‘Among us, in our own daily lives, who is not reverently grateful for the protections of life – food, drink and clothing.’
From ‘Torei Zenji’s Bodhisattva’s Vow’
Who indeed? I suspect most of us spend very little time being reverently grateful for the drink of water in the morning, the biscuit eaten with a cup of tea, the jumper we put on when the sun goes down. Sometimes in winter I’m glad of a thick pair of socks to pull on, but I can hardly claim to be wearing them with reverent gratitude. We take just about everything for granted, and it’s easy to feel deprived in the midst of plenty. Unless some tragedy strikes – our house burns down or we find ourselves homeless – we are usually surrounded by thousands of objects all designed to make our lives easier and comfortable. I recently heard of a Zen monk who bowed to everything in appreciation, even the toilet. And if you’ve ever travelled in a country where toilets are sparse or non-existent, you know they are indeed something to feel very grateful for! We would probably look a bit strange spending our days going around bowing to everything, but it might be interesting to occasionally stop and internally send a little bow of gratitude to something we appreciate – such as, for example, a glass of clean, fresh water.
Many spiritual practices are designed to help us remember some of the blessings of life. The Christian tradition of saying grace at meal-times is a well-known example. In fact, a translation of the Pali word for mindfulness, sati, is ‘to remember’. It’s not about adding anything to our lives, yearning for some mysterious state which we do not yet have but which will make us happy. Mindfulness is to simply remember what we already have, to pause long enough to notice it, and to allow feelings of gratitude to naturally arise.
Nowadays, the word ‘reverence’ can evoke images of false piety, but, at its heart, reverence is simply honouring what is precious about our lives, not taking life for granted. Many of us no longer feel comfortable with the traditional rituals which were designed to help us notice and honour the many blessings of life. And rituals, if they’re repeated many times, can easily become automatic rather than heartfelt. Yet the less we take for granted, the richer our lives will be. Gratitude can arise spontaneously, but there is also a gentle discipline to bringing it more consciously into our lives. We can do this by:
- pausing – stopping long enough to notice something we usually take for granted
- allowing ourselves to feel gratitude in our heart centre – rather than just having some concept in our head such as ‘I should feel grateful’
- finding a way to remember gratitude more often – for example, before eating.
Of course we mostly feel gratitude towards people rather than objects, and expressing gratitude to those who have been kind to us is no doubt our most important practice. Yet, materially, we so often feel we don’t have enough, when in reality we usually have far too much. As A.A. Milne says in ‘Winnie-the-Pooh’,
‘Piglet noticed that even though he had a Very Small Heart, it could hold a rather large amount of Gratitude.’
Weekly practice idea:
Find something you usually take for granted, and remember to pause from time to time and allow yourself to feel grateful for it. It’s a simple practice which, over time, can greatly enhance our lives.