(This is a re-run from my column on Agora last year. I’m reposting it as part 1 of a two-part reflection on Thanksgiving and gratitude. Part 2 is here.)
I am, by nature, a contrarian. When the GPS navigation program on my phone tells me “In 500 feet, turn right” sometimes I’ll talk back to it and say “Says who?” Any attempt to command me immediately creates within my mind a desire to do the exact opposite. This may not be wise or mature, but that’s the way things work in my brain.
So when someone comes along heavily pushing a certain attitude, it doesn’t inspire me, and often kindles the exact opposite. This is the case with the push we see in contemporary American spirituality toward “gratitude”.
Consider the words of America’s favorite pop-guru, Oprah Winfrey: “The single greatest thing you can do to change your life today is to start being grateful for what you have right now. No gesture is too small when done with gratitude.” Or to take a more serious and weighty example, I recently stumbled across a quote from the Zen teacher Norman Fischer: “Honestly, I can’t understand why we don’t burst into tears in gratitude and relief every time we meet another person.” (Apparently originally from this dharma talk.)
Now maybe talk like this makes you feel warm and fuzzy. If that’s the case, then the rest of this probably won’t apply to you, and you might want to move on. But personally, when I hear someone say “Give thanks!” I want to respond “Don’t tell me what to do!”
Or, perhaps more accurately, “Don’t tell me how to feel!”
To truly see and acknowledge one’s real feelings, to see the dependent arising of emotion, to be honest with one’s self about the contents of one’s own heart, is a difficult task. (Perhaps even a more difficult one for men than for women in a culture that dissuades men from expressing emotion, but that’s opening a can of gender politics that I don’t want to get sidetracked on right now.) If I am not — right here and now in this present moment — feeling grateful, then to pretend to gratitude is a lie. And that is not a path conducive to spiritual growth.
If you’re feeling angry, grumpy, irritable, frustrated, or grief-stricken, then go ahead and honestly feel that way! I might suggest that you look at how these feelings arise, examine to what degree they are real and to what degree phantoms, but don’t paper over your emotions with false gratitude just because some “spiritual teacher” tells you that feeling one way is better than feeling another.
(That’s not to say that one should treat other people badly based on those emotions, of course. It’s fine to be grumpy — as Ikkyu wrote, “I like my anger my grouchy furious love.” But it’s not fine to let that grumpiness lead you to be a dick. Follow the minimal social niceties, say “please” and “thank you” and tip your bartenders.)
You have to start from where you are. So if you’re not willing to right now truly be where you are, you can’t start, you can only be lost.
But — you knew there was a “but” coming here, right? — it certainly is a worthwhile thing to cultivate within oneself the capacity for positive emotion, for the recognition of beauty.
So I’m not going to tell you to be thankful, even as you’re about to be bombarded with that message over the next week. (And then with messages about BUY! BUY! BUY!) But I will suggest that you consider what you can do to improve your ability to recognize and enjoy beauty. And that includes not just the beauty of music or painting or poetry, but the beauty that can be found in contemplation of the deep interconnectedness of all things, of our interdependence and interbeing with the entire universe.
The sweet potato on my plate that becomes part of my flesh connects me in the most intimate way with the checkout clerk at the grocery store, with the produce stocker, with the truck driver who brought it there, with the geochemistry that produced the oil that burned to move the truck, with the lumberjack who cut down the tree that was turned into the cardboard for the box it was shipped in, with the farmer in their field, with the soil and the air and the rain that nurtured the vine and the tuber, with the sun’s nuclear fire 93,000,000 miles away. If any of these factors is removed the sweet potato is not there, and I starve. The basic day-to-day dependencies of this so-called “individual” stretch over millions of miles, not to even consider the long-term history of these carbon atoms, the origins of these quarks, and the like.
That is all just fact, regardless of how I feel about it at any given moment.
But when I stop to think about that fact, when I really try to wrap my head around it, I often perceive something beautiful about it. Sometimes, on a good day, it is the most profound possible feeling of beauty. And that perception is its own justification, it is simply a pleasant experience. I can recommend that others try it just as I might say “Mmm, taste this sweet potato, it’s good.” Not to say “you should feel this way”, but rather “if you take this specific action, I believe you will likely find the result agreeable.”
If we can put down preconceptions about how things “should” be and look deeply at how they are, at our true relationship with existence, we might find all sorts of positive feelings arising. We might — or might not — call one of them gratitude or thankfulness. But we have to start at the right end of the process.