July 10, 2016
Eighth Sunday after Pentecost
You might not know that, as the website www.elementsofgratitude.org proclaims at the top of its home page, “After decades of research, the scientific evidence is clear. Being grateful is good for you and your loved ones.” Alongside this statement, we’re told that “grateful people have 10% fewer stress-related illnesses,” and “grateful people are 25% happier.” You can also play a video on the page that begins by asking, “Do you want to be happier, healthier, and an all-around better person?” Well, it’s hard not to be pulled in by that promise, so if you keep watching you’re told, “There’s a way that’s free, easy, and totally up to you. It’s gratitude.” And now, totally hooked, you learn more interesting health findings from the video: grateful people have 10-16% lower blood pressure, exercise 1.5 hours more per week, sleep 10% longer and 15% better, and have 23% lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol.
It’s not very different with mindfulness, a word that I once read first appeared in print in English not too many decades ago, and that you now bump into everywhere you turn. You can read about the various scientific studies showing significant health benefits of mindfulness – and also forgiveness, empathy, compassion, and of course gratitude too – at the website of the University of California at Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center. I actually heard a talk by the science director of the center, a neuroscientist, at a conference a couple of years ago. She also co-led an online course, “The Science of Happiness,” with the center’s founder, a social psychologist.
Truth be told, I eat this stuff up. I love biology and I like reading about health studies – and sometimes even the studies themselves, minus the chi square and other statistics mumbo-jumbo. It fascinates me to learn how acting in certain ways affects indicators of our well-being such as cortisol and oxytocin blood levels, or vagal tone, the strength of the vagal nerve. You may remember that a while ago Billy Amoss preached about the social psychologist’s Barbara Frederickson’s book Love 2.0: Creating Happiness and Health in Moments of Connection. If you were around me a little before that – shortly after I heard Frederickson speak at the same conference and then read the book a couple of times – your probably heard me going on about her research on the effect of connection and love on our oxytocin levels and vagal tones. I continue to be deeply moved by her view that (in her words) love can best be thought of as “micro-moments of positivity resonance.”
And yet, and yet…sometimes I wonder about the recent focus on how following what I usually think to be spiritual disciplines, or at least maintaining an orientation that we might consider to be spiritual in some ways, can improve our health and generally make us feel better. Is that what gratitude, compassion, etc. are all about? I honestly have mixed feelings about promoting these types of disciplines or orientations or attitudes by examining how they might make us live longer, or with fewer ailments. That sounds to me a bit like a self-improvement project.
I’m going to return to these thoughts a little later. For now, though, I want to explore gratefulness generally, and touch on my journey with it. I do so with some hesitation. Gratitude, like mindfulness, seems to be a flavor of the month these days. Gratefulness journals, “gratitude grams” – really, “gratitude grams,” which you can post on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram – I don’t remember reading about these ten or fifteen years ago. About ten years ago a friend did give me a copy of Brother David Steindl-Rast’s book, Gratefulness, the Heart of Prayer: An Approach to Life in Fullness. It had a profound effect on me. Steindl-Rast , who turns 90 on Tuesday, is a Benedictine monk who lived for many years in this country but now is back in Austria, where he grew up. I think he is the present-day Christian thinker with whom I resonate the most. Perhaps that is not surprising because, like Thomas Merton, he has been active in the Christian-Buddhist dialogue that began in the 1960s, and with the permission of the Vatican studied with several prominent Zen teachers many years ago. Steindl-Rast also received a Ph.D. in psychology, and I am interested in the intersection between religion and psychology.
I am going to draw heavily on Steindl-Rast because I think he is the leading voice on the importance of gratefulness in our lives. If you find yourself interested, you might read one of his books, visit his website, www.gratefulness.org, watch his TED talk, or listen to Krista Tippet’s January interview with him on her On Being show. The Krista Tippett interview is very good; I’d go with that over the TED talk. Tippett expressed some of the concern I mentioned a minute ago, when she said that “gratitude is one of those words, culturally, that can seem superficial.”
In today’s Epistle reading, Paul writes to the Colossians that “in our prayers for you we always thank God,” and later says, “may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks” to God. But how does one give thanks to God or, as another person may see it, the world, the universe, or Absolute Reality, when bad things happen? How can the family and friends of the black men killed by police officers in Baton Rouge and near Saint Paul this past week feel grateful? How can the family and friends of the five Dallas police officers killed and the seven others wounded have any sense of gratitude? How can anyone expect that of them? How can anyone expect any of us to feel grateful in the face of sickness, death, and serious problems? And what about this past year, when the political climate in this country has deteriorated almost beyond imagination, and mass killings seem to occur nearly every week? How can we, in Paul’s words, be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks?
