Here is a truth that, by now, ought to be self-evident: No amount of material wealth or political power or emotional riches or pleasurable experiences obtained from the outside can bring you lasting contentment if, on the inside, you are determined to be discontent.
The Buddha taught that the restless mind of discontent and craving for something better is the very cause of our suffering. He called it tanha, which means thirst or craving. When we are caught in the grip of our perpetual thirst for something better, then it’s impossible to feel contentment and gratitude for what we have. Unable to experience the basic okayness of contentment and gratitude, we constantly search for something outside ourselves — some improvement in our material or experiential circumstances — to make things feel okay. We try to get something, ingest something, go somewhere, do something, get involved with someone, have some kind of experience, become something, protest something, change something — always, always looking for something other and something better than what we have and what we are right now. This is the wellspring of what the Buddha called dukkha, which is usually translated as “suffering” but is more accurately described as a kind of persistent, aching feeling that life is out of balance and something is missing.
The Buddha also taught that underlying our craving or thirst is another, deeper problem: avidya, or ignorance, which is the cause of craving in the first place. We misunderstand the nature of our own being and the nature of the world in which we live, and this misunderstanding traps us in the endless cycle of aching thirst. We believe we truly are this separate, sad little self, and so we are always looking outside ourselves for something to prop up the fiction of the person we imagine ourselves to be. But since nothing can really prop up a fiction, we are always on a fool's quest.
Some cards are easier to play than others, of course. It’s enormously difficult to maintain a sense of gratitude and equanimity when life deals you a particularly shitty hand. Your body unexpectedly gets very sick, your sanity comes into question, the market collapses, your husband or wife leaves you unexpectedly, or your country gets taken over by a protofascist regime. The Royal Flush of cards you thought you had in your hand suddenly feels like a toilet flush.
At times like these, “Just be thankful for what you have” seems, at best, like glib advice. It would be naive and misguided to say that you don’t need to work on improving the outer circumstances, fighting against real injustices, healing the sick, or bringing material relief to those who are suffering.
But within the solitude of your own heart and mind, cultivating gratitude is what shifts you out of the perpetual trance of tanha — outwardly directed thirst and craving — and towards that more enduring source of contentment that lies within. That internal source, once you really establish contact with it, doesn’t fluctuate quite so wildly with the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.
"If you say only one prayer today," said Rumi, "make it: Thank you."
That’s good advice to follow every day, not only on Thanksgiving.
Adapted and updated from an article that previously appeared on One Human Journey.