The practice of gratefulness

I was listening to a dharma talk by Joan Halifax roshi and Brother David Steindl-Rast recently on ‘Gratefulness in the Now’. They are also founders of the Gratefulness community which seeks to foster the spirit of gratefulness in a world that is in so much pain.


Part of the talk is available as a nine-minute excerpt on Youtube and which I’ve embedded here.

In a later part of the talk, Joan Halifax talks about the practice of gratefulness as cultivating a ‘sense of plenitude in a world that is perceiving itself as impoverished’ (I think I’ve transcribed the words accurately), and it got me thinking about why that might be the case. Isn’t capitalism and consumerism grinding through the plenitude of our resources like there’s no tomorrow?

She went on talking, and I realised that she is right. Consumption is so rabid because consumers feel impoverished — we always seem to need more, more shoes, more clothes, more cars, more affection, more love, more esteem, the list is endless. And advertising is geared to making sure that we never forget that.

Halifax continues talking about one of the precepts emphasised in her community — ‘do not foster a mind of poverty in yourself and others’ — and argues that it is ‘out of that mind of poverty that the complaining arises. The sense that there is this fundamental deep impoverishment.’ A mind of poverty. Now that’s a new one, to me, anyway. We are socialised into thinking that poverty must be alleviated, pitied, eradicated, and yet, we give so little care to the thought frames that cultivate poverty, in mind, in body and in spirit.

Complaining is a manifestation of that poverty. Brother David is quick to point out the difference between complaining and stating a fact. By stating a fact — that there is suffering in the world, for example — one should be moved to doing something about it; complaining, on the other hand, feeds on its own energy. Complaining, as Halifax puts it, is a ‘tertiary trauma’, that arises when gratefulness is absent. There is the primary trauma of the event, the secondary trauma of those dealing with a difficult event (for example, care workers), and the tertiary trauma of the complainer. It is the tertiary trauma that is viral, that projects the ‘poor me’ onto others, the ‘poor me’ that desires to be acknowledged.

Now, what does one do when one suffers from ‘compassion fatigue’ though? From being tired of others’ ‘poor me’ complaints? I sometimes consider sharing Brother David’s A Good Day video, but I’m afraid of coming across as patronising (that’s a story for another day).

I found the answer in Brother David’s mention of the Complaint-Free World website. The concept is at once amusing and true. It is based on the premise that the negativity of complaining is counter-productive and closes us off to more positive, productive energies. The site suggests we wear a bracelet on one wrist for 21 days — 21 days being the time it takes the self to develop a habit. However, if we complain, the bracelet goes onto the other wrist and the count is reset.

But here’s the clincher. If you see someone complaining, and you point it out to them, you have to shift your bracelet to the other wrist, too. That’s the answer to my dilemma — complaining about complainers is complaining, too. The ‘poor me’ subject to the tyranny of someone else’s misery.

I often forget that Buddhism cultivates the practice of renunciation. We are enriched by divesting ourselves of accoutrements, of thought patterns, of ego-self. The practice of gratefulness, in this context, is not about being grateful we have more than the next person, that we have a bigger house, or car, that is simply, ego gratification. The practice of gratefulness, in this context, is about experiencing the plenitude of divestiture, and what we gain by leaving behind.

This is achieved only in practice, and I’ve been rather lax lately. Just stating a fact. Not complaining…

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