Contentment is life living through you.
Joy is life living through you.
Satisfaction and strength
is life living through you.
He says don’t be afraid.
Don’t be afraid.
Love, feel, let life take you by the hand.
Let life live through you.
“If the only prayer you said was thank you, that would be enough.”
~ Meister Eckhart
“Light will someday split you open; even if your life is now a cage.”
This weekend offered those spring days where the temperature of the air on my skin made me happy. I opened all the windows in my house, shut since fall, and let in the sweet air. This clean air, the gift of limited travel, and fewer emissions blew through my house and filled it with the hope of spring, new life, light, and growth. I felt Grateful. Grateful for this day, the gentleness of the weather and my being here to breathe in it.
Contact with the weather and spring itself brought up pleasant vedana, the second foundation of mindfulness as taught by the Buddha. Vedana is a Pali word that denotes the three feeling states which populate each moment of our lives, the pleasant, unpleasant, or neither pleasant nor unpleasant. As living beings, we excel at noticing unpleasant, especially when it involves pain or interferes with getting what we want. We get gold medals in noticing what is wrong, unfair, and threatens us. We get silver medals at noticing the pleasant. In fact, we unconsciously lean towards pleasant. We shift positions constantly to avoid discomfort, buy sheets with high thread counts, and read about how to create lives with nothing but pleasant experiences. The third state is likened to a radio station playing very faintly, too soft to notice until it gets turned up and we like or dislike it. This experience is the subtle one that usually slides below our awareness; we often try to add something to our experience to escape from the feeling of “nothing much” or neutrality which we can find boring. Understanding how we are pulled by these three constantly occurring mindstates is a way we can gain some freedom. We can understand that we are running from what is unpleasant or neither pleasant or unpleasant or running towards what promises some sweetness.
But how does gratitude fit in? Gratitude is mindfulness and appreciation of the pleasant. It is metacognition, the awareness of the embodied response to pleasure, ease, and happiness. When we have gratitude, we are not clutching at an experience of pleasure, but resting in awareness—oh, the sun on my skin is like this. The scent of magnolia flowers is like this…ah, pleasant.
Folks on spiritual paths can hold themselves to some difficult standards and mistake numbness and neutrality for spirituality and equanimity. We can be afraid to celebrate goodness for fear of becoming swept away by it and committing that Buddhist sin of “getting attached.” We may feel guilty experiencing happiness and delight when so many people on this planet are suffering and mourning. We can forget that our present moment awareness includes what is pleasant and welcome. If we push away our own happiness and dull our awareness, we are not helping those who suffer by tamping down our joy—in fact, if we do not have the nourishment of ease and happiness, we have fewer resources to offer those who are suffering. Noticing the pleasant does not mean we become hedonists, living solely for sensual pleasure and gratification. Noticing the pleasant and seeing it occurring is a way we can bring our mindfulness, the compassionate awareness of moment to moment experience, into full flower.
Gratitude requires that we are fully present for what is good in our lives. If we have a sense of guilt or hint of unfairness—that we aren’t deserving or we should be appreciative of our good fortune because others are suffering, we effectively snuff out real gratitude. Evolutionary biologist, Paul Gilbert (2009) describes this type of obligatory gratitude as “part of our threat/self-protection system. There will be a tinge of feeling bad at not appreciating things…Genuine appreciation is learning to take joyful pleasure; it’s not about ought or should feelings” (p. 238). When we practice gratitude, we are creating a conscious suggestion to seek and notice the positive things that are occurring.
When we train our minds to notice, we actively change the neurobiology of our minds. Neural pathways are strengthened from repeated use. When we actively encourage ourselves to pay attention to the lovely and pleasant, this creates neurogenesis, new connections that further reinforce this behavior. Just like anything, the more we practice something, the better we get at it—our thought patterns are no exception. We can follow our innate bias and continue to dwell on the pain and suffering in our lives or we can balance our experience and train in gratitude—in awareness of the beautiful as well.
There’s a song form the Plum Village songbook which goes: “The realm of the mind is mine I can choose, choose where I want to be. Both heaven and hell I know equally well, the choice is up to me.” This week, I hope you can make the choice to find what is lovely and delights you, to find the gifts of the cosmos that we so often overlook because so much is wrong. Wishing you many moments of delight for all the flowers that are still blooming in this topsy turvy garden of our lives.
May we all trust our light,
References: Gilbert, P. (2009). The compassionate mind: A new approach to life’s challenges. New Harbinger: Oakland, CA.