Saturday, November 21, 2009

The Consciousness of Gratitude

“Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all the others.” -- Cicero

I was standing at the kitchen sink washing the pots that wouldn’t fit in the dishwasher. My hands were deep in the soapy water, my head in a warm cloud of tea tree and lavender. Dinner was done and the kitchen was clean – as clean as it was going to be tonight.

Then it happened.

It began in my toes, moved up my legs and settled in my chest. It was not a thought, not an idea. It was a knowing.

I was suddenly and inexplicably happy.

Outside the window the last light of day was draining from the sky. The shadows were spreading out from under the trees and joining together in darkness. In the distance the dock lights flickered on the surface of the lake like floating flames.

Dinner was good, but then again, it always is. The view from the window was nice, just like it is every night. So why was this moment special? Why was I suddenly awash in gratitude and deeply in love with everything I saw? Why now did life seem utterly, ordinarily perfect?

The consciousness of gratitude – that deep and abiding feeling of aliveness, well-being, serenity and joy – is a singular pleasure that transcends thought and circumstance. It is not a philosophical tenet or a theological doctrine to be debated and honed by rational discourse. It is not just another good idea to set alongside all the others. It is an experience that wells up from the ground of Being beyond the reach of the mind and its conceptual field. The consciousness of gratitude is not so much a way of thinking as it is a way of being. It is not something we achieve as much as allow. One thing’s for sure. When you get one taste, you want more.

On Thanksgiving Day and throughout the holiday season a familiar ritual is repeated all over America. We go around the table and tell each other what we’re thankful for. Giving thanks for the things we have is a powerful starting point, but there is an even deeper dimension to gratitude our earnest pronouncements sometimes obscure. What if the consciousness of gratitude has nothing to do with what we have here in the outer world of forms? What if the consciousness of gratitude comes before, not after, we count our blessings?

Thanksgiving may be a uniquely American holiday, but its spiritual core, the consciousness of gratitude, is truly global. All of the world’s wisdom traditions share the notion that our consciousness is the field out of which the bounty of our lives emerge. And gratitude, as Cicero says, “is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all the others.”

Underneath all the diversity and complexity of the Indian traditions, often lumped together and called Hinduism in the west, lays one simple claim: there is only one reality and it is God. Brahman, as it is known in Sanskrit, the ancient language of the Vedas and the Upanishads, is the ground of Being from which all thoughts and forms arise. But Brahman itself is beyond all thoughts and forms, beyond all personifications and qualities. While it might be tempting to say that Brahman is present in everything, it would be closer to the truth to say that everything is the presence of Brahman. The goal of Hinduism is the realization of this truth – our complete and utter unity with Brahman. And when we realize our unity with the ground of Being, we realize that we lack absolutely nothing. All thoughts of separation and lack are maya, or illusion.

If all is One then there is no duality, no this and that, no me and mine, no other thing to posses. None of us owns of any of this. You don’t own your children, you don’t own your garden, you don’t even own your possessions any more than you can own a piece of the sky or the air in your lungs. All of these things are expressions of the One, of which we are already an inextricable part. There is nothing to possess because we are already unified with the eternal field of consciousness and all its manifestations. In light of this reality, the only sane stance is profound and continual gratitude.

Like Hinduism, Buddhism also calls us to awaken from the dream of separateness. In unenlightened consciousness we live perpetually in the future and in the past – anywhere but here and now. Our habitual, conditioned thought-stream is characterized by fear and longing. Buddha taught that our attachment to these erroneous thought-forms is the cause of suffering. Our attachment to self-serving portraits of the past and the future imprison us in the consciousness of scarcity and lack – a far cry from gratitude. It is only by awakening to this now moment that we experience release from the cycle of egoic craving and inevitable dissatisfaction. When we practice acceptance of what is, when we awaken to the infinite formlessness of the now, gratitude seeps up through the gaps between our thoughts like groundwater.

We are reminded many times in the first pages of the Hebrew Bible that the world is enough. With each new element of creation, Genesis sounds the refrain, “and it was good.” Judaism forcefully affirms the fundamental goodness of the world. We already have everything we need, only we don’t know it, lost in the anguish of covetousness. As with Hinduism and Buddhism, the problem is never an absence of external possessions. Our unhappiness is always and only the fruit of our own mistaken thinking.

