In our culture, and at this time of year, we are actively encouraged to feel attraction, desire and excitement. Because this time of year is so frantic, it is perhaps easier to perceive the tension and suffering in these states, even the addiction, the keeping ourselves busy, the needing of new things to amuse us and the being rarely satisfied for very long, until the next thing.
We can reflect: does this mental or material thing actually lead to my deep happiness? What does lead to my deep happiness? For instance, if I want this toy that everyone else has, is that what I really want or is it perhaps an expression of a deeper desire for something more wholesome? In this case, perhaps a feeling of belonging?
In actuality, we are all deeply connected to one another and other things but perhaps the ways in which we move towards feelings of connection and of belonging, will not lead us towards fulfilling our deeper desires. We can inquire into our experience of getting things and realise that they don’t ultimately satisfy the heart. We can inquire into what does lead to peace, and connection. We may see that, underneath, it is love, connecting with people and a sense of our own wellbeing and that of others.
Gratitude is one of those wonderful practices or habits that is good for the person who feels grateful, and can also be of benefit to the one receiving the thanks. A practice of gratitude develops really positive characteristics including integrity, connection and patience. It is an antidote to greed, or to a sense of not having enough (just like the story of The Golden Goose) and of not having as much as other people have. What we have often IS enough and knowing this is a pathway to peace. In developing this gratitude habit, we are able to be more in the here and now, and therefore happier.
We can start with contemplating our benefactors. Benefactors are those people are in our life – teachers, parents, mentors and so forth - who have extended themselves for us, without wanting something in return, just because it is what they want to do. Contemplating how grateful we are to them and for their kindnesses towards us, is at the very beginning of developing a heart of loving kindness. In this way we soften our hearts and minds. Further on, we realise that many, many actions feed into our happiness.
Recently in a Monday puja, I encouraged the children to recognise kindness and to explore interdependence. We took, ‘learning to ride a bicycle’ as an example and together we created a web consisting of people and things that this activity depended upon. This included a teacher, a friend, the person who invented bicycles, the people who made the bikes, the flat surface to ride on etc. In this way, we expanded our ideas of kind acts into us being part of the web of life, being part of a web of acts of kindness. As Martin Luther King said, we are woven into ‘a single garment of destiny’, into the very fabric of life.
As we continue to practise, we realise that it is a privilege to be alive to see the sunset, to taste a tangerine and we can at last open to being grateful for all things.
In a previous teaching job, I worked with children on a weekly gratitude diary, in which we wrote down things for which we were grateful and acts of kindness either to ourselves or to others. This served to open up the whole area of inter-connectedness and to stimulate the heart. We can help our children by making this, or something similar, a gentle daily practice, at the breakfast table (food is a great place to start as we know!), or in saying goodnight. This drip-drip of a positive mental habit is not an overnight change but it does have a profound effect over time. As parents, family members and teachers, we can model the very thing that we are trying to develop in our children, by practising it ourselves.
It is easier to feel grateful for things that make us happy but in Buddhism we are grateful also for life’s sorrows and challenges which help us grow and develop, and which give us life’s lessons if we are willing to learn them. Our lives depend both on the kindness and on the hardships of others.
There is so much that can be learnt from the practice of gratitude and this time of year, when we both give and receive, naturally puts us close to it. I am grateful for all your kindnesses as a community this year, and all the many positive messages that I have received. I hope that your reflections are fruitful and that you have a peaceful and happy yule and Christmas time!