Steindl-Rast views this difficulty in a way that I find very helpful. He says flat out that we cannot be thankful for everything. But then he goes on to add that “in every moment we can be grateful.” In every moment we can be grateful. But how? Steindl-Rast likens it to the difference between happiness and joy. He says that joy is the happiness that doesn’t depend on what happens. In other words, we can be joyful in the midst of sadness and challenge. Unlike happiness, he says, joy and gratitude can be steady. I like to think of that as an orientation of the spirit. We may be jostled about, tried in all kinds of difficult and often brutal ways, and yet with spiritual practice maybe we can maintain that orientation – or at least come close to it. Maybe we can maintain some level of equanimity. Steindl-Rast refers to this as a life in fullness.
For example, he suggests feeling thankful for our next breath. Many people have serious respiratory problems, and for them the next breath will be difficult. Those of us without serious respiratory problems can be with that breath, enjoy that breath, and feel gratitude for it. Thich Nhat Hanh makes the same point. In an interview with Oprah Winfrey, he said:
When I practice this exercise of breathing in, I’m aware of my eyes; breathing out, I smile to my eyes and realize that they are still in good condition. There is a paradise of form and colors in the world. And because you have eyes still in good condition, you can get in touch with the paradise. So when I become aware of my eyes, I touch one of the conditions of happiness. And when I touch it, happiness comes.
Not that giving thanks in difficult times is even close to being easy, but Steindl-Rast suggests a three-step way to help us – stop, look, and go. The stopping is coming into the present moment. That might be through focusing on the breath, consciously pausing, or some other means. The looking is considering what opportunity is presented in this moment. The going is doing something about that opportunity; as Steindl-Rast puts it, “not a reaction to the moment but a chosen response to the moment.”
Put simply, I find doing each of these three steps extraordinarily difficult. It even can feel a bit contrived at times, particularly in trying to see what opportunity is presented when something difficult occurs. But I think I’m better at it then I was five years ago, and a good deal better than ten, twenty, or thirty years ago. For me, the first step – the stopping – gets me quite a bit of the way there if I can be awake and pull it off. At Joseph’s House, the Adams Morgan home, community, and hospice that Seekers supports, volunteers and staffs are encouraged to pause when entering the house or a resident’s room – “pause at the threshold,” as they say. I find when I pause – often with the aid of a conscious breath – I have a fighting chance of being able to consider the opportunities in the moment and then choose to act consciously rather than merely react.
I also find very helpful Steindl-Rast’s thought that, in his words, gratefulness is “full-bodied.” The whole person, both mind and body, is involved, and it really starts with the body. I have no doubt that working to be more in the body the past several years (believe me, not easy for someone who has lived in his head for nearly all his life) has helped me enormously. So has the suggestion that gratitude cannot exist without relation to others and the Earth. “Interconnection” or, as Thich Nhat Hanh puts it, “interbeing,” does seem to me to be fundamental to it all. By being more in the body and more connected we can trust in life more. With that trust, the door to living a more thankful and joyful life seems to open.
I want to return to the subject I opened with, the question of the propriety – or perhaps it’s the question of the wisdom – of being thankful (or mindful, empathetic, or generous) primarily to help ourselves. Acting in this way certainly seems to ignore the relational aspect I mentioned a minute ago – the interconnection. But, at least in some circumstances, it might be a good starting point. A number of years ago I was going through a difficult time. I read somewhere that it would be helpful to end the day by writing down five things from the day that I could feel grateful for. In other words, a “gratitude journal.” So every night I struggled to come up with five items. Some days it was only three or four, and sometimes I had to peek at the previous day’s list to come up with another one or two (although that felt like cheating). I was doing this for myself, to help me feel better. But I think the exercise did help nudge me towards a different orientation, one that I think has deepened since then, and that has become more relational.
So maybe the self-interested baby steps can help us begin the journey towards a fuller, more trusting life. Maybe the focus on our own health by feeling more grateful (or mindful or whatever) can help us open and grow spiritually in ways that expand to encompass the greater world as well – at least if we practice diligently and allow the focus to broaden. I’m not sure. Still, I have always been intrigued by the words of another person at the crossroads of religion and psychology (and philosophy too) with whom I have resonated – William James. James famously wrote that “the truth is what works.” In Krista Tippett’s On Being interview with him, Steindl-Rast framed it a little differently. He said that “scientists have discovered spirituality,” had have “discovered that when people are grateful, they come alive.” Then he added: “Many people have been waiting until science gives it a little push, and that’s alright.” So perhaps we should welcome that little push. Maybe it is alright.