Thursday is Thanksgiving and of course one does think about – I hope a little bit – the quality of gratitude. Gratitude has a lot to do with yoga, the goal of yoga and what we do when we do yoga. One way to express the goal of yoga is to “be here now” – the experience of being fully present in the moment. A friend of mine practices Vipassana meditation, also known as mindfulness meditation, which emphasizes the state of pure presence, practicing full immersion in the moment and being fully engaged in what you are doing.
What’s so neat about gratitude is that it encompasses all these arcane skills and more. With gratitude you get being fully present, you get detachment, you get renunciation, which is a big thing in yoga, and you get peace and contentment. Buddhism is founded upon the Four Noble Truths: Life is suffering; Suffering has a cause; The cause of Suffering is desire; Remove the cause (desire) and suffering ceases. Well, gratitude is the opposite of desire. So we are right on track with the core teachings of the Buddha when we cultivate gratitude. When we cultivate gratitude, we are doing something positive: instead of pushing desire away, we embrace the feeling of gratitude and get to the same place.
There is an infinity of things to be grateful for, to appreciate, so we never run out of material with this “dharana” (a dharana can be defined as a focus of contemplation that uplifts the mind). And the word appreciation has a double meaning: it can mean gratitude but it can also mean to increase in value. We magnify the quality and worth of our life through the practice of appreciation.
My Guru took quite an interest in the process of death, especially the death of great yogis and was even present when some of them left their bodies. He spoke of one saint whom he loved who took the time to express his gratitude to his body before he died. When one arrives at a certain level of attainment in yoga one is capable of foreseeing death and also even of consciously making that transition. Anyway, this saint actually addressed his body and said “thank you.” He went into this ritual of gratitude for every limb and every faculty. He was thanking his feet for being such good servants, taking him everywhere he wanted to go without hesitation, he thanked the parts of the body for being his collaborative friend throughout his journey of life. Thanking his shins and his knees and his hips, his abdomen and his chest and thanking his arms and his hands, his neck, his head and he thanked his senses for being his companions on earth and he thanked his whole interior system for granting him the splendor of realization. And then he passed away. It was a beautiful death and my Guru spoke of it often. Gratitude is the point of view of the enlightened being.
I heard a quote: “the attitude of gratitude attracts prosperity.” If you don’t believe this, then notice what happens when you cook for someone who is really appreciative, who really loves it – you want to give them more! But if people are indifferent to your food, or even actively critical, I know what you’ll do – you’ll stop cooking for them! The Universe is the same way. Does gratitude follow abundance, or is it the other way around?
So lets do our practice with gratitude for what we may often take for granted: this body, these senses, this breath. Today, Nina, a student here who is rehabilitating from a stroke, came in with an injury to her elbow and said, “Well, I fell on an escalator but I am happy because I fell on my left side and I fell in a good way!”
That’s what we’re talking about: seeking that potential for gratitude somewhere in every experience.
Lets start by relaxing the abdomen. It’s not hard to be grateful for the breath – we’ll do some pranayamas that really cultivate gratitude for the breath. The Taittirya Upanishad states “He who is thankful for every breath lives the full span of life.”
Start by opening the belly, and this relaxed abdomen is also an expression in body language of fullness, contentment. We are assuming the body language of satiety – that is the heart of gratitude, feeling satisfaction in what we have. So now we are so full we wish to give back, (to breathe out) So we exhale completely. Nothing is as expressive of gratitude as giving back. And if on the exhalation we hold the air out of the lungs, and continue to hold it till all you want in the world is to breathe in, then when now we do let the air in, we automatically produce the neurochemistry of gratitude. And that chemistry floods the system. There is nothing like being glad and grateful just for the breath. Thankfulness for the breath allows gratitude to permeate your life.