To live means to die with every heartbeat and to be born anew, to breathe out with every breath what is old and to breathe in what is new. This demands courage: the courage to let go.
~ Brother David Steindl-Rast
By Joseph Hall
Zen is unrelenting in it’s teaching of momentary rebirth, that to be fully alive, we must be fully in each moment, to allow our selves to be borne into, to give ourselves completely over to it, and radically accept the loss of the fleeting sense of who we just were as it passes. Whatever we are now must be completely surrendered if we are ever to fully enter the next completely unknown moment where we often risk the loss of joy to the terror of realizing that everything we love is ephemeral.
Like Brother David says, we are on a journey that requires courage. So a crucial question arises - where will we find the courage to let go and truly be alive? It’s a big question and one that goes way beyond the confines of Zen or even Buddhism. Brother David is a Benedictine Monk from Austria, so if he is writing this, finding this courage seems to be a universal quest. This is so important that I am not going to write about it here since it seems that this kind of courage can only be found on the journey of your life. And it is your life.
Perhaps it would be more useful talk about penicillin. If a person is going on a sojourn, then from time to time small problems will become big problems and one might be grateful to discover that there are medicines. Things like emotional gangrene are entirely optional. We can learn to make shifts in the way we experience the world.
Making intentional shifts in our psyche is of course not the usual objective in Zen but most zen monks realize as they are bouncing from moment to moment that we sometimes arrive for a hard landing or discover that the current series of moments seems to reveal a self-centered theme that might be better released than observed ad nauseam. The Tibetan Llama’s, on the other hand, have studied the cultivation of mind states for a few of thousand years and have been perfectly happy to lend us some of their discoveries. While there are many practices to be explored, from the mind states of lovingkindness, concentration, and compassion, when negative mind states arise, there is one state that is easy to access, fast acting, rejuvenating and alleviates stress, anger, and sadness.
Gratitude, it turns out, is a wonder drug for negative mind states and it is available in every moment. There is even a science of gratitude now, with researchers like Robert Emmons at UC Davis, who are validating the benefits of practicing gratitude. Some of these include improved immune system function, better sleep, a heightened sense of emotional well-being, improved relationships, and better work performance. But before gratitude was a science, there was Brother David, the Benedictine monk who sits with Buddhists and taught the practice of gratefulness.
Brother David’s mission is simple, to teach people the value of gratitude and discover the ways to access it. Thus, he wanders, speaking to people all over the world and gradually a foundation has grown around an unassuming monk who simply changed peoples lives. And while I used to wonder why a monk would need a foundation, it finally occurred to me that it took the existence of a such a foundation for me to learn how to practice gratitude. Not that the foundation ever taught me anything directly - it didn’t - but it existed in the background of my life in the form of overheard conversations between people talking about someone named Brother David and something called gratefulness.org. The thing that struck me was the way these particular people lit up when they talked about this Benedictine. All the same, with all the buddhist literature I still had to read, I didn’t see much time to study Catholicism and thus I continued on in my misunderstanding. I started to do these workshops on cultivating wonder, and the centerpiece was video of an elder man talking about the simple beauty that filled the world so I guess that was close. I did share that video with just about everyone I could though.
So here’s what happened next and how it revealed a teaching to me…
A few years go by and I am Ino and it is my job to manage a retreat at Jikoji. It turns out to be a large retreat and to compound the logistical demands, we have a contingent of honored guests from Europe, who are delightful, but as we are 15 minutes away from silence, I am feeling the pull of the loose ends and trying to wrap up the preparation. Then, one of the honored guests walks up to me with his computer and tells me he can’t figure out how to access his email and I am wondering if life is kidding. He is very gracious but it’s an old hand me down laptop in his hands and when I set it on the table, I start thinking about the antivirus software, the foreign os, and seriously wonder if this machine can even log on to new router we just installed, but mostly, I am thinking about the clock. It’s loud inside my head which pretty much sounds like, “C’mon, login!,” but I am trying to be composed as he tells me about the buttons on his email program while I try to shut down the firewall. With my head turned toward the screen, I start to notice that the voice I am hearing is familiar. Unexpectedly, as I try to place where I met this person before, I forget about the frustration and there is more bandwidth in my head. I try one more thing on a lark and the emails start to ding. The man talking to me is delighted, but I notice he was grateful from the moment I even said I would try.
