Insight Meditation Houston

Awakening Joy 5

We’re continuing with a series of talks about awakening joy, based on James Baraz’s course. Last week, we discussed how to connect with moments of contentment even when we’re facing suffering. Tonight’s theme is how patience and gratitude can help us appreciate our lives.

Meditation teacher Joseph Goldstein says, “Not seeing suffering is a form of suffering. “
Instead of judging ourselves when we notice negative thoughts, we can be grateful for our capacity to recognize what is blocking contentment.
Our awareness is the first step towards liberation.
When we feel gratitude for the consciousness that witnesses everything arising and passing away in the mind, we recognize this truth: the awareness that recognizes fear is not afraid.
And the awareness that identifies sadness is not sad.

Gratitude practice helps us notice with increasing compassion the pain of being lost in negative stories about ourselves.
As we wake up, little by little, and learn to see clearly when we are reliving negative patterns, patience is essential.
Portia Nelson wrote an Autobiography in Five Brief Chapters to illustrate the need for patient practice:
Chapter I
I walk along a street,
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I fall inside it.
I’m lost and impotent.
It’s not my fault.
It takes me a long time to find a way out of the hole.

Chapter II
I walk along the same street.
There’s a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I pretend that I don’t see it.
I fall inside again.
I can’t believe that I’m in the same dark place,
But it’s not my fault.
It takes me a while to climb out of the hole.

Chapter III
I walk along the same street.
There’s a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I see it.
Out of habit, I fall inside.
My eyes are open and I recognize where I am.
I take responsibility.
I leave immediately.

Chapter IV
I walk along the same street.
There’s a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I walk around the hole.

Chapter V
I walk along another street.

Whatever happens in our lives is hardly ever 100% good or 100% bad.
The key element is our attitude about the circumstances.
In any situation, I can choose to focus on specific difficulties or to view any problems in a broader context.

As the Buddha taught, our happiness doesn’t have to do with what is happening around us so much as with our relationship to what is occurring.
We can decide to treat a situation as unbearable or as manageable.
And we don’t receive extra credit for being a martyr!

Some people seem chronically disillusioned, resenting hardships as a burden to bear, while others maintain equilibrium in spite of difficulties and feel grateful for life’s gifts.
Our attitude about inevitable changes affects the quality of our lives.
The essence of our existence is constant change, and it would be very boring if we could control everything around us.
Whenever we try to stop the natural fluidity of events, we suffer, and life no longer feels like an adventure.

In a contented state of mind, we tend to be flexible about how events unfold.
When all is going well, we are grateful, and we enjoy what’s happening.
And when something unexpected occurs, we adapt to new circumstances.
Instead of reacting with frustration and dismay, we respond wisely, trusting that we are moving towards new possibilities.

This past week, in three different instances, gospel music reminded me of the importance of adaptation and gratitude:
First, I sang spirituals with an African-American hospice patient, 98-year-old “Louise,” whose face lit up as she joined in with the words. She said, “I don’t know how to sing, but when I hear that music, I can’t help but chiming in.” Displaced from her home and confined to her sickbed, she was still grateful to relive music from her childhood.
Then Mark and I watched a documentary film called “Rejoice and Shout” about the history of gospel music. Slaves improvised some of the classic songs to accompany their hard labor in the cotton fields. At church, these spirituals reminded them of their faith in a higher power and their gratitude for the community of friends and family around them.
In synchrony, the UU Sunday service included a gospel song, “Over my head, I hear music (trouble/gladness) in the air.” (3X) “There must be a God somewhere.” The simple tune and lyrics connected me with Louise and the cotton pickers, and to all who find gladness in the midst of trouble.

Cicero said, “Gratitude is not only the greatest virtue, but it is also the parent of all other virtues.”
If we are suffering, it helps to move beyond a mental state that is filled with fear and worry.
When the mind contracts, we can’t think clearly, and we can easily feel overwhelmed. Gratitude is an ally that helps us expand the heart and mind.
When we feel grateful, we create more space, clarity and equilibrium in the mind, so that we can respond wisely to our circumstances.
In the process of cultivating gratitude, we say “Yes” to life, and we can receive the many blessings that are around us.

Thich Nhat Hanh suggests a practice of pinpointing what has changed for the better in the present moment.
For example, if yesterday’s headache has disappeared, you can be grateful that your head is free from pain today.

When we are grateful, we feel connected to something greater than our personal reality—something that we might conceive of as the Dharma, or God or the Cosmos.

At Houston Hospice, I met a remarkable volunteer whom I’ll call “Clementine.” She told me that two years ago, she had a near-death experience. During surgery at Ben Taub Hospital, all her vital signs failed, and she sensed her consciousness floating up above her body. Clementine could hear the medical team talking about “losing her.” Aware of angelic presences around her, she felt peaceful and accepting, but then she received a clear message that it wasn’t her moment to die and that she had more to do with her life. Sensing herself re-entering her body, Clementine surprised the doctors and nurses in the operating room by returning to life. In recovery, she felt deep gratitude for her second chance at life and for learning that death is nothing to fear. Looking out the hospital window, Clementine saw Houston Hospice and resolved to dedicate each afternoon to sitting with terminal patients, helping them to die fearlessly.

How can we let go of our assumptions and open ourselves up to receive what is possible in our current situation?
How can we be open to life’s surprises without so many defenses?
Ram Dass jokes that, “The next message that you will hear is the next message that you will hear!”

With an attitude of easy acceptance, each moment matters.
In his book, Gratitude, the Heart of Prayer, Brother David Steindl-Rast refers to unexpected surprises as an initiation to gratitude and prayer.
Whether they come as blessings or as lessons, can we allow ourselves to be amazed by the gifts that life continually offers us?

The founder of Positive Psychology, Martin Seligman, conducted a study with people who considered themselves to be severely depressed. As a nightly exercise for two weeks, they wrote three positive things that had happened during the day. At the end of the experiment, 94% of the subjects felt less depressed, and 92% claimed that their happiness had increased.

Gratitude creates a sense of sufficiency— we have all that we need for now.
In any circumstance, instead of concentrating on what’s missing, we can notice what we have.
We all tire of hearing an interior voice complaining, “I have to do this, I have to do that.”
One meditator suggested substituting the message: “I have the opportunity to do this. I have the opportunity to do that.”
Adding a flavor of gratitude lightens our load.
In each situation, we have the option to complain or to voice appreciation.
Ram Dass asks, “Do you live life from YUCK or from AHHHH?”
Patience and gratitude help us transform the Yucks into Ahhs.