David Spangler: Gratefulness
David Spangler: GratefulnessNov 14
By David Spangler
For those of my readers who live in the United States of America, you know that this month we’ll be celebrating Thanksgiving. So I felt it would be appropriate to say a few words about gratefulness in honor of the occasion, recognizing that taking time to be thankful transcends national borders and different cultures. It’s a human act that as much as any other strengthens our spirit and empowers us in our quest for wholeness. Giving thanks is a key that opens a door to greater connectedness and greater participation in the life of the world. It is one of the most powerful spiritual practices available to us.
Learning to say “thank you” is one of the earliest social graces that most parents teach their children. As such, it’s a recognition of another’s kindness and an expression of appreciation for it. But usually, such appreciation is paired with having received something. It’s easy to view gratefulness within a context of cause and effect. Someone does something for us, and we say thank you. Someone gives us something, and we say thank you.
I remember very well after Christmas and birthdays sitting down to write thank you notes for gifts I’d received. Usually this was at my mother’s insistence; I’d much rather have been off playing with those gifts, especially as Mom wished me to say something personal and meaningful in each note. No simple “thanks a lot, Gran’ma!” This was particularly hard when the gift didn’t mean much to me or was something I didn’t really want. Part of me would sit back in a corner of my mind and complain, “I have to say thank you for that?” As a kid, gratefulness did not always come easily!
But I’m glad to say I learned, though I’m sure there are many kindnesses that people do for me even now that I don’t acknowledge as fully as I could. In fact, I’m so aware these days of how much I receive on a daily basis from just about every aspect of my life that I could spend all my time saying “Thank You!”
The most important thing I learned about gratefulness, though, didn’t have anything to do with writing thank you notes. At some point in my life — I no longer remember when — I realized that gratefulness really has nothing to do with receiving something. It’s not part of a pair, not part of a chain of cause and effect defined by getting something and then saying thank you. It exists on its own as a way of being open to life and to the flow of love that is at the heart of spirituality.
How to explain this?
I am a life-long asthmatic. It has not been a crippling affliction but there are times of the year and environmental conditions that can cause my chest to tighten and my lungs to constrict until it feels like I’m suffocating, which, in fact, I am. I discovered early on the vicious circle that this can create. Breathing becomes labored which triggers stress and a deep body-fear of not getting enough air; this stress, in turn, heightens the asthmatic reaction, making it still harder to breath, which, of course, creates more stress, and so on. In dealing with this ailment, I learned that I had to calm myself and banish the fear. Often, just doing this would begin to bring relief. But still I would wonder if I would ever breathe again, forgetting entirely that perhaps only minutes earlier I had been breathing normally.
What asthma does, at least for me, is make me conscious of breathing. It’s easy to be unconscious of breathing; it’s easy to take it for granted. As an asthmatic, though, I realized I couldn’t take it for granted. As a consequence, I learned when I was breathing normally and easily to stop and appreciate that fact. In such moments, I would be filled with wonder at the simple act of taking air in and letting it out in an unrestricted way. How marvelous! And in such moments, I would also suddenly be filled with gratefulness for my breath and for my body.
In this way, I was led around to paying attention to many of the simple things of my life, things that are not gifts per se. No one has given them to me. They don’t require thank you notes (thank heavens!). But they inspire appreciation.
I want to stress how simple these things are. The feel of a hot cup of tea in my hand. The usefulness of my computer in helping me write. The sound of voices (being partly deaf, I am always grateful when I clearly hear and understand what someone has said to me!). The taste of chocolate. The sound of rain on the roof as I lie in bed in the dark at night. The beauty of the trees and plants I see out my window. The pleasure of a good book or a funny television show. The thought of the love and support that you, dear readers, so often send to me after one of these essays.
Few of these things are gifts as we usually think of gifts, and yet, if we think about it, everything in our life is a gift of one kind or another. Right now it’s raining outside where I live and it’s been raining for about a week, not a hard rain but a gentle, persistent one. I have family living in California who are living through a historic draught and who would give their eye teeth (and whoever knew that eyes had teeth?) for some rain. How can I not be grateful for the gift of water from the heavens?
What I’ve discovered is that by acknowledging these simple gifts (and they are endless) and being grateful, it has opened a door to experience the wonder of life, the wonder of the world and of the spirit within it. It also enables me to see just how interconnected and interdependent we all are. Being thankful opens the heart, the mind, and the spirit. It’s as simple as that. And as profound.
Even feeling gratefulness—being able to appreciate things—is itself something for which to be grateful. It is a testimony to the spirit within us that can rise above the constricting limits of selfishness. It takes us out of the unconsciousness of “taking for granted” and lets us see the world in all its beauty, all its richness, all its possibilities. And this lets us see ourselves in the same way and to appreciate the miracle that walks around wearing our skin. What an amazing power to have!
Nothing stops us during the day from just taking a “gratefulness moment” — not for blessings, not for gifts, not gratefulness for anything, but gratefulness as a state of being. (You can also take time to feel grateful for things in your life, but this is a different exercise.) Feel what happens when you simply are gratefulness.
It makes everyday a Thanksgiving Day.
(And thanks, Mom, for making me write those thank you letters!)