(excerpted from Phillip Moffitt's article, "Selfless Gratitude,"
August 2002 Yoga Journal,
The understanding you gain from
practicing gratitude frees you from being lost or
identified with either the negative or the positive
aspects of life, letting you simply meet life in each
moment as it rises...
"...Gratitude is the sweetest of all
the practices for living the dharma in daily life and the
most easily cultivated, requiring the least sacrifice for
what is gained in return. It is a very powerful form of
mindfulness practice, particularly for students who have
depressive or self-defeating feelings, those who have access
to wonder as an ecstatic state, and those with a reactive
personality who habitually notice everything that's wrong in
a situation... Practicing mindfulness of gratitude
consistently leads to a direct experience of being connected
to life and the realization that there is a larger context
in which your personal story is unfolding.
Let me be clear: The practice of
gratitude is not in any way a denial of life's
difficulties. We live in troubling times and no doubt you've
experienced many challenges, uncertainties, and
disappointments in your own life... gratitude practice is
useful because it turns the mind in such a way that it
enables you to live into life or, more accurately, to die
into life... The understanding you gain from practicing
gratitude frees you from being lost or identified with
either the negative or the positive aspects of life, letting
you simply meet life in each moment as it rises...
There are numerous ways to use
mindfulness to cultivate gratitude. Of course you
acknowledge your appreciation when things are going
well. But even more helpful is to notice those things for
which you are grateful when you are contracted physically or
emotionally. I often instruct students to respond to a
difficult situation by acknowledging it as such, then saying
to themselves, 'Yes, this is terrible, and I am grateful
for...' An example would be, 'I am angry at this moment, and
I am grateful I have a mind which knows this is so and can
deal with it.'
If you were asked to make a list of
things for which you are grateful, how long would this list
be – 20 items, 100, 500? ...The making of such a list is
not meant to make you feel indebted but is intended to
clarify your understanding of how life really is. It is a
reflective meditation that uses mindfulness to carry you
beyond the superficial to a deeper experience of your life
unfolding moment by moment. You learn to throw off the
blinders of habitual assumptions that prevent you from
perceiving the miracle of life.
The next step in gratitude practice
is to actively notice things you are grateful for throughout
your regular day. For instance, when you're
stuck in traffic and it's making you late and irritated, you
notice you can be thankful you have transportation and that
other drivers are abiding by the agreed-upon driving rules,
which prevent chaos and unsafe conditions. ...And you
do this not just once or twice, but a hundred times each
day. You do so not to get out of a bad mood or to be a
nicer person, but with the intention of clearly seeing the
true situation of your life.
Without instruction, reflecting on
gratitude can seem boring or sentimental, evoking memories
of your mother admonishing you to eat all the food on your
plate. Part of the confusion is that many people have come
to equate gratitude with obligation. But real gratitude
begins as appreciation for that which has come into your
There is a shadow side to gratitude,
in which reality gets distorted in yet another way. It
manifests as a hopeless or helpless attitude disguised as
gratitude, and it expresses itself in a self-defeating,
passive voice – "Yes, these things are wrong and unfair,
but I should be grateful for what I have," or "At least we
have this"... Gratitude is not an excuse for being passive
in the face of personal or societal need or injustice... it
is a call to action to be a caring human being while
acknowledging the folly of basing your happiness on the
outcome of your actions.
Sometimes you shortchange gratitude
because your mind is stuck in problem-solving mode; it only
notices what isn't working and sets about trying to resolve
it... there will always be things wrong in your life... Do
you really want to delay your sense of being alive while you
await a future, perfect moment that is unlikely to arrive?
A second reason you might shortchange
gratitude is related to the first: The mind tends to take
for granted whatever is both desirable and present... You
can see this for yourself around eating a favorite food:
Notice how the first few bites taste so delicious, then how
quickly the mind ceases to register the pleasant sensations.
The phenomenon of comparing mind is
another hindrance to practicing gratitude. It is the aspect
of your mind that notices, 'She has a nicer car than I do,'
'He is stronger than I am,' or 'She is a better yogini than
I am.' Understand that there is a difference between
discernment, the factor of mind that sees things clearly,
and comparing mind, which exercises judgment and hides a
belief system that says, 'If only I have more of the right
things, I will be happy.'
Unrecognized arrogance arising from a
hidden sense of entitlement can also be an obstacle to
practicing gratitude. When you have a strong sense of
entitlement, you don't notice what is going well, but rather
what is not right. It can stem from a sense of either having
suffered unfairly or having been deprived. It can also arise
from feeling special.
The words 'gratitude' and 'grace'
share a common origin: the Latin word
gratus, meaning 'pleasing' or 'thankful.' When you
are in a deep state of gratitude, you will often spontaneously
feel the presence of grace... Reflect on this: You, with all
your flaws, have been chosen for this opportunity to consciously
taste life, to know it for what it is, and to make of it what
you are able... However you find life to be – cruel or kind,
sorrowful or joyous, bland or stimulating, indifferent or filled
with love – you get the privilege of knowing it firsthand."
Singing in Our Chains