The Shape of Gratitude
Standing in the courtyard behind the Vihara here in Queens, with the sun on my face and birds chirping, the sense of spring is strong enough to overpower the perception of the city. Even surrounded by concrete and brick, I can close my eyes and feel the breeze against my skin, and it’s like being back in the woods.
After the long haul of winter, everything suddenly warming up and coming alive can be such a rich experience. The colors, the sounds, the aromas. Not only does it make one grateful to be alive, but it is overwhelming the power of vitality of nature as it explodes into action.
It was in awe of this vitality that I found myself sitting back in the courtyard the other day reading the words of a native american-born botanist who was musing on expressions of gratitude. “What can you give back to the Earth,” she asked, “which already has everything?”
The question got me thinking about the nature of Gratitude, and the true sense of ‘knowing what is done’, which is the Pāli translation of the word. Often when we start to understand the enormity of the blessings in our lives we are overwhelmed by our inability to sufficiently give back or show appreciation.
As I mused, an image came to mind of a warm summer day not long ago. A dear friend and I had sat down at the edge of a grassy field to enjoy the sunshine and talk. As my friend began to talk and describe problems in her life and the mindstates she was going through, her hands absentmindedly gathered up some strands of grass and began weaving them into a bracelet. I half listened and half watched as the process of self-reflection and the skill of weaving danced and merged until they seemed like the same thing, and a complex ring of grass and blossoms emerged. She seemed startled when she finished talking and realized what her busy hands had constructed. She laughed and set it aside with the ease of a garland maker in a field of flowers.
Yes, nature already has everything, and one should rightfully be daunted by the idea of improving on a warm spring day. But it’s only the limited human mind that could conceive of one who has everything not being able to appreciate something new. When one gives a gift, what is it they truly want in return? I think of my friend enjoying that day and speaking of her trials and tribulations, and taking a perfectly simple and beautiful strand of grass and making it into something new. In the end, maybe all of these things are equal. We are given so much by the world, and to move forward is to live our lives without seeing the gifts as a debt needing to be settled. Perhaps that is the best way we can express our appreciation for the gifts we are given – to live fully, to seek happiness, and through our labors create something that wasn’t already there.
For more reflections on Gratitude, last night on the Uposatha of the Full Moon, Tahn Pamutto offered a reflection on the subject – “Gratitude and Grace”: