This is a piece I wrote recently. I want to share it, and as this year unfolds I hope to share more written thoughts and poems with you all. Thank you for seeing and listening.
Being Grateful for What is Not There
Gratitude holds great importance in human life. Most of us say “thank you” once or more often per day, whether to be polite or genuine, or both. Many of us give thanks before meals, and some of us set aside time solely to cultivate thankfulness. Knowing when and where to be grateful, beyond some basic consistent level, is key. But unlike some other emotions, gratitude is hard to place. It’s easy to form the words, but not as easy to really feel them. Anger is easy—your face and head get hot, you body gets tight and your reptilian brain prepares you for a potential fight. Joy can be harder to place, but still somewhat clearly gives you a light and airy feeling, as if you are floating a body length off the ground. But what about gratitude? It might feel centered in the heart, it might make the whole body tingle, if you’re lucky. Love can light up your whole body. So how does your body feel truly grateful?
I start by wondering about the object of my gratitude. In this case it’s that I feel lucky to be alive. Not because I had a close call while cycling, or as a result of my lifestyle of extreme activities. From nowhere. As if I had been recently released from prison, or had been given a second chance. But to feel lucky to be alive, I must compare it to something. How lucky I am to be in the good situation that I am, when others are not so lucky. How fortunate am I, as a cross-country cyclist, to have survived the roads, when so many have been hurt or killed by negligent drivers. How great it is to have full use of my hands and legs, when some have lost that ability, or were born without it. This is not to say I am putting myself above them. But one often hears from a person who has become paraplegic: “I never really thought about how nice it was to have legs, and how lucky I was before the accident.” So the crux here is that we should be grateful without needing to lose the ability to walk. We should be thankful to be able to walk, knowing that one day we might not be able to do so (certainly at some old age, it will become harder, if not impossible.) So then, is gratitude grounded at least in part in feeling a lack of the thing for which we are grateful?
It seems counter-intuitive. And yet, this possibly finds roots in the buddhist tenet of detachment, or non-attachment. A healthy way of not clinging to things that are actually quite tentative. Accepting impermanence, accepting that nothing lasts forever. For instance, let’s say you happen to have some material wealth. That in itself is no problem, as long as you don’t become attached. If you are attached to your money and attached to the lifestyle it brings, there is a problem. The day the money disappears will be a sad one. This is the classic case of “you don’t know what it’s got until it’s gone.” Again, though, we should be grateful for whatever we have and for wherever we are. It will undoubtedly change, and when it does we will have seen this new reality as a possibility and will be prepared to accept it.
So are we grateful for the things which we cannot imagine life without? Say, for instance, you are grateful for you partner. He or she accounts for a huge part of your life and your heart. One day, something may change. One of you may have a massive change of heart, or might lose her life. You know you won’t live forever, and the same is true for her. So, to cultivate true gratitude for her, you let her go. You are constantly letting her go, letting her live in whatever form she lives, knowing that she could evaporate at any second. It’s more beautiful, more respectful, and ironically, it allows you to fully have her in your heart. (A friend recently told me that “if you like a flower, you will pick it. If you love it, you will take in its beauty and leave it in its space.”) Specifically, I mean that if you meditate on the idea that she could eventually not exist, then every second she continues to exist, every moment she stubbornly pops back into existence and smiles, it’s a gift! It’s as if you are playing a game (albeit a very serious and loving game) in which you are having a winning streak. Each round has the same chances of winning as losing. You smile every time you win, and you have some tingling sense of apprehension at the start of each new round, knowing the streak could end.
It’s funny how little we think like this, though. We’re too clever for our own good. We see patterns and record those patterns in our heads. It’s as if by winning once, we are entitled to continue winning. We cling to objects and ideas and partners (or our idea of our partner, as it were) as if those will never change. As if we can depend on it not to change. Even something as old and consistent as our sun in the sky is in flux. It will eventually burn out like a light bulb. And yet you’d be called crazy to tilt your head skyward and say, “Man, thank you Sun. You could be gone tomorrow, so thank you for showing up today, for yet another day.” Like a fellow volunteer at your local food bank: “Man, thank you for showing up again! No, most of us don’t do that. We become complacent and lax. If we view this process in terms of gratitude—this is exactly the opposite of being grateful.
So is gratitude simply loving non-attachment to an object? Is it understanding the impermanence of that object? Treating it briefly as if it didn’t exist? Buddhism might call this “Form is emptiness.” Forms of life exist only temporarily, before changing or going out like a light. They exist when they exist, like an on-call paramedic. So we are content that it may very soon cease to exist. For our purposes it does not exist. And from this non-existence, in spite of itself, flickers the object itself! As if coming back on stage for an unexpected encore. (And to raucous applause, no doubt.) From nothing to something, as in the Big Bang itself, this form appears. This the buddhists would describe as “emptiness is form.” In this way, life flashes from non-existence to existence every instant. Many times this shows itself in forms changing at a predictable pace, but sometimes it comes in abrupt endings. Death or darkness or a sudden change of heart.
This flickering can be seen on the atomic level. Electrons buzz around a common core, the nucleus. Electrons’ true location can never be known. It is only a field of probability. Also, the amount of actual “matter” in an atom compared to its empty space is akin to a BB in a baseball stadium. This is to say, again, that primarily “form is emptiness.”
So, what of the flickering between something and nothing? This can be called vibration. Take rumble strips for an example. When you look at rumble strips on the shoulder of a highway, no sound emanates (of itself). When I ask you what makes the noise, you might point at the ridges. But a car’s tire making contact with one ridge makes no noise. The noise comes from the alternating of ridge and empty space. The faster you drive, the higher the frequency. (A famous buddhist koan–an unsolvable riddle for meditation–says: “What is the sound of one hand clapping?”)
Stringed instruments function on a similar principle. If you put too much pressure on the bow as you draw it across a string, it becomes obvious. It will make individual screeching clicks, like discrete moments of nails on a chalk board. On the micro level, the flickering between sound and non-sound creates frequencies, which beget notes (think of how the rumble strips will “sing” at different pitches at different speeds). On the macro level, we have the beautiful silences in between notes, or phrases, or parts of a score. Everyone can relate to the build-up and pause before a major part in their favorite song. And while the background notes may still be going, (especially for modern music) the anticipation of that important part series of notes of the song, that anticipation happens during the non-music. You can generally bank on that part of the song happening, but in life that’s not always the case. Nothing is permanent.
So in a sense, we might focus on the silences or absences, the emptiness, in order to fully appreciate what fills them. We cultivate a sober (yet elated and freeing, you might find) sense of gratitude for the person or idea, as if it were gone, because rest assured that one day it will be gone (or you will be.)