Many years ago my teacher Gangaji said to me, very simply: "It is impossible to suffer when we are feeling gratitude." What a life-changing teaching this has been! I've found it to be true again and again, and so deeply useful in navigating my life-long journey with suffering and peace.
Suffering and gratitude do not arise in the same breath. And yet interestingly, this is not the same as with pain. I've noticed that pain and thankfulness can arise in the same breath~ physical pain, emotional heartache, mental anguish, spiritual yearning... can indeed arise alongside deep gratitude for the Mystery which undeniably includes this pain.
My Dad likes to tell a poignant story from the Summer I was 19, in between my sophomore and junior years of college. I had just endured major abdominal surgery for the complete removal of a benign yet enormous, melon-sized tumor that had originated inside my spleen. He sat with me in the hospital recovery room holding my hand as I slowly came around from the anesthesia. I still had a thick, clear tube which ran from my nose down my throat into my belly.
Suddenly, an older male doctor we didn't recognize walked into the room and up to my hospital bed. Nodding to us in solemn greeting, he glanced at me briefly while checking my chart. Then all in one violent, yanking motion, without any warning, he ripped out the long tube from my nose, letting it whip its way through my body, causing me to cry out in shock and horror.
My father speaks of feeling terrible, angry, helpless in his inability to comfort me. Can you imagine? The doctor left the room unapologetically, and I wept profusely while my father tried to soothe me. And then after a moment I stopped crying and was quiet a moment before whispering: "Dad -- this too is sacred."
(As he tells the story, my Dad then goes on to say humorously and endearingly that this became a defining moment for him as my father, in which he knew for certain there was something very strange about me indeed!)
This is a rather extreme example, but I'm sure many can relate -- to finding ourselves in the midst of immense challenge, a heart-wrenching loss, or genuine pain, while still feeling deeply and undeniably connected to the sacred, to a current of love and faith; a knowing of what's still here to be grateful for. (Here's a picture of my daughter at age 9, after a harrowing week in the pediatric ICU, still not out of the woods, yet feeling grateful for so many people sending her healing prayers.)
Remembering our connection with the sacred provides a clear pathway for gratitude to flow freely, to re-establish itself authentically and presently within us. When we can touch the sacred in any moment, even the most challenging, we can know that every moment of life is precious, inseparable from a miraculous Mystery of the wholeness of creation, as gloriously beautiful as it can be devastatingly humbling.
On the other hand, we can never force ourselves to feel thankful if we are not authentically feeling so! Yet the sheer act of recognizing the absence of gratitude can also be of such true service, if only we allow ourselves to consciously presence its absence.
We have to get curious about our own suffering, in order to set ourselves free.
And just as suffering and gratitude do not arise in the same breath, so too is it impossible to be in gratitude, and not be fully present. While gratitude can and certainly does stretch to include the past and the future, the sentiment of alive thankfulness arises always only in this moment. And the sheer force of its presence pulls us into NOW.
Usually, when it's hard for me to get in touch with authentic thankfulness, I have found it is useful to tune in to what IS present? What subtle form of suffering might be blocking the path for real thanks to flow?
With self-honesty, I quickly discover fear, grief, or anger, a restlessness of boredom, an ache of longing, or even a subtle hint of futility. Whatever the emotion, once curiously examined, it's seen to be entangled in some story of want or unwant; some wishing of life to be different than it is.
This is simple and universal. Suffering arises in the desire for this moment to not be how it is.
There is real, horrific suffering happening all over the world in this very moment, and sometimes right next door. War, starvation, disease, murder, poverty, the violence of abuse. I'm in no way way negating or minimizing that reality, or its unfortunate place in human experience.
I'm speaking more towards the endemic ways we suffer habitually in our blessed lives, and sometimes unnecessarily, in perhaps less severe, yet still deeply impactful ways.
In this more insidious form of suffering there is either an internal movement of grasping and reaching for something outside ourselves, or a pushing away -- in resistance or aversion to something unpleasant or uncomfortable that we wish would disappear.
And when we can simply see this? When we can simply turn and face directly our complete lack of thanks, our suffering, and just be with it? When we can simply open wider to it, to dare to be still and allow the fire of this yearning or resistance to burn? When we can allow the grief to rant and flow, the rage to crackle and blaze, the fear to tremble in our bones?
Then, slowly or quickly, an opening occurs.
Sometimes it starts small, like a whisper of quiet admittance: "This too is sacred."
All we need is a tiny crack in the concrete of our hardened heart, for new sprouts of faith to shoot upwards towards the light.
Once we feel even the slightest opening within us, we can find the courage to open even wider to this that wants to have its way with our heart. We can let the pain itself purify us, while letting the sacredness remind us of what's true.
We might begin to remember a mysterious force which connects us to all sentient beings, through all space and time, all our ancestors and all those yet to be born; every hurting soul and every enlightened Master.
Perhaps we can begin to feel the breath of the holy, breathing through us, and the place within us where our hearts beat, (at least for this moment!) to the rhythm of the One Heart.
When we are truly present with this moment of LIFE -- fleeting, precious, uncontrollably and undeniably itself -- then, quite naturally, simply and authentically, this gives rise to gratitude again. And so it is.