Happy Thanksgiving! The following post was originally written in 2008. I’m putting a revision up on this blog because it continues to capture an important part of the Thanksgiving experience for me. It also connects with major themes of the previous post. I hope it connects with something in you.
During the Thanksgiving season, my attention is drawn to contemplating an intimate connection between gratitude and compassion. I suppose I have always had some awareness that these two sentiments are related; at the very least they can both be easily recognized as aspects of Love. Still, I don’t always take the time to actually meditate on their relationship.
The inspiration for this meditation developed out of a recurring awareness of how much I experience gratitude in my closest relationships; in my most satisfying moments of serving others’ needs; when I am attentive to the beauty of nature and art; or when my meditations, prayers, and moments of mindfulness are most saturated with awareness of the Divine Presence. More specifically, this meditation first began with pondering how the sense of pride in feeling worthy of another person’s approval has increasingly given way to feeling grateful for sharing in mutual experiences and expressions of acceptance, admiration, affection, caring, comfort, devotion, empathy, forgiveness, trust, and all the other wonderful flavors of Love. While I still feel pride, it naturally diminishes in the face of gratitude as I gain appreciation for how little being a participant in Love is dependent upon anything I can do to be worthy of it.
In the big picture, Love has nothing at all to do with whether or not one has earned it or deserves it in any way. There certainly are aspects of Love that we humans understandably express in greater or lesser measure in response to different characteristics, attitudes and actions; yet Love itself remains ultimately inextinguishable. There is a common adage with which we acknowledge something of this truth: God and our friends love us despite our flaws.
In Western religious language the eternal and all-pervading presence of Love is known as Divine Grace, and many of us consider its realization to be the key to salvation, the deliverance from a life consumed with fear, shame, remorse and self-loathing. Just as God is understood to be infinite, eternal, and unbounded, so must God’s attributes be limitless. Love IS. Love doesn’t depend on us to bring it into existence. Thus, while we can know Love very directly and immediately, it isn’t something we possess, or something someone else has for us to get. On the contrary, Love has us. It is living and breathing through us, from and to us, completely encompassing and interpenetrating us, forever without ceasing.
Knowing this, I cannot honestly assume any other position relative to Love than gratitude, and so my angst-ridden struggles to be worthy of being loved increasingly give way to a profound peace. That peace is grounded in the faith that I think and act more lovingly as the immanence of Love further weans my consciousness from illusions of power and control. Even so, there is something of me, call it ego if you wish, that resists this surrender to Love. Every student of his or her own psyche knows this resistance well.
The writings of many saints and sages use words that suggest a kind of internal battle between the forces of resistance and surrender to Love. Yet it’s somewhat paradoxical, isn’t it, to think of surrender to Love as contributing to a conflict? In truth the only conflict must be within the part of us that maintains illusions of power and control. In this one-sided battle we experience the last stand of such illusions in the belief that we must inflict self-derision and self-punishment for our errors and shortcomings. In short, we mistakenly think we must be less loving with ourselves in order to become more lovable and loving for others. We thus condemn ourselves to suffering with thoughts and feelings that leave less room for gratitude. So it is that gratitude is a measure of awakening to Love.
Each one of us knows this self-conflict, and here we can begin to discern the connections between gratitude and compassion. When we deeply appreciate the fact that others are suffering in this same way, compassion is already blooming in our hearts. The fullness of that compassion grows as the self-conflict of our self-pride/self-derision dissolves in the warm peaceful sea of gratitude for the immanence and transcendence of Love. The more we know Love within ourselves, including the experience of gratitude for Love, the more freely Love flows through us as compassion for others. We also find that to express gratitude to another, perhaps when that person feels least deserving of it, can be an act of compassion that awakens her or him to the Divine Grace of Love. Gratitude is therefore not merely a passive response to Love, but is also realized as an active expression of Love.
It may sound a little trite, but my sincere hope for all of us is that the attitude of gratitude grows in our hearts during this Thanksgiving, and thus Love will graciously shine through us into the hearts of others.