Generosity, Gratitude and Present Moment Awareness
by Mathew Daniell
Published in the Newburyport Daily News newspaper on December 17, 2016
In our fast-paced world often the qualities of generosity and gratitude are used as a social lubricant, and do not spring from nor touch the heart deeply. This is unfortunate as these qualities, when nourished and grown, can provide a powerful connecting and healing force for ourselves and the world.
I cannot think of a better time to explore this possibility than in the period between Thanksgiving and Christmas, two holidays which lift the symbolism of these qualities up for all to see.
While in college I had been fascinated by eastern spirituality, yoga, and Buddhist meditation in particular. I learned that generosity is a foundation for harmonious living (ethics), which in turn supports the inner meditative journey of practicing present moment awareness (mindfulness). After graduating I wanted to explore Buddhist meditation in a traditional setting first hand. I went to Asia on a spiritual sojourn that would last well over a decade and included my being ordained as a monk in Thailand for a year.
The notion that generosity was a support for ethical behavior and meditative practice seemed simple, but took on a radically different meaning when I became a monk. I had very few possessions, strict rules to follow, and was dependent on going out for alms every day to collect food. I received offerings from people who would, one by one place food into my monk’s bowl. I would later eat this as my one meal of the day to sustain myself during intensive meditation practice.
I remember witnessing the simple joy and reverence of the village folk who gave, and felt authentic gratitude that in receiving their offerings I would have food for another day.
My physical wellbeing, and that of all the monks, was supported by the villagers. In a reciprocal relationship the villager's spiritual wellbeing was attended to by the monks in the form of meditation instructions and wise counsel offered at the monastery.
This mutually supportive connection formed what can be called a ‘virtuous cycle’; generosity being the cause for gratitude, which then becomes the cause for generosity, and so on.
This is one form of a symbiotic relationship between giving and receiving that has existed in cultures and the natural world throughout time.
We put such a premium on independence in our culture that we often forget our interdependence. We often forget our place on the planet and in relation to others. We suffer alienation, loneliness, discontent, and sow the seeds of planetary imbalance because of it. When we choose to tune into the fact that we are part of a larger whole, and actively participate in it through generosity and gratitude, this can have simple yet profoundly positive effects.
While I was as a monk I could not ignore the fact that I was the beneficiary of being part of an interdependent system. The villagers’ generosity enabled me to simply be, and I was grateful. One of the reasons I chose the life that I am living, and why I am writing these words now, is to express gratitude for the gifts I have received from so many. It was never a conscious decision to do so, but more of a natural response to kindnesses received. Perhaps these words resonate with your own life experience in some way, or maybe not. Our power lies in the fact that we can consciously participate in creating virtuous cycles in ourselves and the world, or not. The choice is ours.
Let’s pause and experiment with the formal practice of gratitude, it is something that can grow in our hearts when nourished. Reflect for a moment on those who have truly been generous to you in your life in ways that have helped you to grow and give you a sense of belonging. The Buddha reminds us that we owe a debt of gratitude to those who have brought us into life and raised us, as well as to our teachers. It is important to remember that we can embrace this even while acknowledging imperfections in these people.
There are many other levels we can experience gratitude on. We can be grateful for our homes that keep us safe and warm, to our senses that enable us to enjoy the world, even to the level of simply having the capacity to be present, to breathe, to be alive.
Facing the challenge over an uncertain future, gratitude can help us touch that which is nourishing and connecting in life. If we are feeling fearful, anxious, or isolated, then gratitude can be a practice that helps us balance these difficult energies in our hearts.
There are many different ways of practicing gratitude; from keeping a gratitude journal, to spending some time each day reflecting on what you are thankful for (perhaps before going to sleep).
When beginning to practice gratitude it may be helpful to have a ‘fake it till you make it’ attitude until it becomes natural. In terms of how we express gratitude, perhaps it would be wise to take to heart the phrase, ‘actions speak louder than words.’ Gratitude is an inner quality of the heart, how it expresses itself most authentically is not formulaic, and often not verbal.
Being present is a powerful expression of and support for generosity and gratitude. The word mindfulness, at the heart of Buddhist meditation, has two meanings. The first is to remember. So when we practice generosity and gratitude we often need to remember to do so, since the habits to do otherwise are often deeply ingrained. We train to change these habits. The second meaning of mindfulness is simple non-judgmental present moment awareness. We train to be present.
When we are truly present, this itself becomes a gift to ourselves and to those that we touch in our lives. An ancient Chinese wisdom teaching says that we ‘give life to life’ when we are deeply present.
When we give ourselves to life we can also be touched by it, and in touching and being touched we move into less reactive, more responsive, fresh, and intimate ways of being.
On one level we can orient our hearts and minds this way through practicing generosity and gratitude; on another level it is simply present moment awareness that is needed.
In the giving is the receiving and in the receiving, with genuine gratitude, we are giving nourishment to our hearts and strengthening the foundation for kindness and generosity to manifest naturally and grow in our lives and in the world.