Practice of the Week
Be Grateful to Everyone
Be Grateful to Everyone
Category: Keep In Mind (This practice is for everyone to keep in mind and pay attention to. It doesn't require setting aside a separate substantial chunk of time. Just have the intention to grow stronger in this area as you go about your day. Sometimes make it a focus of your daily journaling.)
Adapted from Norman Fischer, Training in Compassion
I went to visit my grandson when he was six weeks old. He couldn't do anything, not even hold up his head, much less feed himself. If he was in trouble, he couldn't ask for help. If suddenly he found his hand in his mouth and began chewing, he didn't know what that was or who it belonged to. And if he liked the hand in his mouth and it fell out of his mouth, he couldn't figure out how to get it back in. He had no idea of anything in the world. He had his likes and dislikes, certainly, but he was powerless to do anything but experience them as the world changed every moment. He was completely dependent on his parents' care.
We were all at one time precisely in this situation, and someone or other must have cared for us in this same comprehensive way. Without 100 percent total care from someone else, or maybe several others, we would not be here. This is certainly grounds for gratitude to others.
But our dependence on others did not end there. We didn't grow up and become independent. Now we can hold up our heads, fix our dinner, wipe our butt, and we seem not to need our parents to take care of us -- so we think we are autonomous. We think there is no longer a need to be grateful to others for our lives.
But consider this for a moment. Did you grow the food that sustains you every day? Did you till the soil, milk the cow, gather the eggs, kill the chicken? Did you make the car or train that takes you to work? Did you make the road? Extract the fuel? Sew your clothing? Build your house with lumber you milled? How do you live?
You need others every single day, every single moment of your life. It's thanks to others and their presence and effort that you have the things you need to continue, and that you have friendship and love and meaning in your life. Without others you have nothing. You may think, "Well, yes, but I work and I make money, and I pay for everything. So they are not taking care of me; it's my money that takes care of me. Even the highways and commuter trains: I pay my taxes." But suppose you have a lot of money and there is no one else in the world but you, you and your gigantic pile of money. How would you survive? Could you eat the money? Could you make a house for yourself inside the money? The money is only valuable because others exist. Money makes no sense without others. Its value exists because others exist.
Our dependence on others runs deeper. Where does the person we take ourselves to be come from in the first place? Apart from our parents' genes and their support and car, and society and all it produces for us, there's the whole network of conditions and circumstances that intimately makes us what we are. How about our thought and feeling? Where does it come from? Without words to think in, we don't think, we don't have anything like a sense of self as we understand it, and we don't have the emotions and feelings that are shaped and defined by our words. Did we invent this language that constitutes ourselves? No, it is the product of untold numbers of speakers over untold numbers of generations. Without the myriad circumstances that provided us the opportunities for education, for speech, for knowledge, for work, we wouldn't be here as we are. And without all the people in our lives whom we know and who know us and love us and create complications for us and infuriate us, we would have nothing to think about. We would be beyond bored: our consciousness would be shattered by loneliness.
There could not be what we call a person without other people. We can say "person" as if there could be such an autonomous thing, but in fact there is no such thing. There is no such thing as a person. There are only persons who have cocreated one another over the long history of our species. The idea of an independent, isolated, atomized person is impossible. And here we are not only speaking of our needing others practically. We are talking about our inmost sense of identity. Our consciousness of ourselves is never independent of others.
Buddhist teachings speak of "nonself" and "emptiness." What these terms mean is that there is no such thing as an isolated individual. Though we can say there is, and though we might think there is, and though many of our thoughts and motivations seem to be based on this idea, in fact it is an erroneous idea. Every thought in our minds every emotion that we feel, every word that comes out of our mouth, every material sustenance we need to get through the day, comes through the kindness of and the interaction with others. And not only other humans. Our nonhuman companions, the wildlife that sustain ecosystems that sustain us, and the animals whose pain and flesh provides food for some humans all contribute to making us who we are. Indeed, the whole of the earth, the soil, the sky, the trees, the air we breathe and water we drink constitute us. We not only depend on all of this, we are all of it and it is us.
To practice gratitude to everyone, to train is this profound understanding, is to cultivate gratitude every day. Gratitude is the happiest of attitudes: you simply cannot be grateful and unhappy at the same time. If you feel grateful, you are a happy person. If you feel grateful for what is possible for you in this moment, no matter what your challenges are -- grateful that you are alive, that you can think, that you can feel, that you can stand, sit, walk, talk -- then you are happy and you maximize your chances for well-being and for sharing happiness with others.
Listing gratitudes, at least once a week, is an important part of journaling. Take some time to particularly reflect on your gratitude to (a) people you never met, (b) people who cared for and helped you and are now dead, (c) nonhuman animals, all beings, and all things.
See also, Practice of the Week: Be Grateful (Rick Hanson, with TED Talk by David Steindl-Rast)
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For list of all weekly practices: "Practices of the Week Index"