Gratefulness: Being Awake and Alive

Why not start spiritual training with a foot bath? For an experience in which our sense spontaneously spark off a grateful response, a foot bath is not a bad choice. Your heart and your tongue may not yet be ready, but in their own way your toes will start to sing gratefully. Can anyone deny that this is a step in the direction of “life abundant”? ~From A Listening Heart, by Brother David Steindl-Rast

 

It’s easy to lose perspective on gratitude and forget to relish in abundance during the seasons of life when it just feels like the carousel won’t stop turning. I was thinking of this as a I read a parable story about a man who lives in an abundant and beautiful part of Vancouver, yet feels his life is incomplete and that if only he could connect with a wise teacher, called Guruji Joe in this parable, and be allowed to join this teacher’s community of spiritual aspirants in “Victoria,” he will know true wisdom and the fullness of life. So he joins Guruji Joe, gets on Guruji Joe’s vehicle toward wisdom, a Greyhound bus, and is driven onto a ferry that circles round and round for many weeks as the aspirants eat lousy ferry boat food while being told of this incredible new land “Victoria” where they’ll be rewarded with enlightenment. When they finally arrive back to shore and are told they’ve reached “Victoria,” our dear traveler friend is nervous. He’s grown comfortable eating sub-par food and being lulled by the rocking of the water beneath them. However, Guruji Joe tells him he must make his way onward, as the boat is no longer of any use to him and will only hold him back. As our friend disembarks, he is at once enchanted by all he sees. This is it–the place where he’ll learn how to be connected, wise, alive! He gazes round at all the sites, many quite familiar, and just as he begins to feel truly at ease and aware, he realizes this place Guruji Joe has brought him to is none other than Vancouver–the home he’d known all along. Our dear friend, so inundated by life, so distracted by his likely overstimulated life, didn’t even realize that he had everything he needed for a life abundant right in front of him, or even right within him.

This story made me smile with recognition, as I watched the beautiful, light-filled eyes of the group of graduating teacher trainees complete their final weekend with me. What a gift, to be able to be brand new to the world of teaching, to be starting out, feeling the richness of a cup filled to the brim, excited to pass on all that’s been received. But what happens once the shine wears off and the drudgery of feeling the carousel go round and round sets in? Does this mean that there’s something wrong with life, with your particular life? With your practice? With your teaching or surroundings or people? Or does it mean it’s time to stop, pause, and reconnect and come back to our senses, literally and figuratively? It’s all too easy to forget that connection, bliss, abundant beauty is close at hand–and has very little to do with getting anywhere new.

Brother David Steidl-Rast writes, “I notice how easy it is to lose attentiveness. Over-saturation of our senses tends to dim our alertness. A deluge of sense impressions tends to distract the heart from single-minded attention. This gives me a new appreciation for the hermitage, a fresh understanding of what solitude is all about. The hermit–the hermit in each of us–does not run away from the world, but seeks that Still Point within, where the heartbeat of the world can be heard. All of us–each in a different measure–have need of solitude, because we need to cultivate mindfulness.” Over-saturation of our senses tends to dim our alertness. That is one of the most resoundingly true statements I’ve ever read, and I think it’s never been more true in all of history. I experience daily, in myself and my students, the effects of a “deluge of sense impressions” and all the ways we’re collectively distracted from single-minded attention to that which truly matters. There is just so much coming at us daily, and I really don’t know anyone who is not fully submerged in this deluge.

There are many practices to bring us back to the heart of what matters, back to the needed solitude to find our Still Point within, where the heartbeat of the world can be heard. I love that image–the heartbeat of world. It’s what I long to attune myself to and what I long to cultivate in the studio–a space where this heartbeat can be heard among each practitioner. For myself, I’ve chosen practices that keep me awake and tuned in to gratitude. I practice yoga so I can connect to the stillness of my breathing as I move. I practice meditation in order to learn to tune the station of my mind to the anchor of this breath even when my mind wants desperately to tune into to the deluge of other thoughts and sensory information.  I write, and pray, and read and I walk in silence, all while allowing myself space to gratefully tune in to both the still quiet, and the beauty around me that equally ignite my sense of wonder and curiosity. And then I remember to head off for self-care, for vacations and retreats–ideally to the beach but sometimes behind the locked door of my own bathroom. And what all of these practices really lead me back to is Gratefulness. Each day, there is no shortage of opportunities to be grateful, to find gratitude. And when I am in the habit of availing myself to these opportunities–for the breath that guides my movement, for the movements that are possible, for the sunrise, for my child’s smile, for the words that am able to read and write, for the student who acknowledges that practicing has transformed him, for my husband’s text reminding me he loves me–I remember to find gratitude even in the unpleasant moments. Then I realize I’ve stepped off the carousel for a moment and I need not go far to reconnect to the heartbeat of myself, and of the world. Brother Steindl-Rast expresses this beautifully: “There is no closer bond than the one which gratefulness celebrates, the bond between giver and thanksgiver. Everything is gift. Grateful living is a celebration of the universal give-and-take of life, a limitless ‘yes’ to belonging.” So, yes, then, I say. I’ll step off the spinning wheel of all that life bombards me with to pause and truly see the gifts all around. This is the real truth of feeling abundantly, richly full, shining with aliveness. If yoga is meant to yoke, to create union, this limitless “yes” to belonging that arises through gratitude, through connection between giver and thanksgiver, is yoga indeed.