we are, the more we feel connected with the whole wide world.) They also increase our wisdom understanding emptiness, that nothing exists from its own side.

There was a gold rush out here once. Didn’t amount to much (though I believe they found some silver). But as Buddha pointed out, if we were a pauper living our whole life in a hovel, we’d be pretty delighted if someone showed us that we had a gold mine right beneath our feet. The gold of our Buddha nature has always been inside us, we simply haven’t known. And we can mine these seams of limitless wisdom and compassion through contemplations on the interdependence of ourselves and others.

(As you are probably guessing, I might have had too much time to think on that journey – ten hours in a car, caught in a blizzard, my thoughts meandering along with the winding roads … surely I am practically a native of the Western Land of the Snows myself now?!)

Buddhism and meditation in the Rockies

Is anyone not kind to us?

I think that is what Thanksgiving is about, remembering the kindness of others. I suppose it is customary to remember the kindness of our nearest and dearest as we gather around the laden dining table, but we can also remember the kindness of strangers, and why not even of enemies?

Attentive friends and family are obviously kind to us in ways we can recognize (at least, if we notice in the first place). When we meditate on our dependence on all living beings, we realize that strangers are very kind too, eg, Annie Chun and co, the road and railway company, etc.

What about people who annoy us or even set out deliberately to harm us? They are arguably the kindest of all as they allow us to practice patience and unconditional love, qualities we need for lasting happiness and freedom.

We watched the Life of Atisha in Cascais, Portugal, at the Kadampa Buddhist Fall Festival the other day – a truly insightful script and well executed production directed by the talented Olivier. There was a lot of good acting, but Atisha’s cook arguably stole the show. Atisha took this rude, obnoxious servant all the way with him to Tibet and, when the Tibetans asked him why, replied:

Without this man, there would be no one with whom I could practice patience. He is very kind to me. I need him!

Geshe Kelsang goes onto say:

Atisha understood that the only way to fulfill his deepest wish to benefit all living beings was to achieve enlightenment, and that to do this he needed to perfect his patience. For Atisha, his bad-tempered assistant was more precious than material possessions, praise, or any other worldly attainment. ~ Eight Steps to Happiness

We don’t need to have a servant to practice patience, there will probably be someone willing to fit the bill amongst our parents, partner, or children over Thanksgiving, or our boss and co-workers back at work next week. If anyone tries to start an argument over the holiday, you could try just playing about with offering them the victory and see what happens. I think it is often not the content of an argument that is the issue (especially when we’ve overeaten and feel grumpy)–it is the emotional luggage and inappropriate attention. Diffuse this and the content can often take care of itself.

Kind just because they’re therekindness of others in Buddhism

Shantideva says that others are kind just because they are other – because they are there, really! If they are there, we can cherish them, and if we cherish them we experience happiness both now and in the future.

As Mark Twain put it:

The best way to cheer yourself up is to try to cheer somebody else up.

I borrowed a cat this morning, here in Denver, called Bella. She is a cuddly little grey fur ball, who sat on the fire escape crying to be let in my attic window, and then lay peacefully next to my leg as I meditated. In Buddhism, we never meditate alone – we don’t have to have an actual cat (or human) sitting next to us, but we always think we’re surrounded by countless living beings. It takes us out of ourselves, makes the meditation flow better.

kindness of others ShantidevaFor as long as there are people around you, or even just one person, we can be cherishing others and making our life meaningful and happy. Big heart translates into big action. One analogy Geshe Kelsang uses is that even if all we are doing is putting crumbs on a bird table, if we do it with great compassion our action is far more powerfully beneficial than giving a diamond ring to someone out of attachment.

This next bit is old news, and wide rivers have flown under the bridge since then; but it is when I became 100% convinced of the advantages of cherishing others in times of crisis, so I’ll share it. When I was fired from my very enjoyable long-term job several years ago, I relied upon those around me to bring me out of it – not by expecting them to do anything, but simply by serving as my immediate objects of cherishing to take me out of myself, to help me keep moving onward and upward. I would not just survive, in the words of Gloria Gaynor, I was determined to thrive. I remember the moment I received my firing letter. Immediately I had perspective as it was the same morning that my dear friend Trish died of cancer, died most beautifully I might add, with a smile on her face and with the faint euphoric words over the phone the night before: “L, this is all just appearance! Geshe-la is everywhere!” News travels fast, but not that fast, and before she found out another friend came to me in tears of guilt about losing a precious gift a friend had given her, and then another friend came to me in tears seeking advice on how to communicate better with her husband. Later they both said words to the effect: “So sorry to dump on you, I had no idea you’d just been fired!” but they didn’t know they were being the kind ones, allowing me think about others in my hour of need.

