I don’t know when gratitude started seeping into my daily routine. It seems to have sneaked up on me. Now, on most days, I find myself marveling at my extreme good luck. Even when things feel like they’re falling apart, as they definitely have at times over the past few years, I can still catch a glimpse of how fortunate I truly am. Inside, bliss is part of my daily diet, and as for the challenges that are a part of my day, I have the resources to positively transform them. As the years go on, I know those resources will deepen. What more could you ask for?
There were two key women in my life whose gratitude took root in me when I was ready to let it in. The first was Shirley. Shirley started the Vipassana Support Institute for my teacher, Shinzen Young. She passed away nearly four years ago. Shirley used to say all sorts of wonderful things about me to my face. I listened, wondering what her agenda was. Then one day, I decided to just receive it. Afterward, I burst into tears at the thought of how much more willing I was to accept shaming than to receive praise. A part of me believed the one was truer than the other. I let myself be seen the way Shirley saw me, and I learned to be grateful for her encouragement and determination to appreciate my gifts. Shirley lived in chronic pain, but she was a gratitude energy ball. It was the mainstay of her meditation practice, and she was forever reminding me to look for and find it.
For me, though, gratitude didn’t come easily. When I first started meditating I had a hard time relating to the practice commonly called “lovingkindness.” I felt completely inauthentic and disingenuous, attempting to contact or cultivate positive feelings where none appeared to exist. I didn’t want to be a fake. Looking back, I was simply blinded by unhappiness and stuck in interpretations of the world and my life that reinforced unhappiness. I didn’t yet recognize that there could be choice: You can rewire your patterning and choose kinder thoughts.
I didn’t yet see myself as empowered in that way. But, sitting on my cushion, I was willing to do the work. I felt how practice was benefiting me. So I just worked with what was there: a lot of unhappiness. And that eventually led me to gratitude. If you do the work, gratitude has to show up, because a space is slowly cleared for it.
When my mom was dying in 2012, toward the end of her life, she kept repeating to me, “We’re so lucky, we’re so lucky.” And we were. She had ovarian cancer. Her two-and-a-half-year battle with it was beyond grueling. It's shocking to me how primitive our tools still are to battle this disease. Bearing witness to a loved one’s suffering is one of life’s most trying and painful experiences. In her last few months, the pain meds affected her mind, so she didn’t know where she was. But, fortunately for us, she never lost her connection with the people she held dearest. So, as the end of her life drew close, we all got to savor our loving connection with her. As that wellspring of love rose up over and over between the two of us, she would say to me, “We’re so lucky.”
When someone is close to departing this world, the loving message they give you leaves an indelible mark. In the year-and-a-half since she died I've had the sense that I inherited the gratitude my mom expressed at the end of her life. I feel gratitude ever more keenly for having heard her say it in that way, at that time. There are so many ways to express love and each of us brings our unique character to the honor. I do believe giving and receiving love is the greatest honor we have in life. And I see meditation as the meticulous activity of dissolving whatever interferes with that endeavor.
How lucky was I to be fully available for my mom’s loving message? Incomparably lucky.