Outside the French bakery, a line snakes in a whorl toward East 7th Street. I am alone in my bedroom on the 3rd floor watching the masked patrons in backpacks and hoodies, inching forward slowly like caterpillars. The sun is bright today casting long frightening shadows on the sidewalks. The cars whizz by and honk every few seconds like a metronome. From my computer, as I type this, the virtuoso violin of Paganini reverberates. I feel a sense of peace taking this all in with my senses.
I consider the idea of gratefulness as I sit here. I feel very fortunate at this moment. I feel grateful for my senses, that I can hum along with Paganini as I write, that I can feel my fingertips hitting the keyboard in a symphony of taps, that I can see the snaking line across the street and watch the Pin Oak tree in front of my window drift from side to side at the shaking of the wind. I wonder why I can’t always feel this way.
The thought feels silly as soon as I type it. I can’t always feel this way because as I finish writing, the world of stress reenters my conscious, everyday life. After I finish writing and take a long run, I will have to go shopping for a stove because my current one leaks gas every time I use it, and the repair guy said that the repairs will cost more than a new stove. Then I will have to work, which I love, but means taking on the pains of my patients. And then other stresses enter the consciousness… I need to buy Mother’s Day flowers, I need to call my wife and tell her I love her, I need to write more and try to submit it to a magazine, I need to find clean this bathroom, I need to find to do the laundry, etc etc etc.
No wonder I can’t feel grateful. My conscious mind is filled with activity and stress and desire. It never stops. One of the benefits of mindfulness meditation is to see clearly how true this is, how our monkey minds are always chattering. Most of us assume that this chatter is who we are. After all, it seems obvious. Our thoughts and feelings are our most immediate and present sensations. Maybe a better question is what else would we be?
There is no “right” answer to this necessarily but I will say when the voices start to chatter less or have less control of you, a quiet can emerge from your being, and sometimes a spirit of bodhicitta, a sense of living a compassionate life, can arise. And from that gratefulness tends to rise naturally. My gratefulness this morning was a direct result of my meditation. Sometimes my meditations are a struggle and bore me or I feel tired and listless throughout them. But today the voices seemed to dissipate more like apparitions, and I have left with a sense of calm and gratefulness afterward.
Finding Religion Again and Daily Gratefulness
So how do we bring gratefulness into our daily lives? One way is a gratefulness journal. I am personally not a fan of this method. Something about it feels forced and contrived, although research seems to back up its effectiveness. But if it works for you, go for it. There seem to be a million gratitude journals on the internet.
But more than anything to be grateful, I think we need a reset, a way to find the spiritual or numinosity in daily life. We live in such spiritually bereft times. Most of us are disconnected from the archetypes of most primal instincts, the stories, and myths that give our lives direction and meaning. We live in an overstuffed world, a world devoid of meaning for individuals, which makes narcissism and the ego the point, that are about accumulation, and materialism, and the goal to always want more and more. And those instincts that have been with us since the beginning of humanity– religious instincts– have been lost in a wave of scientific rationalism. Don’t get me wrong, I love science. For example, the Covid-19 vaccine is an absolute miracle of science. No vaccine has ever been created this quickly.
But something has been lost. Besides my mother, none of my friends, family, or patients is very religious. Many claim to be spiritual, but I find that when I probe deeper into what that actually means most people express vague sentiments that don’t really mean anything. I say this without judgment. People no longer are spiritual or religious in their lives because the society around us has not given many avenues to it besides a narrow, capitalistic view of meaning. That capitalistic sense of meaning works for some people, especially those on top. But it is getting hard and hard to reconcile these views as the planet burns itself out.
So how do we find a sense of gratefulness in our lives again? I think it starts with finding a religious spirit in your life again. To be clear: I don’t think you need to believe God to be religious. In fact, maybe that’s a detriment. When I say religious I mean a connection to something bigger than one’s self. Or a felt, intuitive sense that what is going on in our conscious ego isn’t all we all. How the hell do we connect to that?
The first step, which is always the first step, is awareness. Mindfulness meditation helps, but it is not the only way. Awareness means bring present time attention to each moment. That can be listening to a song with concentration, to eat your meal without distraction, just paying careful attention to each bite. It can mean walking but just walking. Not talking on the phone or thinking about all that you need to do, but just to walk and see with clear eyes. Some of you might be reading this and say to yourself “I already do this.” That’s great, but I assure you there is always more attention to be had. Our minds and souls are cluttered with the fritters of our egos, of stress and desire, and the future and the past. Rarely are they present on what is here now.
Once we can learn to be present more often, we can learn how to do nothing. So much of what we think we are is about doing. We are a goal-obsessed culture. Some of that is useful. But man does it suck the joy out of life. Suddenly every task is about productivity about moving ahead, about attaining more and more. No wonder we’re all miserable. Nothing is ever just is. The push for more is all that matters.
This myopic view of human existence does us great damage. The idea of sitting on a bench and watching the trees and birds and the sunset means nothing from this goal-orientated, capitalistic point of view. After all, observing and being achieves nothing! But I tell you from experience, sitting on the bench and doing nothing is everything. That doesn’t mean that you check your phone every five minutes to post on Instagram. It means to take it all in just as you are in this moment. It means to try and grasp the great mystery of it all, even though it is ungraspable. Maybe, just maybe this is the beginning of inspired gratefulness. Maybe if we can learn to just be a little more we can see how much there is going on each moment, how much we miss in the clutter of our egos, how immense and beautiful existence can be.
Because of the way the world, because of the myriads of constant stress in daily lives, many will recoil from this point of view. It seems self-indulgent after all. Who has time to just pay attention, to reconnect with the present moment? Fair enough. I know life is fucking hard. And it often feels overwhelming. But maybe that way of thinking and acting, that way of seeing the world as a way to always do more is causing more damage than good. Maybe we just need to reorientate our perspectives a little bit to see our world and ourselves just a bit differently.