Wednesday, November 7, 2007

The power of gratitude

In the social sciences, reciprocity refers to balance in exchanges. In modern economic terms, this might be like giving a dollar and receiving a bottle of juice. But economy refers to valuation (deciding what has value), production (generating or cultivating things of value), and distribution (of things of value). This could refer to material goods or money, but it can really be anything, and hence in an exchange reciprocity can cross categories from one "type" of things of value to another (such as exchanging material goods for social status and prestige when throwing a lavish party). Obviously we don't like to feel cheated, but we also don't like to feel indebted either. In one case, we didn't get "enough" back in the exchange, and in the other we received too much. This applies to the spiritual dimension as well.

Last week when I had that pilot light relit in some neglected aspect of my being, it was temporarily accompanied by a sense of calm and appreciation. One of my dogs, for example, jumped on then off of my stomach when I wasn't looking. That was all. I felt it, it did hurt a little, but that was it. I don't mean I had a reaction but didn't express it, or I started to have a reaction but I quelled it. I just didn't react I only noticed it. There was no judgment, no assigning of motives or projection of feelings or values onto experiences, just the experiences. Nor was it dull and vague and meaningless. Nor was I perfectly good or perfectly insightful or perfectly wise. But it was still OK. And FYI, I am not suggesting (and do not believe myself) that this is anything like or anything close to even a tiny fraction of the boundless compassion and wisdom of fully realized and highest perfect enlightenment.

As I mentioned previously, this pilot light event had been associated with thinking about something I had heard in various forms and reflected on - that we don't have to "earn" the deathless, indestructible joyful peace of a Buddha. We always have permission to be truly unshakably happy deep down even if our conditions, including our thoughts and emotions, are responding negatively to the perception of an unfair or adverse situation. This doesn't obviate the need for practice, it just means that practice is to aid us in allowing/permitting ourselves to experience such pleasant tranquility and to assist others in doing the same. At least that's my current thinking related to my own situation (and as always, that's the big caveat for my writing).

So at that time I was thinking of even the implication of truly just accepting that such realization and its benefits are ready and available whenever we are able and willing to accept and access them. It's a little much, which is a bit of an understatement. And if you take it seriously, just a for a moment, just really allow that idea to be a much of a possibility as you can, and then something else comes up. You don't have to frame it in strictly Buddhist or religious terms either, but when you reflect at least as shallowly as I did (waaaay shallow here folks), a lot of the things which are typically associated with being a self-important, greedy, jerk, even those we may rationalize to ourselves or others, suddenly seem hollow and foolish. Not bad, not evil, not something to feel guilty over - just not appealing. There is a shift, at least for a brief time, in valuation.

Prior to all of this, I had been regretting how my own practice has waxed and waned and floundered. I had been considering how to generate enthusiasm and commitment. One of the things that had occurred to me (again, very unoriginal but highly useful) was to think about those who have cared for me, both in person and otherwise. Just imagine all of those people who have lived or who are living now who pray for us, or dedicate the merits of their practice to us, or send us their good will in the hope that we will find our way and be well. In this case, referring back to the basic economic model and the concept of reciprocity, we may then feel a debt of gratitude for those who have selflessly offered their genuine concern for our well being. We can include in this group those who have shared their own insight into how we can access such well being and those who have served as inspirational examples of the possibility of such transformation.

On one level, this explains the appeal of and some of the similarity between figures such as Jesus Christ and Amitabha Buddha (Amida), as well as to other conceptualizations of the Ultimate (the Source, the Divine, etc). On a gross level this is gratitude for a gift so amazing and valuable that we can never repay it. This is the most basic view of grace. We cannot really conceive of possessing or deserving our true nature and such deep and abiding calm joy, particularly with a dualistic view of existence and attachment to form (or even to emptiness). So we see it as a mythic (which here is not used as a derogatory synonym for "false") exchange in which a being of infinite compassion has worked and sacrificed to make up for our faults and deficiencies so we can be worthy of what the Dalai Lama refers to as "indestructible happiness".

This also makes sense in that such a relationship assists in developing humility in place of arrogance and confidence in place of insecurity, which appear to be among the necessary changes in perception and attitude for seeing and accepting Buddha-nature (or one of the various other names given to this truth or realization). Through the process of learning to accept such a "gift", it seems to me we would be able to then learn to appreciate and recognize the same fundamental quality in others. Which gives rise to loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity, as Buddha-nature is not a limited resource nor does it "belong" to any particular being. Ideally, though I confess to fall far short of this, our gratitude can be then be extended out to all phenomena and all beings as our teachers and our inspiration, including those that test us and permit us to deepen our practice and affirm our true nature.

Speaking of gratitude, has some resources you may find beneficial, such as a quote of the day about as well as a light a candle section.



  1. What a great blog! Thank you so much for putting all of your insights and musings down so eloquently. I have only had a little while to wander through your site, but find it to be very encouraging and inspiring. There is nothing more important for me than asking the question, "Ok, but what is the point?!" So thank you for forcing that question, for asking it and for drawing that question out of others.

    So many good insights from your blog, that I felt like writing them all down, especially the "way of water" quote. If I can remember that during my day, that will help me a great deal.

    Thank you thank you thank you.


  2. The best part, in my humble opinion, is that inspiration does not come from the words or actions of others, but from our response to such events by a part of us that is discovered or reaffirmed. I try to take compliments such as yours as more of a sign of the depth and maturity of the person making the comment than any particular insight I might possess, and in fact others always seem to find much more wisdom or inspiration by reading my blog than I do, which confirms such a view. Thank you for sharing. I peeked at your blog, and it put together well (and reads as being very heartfelt).

  3. [PS - the specific things allie mentioned are quoted from other sources, which means that I chose to put them up here because something "in" me was touched by them as well.]


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