With Thanksgiving upon us this is the time to reflect on the blessings in our life. Gratitude is one of the most direct ways to open the heart and awaken joy. Gratitude is said to be an antidote to anger, worry, doubt, wanting. It has also been shown to intensify positive memories by reflecting with appreciation on how they have impacted us. Gratitude is said to be the antidote to the complaining mind.
In his Discourse on Blessings, the Buddha talks of the great blessings in a human life. Here are some of them: to live in a place that is good for you, to do good deeds, to keep yourself going in the right direction, to be well educated, develop your skills, to live with integrity, to give generously to others, to be content and grateful, and to take good care of your relatives and appreciate them. How many of these are on your personal list? How often are you in touch with these blessings?
He also talks about being patient and having a mind that is steady and unswayed by the ups and downs of life. It’s one thing to open up with gratitude to all the wonderful things that are happening. But it’s quite another to open with a grateful heart in the midst of difficulties. One profound teaching states how suffering, given the right circumstances, can lead to faith. Faith can lead to gladness, which can lead to joy and then happiness, contentment, peace, all the way to the highest stages of liberation.
One might wonder how this is so. But whenever I ask a roomful of people this question, “Who has been motivated to find a deeper meaning to life through their suffering?” almost every hand goes up. Suffering shakes us out of our complacency and wakes us up. We realize we don’t have the control that we thought we had. As one of my teachers likes to say, “Anything can happen at any time.” In this unpredictable world it is inevitable that we will all face challenges including loss, illness and death. The question is, “Can we keep our hearts open even when this part of the natural cycle of life comes?”
One shining example of this is depicted in the movie The Theory of Everything about the life of Stephen Hawking. It’s inspiring to see how this man, considered one of the greatest geniuses in modern physics, went through unimaginable suffering— his body completely paralyzed by ALS for decades—and yet his mind remains brilliant and crystal clear and his spirit indomitable.
Although Hawking is an unusual example, our greatest triumphs often come out of meeting our greatest challenges. In his classic The Hero’s Journey, Joseph Campbell explains the archetypical story of the hero or heroine—whether Greek mythology or Luke Skywalker or Katniss Everdeen. They set out on their quest, meet great hardship, face their most fearful demon and, coming out the other side, are deeper, more powerful and wiser than they could ever have imagined.
The main obstacle to our opening up to difficulty is thinking that life has treated us unfairly. Understandably, our thoughts incline towards the negative. “This will never end.” “I will never be happy again.” “My life will never be the same.” We don’t realize while we’re down in the hellhole that we will probably learn how to laugh again, love again, smile again and enjoy life again.
The key to working with our difficulties is seeing that there are hidden gifts—as my favorite poet Danna Faulds calls it, “grace disguised as obstacles.” There are enormous lessons if we can somehow find meaning as we go through our challenges. We discover we have an inner strength and courage that we might not have realized was there. And we develop a confidence that we can make it through tough times.
We learn compassion as we see that we are not alone in our suffering. A classical teaching encourages us to remember every day that suffering is part of life. Everyone is subject to loss, illness, again and death. If you’re going through a hard time you might find it helpful to reflect on all the people who are going through just what you are at that same time.
As we celebrate Thanksgiving, whether you are going through a period full of blessings or full of challenges, remember that they’re both part of our life’s curriculum. With gratitude for just being alive and learning along the way, every moment counts.
Every Step is Holy
By Danna Faulds
The journey from the known
to unknown, from the
unreal to the real, is rarely
revealed in advance.
The potholes, detours,
false starts, and quick retreats
are each honorable,
and even needed in the bigger
scheme, in the forest that can’t
be seen between the trees.
It took years for me to realize
that the very twists and turns
and shadows I labeled “problems”
were really sacred ground
grace disguised as obstacles,
the whole pass a pilgrimage,
mysteries baring themselves
before me all along the way.