Meister Eckhart, the great medieval mystic, once said that “Gratitude is the only prayer you need.” This could perhaps be paraphrased as “Gratitude is all we need to come home.” It’s easy to get caught up in the belief that the spiritual path is difficult and involves sophisticated understandings and techniques. But, the simple doorway of gratitude is always open. In this piece, we’ll explore three different ways to go through that doorway:
1) Being grateful for the gift of life
2) Meeting emotions with gratitude
3) Finding gratitude for awareness when you notice that you’ve lost focus
The Gift of LIfe
Each of the perhaps a billion or so times we inhale in our lifetime, we receive the gift of life. We take in the oxygen our body desperately needs. We receive fresh, pure energy containing all possibilities for new creation. The life we receive each time we breathe in is a free gift. We don’t need to earn it through good behavior or hard work or anything in particular. We are pre-qualified for this gift simply because we have been born into a human body.
When we receive a gift, our natural response is gratitude. Most of us spend the vast majority of our lives oblivious to or taking for granted the incredible gift we are receiving with each breath. When we bring our awareness to the breath and consciously receive it as the gift it is, naturally our hearts open in gratitude. It doesn’t take any particular belief system or profound spiritual understanding to be grateful for the pure life energy that is so freely given with each breath.
To me, the simplest way to do this is by allowing my breath flow naturally, letting go deeply on the exhalation, and being grateful for the gift of Life on the inhalation. When I make any effort to control the breath, it puts me in a state of efforting rather than relaxation and receptivity.
The first moment when you awaken from sleep is a moment of great opportunity. If you start thinking right away about all the things you have to do this day or the problems you’re facing in your life, you’re beginning your day on a stressful note and you may well have that kind of a day. If you instead bring your attention to your breath and experience the gratitude that naturally arises, that sets a wonderful tone that reverberates throughout your day.
Then, during the day, take brief pauses from whatever activities you are engaged in to bring your focus to your breath. Taking one or more conscious, grateful breaths can bring you powerfully back into the present moment and releases the build-up of stress from the last period of activity. If you have trouble remembering to do this, try setting the hourly chime on your watch, and committing to pausing for at least three breaths every time it goes off. It is also helpful to put notes saying “Breathe” on your desk, refrigerator, and other places where your gaze frequently goes.
The Gift of Pain and Fear
When I am grateful for the present moment as it is, I am home. Of course, it’s easy to be grateful for a beautiful sunny day, a walk on the beach, or a visit with a close friend. What’s more challenging is to still be grateful when I am experiencing intense pain or fear.
A few years ago, I stumbled upon a way to convince my left brain that it made sense to be grateful when I am experiencing emotional pain of some kind. I realized that the pain doesn’t come out of nowhere; it comes from my subconscious. When the pain is subconscious, it’s controlling me and there is nothing I can do about it, since I have no awareness of it. Once an incident triggers the pain, I have the opportunity to bring awareness into it and free myself of its control. Now, that’s truly an occasion for gratitude!
So when fear, judgment, sadness, or some other painful emotion comes into my awareness, I do my best to be grateful for the opportunity to meet it. Then, I scan my body to find where the emotion is most strongly present. I bring my awareness to that spot, experiencing both the physical sensations and the emotion. I maintain an attitude of curiosity and exploration, rather than trying to heal or analyze. After a while, I focus again on gratitude, both for the opportunity to get to know this emotion and for my willingness and courage to go deep into it. For at least a couple of breaths, I allow myself to feel gratitude as deeply as possible. Then, I dive deeper into the emotion. I continue this alternation between deeply being with the emotion and feeling gratitude as long as it seems useful.
The Gift of Awareness
If you’re like me, you spend lots of time caught up in thoughts about past and future. A small percentage of these thoughts are practical, but most are useless or even harmful. When you’re lost in thought, you’re missing out on experiencing the richness of the present moment. If your thoughts are judgmental, rather than neutral, you’re causing yourself unnecessary pain.
When you notice that you’ve been lost in nonproductive thoughts, you have a chance to come home to the present. The challenge in this moment is to avoid judging yourself for having been caught in thought. Instead, be grateful for the awareness. Awareness is a great gift. If you can be grateful for the awareness that you’ve been lost, rather than judging yourself, you will find yourself right back home in the present moment.
So, next time you find yourself feeling confused, afraid, or disconnected from yourself, use gratitude to come home. It’s the doorway that is always open!