Br. David Steindl-Rast  

Grateful Living Practice

by Bro. David Steindl-Rast O.S.B.

The naturalness and simplicity of this practice
are great advantages.

Gratefulness is a practice.  It is so simple and so common – so universal, really – to be grateful that we think, “That can’t be a practice like Zen or Yoga.”  But when you look carefully and when you make it your practice, it can be really on the same level as these great traditional practices.  And in a sense, it is a traditional practice.  If you just think of your mother, of your grandmother – maybe you even knew your great-grandmother, as I was lucky to know two of them – they were grateful people, and they taught you gratefulness.  So it comes to you in a less formal setting, but it really is a traditional practice that comes to you. 

The naturalness and simplicity of this practice are great advantages.  If you think of all the pain that you have to go through when you pretzel yourself in hatha yoga, being grateful is a lot easier!   Every other practice takes so long, and gratefulness doesn’t take very long at all.  If you make up your mind – “Okay, from now on it will be my practice” – and you start right now, this very moment,you will be a lot more joyful.  You can check it and find that it does something for you quite immediately.

You will find that what is essential for gratefulness remains the same in Zen, Yoga, any Christian practice, or any other practice.  The essence of being grateful is accepting what is.  Obviously we are not just talking about saying “Thank you” – we are talking about that inner gesture, that inner attitude from which saying “thank you” springs when it is genuine. 

That, of course, implies being in the now.   “What is, is always now,” as T.S. Eliot says so beautifully in The Four Quartets.  “The all is always now.”  That seems obvious, but it is very important to remind ourselves that All Is Always Now.  If it isn’t now, it is not.  It was or will be, but it is not.  Whatever is, is now.  So accepting what is means being in the now, and being in the now means dissolving the illusion of our little ego.  And that’s the goal of all practices!  When you’re in the now, this little “me” dissolves, because it feeds on past and future. 

The little “me”, if you look at it, is made up of your past:  of all the things that you have done or that you pride yourself in, or all these groups that you belong to.  If somebody asks “Who are you?”  you will describe yourself as being Austrian or American or Hungarian:   That’s something in the past, where you come from.  Or that you will say that you have such-and-such a name and that means you belong to such-and-such a family.  Or you will mention all the things that you have suffered!  That little “me” has suffered so much and prides itself on always having suffered more than anybody else.  If you can’t be better than anybody else, you can at least be much worse than everybody else!  That’s also something of the past.

Sometimes it is difficult to track this little “me” down.  It’s quite evasive, because we identify with it.  One way of tracking it down is catching it when it complains.  It has a habit of complaining.

So that is how the ego shows itself in reference to the past.  And then there is the future:  the things that you expect and pin your hopes on, things that you will still accomplish.  “I will still accomplish enlightenment!”  That’s something for the future.  Well, that’s not the way it works.  If it isn’t now, don’t expect it coming later.  But this now is just what this little self is so afraid of, because if you are in the now, it vanishes.  The ego has no foothold in the now. 

So those are the three essential aspects of being grateful.  The first one is obvious:  accepting what is now.  Accepting what is.  The second:  Any given thing must be in the now, because if it is, it is in the now.   The third:  If you are grateful in the now – and where else can you be grateful? – your little self dissolves.  And that’s the goal of all practices.  So if you start being grateful, that’s what you’re in for. 

Adapted from “Gratefulness in the Now,” a talk given by Br. David Steindl-Rast with Roshi Joan Halifax at Upaya Zen Center in Santa Fe, NM, on March 12, 2008.