THE HEALING GRACE OF GRATITUDE
Copyright Nov. 2011 by Elizabeth Clark-Stern
In America, we are preparing for the feast of Thanksgiving, a celebration that carries plenty of shadow from our history of receiving many gifts of the new world from the Native Americans, even as we ultimately conquered, colonized, and displaced them. This reality is so typically brushed aside in the flurry of shopping and meal preparation. And yet, it surfaces, as shadow always does. Satirist Stan Freeberg penned the lyrics, “Take an Indian to lunch, pretend we’re a regular bunch.”
If we can drop the pretense, perhaps we can see the wisdom in inviting our shadow to share our Thanksgiving meal. Even as we order the turkey and boil the cranberries, we can consider a descent into the archetypal roots of gratitude, by definition an inner measurement of light and dark. We are grateful for good fortune, aware that there are others who do not have it. As we shop for our feast, the clerk asks if we want to donate to the local food bank, and we pause, aware of the less fortunate.
To be grateful is to hold consciousness of the opposites: success/ failure; peace/ turmoil; a loving family/loneliness. If we are grateful for love, arguably most of us have known what it is to not have it.
Gratitude is an opportunity to honor wholeness. We are grateful at a moment in time, knowing darkness returns, as the night follows the day. And if we are to the world soul, we can partner our gratitude with a commitment to stay conscious, and to transform our gratitude into action.
What could this look like? Something as simple as giving to the local food bank, inviting a friend to dinner who represents qualities you like to repress in yourself. I had an Aunt was always preaching at me, a sweet but insufferable soul. I wish she were still here, so I could invite her to Thanksgiving, a way of acknowledging the part of myself that can get on her high horse. Sitting down together would be a way of forgiving both of us, and loving each other anyway.
Another way of honoring wholeness could be to spend time in quiet reflection. Being with your inner soul story, opens you to connect to the souls of others. The tending of your own soul, is inseparable from tending the world soul. For many of us, this involves remembering to take the time to touch our own soul-awareness, and touch the world soul. How do we build a practice into our daily lives, that makes time and space, for this to occur?
In his lovely book, A Pebble for Your Pocket, Zen Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh wrote of an ancient Buddhist practice to touch the earth. Imagine it: each morning, before breakfast, coffee, or firing up the computer, simply go outside, rain or shine, and place you hand upon the earth.
The cynic in me rears her head: of what use is this? — Like the Earth knows you are touching her, thanking Her for sustaining life? What a pointless exercise!
The Wise Old Woman in me will not hear of it.
“Try it,” she tells me, and so I do.
The air is crisp this morning in Seattle, a light wind bringing down big leaf maple leaves the size of dinner plates. Gratitude is ebullient in my heart, for the abundance of color: deep reds, brilliant gold, rusty orange, maroon, and, most splendidly, the soft chartreuse of the ginko leaf. I survey the trees up and down the street, with reverence and wonder. In this frame of mind, I place a hand upon the cold, moist earth. I shift my weight impatiently. The cynic snickers, “Are you waiting for something to happen? Like the Earth is going to say, ‘thanks for noticing me’?”
“Stay awhile, “ whispers the Wise Old Woman. She knows well my habit of leaping from task to task, never quite touching all the bases. I recall the famous quote from Babe Ruth, immortalized on the Good Earth tea bags: “I have only one superstition. I touch all the bases when I hit a home run.”
I take a deeper breath and touch the earth, with both hands, feeling the dark wet grit of the soil, smelling the musty green all around me.
An image opens in my mind: the Earth Herself, home to all seven billion of us, rotating on her axis, even as she makes her journey around the sun.
I breathe deeper still, aware of my gratitude that I exist in this moment, on this celestial sphere. As I stay with this, something unusual happens. The anticipated anxieties of the day float away. What weight do these trivial worries have beside the connection I feel, in this moment, with something both deeply personal, and as large as life itself?
No wonder ancient people made a goddess of the Earth. She is Mother of us all, and gratitude in her presence is about the bounty we ourselves experience. She is not a vain goddess, and does not need us, to know Her value. Our Earth simply is, and following the wise counsel of Thich Nhat Hanh, we touch Her, and take our own moment to just be.
I feel the warm smile of the Wise Old Woman. I am always humbled when I follow her guidance. She confronts the side of me that wants to judge and partition, to walk past my soul, on the pretext that there is something else more important to do.
As James Hillman reminded us, in his call to go to the archetypal source of the repression of the world soul, nothing is more important.
On this Thanksgiving, I invite you to join me in sitting at the table with the totality of light and shadow. Be grateful for the bounty, and honor the reality of want. Make the time to be with your soul, and to nourish the anima mundi, the world soul.
And touch the Earth.