“…instead of resisting emotional pain, we [can] say Yes to our experience. The instant we agree to feel fear or vulnerability, greed or agitation, we are holding our life with an unconditionally friendly heart.” – Tara Brach
Imagine yourself sitting at a holiday table with your nearest and dearest. The table is set with shining glasses and dishes and is heavy with steaming, delicious food. As you get ready to eat, you ask everyone to say what it is that they are grateful for. The first person says:
“I’m grateful for my family, my friends and this food.”
The next person says:
“I’m grateful for making art with my step-daughter and niece. I’m grateful for my husband’s resourcefulness and his creative mind. I’m grateful for my friend Rebecca’s honesty and deep compassion. I’m grateful for smooth, satisfying potatoes, for rich roasted brussels sprouts, and sweet creamy pie.”
How do these two feel different when you hear them?
The first response is an idea, a thought about those people and that nourishment. The second, a more embodied gratitude, is based on noticing details and specifics about the objects of gratitude.
Gratitude. People have expounded upon it for as long as people have expounded. In this space alone, I’ve written about gratitude not once, not twice, but more more more more times than that. The reason everyone else and I write about it so often is that gratitude, if deeply felt, is a powerful transformational force. Gratitude can change everything.
Going back to our holiday table, I see that I can get stuck in the idea of gratitude instead of living the felt experience of gratitude. At its most basic level, gratitude is about appreciating what is happening now…whatever that is. We will have preferences, likes and dislikes, but real gratitude, gratitude that stretches our capacity to feel our lives, makes space for everything that is happening.
Once when I was all twisted up in my feelings about what was happening in my family, a friend said, “How do you know this isn’t exactly what needs to happen?” I sputtered around for a while about how it was obviously not what should happen, and she said, calmly and peacefully, “How do you know?” I had to admit that I didn’t.*
I think of that conversation often when I’m resisting my feelings about whatever is going on. And I recall that conversation when I read these two extraordinarily wise pieces by two teachers far more articulate and insightful than I could ever be. I recommend them highly.
Rumi’s classic poem, The Guesthouse, speaks succinctly of this gratitude practice of welcoming everything fully.
The Guest House
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
As an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
Gratitude is being present to whatever feelings are happening and saying yes, welcoming it all. My ability to fully embrace the challenging parts allows me to be fully present with the joyful, pleasurable, loving ones.
“Be grateful for whoever comes, because each has been sent as a guide from beyond.”
*An important post script: I am in no way suggesting that anyone who has suffered trauma or loss should say “yes” to the loss, only to allow for any feelings that arise. As Tara Brach says in the piece I reference above:
I do caution my students, however, that it is not always wise to say Yes to inner experience. If we have been traumatized in the past, old feelings of terror may be triggered. We might not have the balance or resiliency in a particular moment to meet our experience with unconditional friendliness, and our attempts at Yes might actually end up flooding us with fear. It would be better instead to find a way to alleviate the fear, perhaps by seeking comfort with a friend, doing vigorous exercise, or taking prescribed medication. For the time being, saying No to what feels like too much, and Yes to what simply works to keep us balanced, is the most compassionate response we can offer ourselves.
Deepest regret for my inadequate words and any resulting misunderstanding on this point.