In the midst of campaigning for social change we can become overly focused on what is wrong with the world. We may become despondent, perhaps even angry. We want to fix the world so that our own lives and those of others can be better.
Every so often though, something happens to us, or for us. A friend shouts us dinner, or a rainstorm breaks a seven week drought. Suddenly we feel grateful to the friend, grateful for the rain.
Gratefulness can often be like that. In the midst of all the troubles of the world something good happens, or we receive a benefit of some sort. Our response is to feel grateful. Feeling grateful in such situations allows other emotions to be opened up: happiness, joy, or love towards the friend that bought us dinner.
But, what if, at the time the rains began, I had been in a grumpy mood. The rainfall then may have exacerbated my grumpiness, because I was now getting wet and soaked through. I would not feel grateful for the rain, indeed, I may feel decidedly ungrateful.
My prior state-of-mind, to some extent, determined whether I felt grateful or ungrateful.
That is where we must move beyond gratefulness, towards gratitude. Gratitude is something more than the oft fleeting, temporary, feeling of gratefulness. Gratitude is a state-of-mind, a way to approach the world, irrespective of what life throws us.
Many of the world’s religious and spiritual traditions speak of gratitude. Notwithstanding our religious, or non-religious, beliefs, their understandings can be informative.
The Benedictine monk, David Steindl-Rast, declares that gratitude…
“…is not a reaction to the present moment, because that would be something automatic. But it is a chosen response. It’s a real response to every moment.”1The Buddha too, spoke of gratitude. In his language, Pali, the word katannuta is often translated as gratitude. Katannuta is a combination of two Pali words: kata meaning “that which has been done,” and annuta meaning “knowing or recognising.” Katannuta, then, is a conscious recognition that something has been done for us.
Thus, for Steindl-Rast and the Buddha, gratitude embraces a sense of cognition, a deliberate mental focus. It is this mental focus that moves us beyond the feeling of gratefulness towards gratitude. Gratitude is, quite simply, a state-of-mind. Being a state-of-mind means that gratitude can be cultivated; it can be enhanced, developed and nourished.
What is it that we know or recognise that leads to gratitude? We fully understand, know and recognise the truth of interconnectedness and the complexity of life.
Think of this blog that you are reading right now. The components of the computer, tablet or smart phone that you are reading it on have been manufactured by workers in other parts of the world whom you have never met. The materials they used were dug from the earth or manufactured by other workers elsewhere. The components, and the final product, have been transported by truck or train drivers, perhaps by bicycle. The final product was then sold to you by a shop assistant in a store. All of these people are able to do their job because others tilled the soil and planted crops to feed them. The crops themselves are dependent upon the nutrients and microbes in the soil, by the sunshine and the rainfall. That’s just a start: think of the power that enables your device to be turned on so that you can read this. Think of those who taught you to read; your parents who brought you into this world, and transported you to school so that you could learn to read.
Yes, it is a complex world and everything and everyone are interconnected. That is the knowing and recognising behind gratitude. It is also what is behind compassion – a close ally of gratitude. When we know and recognise this great complexity and interconnectedness; and when we keep hold of that knowledge in our consciousness it is possible to maintain gratitude.
So, next time you become despondent about the lack of progress in social change, do as David Steindl-Rast suggests:
“The first thing is that we have to stop.”Then, in that moment, lies the opportunity to mindfully apply gratitude.
1. David Steindl-Rast in interview with Krista Tippett, On Being – Anatomy of Gratitude, 21 January 2016.