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Buddha and the dictionary

27 Nov

IMG_1136For the past two years, I’ve written a Thanksgiving post. Both of them have been on the cranky side.

One explored the idea that if our own life situation was better than someone else’s—say we have a job we don’t like, but someone we know doesn’t have a job—we had no right to complain about our shitty job. In fact, instead of complaining, we should thank our lucky stars, or chosen deity, and be grateful we have a job. I wrote then and still believe that the rush to gratitude leaves too much else unexplored and unmourned. Glossing over the crap in our lives doesn’t make it stink less. If we are to truly feel gratitude, we need to honor what keeps us from being grateful and let it go.

Last year’s gratitude post focused on the idea that the proper response to “Thank you” is “Thank you.” The proper response, I wrote, is “You’re welcome.” Welcoming others to what we’ve offered is a far more generous gesture to my mind. One of my greatest pleasures at the holidays is welcoming as many people as possible to share in our celebrations. Adding to the guest list, even an hour before dinner, increases my pleasure far more than my workload.

Those posts were written spontaneously. This year, I started pondering what I’d write early in the month. I wasn’t sure I had much more to say about gratitude.Whenever I’ve written about gratitude, though, I’ve felt I missed something essential, the nub of my inability to cuddle into the comfort of unbridled gratitude.

When I was a child, we would bow our heads and clasp our hands in prayer before dinner while my father recited:

Bless us, Oh Lord, and these thy gifts,

which we are about to receive, from thy bounty,

through Christ, Our Lord. Amen

I always had a problem with the prayer, other than confusion over whom we were praying to given that there were two “Lords” in there and it didn’t really feel like they were the same person.

My biggest problem was that what we were about to receive didn’t seem to just be a gift from God’s bounty. My father had worked pretty hard to earn the money to pay for the bounty and my mother, who hated to cook, had worked to turn the bounty into dinner. Frankly, my mom had earned at least part of the money, as well. Where did they fit in the pre-dinner picture?

Though the sentiment wasn’t overt, the Prayer Before Meals was clearly presented as an expression of gratitude. To my mind, while God had had a hand in creating the world, food, etc., I didn’t really see the need to thank him for something he did a long time ago and not really for my personal benefit anyway. Turns out, I was a Buddhist before I became a Buddhist.

Naturally, I researched gratitude before writing this post. I’d turned to Buddha to help my dad and me through his passing, so turning to Buddha in this dilemma was a no-brainer.

Buddha had a lot to say about gratitude. I found some of it in a teaching by Thanissaro Bhikkhu (aka Geoffrey DeGraff, abbot of San Diego County’s Metta Forest Monastery). Than Geoff (as he’s affectionately known—I feel affection toward him for pointing out the nub of my gratitude problem) wrote:

the Buddha always discusses gratitude as a response to kindness, and doesn’t equate it with appreciation in general. It’s a special kind of appreciation, inspiring a more demanding response. 

Gratitude is due to people, particularly people who have done us a kindness that benefitted us, have done it from motives we trust, and have gone out of their way to do it. What is due to the feeling of sun warm on our skin, the smell of a freshly brewed pot of coffee, the lighting of a butterfly on our shoulder is appreciation.

I realize appreciation is a pallid word compared to gratitude and that the two are nearly synonymous, but there is a distinction that resonates for me.

Appreciation is defined as a recognition of the value of what we appreciate. When I run in the songbird sanctuary near my home, I am frequently overwhelmed by its beauty. I feel a peacefulness I don’t experience anywhere else. I so value the beauty and peacefulness that I leave it as I found it, hoping others appreciate it as I do.

If I followed another spiritual path, I might give thanks to God for the beauty of the sanctuary; I mean no disrespect to those who would. But I have always felt hollow thanking things for their existence, though I have never taken their existence for granted.

The songbird sanctuary was not created for me. It has no motives in existing. It did not go out of its way for my benefit. While I love its presence, I do not owe it thanks.

This Thanksgiving, I will give thanks but it will be to people rather than for things. I owe thanks to my sister for carrying the greatest share of caring for our father and her understanding of my need to care for my family. I owe thanks to my husband for his generosity and constancy. I owe thanks to my father for planning for his own and my futures. I owe thanks to my brother for continually helping to repair my home.  And I will run in the prairie, thankful that I take care of my body so that I can continue to appreciate it.

IMG_0086, springbrook prairie, snide reply blog

Happy Thanksgiving

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Welcoming thanks

19 Nov

It’s half way through November and it’s happening again. People all around me are grateful. I have friends who post daily what they are grateful for, everything from goofy co-workers to post-workout meals to husbands returning from out of town trips. One friend is even expressing her gratitude in haiku, but she’s an English professor, so don’t hate.