Kadampa Buddhism in ColoradoAnd I continued as I meant to go on, deciding that the only way not to go doolally would be to firmly and stably put myself in everyone else’s shoes. Self-cherishing is like trying to keep your balance on high pointy (just focused on one person, me) Giuseppe Zanotti stilettos; loving others is like wearing solid flat (focused on lots of people, others) Doc Martens. When you find yourself navigating uncertain terrain, lumpy, full of potholes, treacherous in places, believe me you’d far rather be wearing Doc Martens. It worked every time I did it (which was a lot due to desperation); and I know I’m more stable and confident now thanks to it.

Thanks, in fact, to others.

Happy Thanksgiving, One and All!

Forget Christmas, let every day be Thanksgiving!

Thanksgiving is here again in the States and, although I was not brought up with it and often barely eat more than a tofurkey sandwich unless people invite me over (hint?!), it has become my favorite holiday. People everywhere stop to count their blessings, and this makes them feel grateful and appreciative, so it is a good day. (Not for turkeys, however, not a good day for them at all. I don’t like the role that turkeys are forced to play. So p’raps don’t invite me over for the meal part after all… or the football… but the rest of it, yeah!)

Back in the day, from what I’m told, the first settlers gave thanks for good harvests. Nowadays most of us are a good deal more removed from the source of our food, which means that what it takes to get food onto our plates every day is hidden from us unless we really stop to think about it. But although I may not be thinking about the background of my frozen peas as I plop them in the pan and then gobble them down with my tofurkey, I am just as dependent on those who planted, grew, harvested, packaged and delivered my food as the early settlers were. In fact, the chances are that these days a good deal more people are involved in the process of getting food into my stomach to sustain my life for another 24 hours. On Thanksgiving we have a better chance of remembering this, and the thought pleases us for we feel supported.

I’d like to have Thanksgiving every day (no turkey, no football, no lines at the airport, but the good bits!). And I can, there is nothing stopping me. For one thing, I can remember how lucky I am to have this precious human life. For another, I can remember how this precious human life and every single one of my needs and enjoyments come from the kindness of others.

Lucky me
prize: precious human life

In the meditation on our precious human life we count our blessings because this life is right now giving us an unprecedented opportunity to make serious spiritual progress even on a daily basis, yet it is so almost unbelievably rare — a fact that becomes obvious if we compare our situation to that of most other living beings. Even the simplest things in life are precious, such as being able to walk or talk or write or taste, something we often don’t realize until we no longer have them due to sickness, disability or death. Traditionally in Buddhism we count 18 blessings, called the eight freedoms and the ten endowments – chances are you have every one of these (if you want to know for sure, you can check out Joyful Path of Good Fortune.

Don’t let this be true for you: “You don’t know what you’ve got till its gone.”

Thanks to others!

Then in the kindness of others meditation we contemplate in as much personal detail as we can where exactly each of these blessings comes from?! Quick answer: Others.

Geshe Kelsang says:

Our body is the result not only of our parents but of countless beings who have provided it with food, shelter and so forth. It is because we have this present body with human faculties that we are able to enjoy all the pleasures and opportunities of human life… Our skills and abilities all come from the kindness of others—we had to be taught how to eat, how to walk, how to talk, and how to read and write… Our spiritual development and the pure happiness of full enlightenment also depend on the kindness of living beings. ~ Transform Your Life

Great full

Remembering all this makes us feel grateful. We feel “full” for all that is “great”! We need gratitude to feel good about our lives and also as a foundation for love and compassion for others. Whenever we recall any kindness someone has shown us, studies and our own experience show that we feel instantly better, and closer to them. (A 15th century etymology for gratitude is “pleasing to the mind”). Gratitude predisposes us to many positive states of mind. So when we take a little time to itemize all the kindness we have received since the day we were born, we can overflow with happiness! As we fill up with happiness, it seems to push all our negative, selfish minds out, for there isn’t room for both – like scum being pushed out the top of a bottle when we fill it up with clean liquid.

On the other hand, when we feel depleted, exhausted or ungrateful it is easy for the negative moods to settle in. We feel we are lacking something, hollow, and project that on the world around us, which feels bereft of happiness and support. We can develop attachment for external objects to fill us up, and if we see others’ experiencing good things we can easily feel envy for the things we feel we don’t have.

“Hang on a minute”, I hear some of you say. “I don’t have that much to be thankful for – my life is in fact a huge mess and it is all their fault.” If we find ourselves pursuing this depressing line of thought, we can go back to the precious human life meditation. To be able to even think about these things means we must have a precious human life – so with that established we can stop dwelling on what is wrong with our lives and instead remember everything we have going for us. Then we can ask ourselves where each of our freedoms and opportunities actually comes from. (Answer above!)

We choose what we think about, so we might as well choose to smell the roses rather than stick our nose in the stinky garbage can.

