Gratefulness as the
Foundation of Practice
by Rabbi Shefa Gold
By waking up in gratefulness, we set the tone for the day; we step in to a particular groove; we open our eyes in search of both the obvious and the hidden blessings that God has set before us.
When I made a commitment to dive deep into the liturgy instead of skimming along the surface, I decided to enter through one phrase at a time. I opened the siddur (prayer book) to the very first words, words that are meant to be prayed even before getting out of bed in the morning:
Modah Ani L'fanecha.
Modah Ani - I gratefully acknowledge
L'fanecha - You... or literally, To Your Face ... and the word face in Hebrew is plural, so even more literally ... Your Faces.
This is the formula for awakening. The very first thought as I emerge from sleep: "When I open my eyes, I will see Your many Faces, God. You wear the mask of this world. I am so grateful to be able to recognize You. Today I promise not to be fooled by your elaborate and imaginative disguise. I will see and acknowledge You everywhere and in everyone."
In Hebrew, the word for Jew, Yehudi, comes from this same root of Modah. The Jewish people might be called The Grateful Ones. Judaism might be called The Path of Gratefulness. By waking up in gratefulness, we set the tone for the day; we step in to a particular groove; we open our eyes in search of both the obvious and the hidden blessings that God has set before us.
Many years ago I was in a state of terrible despair. I was suffering in overwhelming physical and emotional pain. I couldn't stop crying. My teacher, Paul, looked at me dispassionately and instructed me simply to, "Say, thank you." I looked at him with astonishment and incredulity, wondering if I had heard him correctly. I was furious. Because I trusted Paul, I didn't follow my first impulse, which was to hit him in the face and stomp away in rage.
Instead I went home and began saying, "thank you." At first my "thank you" was shaped by the sharp angry edge of sarcasm. "Thanks a lot! Thanks a f***ing lot!" But as I kept thanking, the edge in my voice began to soften. The tone of my "thank you" kept changing. It took me a few hours, but I finally found my way to gratefulness. And in the miracle of gratefulness, I experienced a glimmer of hope and the seeds of a new life.
I learned that gratefulness is not a feeling; it's a practice.
Gratefulness opens me up to receive the flow of blessing AND connects me with the source of that flow. Gratefulness opens up the possibility of profound and transforming relationship with the gift of Creation and Incarnation.
That one small thank you, addressed to a tree,
opened the door to an encounter that
changed my life by showing me
what prayer can accomplish.
I once participated in a Morning Prayer experiment with Rabbi Jill Hammer at a rabbinic conference at a rural hotel in upstate New York. She sent us out to pray with the trees and grasses. I found my tree, and soon I was praying to God, inspired by the beauty that surrounded me. It was nice, easy, sweet, comfortable. After a little while, I noticed the tree, really noticed it. I reached out and caressed its rough bark. I addressed the tree directly and just said, "Thank you."
My chant practice opens the door to gratefulness and leads me towards greater aliveness. The state of full, abundant, overflowing aliveness is radiant with mystery and paradox. The first prayer of the morning is about gratefulness because, if I find that quality, I will have access to the energy that I need to step on to the path of spiritual practice. Gratefulness is the foundation of my practice, because it wakes me up and gives me the strength and clarity to face my challenges, resistances and obstacles. Gratefulness is the foundation of my practice, because it gives me access to the gifts I'll need to meet those challenges.
Quite abruptly everything shifted in the most dramatic and surprising way. The tree responded as if it had been waiting all of its life for this moment of recognition. It gratefully revealed its own beauty, grandeur and wisdom to me. Where my hand had been touching the bark, I suddenly felt as if the tree was touching me. In that moment of mutuality and holiness, I felt intimately known.
By addressing the tree directly I was encountering a face of God. My prayer to an abstract idea of God paled in comparison to this holy encounter. This Face of God, in all its majesty was addressing me, responding in perfect reciprocity. Or was God addressing me through this magnificent face?
Meister Eckhart said that "If the only prayer you ever say is, 'Thank You', that would be enough."
That one small thank you, addressed to a tree, opened the door to an encounter that changed my life by showing me what prayer can accomplish. I will never again settle for nice, easy, sweet, comfortable words that decorate an abstraction, when I know that real meeting is possible.
