The science of gratitude has finally caught up with what sages such as Siddhartha Gautama, among many others, have been saying for thousands of years: gratitude is an absolutely crucial component of a fulfilling human life.*
It has also caught up to something else that philosophers having been pointing out for millennia: one of the greatest impediments to living a life of gratitude is a sense of entitlement, the belief that we deserve everything we get because we basically have it coming.**
But what if the ultimate form of entitlement is not so much the assumption that life owes us something, but the more subtle and fundamental expectation that we are owed life? This, essentially, is the Zen teacher Norman Fischer’s view:
We take our life, we take life, we take existence, for granted. We take it as a given, and then we complain that it isn’t working out as we wanted it to. But why should we be here in the first place? Why should we exist at all?
In other words, we’re not not.
Or to put the point positively: we are.
Which is pretty damn obvious. Except it’s not. For the vast majority of our lives, it just isn’t. And then we imagine it gone. And suddenly, it is.
It’s amazing when we stop and think about it. And when we stop thinking about it and just sense it, it gets even more amazing. Maybe everything slows down, or the colors start to pop, or things begin to undulate a little. Like they’re alive. Because they’re alive. And so are we. Just looking, hearing, sensing.
And then maybe we notice what Gautama noticed all those years ago, and what Rilke noticed more recently in the ninth of his Duino Elegies:
Once for each thing. Just once; no more. And we too,
just once. And never again. But to have been
this once, completely, even if only once:
to have been at one with the earth, seems beyond undoing.
And we feel grateful. That we’re not not. That we are.
That simple two-word reminder that the public artist Patrick Bernatchez projected for a few months on a giant white banner above the bustling cobblestone streets of Old Montreal:
Don’t you love the period at the end of that incomplete sentence? You are. Period.
Incomplete sentence? Nope. It’s complete. Like, can we just stop there a while?
Not: you are . . . a worthless piece of shit.
Not: you are . . . a sexy beast and a damn good cook.
No. Just . . .
And voila. There you are. There it is. The miracle. The great mystery. Which is really no great mystery because it is so incredibly ordinary.
The folds in the curtain.
The wet mittens on the floor.
The dried yellow leaves of the birch tree.
They exist. Do they not?
And soon they will not.
Or they will, and we will not.
Or they will not, and we will.
For a while. Just for a while.
And then both we and they will not.
But now we are not not.
And they are not not.
They are there.
And we are here.
And that is all.
And then it ends. The opening closes. The valve shuts. And life goes on.
Doing. Getting. Blabbing.
But we hold in our hands a precious souvenir from the land that exists beneath the land that exists beneath our feet.
We know it’s there, accessible any time we are accessible.
So we remember.
Until we forget.
And then something reminds us, and we wonder how we ever could have forgotten.
Until we forget again.
We can’t not, can we? No, probably not. But we can remember.
And we can remember to remember.
Before we unload the warm dishes from the dishwasher.
After we vacuum the popcorn out of the carpet.
We can recall that we’re not not.
And we can live a little longer in alignment with that knowing.
An acronym for practicing existential gratitude
If all of that sounds too ethereal or impractical, and you’re wondering where the rubber hits the road, you might consider working with an acronym to remind yourself of the key components of gratitude.
Here’s one: GABA.
GABA, or gamma-aminobutyric acid, is a neurotransmitter produced in the integrative fibres of the middle prefrontal region of the brain. It has direct connections that pass down into the limbic area, making it possible to inhibit and modulate the firing of the fear-creating amygdala. (Siegel)
Now I know that research suggests that a consistent mindfulness practice increases the production of GABA, but I honestly have no idea if the more specific practice of gratitude also increases the production of GABA. Then again, I don’t really care because it’s the best acronym I could come up with to remember the key elements of a gratitude practice. But if the whole neuroscience thing doesn’t work for you, you could always add another B to the acronym and think of the legendary kid’s show: YO GABBA GABBA!
• Gifts. Gifts are given willingly, with no expectation of repayment. They are unearned and freely offered and we are surrounded by them. If we choose, we can notice them, in the present and in the past. A gift can be anything from life on Earth, to the night sky, to beer with friends, to the work of our ancestors, to our parents or pets, to potty humor, to the irreducible fact that we’re not not. If the notion of a “giver” doesn’t work for you or doesn’t work for what you feel grateful for, consider it and the word “gift” itself metaphors, like all other words.
• Accept. If we make a point of it, we can accept these “gifts” and let them land inside us without letting guilt, indebtedness, unworthiness, entitlement, or rugged individualism block us. If these tendencies do arise, we can notice them, acknowledge them, even bow to them and then relinquish them and come back to what we’re feeling grateful for, open up to it and let the penny drop.
• Benefits. It can also be very helpful to acknowledge the benefits we’ve received from what has been given (or “given”) to us. How specifically have the things you’re grateful for helped you and the people you care about? How have they enriched your life, lightened your load, helped you do something, or offered you reassurance or verve? And how might they have allowed you to give to others in turn, perhaps out of appreciation for what you have been given?
• Benevolence. Rather than minimizing or discounting the “giver’s” generosity to avoid feeling indebted or unworthy or dependent, we can also give back to our gift-givers by honestly acknowledging and fully appreciating the true value and generosity and gratuitousness of their gifts.
• Absorb. To make sure the experience of gratitude becomes encoded in our neural networks, it’s also important to absorb the gifts we focus on by attending to the bodily sensations and feelings they prompt, and then swishing them around in our heart-minds, luxuriating in these feelings and sensations like they’re a warm bath or like we’re house cats in a sunny window soaking up the sun’s rays or like we’re dry houseplants drinking up fresh water.
* Here’s how Siddartha Gautama ostensibly put it in the Katannu Sutta: “A person of integrity is grateful and thankful. This gratitude, this thankfulness, is advocated by civil people. It is entirely on the level of people of integrity.” (AN 2.31–32)
** In the Katannu Sutta Siddartha Gautama also singles-out ingratitude and lack of thankfulness as the hallmarks of “rude people” with “no integrity:” “Now what is the level of a person of no integrity?” he supposedly asked. “A person of no integrity is ungrateful and unthankful. This ingratitude, this lack of thankfulness, is advocated by rude people. It is entirely on the level of people of no integrity.” (AN 2.31–32), Thanissaro Bhikkhu translation
Emmons, Robert. 2016. The Little Book of Gratitude. London: Gaia Books.
Rilke, Rainer Maria. 2009. Duino Elegies and the Sonnets to Orpheus. Translated by Stephen Mitchell. New York: Vintage.
Siegel, Daniel. 2010. Mindsight. New York: Bantam Books.