Happy Thanksgiving to you too, Mister Turkey

Happy Thanksgiving everyone! Please give this article to anyone who might like it.

(Postscript: despite the title of this article, Christmas can be cool too… more later.)

(I wrote this article last year but it still seems relevant this year!)

Please like Kadampa Life on Facebook if you do.

“Let Every Day be Thanksgiving!”

Forget Christmas, let every day be Thanksgiving!

Thanksgiving is here again in the States and, although I was not brought up with it and often barely eat more than a tofurkey sandwich unless people invite me over (hint?!), it has become my favorite holiday. People everywhere stop to count their blessings, and this makes them feel grateful and appreciative, so it is a good day. (Not for turkeys, however, not a good day for them at all. I don’t like the role that turkeys are forced to play. So p’raps don’t invite me over for the meal part after all… or the football… but the rest of it, yeah!)

Back in the day, from what I’m told, the first settlers gave thanks for good harvests. Nowadays most of us are a good deal more removed from the source of our food, which means that what it takes to get food onto our plates every day is hidden from us unless we really stop to think about it. But although I may not be thinking about the background of my frozen peas as I plop them in the pan and then gobble them down with my tofurkey, I am just as dependent on those who planted, grew, harvested, packaged and delivered my food as the early settlers were. In fact, the chances are that these days a good deal more people are involved in the process of getting food into my stomach to sustain my life for another 24 hours. On Thanksgiving we have a better chance of remembering this, and the thought pleases us for we feel supported.

I’d like to have Thanksgiving every day (no turkey, no football, no lines at the airport, but the good bits!). And I can, there is nothing stopping me. For one thing, I can remember how lucky I am to have this precious human life. For another, I can remember how this precious human life and every single one of my needs and enjoyments come from the kindness of others.

Lucky me
prize: precious human life

In the meditation on our precious human life we count our blessings because this life is right now giving us an unprecedented opportunity to make serious spiritual progress even on a daily basis, yet it is so almost unbelievably rare — a fact that becomes obvious if we compare our situation to that of most other living beings. Even the simplest things in life are precious, such as being able to walk or talk or write or taste, something we often don’t realize until we no longer have them due to sickness, disability or death. Traditionally in Buddhism we count 18 blessings, called the eight freedoms and the ten endowments – chances are you have every one of these (if you want to know for sure, you can check out Joyful Path of Good Fortune.

Don’t let this be true for you: “You don’t know what you’ve got till its gone.”

Thanks to others!

Then in the kindness of others meditation we contemplate in as much personal detail as we can where exactly each of these blessings comes from?! Quick answer: Others.

Geshe Kelsang says:

Our body is the result not only of our parents but of countless beings who have provided it with food, shelter and so forth. It is because we have this present body with human faculties that we are able to enjoy all the pleasures and opportunities of human life… Our skills and abilities all come from the kindness of others—we had to be taught how to eat, how to walk, how to talk, and how to read and write… Our spiritual development and the pure happiness of full enlightenment also depend on the kindness of living beings. ~ Transform Your Life

Great full

Remembering all this makes us feel grateful. We feel “full” for all that is “great”! We need gratitude to feel good about our lives and also as a foundation for love and compassion for others. Whenever we recall any kindness someone has shown us, studies and our own experience show that we feel instantly better, and closer to them. (A 15th century etymology for gratitude is “pleasing to the mind”). Gratitude predisposes us to many positive states of mind. So when we take a little time to itemize all the kindness we have received since the day we were born, we can overflow with happiness! As we fill up with happiness, it seems to push all our negative, selfish minds out, for there isn’t room for both – like scum being pushed out the top of a bottle when we fill it up with clean liquid.

On the other hand, when we feel depleted, exhausted or ungrateful it is easy for the negative moods to settle in. We feel we are lacking something, hollow, and project that on the world around us, which feels bereft of happiness and support. We can develop attachment for external objects to fill us up, and if we see others’ experiencing good things we can easily feel envy for the things we feel we don’t have.

“Hang on a minute”, I hear some of you say. “I don’t have that much to be thankful for – my life is in fact a huge mess and it is all their fault.” If we find ourselves pursuing this depressing line of thought, we can go back to the precious human life meditation. To be able to even think about these things means we must have a precious human life – so with that established we can stop dwelling on what is wrong with our lives and instead remember everything we have going for us. Then we can ask ourselves where each of our freedoms and opportunities actually comes from. (Answer above!)

We choose what we think about, so we might as well choose to smell the roses rather than stick our nose in the stinky garbage can.

Happy Thanksgiving to you too, Mister Turkey

Happy Thanksgiving everyone! Please give this article to anyone who might like it.

(Postscript: despite the title of this article, Christmas can be cool too… more later.)

Please like Kadampa Life on Facebook if you do.