Choosing to be grateful is choosing to be happy

turkeyAs mentioned in the last article, giving thanks, or being grateful, is an effective way to feel good. It can also help us help others, inspiring us to repay kindness instead of taking it for granted, ignoring it, and/or focusing on others’ faults.

And gratitude is not something we either have or don’t have – we can deliberately cultivate it until it becomes a strong, natural habit that inspires us every day.

For example, researchers in one 2003 study randomly assigned one group of study participants to keep a short weekly list of the things they were grateful for, while other groups listed hassles or neutral events. Ten weeks later, the first group enjoyed significantly greater life satisfaction than the others. Other studies have shown the same pattern and lead to the same conclusion. ~New York Times, 11/22/2015 

Buddhism can help us feel grateful on a large life-altering scale. The entire Lamrim, or stages of the path, teaches umpteen reasons for feeling lucky and grateful, and not just small ones either — some of these reasons are existentially cosmic, or cosmically existential, if you know what I mean.

Precious human life

world hurtsIt starts with our precious human life, realizing what we have compared with the sheer enormity of suffering of people in the lower realms right now, such as Butters, who is not only a small cat with zero control over his life (or bowels at the moment) but who also has to be jabbed with a needle twice a day to overcome his nausea. Or the flood of scared, exhausted refugees. Or the bundled up, unwashed man who keeps trying to play Frisbee with himself in the snowy park, muttering and shaking his head as he yet again walks after it to pick it up. Or …, or …, or …?  Or even compared just with those who don’t know at all how to make themselves or the friends around them happy, even though that is all they have ever wanted?

We have the option in this life to attempt whatever we want, spiritually speaking, including developing bodhichitta and becoming a Buddha. There’s a great story in Meaningful to Behold about a one-legged man who falls off a cliff on to the back of a wild horse. As the horse gallops off, the villagers yell at him to get off, but, knowing this horse ride is an almost impossibly rare opportunity, he replies: “Not on your life!”

“That’s awesome!”

In Buddhism, the precursor meditation to developing gratitude and love for all living beings as our mothers is recognizing that they are all our mothers. The other day I overheard someone after receiving his first teaching on this: “That’s awesome!” he said, nodding his head a lot and smiling. Pause, then: “But life would be so much fun then, if we thought that. Where would the suffering be?” Another pause, before he answered his own question. “I guess we’re all still experiencing suffering and I’d want to get us ALL out.” Such confidence he had at that moment to deal with suffering, coming from a feeling of being whole and connected, not from a feeling of being bereft and helpless.

Waves on an ocean

We receive kindness from everyone every day – we are like waves in an ocean. A wave in an ocean may put up his watery hand and say, “Look at me! I’m distinct! I’m unique!” In a way he is right, and we’re all distinct and unique; but if we scratch beneath the surface we can understand that this wave is made up entirely of all the other waves. In the same way, we cannot exist on any level without others, we owe them everything, we are already in a symbiotic relationship with them all. Check out Eight Steps to Happiness for the meditation.  gratitude 5

Takes some contemplation to get there, and for it to be emotionally authentic; but we do come to see that others are the very infrastructure of our being, the very part and parcel of our existence – and that holding onto a separation between self and other is like trying to cut the sky in two with a knife.

Contemplating our interdependence naturally leads to gratitude and a feeling of richness and completeness – after all, as a wave, you have all the other waves in you already, you are missing nothing. (Did you know, by the way, that the word “whole” comes from the Old English hal, meaning “entire, unhurt, healthy”?)

3 reasons to feel good

Next time you’re feeling low you could check and see if you are assuming anything along the following lines: “Of course, the causes of my depression are out there in my lost friendship, my dead-end job, or my miserable life! It’s obvious. Plus, although I’m trying to be a happy Buddhist, what about all that endless suffering I keep hearing about! I’m doomed! I can’t handle all this. And look at everyone else having so much fun without me!”

By the way, I know this is true (taken from that same article today in the New York Times):

For many people, gratitude is difficult, because life is difficult. Even beyond deprivation and depression, there are many ordinary circumstances in which gratitude doesn’t come easily.

