Wednesday, 29 August 2012

An Attitude of Gratitude

"Some of the worst thing in my life never happened."
~Mark Twain

1. Mind precedes all mental states. Mind is their chief; they are all mind-wrought. If with an impure mind a person speaks or acts suffering follows him like the wheel that follows the foot of the ox.

2. Mind precedes all mental states. Mind is their chief; they are all mind-wrought. If with a pure mind a person speaks or acts happiness follows him like his never-departing shadow.

3. "He abused me, he struck me, he overpowered me, he robbed me." Those who harbor such thoughts do not still their hatred.

4. "He abused me, he struck me, he overpowered me, he robbed me." Those who do not harbor such thoughts still their hatred.

~The Dhammapada

In the church I grew up in it was the custom on Sunday nights for there to be an extended hymn sing. Parishioners were encouraged to call out the page numbers of their favorite hymns, Pastor Smith would write them down, and we would sing for the first half hour of the service.

The hymn that was most requested and invariably sung every week was "Count Your Blessing."

When upon life’s billows you are tempest tossed,
When you are discouraged, thinking all is lost,
Count your many blessings, name them one by one,
And it will surprise you what the Lord hath done.
Count your blessings,
name them one by one, Count your blessings,
see what God hath done! Count your blessings,
name them one by one,
And it will surprise you what the Lord hath done.

I am sure many of you have heard this many times before and sung it often in your church services.

What surprises me about the popularity of this song now that I can look at it with over forty years of hindsight, was that most of the members in that small, Maine, Baptist church seemingly did not have a lot of blessings to count if one were to look at what they posses materially. We were all an impoverished group in a poverty stricken state. Yet everyone in that congregation belted out the words to that hymn and, if asked, would probably be able to enumerate endlessly the blessings they were thankful for.

I think of this often these days in this age where consumerism is a religion and where sending your children to school in clothes that are not designer label is tantamount to child abuse. We have become a society where blessings are not something we tend to be thankful for but rather consider to be our rightful due. People go into clinical depression when they are unable to afford Tommy Hilfigger for their children, an  Accura as their second car, or are unable to eat Chateaubriand every night of the week.

Years ago I found myself in a position I never thought I would be in and began attending the meetings of Narcotic Anonymous. Let us just state for the record that I was not their as a mere observer or a "friend of the program." Things were tough and I was in desperate shape. There was not much sunshine in my sky at that period in my life. There being only two meetings a week in my community and two meetings a week not enough to steady me, a friend began taking me to meetings in another city twice a week, There came a period where it seemed every meeting that group had was a 'gratitude meeting' and when I asked them when there was going to be a different topic the reply was that the topic would change when I managed to find some gratitude. It took a long time but the truth they were trying to impart finally began to sink in and from time to time I was able to conjure up some real gratitude for the blessing I did have.

It seems to me, and I could be wrong - I often am, that we have, as a society, mostly lost the notion of thanksgiving, of gratitude, of receiving blessings of grace and there should be no mistake, grace it is. Completely unmerited favor. Luck. We sure as hell haven't earned the advantages we have in North American society. Yet even on this day of Thanksgiving, most of us really won't. We will just mouth the words. If that.

A few years ago the University of Wisconsin at Madison undertook a series of experiments involving accomplished meditation masters of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition - Yongey Mingur, Rimpoche and Matthieu Ricard to name but two. While meditating on compassion or loving kindness or gratitude fMRI studies were done on the subject and the results were stunning. Those who had developed the skills to focus their meditation on metta (loving kindness and compassion) and on gratitude were thousands and thousands of times happier (as measured by activity in the 'happiness' areas of the brain) than the rest of us ingrates.

It seems that counting one's blessings, of being thankful for what one does have rather than disgruntled at what one does not have, pays real dividends in happiness and healthiness and well being. As the Dhammapada says, " If with a pure mind a person speaks or acts happiness follows him like his never-departing shadow."

I have suffered from severe and ongoing clinical depressions for over 25 years where the black dog has howled, where the Noonday Demon has often seemed my sole companion. Or my soul's companion. Take your pick. I am told that as a person with bipolar disorder I have no control over my moods and my emotions. For a long time I believed that and so my life evolved accordingly. I no longer believe that neuro-transmitters are the sole determinate of my mental health. More important than serotonin is my attitude. When my attitude is upbeat, when I am grateful for what I have, when I practice loving kindness and compassion, my mood seldom darkens. Indeed, Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy is now recognized as a highly effective treatment for depression.

The past and the future are both only thoughts right now. If I ask myself, "Am I okay now" the answer is always yes. Now I am okay,
I have found that the more I am grateful, the more I am okay. It has taken a lot of years since those early Narcotics Anonymous meetings but I have finally established an attitude of gratitude.

What were you grateful for on this Thanksgiving day?

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