In the 23rd Psalm King David sings out from the depths of his God-consciousness, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want. He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, He restores my soul.” But behind David’s resounding manifesto of gratitude is a real-world pragmatism. Life is not a bowl of cherries. There are conflicts. There are challenges. Powerful people are working at cross-purposes with us and with those we love. David is undaunted. “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies,” he writes. “You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” David reminds us that we needn’t be free of all problems in order to experience gratitude. On the contrary, gratitude is the stance with which we must meet our “enemies”, and in that light begin to heal our lives with the balm of our common humanity.

Like David, Jesus speaks of an undaunted intimacy with God. From the depths of his fully realized God-consciousness he calls us to uncover our own, knowing that only from a lived experience of the inner divine presence can we properly order the details of our outer lives. Instead of obsessively worrying about our possessions and circumstances here in the dusty world, Jesus enjoins us to be “born from above.”

“Seek first the kingdom of God,” he tells us in the gospel of Matthew, “and all else will be given to you.” In other words, only in the light of God-consciousness do we experience true abundance and gratitude. The good news is that we don’t have to go anywhere or ask someone else for the kingdom of heaven. It is within us. It is to be realized through the depths of our own loving, and even through the agony of our mistakes. Not one of our steps leads away from it. For both Jesus and Buddha, awakening consciousness is born from the seeds of acceptance and comes to fruition in the consciousness of gratitude.

The consciousness of gratitude is the central element of Islamic belief and practice as well. In fact, according to the Qu’ran, Muslims have only two obligations: gratitude and surrender. Islam teaches that we live in a world of endless abundance and any form of consciousness other than gratitude would be a cognitive error. The consciousness of gratitude is logical and rational as well as devotional. And the only way to experience this depth of wisdom is by surrendering – surrendering the ego with its incessant worry, craving and attachment to its own cleverness. As in the recovery movement, only through the admission of powerlessness do we shift from the impotence of the ego to the omnipotence of Spirit. It’s time to resign from the debating society and let the mystery be.

The world’s religions teach us that if we really knew who and what we were, if we fully realized our essential, authentic selves, we would fall on our knees in amazement. The realization of God-consciousness and the consciousness of gratitude are one in the same thing. In other words, as we practice gratitude, we move closer toward awakening to the divine within us and all things. Only when we cease living in the past or the future, only when we live in the fullness of this now moment, only when we live as the lilies in the field are we in the kingdom of God. The consciousness of anxiety and fear are the mind’s delusional attachment to future scenarios that have no reality. The consciousness of shame and regret are the mind’s attachment to an irretrievable past that no longer has any reality except in our thoughts. In the eternal Present, beyond the mind, shame and fear fade away leaving only the bright light of gratitude, of forgiveness, of wellness, of surrender to what is, of the realization that the kingdom of heaven is lying all around us only we do not see it, not when our eyes are turned to the worrisome future or the mournful past.

Gandhi was asked by a journalist to sum up his philosophy in three words. “Renounce and enjoy,” he said, paraphrasing the Isha Upanishad. To renounce is to surrender all attachments and give up the ego’s need to control everything, allowing the present moment to be as it is. Only then can we truly enjoy the infinite bounty of our lives and be at play in the field of forms without attachment to any of them. We are already one with everything. There’s no need to grasp or cling to any of it. And when we let go, our eyes and our hands and our hearts are filled with an abundance beyond the wildest imaginings of our limited and limiting ego.

In an old Zen story, a young man traveled to a far off monastery to learn about Buddhism. The monks took him in and showed him to his room. One week went by, then two, then three. In frustration the young man finally went to the head monk and said, “I came here to learn about Zen but no one has taught me anything.”

“Have you eaten?” the master asked.


“Then wash your bowl.”

I’m standing in the kitchen again, up to my elbows in soapy water, scrubbing pots that won’t fit in the dishwasher. My stomach is full. Our dog Boone is asleep in the corner by the fire. My wife Lori is paying bills, making sure that what we have keeps flowing in the right directions. Outside a light rain is falling.

I know how to do it now. I know how to let go of the worry, the fear, the regret, the frustration. I simply breathe deeply into the core of my being the realization that I am not my thought-stream, and beneath the waves of worry and fear lay an infinite sea of Being, and I Am That, and I don’t have to be worried or afraid anymore. Everything is as it must be in this moment. Of course I can work for change and cultivate new areas of growth in my life and in the world around me. But tonight, right here at the kitchen sink, I can slip into the peaceful stillness of the consciousness of gratitude.

This article first appeared in the November/December 2009 issue of Unity Magazine