Can You Be Grateful for What You Don’t Like?

Lying under a starry night last week while camping and looking up for shooting stars with my 8-year old daughter, our conversation turned to gravity, what it is and how it keeps us from spinning off the face of the earth. We both lay there, letting the significance of gravity sink in, noticing our minds grappling with the immensity of it, and then turning our attention back to the Great Dipper and the Milky Way. The next day, as we shared grace before lunch and spontaneously expressed gratitude for a variety of things, my daughter spoke: “And thank you for gravity, even if I don’t understand it.”

I pondered her “thank you” over the next few days, especially noting gratitude’s freedom from cognitive understanding: We don’t have to fully understand something in order to acknowledge and see it as a gift. We don’t have to make sense of it to say “thank you.” Just a glimpse of what it means to us can suffice, and perhaps not even that glimpse is necessary. We do, though, generally use “benefit to self” as a criteria for expressing gratitude. Gravity — yes! Teething, even though it may hurt? Yes, from the parents’ viewpoint. But what about from the perspective of the 6-month-old, who is only aware of an aching gum? And what about us adults, when things happen that, even as they may eventually contribute to our growth, hurt deeply?

What’s your experience? Do you find yourself mainly grateful for what you understand? For what brings you greater joy and ease in your life? Have you ever extended gratitude beyond what makes sense to you or brings you pleasure? Is that even a good idea?

Saying “thank you” is something we are taught early in life, and often it is one of the first things we learn in our journey of becoming socialized. Remember the many occasions you would hear something like: “Don’t forget to send a thank you card to Aunt Mary for the lovely present she sent you!”

And so we learn to say thank you in all kinds of ways — sometimes as a quick social platitude, other times with deep sincerity. Sometimes it spills out of our hearts, and we feel how limited words can be to fully express our gratitude. We expand our thank yous as our awareness and our circle of care and appreciation deepens and widens… to the further reaches of humanity, to plants and animals, the universe, God, to any and all that offer us gifts and blessings. How far could we take our gratitude? And might extending it even beyond what we think is a blessing and a gift open up new worlds of appreciation, presence and possibility?

“If the only prayer you said in your whole life was, ‘thank you,’ that would suffice.”
–Meister Eckhart

I had no idea how far I could take a gesture of gratitude until a couple of years ago, when I faced one of the greatest spiritual challenges I had ever encountered. A wise friend told me resistance would make the journey harder, that surrendering to what was happening would show me the way through. As I journeyed through this experience, I tried all the tricks and tools I could think of to reach a place of non-resistance while maintaining awareness and discernment in the face of difficult content. I sat up straighter. I focused on being centered. I looked at what was arising and said, “I am stronger than that,” and later on, “Not I.” I prayed. I blessed. I meditated. I breathed.

And then, when nothing else worked, when all my usual ways of “trying,” “controlling” or “being strong” or “spiritual” didn’t work, I finally remembered softness and gratitude. Or, really, they remembered me. Release and a completely different level of surrender opened up through being grateful for everything I was experiencing at the time, and not just for what I perceived and experienced as beautiful, good or true. In so doing, I experienced a wholly new opening into love, light and understanding. The only way out was through softening and gratitude.

What I also learned from this experience was that the only way through can initially feel like hell, can look like everything you would ever want to run from, and that would seem impossible to be grateful for. And yet, by resisting gratitude for all of it, I upheld a stubborn veil of separation between myself and life — and thereby unknowingly, sabotaged and prevented a deeper response to the situation at hand.

Now I will tell you that I did not willingly get to that realization — I was pretty much dragged there on my knees, because nothing else worked. I have also had all kinds of thoughts as to why such a level of gratitude could be dangerous. If you are grateful for the bad things that happen, does that make them right? And might you then become passive and stop working for change, for greater justice, sustainability and health for all? Or might being grateful simply go completely against healthy survival, and in many instances, only come much later, when integration and healing have happened?

Eckhart Tolle shares a helpful reflection on surrender and presence in his teachings on the “Power of Now,” in which he speaks frequently of meeting life’s ups and downs without resistance. Paraphrased he says, “Imagine you are stuck in the mud. If you resist immediately, you will likely panic, try to get out quickly and as a result, probably get more stuck in the mud. If, on the other hand, you take a moment to simply note and face what is going on, to really take it in that you are indeed stuck in the mud, well, then you are also more likely going to figure out how best to get unstuck: ‘Hmm, I’m stuck, wow, really stuck… okay, let’s see, the ground is a bit higher and drier over there. I’ll place my right foot over there. Then my left foot here.’ And gradually you make your way out and on, in huge part because you are not resisting, not panicking, but simply seeing what is, and then choosing on the best course of action from that point forth.”

Understood in this way, non-resistance is not a passive stance. In fact, it becomes a prerequisite for effective action, enabling clearer choices. Without that moment of surrender, we layer a reaction on top of our resistance, muddling our way out or digging ourselves deeper, instead of fine-tuning our next step from a place of honesty and completely facing what is.

In this context, I find it important to make a distinction between surrender and agreement. They are not the same. Surrender involves bringing our full presence to a situation or experience, regardless of whether we agree with or like it. It goes farther than “being OK” with something. Surrendering demands much more intimacy and proximity to it, whatever “it” may be. But it does not mean submission and acquiescence.

And perhaps, in some circumstances (as in the one I briefly describe above), extending gratitude may draw us into an even deeper experience of non-resistance and surrender, taking us well beyond what our small minds can grasp, understand and make sense of. It can be a gesture of “thank you” anyway, a gesture of “yes” to all of life, not necessarily suggesting agreement, but a “yes” for what is arising so that I can be fully present to it, and discover through it what the next step on and upward may be.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on where and how you stretch your gratitude to include more of yourself and life.

First posted in the Huffington Post, September 25, 2011

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