Gratitude: What, Why and How
Sermon delivered to the Beacon Unitarian Church, Coquitlam, B.C., April 2013
The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes (Marcel Proust).
The key event in 1993 for me was Clayoquot Sound and the now famous anti-logging protests. It was also the year I read Al Gore’s book Earth in the Balance. Al Gore called our society “dysfunctional” in the face of threats like runaway climate change and wasteful consumption. The message was clear. If we continued with business as usual civilization would collapse by 2050.
My son Ben will be 66 in 2050. I made a vow to him that I would do everything in my power to prevent such a collapse. Everything in my power. Then in 2030, when I’m 85, I can stand before him and say “I did my best.”
Back then I asked myself how I could be effective and not burn out. I took two steps towards answering that question. Firstly, I joined the Environment Committee of the Unitarian Church of Vancouver where I could balance cold science with the warmth of community, art and spirit. Secondly, I sought to learn about gratitude by practicing Joanna Macy’s Work That Reconnects as a committed environmental activist.
Joanna Macy had honed her teachings and methods to empower people to respond with truth and creativity to the overwhelming social and ecological crises facing our planet in the years before the end of the Cold war when the threat of a nuclear holocause was very real and fear was rampant. Today we face a different kind of challenge but one which is every bit as theatening to our civilizations – climate change driven by the unfettered rush to find, exploit and burn the Earth’s fossil fuel resources.
Joanna Macy describes four stages in the empowerment process. The first is gratitude, the second is honouring our pain for the world. Because gratitude is empathic it generates what Thich Nhat Hanh calls inter-being. Inter-being helps us see our individual joys and sorrows in the context of community joys, sorrows and community resources.
The third stage is seeing with new eyes. Macy writes “In the third stage, we step further into the perceptual shift that recognizes our pain for the world as a healthy expression of our belonging to life”. Seeing with new eyes reveals the wider web of resources available to us through our rootedness within a deeper, ecological self. It draws on insights from holistic science and ancient spiritual wisdom as well as from our creative imaginations. Above all, it opens us to a new view of possibility and a new understanding of our power to make a difference.
The fourth and final stage – going forth – involves clarifying our vision of how we can act for the healing of our world by identifying practical steps that move our vision forward. We eventually find ourselves returning to gratitude and so the cycle repeats, this time at a deeper level. In fact, a daily practice of written gratitude makes us so happy, so healthy, so grateful that we want to heal what can be healed. We want to serve and express our gratitude through well grounded generosity.
What is gratitude? Robert Emmons, psychologist at the University of California, has spent his life researching the subject. He encourages us to see that for which are grateful as a gift. These gifts are all around us, and the practice of gratitude simply helps us to see them and accept them as gifts.
Emmons tells us that gratitude comes in two stages – firstly, the acknowledgement of goodness and, secondly, recognizing that the source of this goodness lies at least partially outside oneself. He goes on to explain that gratitude has to do with happiness. Happiness, in turn, comes from three things – circumstances, genetics and intentional activities. Cultivating gratitude fits into the happiness equation by being an intentional activity that can be practiced and that has been shown to increase happiness levels. Emmons has, in fact, conducted randomized controlled trials to test and prove this hypothesis.
Practicing gratitude, either by writing in a journal or directly to a person or divine presence to whom one is grateful, is neither trivial nor easy. Gratitude is firstly the acknowledgment of goodness in one’s life and secondly the recognition that the source of this goodness lies at least partially outside the self. The object of gratitude is thus other-directed; one can be grateful to other people, to God, to animals, but never to oneself. Gratitude implies humility—a recognition that we could not be who we are or where we are in life without the contribution of others.
Gratitude requires the acknowledgement of our indebtedness to others. Although not a comfortable feeling, we really are indebted to others – for peace, for our comfortable lives, for our longevity, our food, for hot running water, for everything. Without others our lives would be intolerable. When we perceive that our cup runneth over we want to give and we want to serve. When we feel grace flowing into us and gratitude flowing out, we create a pathway for all emotions and we become patient with bad feelings. We trust that feelings will come and go like cycles of dark and light. When connected, when grounded in gratitude, our hearts soften. We stop pushing against suffering, we relax and we become useful.
It may be a blow to our ego to discover that we are not so independent after all. But gratitude strengthens our interdependent selves. We exist more, not less, when we let go and accept that we are only a part of the interdependent web of all existence. True humility allows us to see that planetary survival is not only on our shoulders, not only up to us “geniuses”.
All species have a survival instinct and they can teach us, inspire us and work for our survival. Joanna Macy teaches that we can rest, we can relax in the great hammock of all species’ survival instinct. We have many allies and we can be grateful for that. We have to be humble enough to be deeply aware and deeply grateful that we really are all connected.