What is the foundation of your gratitude? Maintaining an energy of gratitude always enriches our lives, and we have at our fingertips many practices that help us do that. However, this week I was struck with the truth that there is so much more to it!
As I considered this topic, I couldn’t get away from the idea that living gratefully surely depends on maintaining a grateful attitude, but that’s not all of it. A grateful life also flowers based on the self we bring to it. In other words, how do we show up in our own lives? What is the attitude we have towards ourselves? When we consider the quality of our daily lives, the joy and wonder we experience, the way we view ourselves makes all the difference.
Do we regard ourselves with kindness, compassion and love? Or do we spend way too much time judging, criticizing, and diminishing ourselves? How can we be grateful for all the wonder and abundance in our lives when we feel undeserving, isolated and alone? I suggest that we only step into the full joy of our lives when we accept ourselves unreservedly, with love and humor and forgiveness.
There is a reason that the Buddhist lovingkindness meditation starts with lovingkindness towards yourself. Your life is a precious gift, and the path to awakening is the journey to see it as such.
In her book “Radical Acceptance – Embracing Your Life With The Heart Of A Buddha,” author and Buddhist teacher Tara Brach writes that many of us spend years in what she calls “the trance of unworthiness,” believing that we are not good enough and that we will never measure up. We feel isolated, alone, and insecure. We cannot see that we are connected with each other and all of creation. How can we live fully and gratefully when we live in such pain?
Mother Teresa once said “the biggest disease today is not leprosy or TB, but the feeling of not belonging.” Does this sound familiar?
How do we respond as we live and move in this trance? We escape – with food, alcohol, drugs, sex, overwork. We continue to make excuses, tell stories, pin blame on others. We live in the past or focus on the future, not realizing that our life can only be fully lived in each present moment. We work relentlessly at self-improvement programs, convincing ourselves that if we only work harder we’ll finally be good enough. We run harder and faster to win a race in which we ourselves keep extending the course. We fix the race so that we never win, we never cross the finish line.
How do we step out of this self-defeating pattern? Brach teaches that we free ourselves only by what she calls “radical acceptance” – fully accepting ourselves and our lives with clarity, compassion and love. When we can accept ourselves unconditionally and lovingly, as we would a beloved friend, we experience our connection to each other and all of life. We see that our belief in our separation is simply illusion.
With this awakening, our hearts can open to gratitude.
First comes clarity. Instead of escaping our lives, we commit to remaining aware in each moment, without judgment, expectation, or fear. She encourages us when difficult situations arise to pause long enough to experience our feelings and reactions instead of running from them. What are we feeling? Where in our bodies are our physical sensations arising, and what are they? Simply sit, and be aware.
Next comes acceptance. As we sit with our emotional and even physical responses, we open our hearts to them with what she calls “unconditional friendliness.” We do not judge, reject, redefine, or dodge our fears. We simply accept with an open and willing heart, and as we continue to pause we find that our acceptance can grow into understanding and then into peace.
Does this mean that we simply accept our patterns and responses that do not serve us? “I always fly off the handle – it’s just the way I am!” No, not at all. As a matter of fact, clear seeing and willing acceptance of the way we feel right now is the path to change. As psychologist Dr. Carl Rogers said, “the curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.” Why is that? Because we are no longer running away from our fears, cravings, or insecurities. Instead, we accept them with compassion.
Brach tells one of her favorite stories of the Buddha, illustrating the truth that fears and craving will pass from one remaining awake and compassionate. It seems that Mara, the “Evil One,” continued to visit at times even after the Buddha achieved enlightenment after his night under the famed bodhi tree. The Buddha’s assistant, the faithful Ananda, would sound the alert that Mara had returned yet again. Instead of dodging or ignoring him, the Buddha would simply say “I see you, Mara” and then would invite him to stay for tea, as an honored guest. The Buddha would serve Mara tea, and sit with him. Mara would stay for a time and then leave, seeing the Buddha remaining calm and undisturbed.
Mara here represents our fears, cravings, and insecurities – our belief in our own separation. When he appears, he brings suffering. How can we best respond when Mara appears in our own lives?
I recommend the Buddha’s approach. Acknowledge his presence with clarity and equanimity (“I see you, Mara.”) Sit with him with calm acceptance, and then watch him go.
The path of radical acceptance awakens us to the truth that our lives are a gift. When we can accept and indeed welcome ourselves fully, realizing our connection to all of life, how can we be anything but grateful?
Author: Rev. Melanie Eyre, Interfaith Minister
Spiritual Leader of One World Spiritual Center
Founder of North Fulton Interfaith Alliance