Thursday, November 22, 2007

The Dreaming Up Daily Image

Posted by Picasa by Kenojuak Ashevak at Inuit Gallery


It's a hard time to be thankful, at least in the usual way the word is used for the American Thanksgiving. Our prosperity and comforts seem selfish when contrasted with all the pain and injustice in the world, and like those first Pilgrims, a lot of what we enjoy is paid for by the pain and oppression of others. This year in particular, we may reflect that quite a bit of our comfort is contributing to killing the planetary life that supports us.

It's hard to concentrate on being thankful when it all seems to be falling apart before our eyes. Reuters reports that "Americans enter the holiday season in a dark mood, with economic worries, security fears and a lack of confidence in government fueling growing pessimism, according to a Reuters/Zogby poll released on Wednesday."

So given all this, I wanted to share excerpts from an article I've read, entitled "Gratitude," by Joanna Macy. It has a different perspective on gratitude, that is both spiritual and political.

There's only a couple of paragraphs from it online at the Shambhala Sun site, the magazine in which it appears, but it's in the current November issue, so you should still be able to find it on the stands.

The article begins:

"We have received an inestimable gift. To be alive in this beautiful, self-organizing universe--to participate in the dance of life with senses to perceive it, lungs that breathe it, organs that draw nourishment from it--it is a wonder beyond words. It is an extraordinary privilege to be accorded a human life, with self-reflexive consciousness that brings awareness of our own actions and the ability to make choices. It lets us choose to take part in the healing of our world."

"Gratitude for the gift of life is the primary wellspring of all religions, the hallmark of the mystic, the source of all true art. Yet we so easily take this gift for granted. That is why so many spiritual traditions begin with thanksgiving, to remind us that for all our woes and worries, our existence itself is an unearned benefaction, which we could never of ourselves create."

That our world is in crisis--to the point where survival of conscious life on Earth is in question---in no way diminishes the value of this gift; on the contrary. To us is granted the privilege of being on hand: to take part, if we choose, in the Great Turning to a just and sustainable society. We can let life work through us, enlisting all our strength, wisdom and courage, so that life itself can continue.

There is so much to be done, and the time is so short. We can proceed, of course, out of grim and angry desperation. But the tasks proceed more easily and productively with a measure of thankfulness for life; it links us to our deeper powers and lets us rest in them...."

Macy is writing within a Buddhist tradition (she mentions specifically the Tibetan Buddhist path) and much of what I'm leaving out relates to Buddhist practice. What she says more generally pertains directly to that path, but certain points jumped out at me as being more universal. Especially this paragraph:

"The great open secret of gratitude is that it is not dependent on external circumstance. It's like a setting or a channel that we can switch to at any moment, no matter what's going on around us. It helps us connect to our basic right to be here, like the breath does. It's a stance of the soul...."

Gratitude not for what we have but what we are, and for the given world we are part of. Gratitude not for what we have versus what other people don't, but for what we have in common: being alive and human in the web of planetary life.

She directs her ideas towards another feature appropriate to this week: consumerism. (Even before Thanksgiving Day has really begun, stories abound on the importance of "Black Friday," the first and erstwhile biggest day of the Christmas shopping season. In fact, one story claims that retailers don't even want to wait until Friday--they want to turn Thanksgiving itself into a shopping day.) But Macy's approach to gratitude, not being dependent on possessions and comforts, turns it a different way:

"Thankfulness loosens the grip of the industrial growth society by contradicting its predominant message: that we are insufficient and inadequate. The forces of late capitalism continually tell us that we need more--more stuff, more money, more approval, more comfort, more entertainment. The dissatisfaction it breeds is profound...

So gratitude is liberating. It is subversive. It helps us realize that we are sufficient, and that realization frees us...."

Macy directly relates gratitude to activism:

"There are hard things to face in our world today, if we want to be of use. Gratitude, when it is real, offers no blinders. On the contrary, in the face of devastation and tragedy, it can ground us, especially when we're scared. It can hold us steady for the work to be done."

She writes of "the activist's inner journey" as a spiral, which begins with "opening to gratitude", then "owning our pain for the world," "seeing with new eyes," and "going forth." Gratitude is the wellspring:

"[Gratitude] reconnects us with basic goodness and our personal power. It helps us to be more fully present in our world. That grounded presence provides the psychic space for acknowledging the pain we carry for our world....

Then, ever again, we go forth into the action that calls us... Even when we don't succeed in a given venture, we can be grateful for the chance we took and the lessons we learned. And the spiral begins again."