But I still think it is worth the effort to cultivate gratitude, and maybe we only need to think of 3 things — just 3 will do — that we can be grateful for to open that door.

gratitude 4Maybe pick from these 3 categories (just a suggestion, as is of course everything else you read on here.) Any order will do.

  • My potential. I do already have all the seeds for great happiness and freedom within. My Buddha nature is indestructible. It is there, I just have to re-access it and give myself a break from focusing on all that’s wrong with me, that limited painful self.
  • Something existential/big picture of our life. For example, I have a precious human life! That’s about as likely as a blind turtle managing to stick its head through a golden yoke that is floating on an immense ocean, but I’ve managed it. Or, another example, I have found Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, and/or a Spiritual Guide who can take me wherever I want to go! Or, another example, others are immensely kind all the time in every way. No wonder Geshe Kelsang keeps saying, “How fortunate we are.”
  • Something in our daily life. For example, today I get to be indoors and warm even though it is snowing out there, and the trees are beautiful in the Fall light, and I’ll be able to hang out with some lovely people, and … whatever, just start counting your blessings however you like, big or small, and see where you end up.

Thinking about these things, hopefully we’ll feel gratitude, we’ll feel lucky. And I reckon we are only as lucky as we feel.

gratitude 7We can then think, if we like: “How come I have all these things?” They pretty much all come from others. In that way we’ll feel even more thankful, and even better.

As the same NYT article says:

It’s science, but also common sense: Choosing to focus on good things makes you feel better than focusing on bad things. As my teenage kids would say, “Thank you, Captain Obvious.”

Is no news good news?

“No news is good news,” we say, maybe because we do so want things to stay predictable and our boat not to be rocked. However, as everything is impermanent, everything is news, in that everything is new every moment. There’s a Kadampa rejoicing group on Facebook where people just share things to feel good about – it is all news, but sometimes it lifts the heart. If we take the time to spell out the good stuff in our lives, we will feel gratitude. And we will naturally want to share it with others.

Opposite of taking things for granted

Also, as Louis CK says in this video:

Taking things for granted is the opposite of gratitude.

I like his anecdote:

I was on an airplane and there was internet – high speed internet – on the airplane. That’s the newest thing that I know exists. And I’m sitting on the plane and they go, “Open up your laptops. You can go on the internet.” And it’s fast and I’m watching YouTube clips – it’s amazing – I’m in an airplane! And then it breaks down. And they apologize, “The internet’s not working.” The guy next to me goes, “This is bullshit.” Like how quickly the world owes him something he knew existed only 10 seconds ago.

Can gratitude help prevent worry?
Mighty Quinn and Butters
Butters (behind) when he was still a butter ball.

Our thoughts are not fixed and we can re-arrange them to our advantage. I find I am having to do that today as the foster kitten Butters is really very sickly. He has transformed from a bouncy butterball into a skinny little thing weighing less than a pound, just lying there listlessly. I can (1) uselessly worry that he’s going to die etc, which helps neither of us; or (2) feel grateful to him for giving me this opportunity to cherish someone else for a change, even when they are pooping over everything. I’ve been doing #2 as much as I can, and can report a considerable difference in terms of peace of mind.*

Try counting them

Finally, here’s another method I use to feel good. I don’t know if it’ll work for you but feel free to give it a try. Love is known as “the great protector” — it always protects us from mental pain and makes us happy, so the more of it the better. If you could wave a magic wand and make people happy, who would they be? Count them all. Think about them a bit. Then, as they feel the same about their friends and relatives, wave your magic wand for their people as well. And so on. And then, if this is going well, you might find it pretty easy to feel quite spontaneously grateful for just how much opportunity you have to love others, grateful for just how many people there are to love. Seriously. This can work!

Heartburn or heartwarm?!

Thanksgiving, when this article was originally written, is the official day to give thanks in the United States. It can be an excuse to slaughter defenseless turkeys, get indigestion, and argue with relatives, or it can be a heartwarming reminder of our good fortune. What would happen, do you think, if 300 million people stopped blaming & complaining for a whole day, and instead focused with gratitude on what we have?

This article is of course by no means exhaustive about what we have to feel grateful about, so please add your ideas to the comments.

*Update on ButtersButters
He died in my arms at 2am on 11/25. Many people were kind enough to pray for him, including Venerable Geshe-la. May all living beings be loved like Butters.