I asked my grateful friends why they are making these daily gratitudinal adjustments. They said things like, “Gratitude frees me to be a more hopeful, kinder person.” The haiku-writing professor likes being reminded, “to appreciate what I have. I like the daily Facebook project because doing it every day makes me notice the little things. They kind of turn out to be the big things, so I enjoy that irony.”

This professor predicted that I would find all this gratitude annoying. She is right, which is also annoying.

We owe our current focus on thankfulness to the positive psychology movement. Sometime around 2000, researchers found that feeling grateful had a strong and direct correlation to happiness. According to my extensive research on Wikipedia,

Grateful people are happier, less depressed, less stressed, and more satisfied with their lives and social relationships[19][22][23] Grateful people also have higher levels of control of their environments, personal growth, purpose in life, and self acceptance.[24] Grateful people have more positive ways of coping with the difficulties they experience in life, being more likely to seek support from other people, reinterpreted and grow from the experience, and spend more time planning how to deal with the problem.[25]

That all sounds good, and like all things good, it gets perverted.

Corporations get hold of gratitude research and suddenly you’re getting phone calls during dinner thanking you for buying a new dishwasher. Turns out that you’re 70 percent more likely to buy from that dishwasher dealer again if you’re thanked than if you aren’t. My favorite corporate perversion of gratitude is the tech support person who thanks me for calling to report my problem then asks how she can give me excellent service. I’ve never said, “Hm. Well, how about making a product that always works so I don’t ever have to make you grateful again?” I’d be grateful for that.

I’ve frequently been accused of over-intellectualizing and seeing conspiracy around every corner. This is why I keep Professors among my friends. Not one has ever accused me of over-intellectualizing. In fact, I’m quite the lightweight in intellectual terms. So, I know none of them will roll their eyes when I opine that gratitude is the new opiate of the masses.

Constantly being exhorted to be grateful for what we have here and now smacks a little too much of the same philosophy that keeps all disadvantaged peoples happy where they are. Add to the “be happy with what you have” message another one promising reward in the future for contentment today and you’ve got a pretty good recipe for enslaving whole groups of people.

Saying “Thank you” implies that something has been given and while I firmly believe that we should be thankful for our blessings, gifts, or whatever you want to call them, the focus is still on what we have. Gratitude gurus and others selling gratitude keep us caught in the goodies game by having us chasing after more and more gratitude. Now we have to ask not just have we been grateful, but have we been grateful enough. The more grateful we are, the more we will have to be grateful for. It is an infinite loop of gratitude.

And it makes me feel that we’re missing something. When I was a kid, my mother taught me that the proper response to “Thank you”, is “You’re welcome.” But we’re so driven to thanks, that hardly anyone says “You’re welcome” anymore.

These days, the answer to “Thank you” is “Thank you.” I noticed it first in radio interviews, where the host thanks the guest for appearing and the guest thanks the host for hosting. They sign off the same way, thanking each other until every reason for the two of them existing in the same space at the same time—even though it is their jobs to do so—has been thoroughly thanked.

I know my “welcomes” are fewer and I’m betting yours are, too. Listen to yourself the next time you pay for something. The clerk thanks you as she hands back your change; you thank the clerk as you accept it. Hell, I even say “Thank you” instead of “Goodbye” when ending a phone call sometimes.

But what difference does it make if we say “You’re welcome” when we are thanked or if we respond to thanks with more thanks. Aren’t we still spreading the love?

“Thank you” is all about getting goodies, even if, as is the case with getting change back, they are goodies that are yours to begin with. “You’re welcome,” in comparison, is about giving. When we say, “you’re welcome” we acknowledge thanks but avow that there is no indebtedness, nothing to pay back, no need for gratitude at all. “You’re welcome,” opens our lives to a more authentic feeling of bounty. I don’t just give to you; I welcome you to take from what I have.

Every year, family and friends gather at my house for Thanksgiving. I’ve done it so many years that it no longer causes any anxiety. In fact, it’s Monday and I haven’t even bought the turkey yet.

I’ve had anywhere from ten to more than twenty people at my tables, because it usually takes more than one. Not too long ago, I had planned for twenty-two guests. Thanksgiving morning, my niece called begging to bring one more person, an exchange student from Sweden, to the feast.

Much as I love the baking, cooking and decorating for Thanksgiving, I love the gathering. Of course, the exchange student came because, for me, it’s the welcoming that matters when we’re giving thanks.

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