And that’s when it hits me. The old monk standing next to me is called Brother David and it’s his voice that’s in that video I love and I start to do the math. The man in the video, the monk who inspired the gratitude movement, and the guy talking in my ear are all the same person. My sense of wonder is at amazement level as I ask him, “You’re the gratitude guy…”
He nods, but what strikes me is that I don’t think I have ever met a human being more enchanted with a moment. As the emails land, he tells me that he is still surprised that people can send messages to each other instantly across continents. And thus, we stood there in this unexpected moment, with emails dinging from around the world, my mysterious encounter, his with the continuing discovery that his work has some sort of impact, the beauty of this place and time ahead of us, the warmth of the room, and the simple fact that something kind of magical is happening. I felt fortunate, having done little more than to appear in a certain place at a certain time. It was the kind of moment where it is very clear that you are some kind of path.
I had a lot to say but since there was much to do on this path in the next ten minutes, I said goodbye and stepped into the night. Immediately, I noticed it was a different place. I got done most of what I needed to do, not all, but I realized it would be enough and deeply appreciated that it had all worked out. Arriving in the zendo, I looked around the room and it hit me that each one of these people in the room had some great and beautiful secret about them. The bell rang and I heard the sound of a world offering wonder and the only possible answer in my heart was gratitude.
Brother David is always teaching.
The sesshin went well and afterwards, I was invited to go Tassajara where I finally got the chance to talk to Brother David. There were many questions but this blog is getting long so I will stick with the one about whether there was any kind of simple practice that people could do to cultivate gratitude. Obviously, this was not my best question. The answer though was worth the fumbling around.
Stop, Look, Go
No matter what challenges us, it is possible to make a positive change in just a few seconds. Once you know you can do that, there’s a whole world to explore. All you need to do to find gratitude is decide you want to go there, take three breaths and follow a simple map. And even though now is always the time to find gratitude, the holidays are an especially good time to do this practice. This time of year, the world is a little more ready to appreciate anyone looking to bring a little more joy into the holiday season.
First, Brother David says, get yourself ready to be surprised. Surprise is the starting point. We are often jaded beings, but knowing things comes at a high price and there is a door that closes for every fact we accumulate about the world. To find gratitude, we will need to walk through a door we hadn’t seen before and we will recognize the door when we see it by the feeling of surprise.
Nothing at all can be taken for granted. And if it cannot be taken for granted, it is therefor a gift.
Brother David tells us that we live in a given world. It’s a simple statement, but if we realize the depth of what this means, the world around us is transformed. And this is obvious. All you need to do is look around you and realize that, actually, you didn’t need to do anything at all to create the things around you. No one made the mountains, or the trees, or somehow earned a single sunset and yet we get those all for free. Even the computer I am typing on, which might seem to me like something I worked for, is mostly free. Sure, I paid for the components, but the thread of karma it contains, it’s connections to world and the knowledge it was built upon arises from the lives of countless beings stretching back through an eon or two. The food we eat contains the work of many people who brought us this gift as it emerged from an earth which offers a delightful sustenance to us without a tab. We can’t remember having done anything to be born and yet a beautiful world is given to us.
So, not knowing where any of this really came from, we can always, stop, look, and go.
Take a breath, remind yourself that you are standing in a given world and get ready to be surprised. You’re a zen person. You can do this.
Look around you. You are being offered many gifts and each of them contains many opportunities. Most of time, it is the opportunity to enjoy the experience of something. It may be as simple as the color of light filtering through a tree, or even just the quiet of the moment. In the noise of our lives, there is a lot we miss. So look for something that surprises you and realize that you are being invited to an experience.
Walk through the door that opens. Step into that moment and follow it. Eat the apple, smile at a stranger, enjoy the vista…. whatever you choose.
This is the rhythm of gratitude. It’s a dance you can do.