Recently I participated in an eight-week program called Living Fearlessly: Facing the Inevitable, from the New York Zen Center. Each week we went around our Zoom room and began by stating how we were feeling by uttering one word. On occasion, we were invited to use two words. A novel approach, to say the least, and as the weeks went on I found it surprisingly useful.
This morning, on the 22nd of December, I woke up in my cozy bed, filled with gratitude, for exactly who I was and where I was. It caught me off guard, as I went to bed last night weary and concerned about a myriad of things.
So, to wake up, in such an enlivened state, not only refreshed but, with a wellspring of gratitude was an unexpected surprise and a great gift. And, now, as I sit here typing away, Christmas card snowflakes are falling outside my window and I have this lovely contentment of being exactly where I need to be. My one-word feeling state today is gratitude.
I looked up what one of my favourite teachers, Brother David Steindl-Rast, had to say about gratefulness. Here is a snippet:
“People usually think that gratitude is saying thank you, as if this were the most important aspect of it. The most important aspect of the practice of grateful living is trust in life. Every human being every day has to make a practical choice between trusting life or not trusting life. Again and again in life, one is tempted to distrust and to fear…if you try out distrusting life and always questioning life, you find that it makes you absolutely miserable. Or you can try trusting life and whatever comes up, saying, ‘Well, maybe I don’t like it but I trust that life gives me good things—that life is trustworthy.’ To live that way is what I call ‘grateful living’ because then you receive every moment as a gift. And really the gift within the gift is opportunity. This is when you stop long enough to ask yourself, ‘What’s the opportunity in this moment?’ You look for it and then take advantage of that opportunity. It’s as simple as that.
You have a practical way to look at it—stop, look, go.
Yes, we call it stop, look, go. The first is to stop and pause long enough. The second is to look for the opportunities to find gratitude. Then go take advantage of it. Grateful living is based on having trust and taking advantage of all the opportunities to live a joyful life. People who haven’t tried it don’t believe it, but most of life is an opportunity to enjoy. When you try it, you find it to be true.
You haven’t thought of all the things you take for granted: breathing, walking, simply being alive. Having eyes to see, having friends, having something to eat. If you take these for granted, they don’t do anything. When we meet other people, even if they are not particularly likable, we find that they are interesting and different and provide an opportunity to learn and grow. Even in politics or in the office or in the family, there are things against which we have the opportunity to protest and say, ‘This is as far as I go,’ but these are also opportunities to be joyful in the midst of unhappiness—to enjoy life.”
To Be Conscious
At this time of year, to be conscious of all of our blessings, not just our material ones, (which aren’t to be downplayed,) is a wondrous gift. It reminds me of something professor and author, Dr. Art Frank wrote:
“Suffering and loss are not incompatible with life.” From his book, At the Will of the Body: Reflections on Illness.
Dr Frank continues: “the ill and impaired may, in the sense of fulfilling life, be far more free than healthy people. The healthy require health as an affirmation that their will is still effective, and they must continually prove this effectiveness. The ill accept their vulnerability as an affirmation that the world is perfect without any exercise of their will, and this acceptance is their freedom…we are free only when we no longer require health, however much we may prefer it.”
There was a time when I had some disagreement with Dr. Frank but I notice the longer I live the more I come into alignment with the paradox and the wisdom of this. Not just health but for our other troubles and losses as well. So many times our expectations get in the way of our chance to enjoy a moment. You know I don’t mean being grateful for everything. Noone can do that, nor should we. Rather it is going beyond our expectations, pain, and obstacles and noticing what else is true.
My wish for all of you is for the courage and strength not just to manage your troubles and heartache but to be open to the moments of beauty, laughter, and joy as well. And notice when the good surprises land on your doorstep. This too can take courage.
I hope each of you has what you need, and when your light is dim, that you move closer to the light of another whom you trust so that you can regain your warmth in the shelter of their glow. May the precious gift of health be yours. And may you seek out beauty, truth, and love – unfailing companions to see us through joy and sorrow.
I am so very grateful to all of you for your kindness and the time that you give to me week after week. And although I am not crazy about the word happiness, only because of how it has been misused in our culture, I wholeheartedly wish you contentment, wherever you are and whoever you are with.
All my wishes and an armload of love,
1:) A traditional version of Stille Nacht by the King’s Singers
2:) A suggestion from my friend, Emma Rooney of Forest Bathing Studio fame. Three Good Things in Nature : Look out for three good things in nature. Record Your Findings. Notice how you feel. Repeat everyday.
I leave you with my annual reflection from GK Chesterton.
“What has happened to me has been the very reverse of what appears to be the experience of most of my friends. Instead of dwindling to a point, Santa Claus has grown larger and larger in my life until he fills almost the whole of it. It happened in this way.
As a child I was faced with a phenomenon requiring explanation. I hung up at the end of my bed an empty stocking, which in the morning became a full stocking. I had done nothing to produce the things that filled it. I had not worked for them, or made them or helped to make them. I had not even been good – far from it.
And the explanation was that a certain being whom people called Santa Claus was benevolently disposed toward me. . . . What we believed was that a certain benevolent agency did give us those toys for nothing. And, as I say, I believe it still. I have merely extended the idea.
Then I only wondered who put the toys in the stocking; now I wonder who put the stocking by the bed, and the bed in the room, and the room in the house, and the house on the planet, and the great planet in the void.
Once I only thanked Santa Claus for a few dollars and crackers. Now, I thank him for stars and street faces, and wine and the great sea. Once I thought it delightful and astonishing to find a present so big that it only went halfway into the stocking. Now I am delighted and astonished every morning to find a present so big that it takes two stockings to hold it, and then leaves a great deal outside; it is the large and preposterous present of myself, as to the origin of which I can offer no suggestion except that Santa Claus gave it to me in a fit of peculiarly fantastic goodwill.”
May you be surprised by unexpected blessings and goodwill. See you next week.
PS the Christmas tree is thanks to Patricia Ryan Madson who each year does a watercolour of her tree. The Aurora Borealis is from Gottfried, who kindly provides me with a vast library of beautiful photos. And a final thanks to my Mother who was and still is the icon of gratefulness.