Gratitude is a reward for letting go
– By Christopher Smith –
“I am beginning to understand that my reactions to what people say and do are to do with the ways in which I have been conditioned – that when I am triggered I have a choice between identifying with the flood of thought and emotion that emerges, or observing it and letting go. When I choose the latter it creates a sense of time and space in which I can be present for others.”
Gratitude as a practice is sworn by today. Self-help authors tell you it is one of the rules of success (whatever that is!) parenting experts say it is a quality that should be inculcated in children’s daily program, even the psychological industry has cottoned on to the power of gratitude and repackaged It in many 30 ways gratitude can develop happiness…. articles. But what exactly is it, and is it appropriate to be using it as a tool for some ulterior motive that we have such as success or happiness? Can the feeling of gratitude – that Elliot Pearlman in his magical short story the Licorice Straps expresses eloquently as “an overwhelming sense of relief…something akin to exhilaration”, can this feeling be reduced to a tactic used to achieve a desired outcome? – “If you want to be happy you should be more grateful” – has setting up the desire for happiness not already undermined the entire notion of gratitude? In other words if gratitude serves a purpose higher or more important than itself, surely it ceases in that moment to be gratitude.
The teacher Bruce Warwick in his wonderful book The Essence draws the connection between gratitude and the concept of Grace, of which he writes: “Grace is wild, it won’t be tamed or domesticated. There’s no sense in chasing grace or demanding it; that only pushes it away. Grace tends to visit you when you least expect it and leaves you feeling quite chuffed, sometimes positively overwhelmed”.
This spiritual (I use this word in its broadest sense, not exclusively confined to religious doctrine or practice) characteristic of gratitude opens up the idea that gratitude is its own reward. It is a feeling that connects one to the richness of life “something akin to exhilaration”. David Stendl-Rast proposes that “in moments when we are truly alive, we experience life as gift. We also experience life as surprise…the heart’s response to life as surprise is hope”. This idea of being ‘truly alive’ seems to me to be intimately connected to the idea of presence. Presence is a particular type of awareness of all that is occurring within your realm of experience (internally and externally). When we are fully present in life, we are no longer living in our head. We do not feel identified with our thoughts or that our mind is directing us, instead we have submitted or surrendered to some elemental intelligence that is sweeping us along. In this way, rather than it being consciously and strategically cultivated to achieve an outcome, gratitude can be seen as the end point of a process of letting go. Even as a reward for casting aside your wishes and desires and abandoning yourself to the moment.
In order to be fully present we need to let go of what we believe about any given situation and what we believe about ourselves. We need to let go of whatever we are clinging to (the past or the future) and submit to what is happening at this very moment. As Philosopher Alan Watts reminds us “if we are talking all of the time, we never really hear what anyone else has to say. In the same way, if we are talking to ourselves all the time, we are never listening; we have nothing to think about other than thoughts, and are never in relationship with reality”. Gratitude is the feeling that accompanies this letting go. It is your reward for trusting in the mystery of the present moment. As Lama Surya Das so beautifully puts it “Let go. Let be. See through everything and be free, complete, luminous, at home, at ease.” This feeling of contentment, of being at home, of belonging and of being ecstatically grateful potentially awaits anyone who submits to life on its terms, who understands that now is all there is, and desires nothing more.
As a shared reading facilitator your mind can work overtime – There is a positive element to this. It provides a way of intentionally focusing on others; however a lot of shared reading is about space and silence. When reading slowly for example it is typical for my mind to fill up the silence spaces with thoughts (are people bored? is this too slow? does it make sense? Have I chosen the wrong piece to read?) Not only are these thoughts distracting, they are usually way off the mark, and can prevent me from becoming aware of what is actually happening in the group. I also tend to want people to like the story or have a positive experience and in the past have been acutely sensitive to situations where that may not be the case. In other words I have often been focused on my internal reality rather than allowing myself to feel what is really happening without judgement.
As part of my shared reading practice I am now learning to cultivate ‘letting go’. I am learning gradually to relax and simply observe my self-talk, to let go of my beliefs about how a particular story should be read, or my own understanding of what a particular piece of writing is about. I am beginning to understand that my reactions to what people say and do are to do with the ways in which I have been conditioned – that when I am triggered I have a choice between identifying with the flood of thought and emotion that emerges, or observing it and letting go. When I choose the latter it creates a sense of time and space in which I can be more present for others. It helps me to develop a kind of ‘feeling awareness’ for the group where I can begin to recognize the micro-cues that people make that lets you know their need at that moment (to talk, or to sit out of the conversation) I can see more clearly the connections between people’s ideas and I am able to develop an intuition for when profound moments are encountered.
There is another factor to letting go however that is not about the efficacy of facilitation but is much more personal. I am learning that when I let go of my expectations – my thoughts or my anxiety for what should be happening – I am rewarded with a feeling of simple connectedness and gratitude. I am in a space of listening, a space where curiosity about people’s lives and wonder about the universe envelop me. What’s more I get a sense of absolute privilege at being able to meet and interact with other people in this way. I also get an awareness of the arbitrary nature of these encounters and a deep humility (born of not knowing) at being able to explore people’s stories in relation to the story being read.
This feeling of gratitude strikes me as enough of an end in itself. I don’t need to use gratitude to create a feeling of happiness because when I am visited with gratitude, happiness is already there.
 The Essence, Warwick, Bruce