If my parents and siblings hadn’t cared for me when I was a baby, I would not have survived. Every one of us is alive as a result of someone else’s kindness and labour. Someone fed me, changed my diapers, bought me clothes and educated me until I could make my own way in the world. Even now, each meal I eat is the result of the kindness of others, be they seed sorters or farmers. The Zen mealtime verse instructs us to “think deeply of the ways and means by which this food has come.” This means to eat with gratitude for sun, soil, water, gardeners, truck drivers, retailers, cooks, servers and dishwashers. When I hold this idea in mind, it is easy to feel grateful.
It has been much harder and taken much longer to develop gratitude for the difficulties my parents and siblings placed before me through neglect, rejection, and verbal and physical abuse. I believe that, because I was the youngest, I bore the brunt of family dysfunction. In my mid-thirties I spent many years in therapy facing painful truths about my childhood. At that time, on the surface, it looked like my upbringing didn’t leave much room for gratitude. I needed to encounter the teachings of Siddharta, the historical Buddha, to understand that without the dark side of my family life, I wouldn’t be who I am today. Wounds that were too deep for therapy inspired and fed my devotion to spiritual training for myself, and now, for others. For this, I am grateful.
Conventional gratitude is based on distinguishing what we like from what we dislike, good fortune from bad fortune, success from failure, opportunities from obstacles. By practicing conventional gratitude, we may begin to better appreciate times of good fortune and opportunity. But until we become grateful to all the obstacles, unpleasant people, and difficulties in our life, we remain controlled by the past in both subtle and not so subtle ways. It has taken me many years and many mistakes to learn how to nurture and sustain healthy relationships.
Shantideva, a sixth century Buddhist teacher advised, “So like a treasure found at home/ Enriching me without fatigue/ All enemies are helpers in my spiritual development/ and therefore, are a joy to me.” Gratitude for our “enemies” because they give opportunities to ramp up our practice of generosity, patience, joyful exertion, mindfulness, wisdom and compassion is the balm for the wounds that those “enemies” have inflicted. It doesn’t help to smite them; that only causes more suffering.
Practice suggestion: To begin with, reflect on the loving people and pleasant experiences for which you are grateful. Notice what happens when you raise feelings of gratitude. Then, reflect on something difficult, a situation or person that does not inspire conventional gratitude. Can you extend your gratitude to include that as well? What happens when you do?
This column is a long series of short essays exploring the meaning of the Lojong Slogans. It is inspired by the work of Judy Lief.
Kuya Minogue is the resident teacher at Creston’s ZenWords Zen Centre. For more information, she can be reached at 250-428-3390.