Cultivating the Mind of Gratitude

When one learns giving well, being born and dying are both giving. All productive labor is fundamentally giving. Entrusting flowers to the wind, birds to the season, also must be meritorious acts of giving.  – Zen Master Eihei Dogen

As Thanksgiving and Christmas approach, if we can take a moment to look inward and ask ourselves the question

What does it mean to really give?

What is our response?

We may think of images of gatherings of friends and family, meals shared, gifts unwrapped, and perhaps the offering to community groups caring for others, to schools and spiritual centers. Maybe we recall times when we’ve given with love, and other times we’ve felt overburdened by demands, or have given too much and become depleted to the point of resentment or begrudging. We may have some judgment of ourselves or others as giving people or not – feeling selfish one moment or generous the next. We may consider the pain of the enormous inequities in the world, and those who lack basic goods, those with great excesses. While all of these conventional views of giving have merit, Zen practice invites us to brush these away and investigate the question from another direction entirely – one that starts from within by cultivating the mind of gratitude.

The mind of gratitude is our awakened heart that flowers from the ground of being we uncover in zazen – not as a special mind state separate from who you are, but intimate apprehension of this constantly giving and receiving universe right in this very place. Without changing anything, how is this moment complete giving and complete receiving? What is it you lack? Where does the fear of giving reside? To discover what it really means to give, we should pause, and notice what it really means to be alive in this moment to moment cycle of receiving and giving.

In zazen, taking the posture, letting go of the mind coursing through its abstract world, we come back to our root. Noticing the floor or earth holding you in the palm of its hand. Noticing the breath filling the lungs giving life. Noticing the sweet tickle of a bird trill. Noticing your exhalation feeding the ficus. Noticing how you keep the company of the one sitting beside you. Noticing how your practice allows others a place to come practice. Not one thing begrudged. When we wake up to how we truly exist, gratitude begins to take the place of fear and protectiveness that drives our withholding.

Waking up to the constant natural flow of all things invites our participation, a release of things that do not stay the same, entrusting flowers to the wind, and giving of ourselves that has to do with being our selves – being born and dying are both giving. I remember being with my mother when she died of lymphoma assisted by hospice. Being able to remain present and open and attend with my family this work of dying, breath by breath, I realized was the greatest gift she’d given to me, this teaching about the mystery of death when all the day to day exigencies are completely unimportant. My mother had a difficult life, and carried the burden of being toughened by alcoholism in the generation before, sexism of the time, and poverty of the Great Depression, but at the end, the power of this common passage was undeniable, and she shared it freely just by virtue of it happening, of her being who she was completely. At her funeral, I smile with the bittersweet memory of the song she requested – Frank Sinatra’s, I Did it My Way. That was my mother, undeniably. This is how dying is giving. She gave me the gift of clarity and choice.

So we can hold this question, what does it mean to be giving, let go of limited ideas of the social exchange of material goods and resources, and notice what emerges – find the mind of gratitude inside without having to add or take away. Of course, it is vitally important that we turn the tide of squandering material resources both personally and as a culture, but the doorway to that activity is to clarify the way we exist, completely dependent upon one another, to give to our neighbors, friends, or strangers like giving flowers to the wind. Our meal verse says: May we all realize the emptiness of the three wheels, giver, receiver and gift. Coming to stillness, we can then move with the flow, and give with wisdom and compassion, including all dharmas, including ourselves.

Palms together, giving thanks,