Looking back on this encounter, I realize that it was those nice, easy, sweet, comfortable words of prayer that awakened me, so that I could open to the present moment and meet the face of God. The lesson I take is to let the words of prayer send me, and then to let all those words go. (Imagine a multi-stage rocket launching into outer space, leaving behind its launch-pad, dropping each of its now empty burned out boosters, continuing on to meet the unknown with a lighter precious payload into the mysterious darkness of space.)
Brother David Steindl-Rast (Gratefulness, The Heart of Prayer, p.12) equates the growth process of gratefulness with the process of awakening.
If I am overwhelmed, distracted or worried, I look for a practice that heightens my sense of Presence and focuses my attention on the miracle happening right before my eyes.
When I am working to cultivate a quality, I do that work in two ways. First, I tune in to that attribute so that I can know it, taste it, feel it, understand its complexities and appreciate how it functions in my life. Then I begin to explore the obstacles that keep me from embodying that quality. When I understand the obstacle, I can develop a practice that might help me to rise to the challenge before me in order to fully embrace the quality that I have tasted.
Steindl-Rast describes the extraordinary state of gratefulness as a condition that binds together apparent opposites.
Calm ....... and yet Energized,
Fulfilled ....... and yet Receptive/Empty
Uplifted ........ and yet Humbled,
Connected/Acknowledged ....... and yet Self-forgetful.
It is an extraordinary state. My gratefulness opens me to the flow of abundance, and connects me with the source of that flow. My gratefulness flows back to that source, and I become part of a circle of flow.
Until something stops that flow.
I asked my students to tell me what gets in the way of being grateful. Here's the list they came up with:
Obstacles to Gratefulness:
Overwhelm, Worry, Anxiety about getting things done, Being distracted, The challenges of aging, Being on automatic, Being too busy, Feeling weighed down with responsibilities, Jadedness/Cynicism, Fatigue, Chronic pain, Fear of not having/being enough, Fear of engaging with Life, Entitlement, Being too full of myself, Being attached to my preferences, Beliefs about what is supposed to be, Comparing mind, Caught up in too many details, Not receiving, Not trusting, Focusing on what's wrong, or on what/who is missing or lacking , Feeling wounded, Resentment, Bitterness, Anger, Sadness, Depression and/or Numbness. , Feeling sorry for myself, Disappointment, Lack of generosity, Need to always be in control, Negative small minded programmed thoughts, Lack of perspective about what really matters.
When I recognize in myself one of these obstacles to the flow of gratefulness, I look for the practice that might meet this particular obstacle. If I am overwhelmed, distracted or worried, I look for a practice that heightens my sense of Presence and focuses my attention on the miracle happening right before my eyes.
If my obstacle to gratefulness is cynicism or fear or a sense of entitlement or attachment to preferences or preoccupation with details, I might look for practices that blow my mind with wonder and rapture, and open me to the Great Mystery.
If my obstacle to gratefulness is bitterness, anger, sadness, a lack of trust or self-pity, I might look for practices of heart-healing that will help me to address old patterns and wounds, to clear the harmful and poisonous residue from the past.
As I begin clearing the obstacles to gratefulness, the flow is restored.
The flow of gratefulness begins with a sense of surprise. You might be stopped in your tracks by a rainbow or a sunrise or the most ordinary sight of a child playing or your partner deep in thought. Unexpectedly, the beauty, poignancy, sweetness and depth of a moment touches you and you are suddenly ALIVE; the world around you takes on a shimmer and a mystery.
Gratefulness, beginning in surprise, gradually expands into a sense of wonder. When you are in a state of wonder, you remember what a miracle this life is. You are able to actually enjoy the absurdities; you let yourself be astounded by the enormity of Creation; your mind is blown by synchronicities, coincidences and a glimpse of the infinite. Then your heart opens. From a state of wonder it's impossible to judge another or commit a crime against this amazing Creation.
Gratefulness, beginning in surprise, expanding into wonder, gradually grows into generosity as we look for ways to respond to this gift of life that we are given. Our eyes are opened to the suffering around us and we realize that "we" are not separate from "them"; we are all a part of this gorgeous tapestry...and as even one thread unravels, the whole pattern is diminished. We stop judging one another and start serving each other. We look for ways to give, in response to how much we have received. And each one's gifts are acknowledged as precious and unique.
Gratefulness as the Foundation of Practice is from The Magic of Hebrew Chant: Healing the Spirit, Transforming the Mind, Deepening Love, by Rabbi Shefa Gold, 2013. Permission granted by Jewish Lights Publishing, Woodstock, VT, www.jewishlights.com.