Meister Eckhart was a medieval philosopher, theologian and one of the great Christian mystics. His writings and teachings created quite a stir, and eventually he was accused of heresy by the church. Yet like all good boat rockers, he has lived on – and with greater influence today then probably when he lived 700 years ago. In today’s spiritual circles many people have become familiar with him because of the universality of his teachings.
I think most people are familiar with his profound statement on thankfulness… so simple, yet not always so easy. “If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you, it will be enough.” Yet, how many of us and how often do we think of “thank you” as a prayer? And an even bigger question that arises for me is, “Is this true? Is it enough?”
Does saying thank you constitute a spiritual practice unto itself? Perhaps. Some days I don’t really know. When I look at the spiritual masters throughout the ages it is certainly a quintessential practice for a life of meaning, peace, compassion and love. It would seem that gratitude is the swiss army knife of spiritual tools. It can be used in any situation… problem, victory, solution.
This became particularly alive for me last week while out of the U.S. and in Portugal watching events unfold of the bombing in Paris. Another event in a long line of horrific ones happening around the world. Overwhelmingly violent acts that make me pause and ask myself, “What goes on inside someone, what happened in their life that brings them to a place of participating in suicide bombings, kidnappings, murder, rape and other unspeakable acts against humanity? How desolate must someone’s heart and soul be to activate this level of degradation? Where or how does someone give thanks in this?
When things work out well is it natural to express relief, joy, surprise and appreciation. But what if things don’t work out, can we still be grateful? When we think in terms of oneness, where do we aim our thanks? What are we grateful for and who are we grateful to? Or does gratitude need an object at all?
All over the world people are dying in wars. Children are training as soldiers. People in every country are underfed, overworked, underpaid, condemned to a life that will probably never change. Where is life in that? Is there thanks to be found in that? And what is there to be thankful for if life is so fleeting, transitory and fragile?
Giving thanks and gratitude are a part of all the world’s religions. The Islamic faith focuses prayers 5 times a day, in part giving thanks. Ramadan is a month-long holiday, putting believer into a state of gratitude. In the Buddhist tradition gratitude leads to metta, lovingkindness, it melts the barriers we build between each other. The Hindus say it’s a life-giving soul quality. In the Hindu scripture, the Vedas, giving thanks is an exercise of our free will.
My favorite from the Hindu teaching is that if you can’t say thank you, if you cannot connect to gratitude then speak this affirmation, “I am a spiritual being of light maturing in the ocean of experience.” That’s a very nice way of saying, “I am immersed in a crappy experience that totally sucks, and I am so frustrated, lost, sad or angry, that I can’t see anything to give thanks for! BUT this loathsome experience is growing me!” Makes me smile every time.
In the Jewish prayers in the Hebrew Testament of the Bible, the Psalms use the word thanks more than 50 times. In the Christian Testament, in Paul’s letters, he wrote “thanks be to God” over and over. He also said be grateful IN all things, not FOR all things. Which means the Hindus are right. We can choose to feel appreciation in any situation, and whether that appreciation is connected to the situation or not is irrelevant. Making that choice is an exercise of our own free will.
The truth is that all these pieces of life, the good and the unpleasant, are what Joan Chittister calls “alleluia points of life.” The root of the word “alleluia” is to praise, so these alleluia points of life are a practice of praising IN all things. Although we may also wind up giving thanks FOR things as well. When I come to realize that drudgery and pain in life can be fulfilling and have meaning, then there is nothing I can’t do, nothing is too much – this is living the alleluia life, this is the activity of giving thanks. Each of these moments give us the chance to live life over and over again, to do now what we couldn’t or wouldn’t do an hour ago, last week or last year.
Finally, while thanks does need to be expressed verbally, more importantly it needs to be lived. It’s much more than a feeling, it is an activity. How do we live gratitude? Best answer I know is to give. It’s a natural expression of gratitude, puts us in the flow of living those alleluia moments.
Look for chances to add good to any situation – CONTRIBUTE
Every moment becomes a gift and you are literally rewiring your brain when in every situation instead of asking “What can I take” – you’re constantly asking what you can give. Instead of being a consumer, be a contributor. Soon you find that your actions begin to catalyze a rich network of ripples. And you tap into the joy of purpose. Activities such as adding good cheer, finding a way to be of service, loving more overtly, extending a smile or a compliment and tipping more, increases whatever life presents.
Count on people to be generous – TRUST
Amazing things happen when we shift from the habit of quid pro quo to trusting that people and life are naturally generous. It sparks something deep inside and you enter the flow of an alleluia life. Give whatever you can in life, and when you don’t know who will receive your contribution, choose to trust in the whole cycle. Things will move beyond the control of the personal ego, and every contribution becomes a profound act of trust. This trust generates a web of resilience – a generative life of compassion.
Practice being a person of increase and thanksgiving. Our gratitude will lead us naturally to giving, we’re grateful so we give, and then we receive, and then we are grateful some more! What we will do for a life of meaning, peace, compassion and love will always be far more powerful than what we will do for money.