Meditation As The Formal Practice of Gratitude
Sunday, November 29, 2015 at 09:53AM
Dennis Young


We are all truly blessed in so many ways, and yet how easy it is to lose sight of this and fall into feelings of anxiety, regret or self-pity, or worse yet, bitterness or resentment over what we do not have.

The practice of gratitude, of "counting one's blessings," has long been spoken of as a remedy for all these ills, the idea being that cultivating an attitude of thankfulness and appreciation can counter any tendency to resentment, regret or a sense of lack.

The question is: how to best instill in ourselves this sense of appreciation and even more important, make it stick? The world is mad with greed and envy. How can we learn to stay grateful for what we have instead of resenting what we don't have?

An important point needs to be made first: gratitude doesn't mean forced humility or the suppression of desire. Nor does it mean learning to put up with less than what we need. Gratitude is a joyful appreciation of our many blessings but must include a sense that abundance is a birthright, that the blessings of life can expand and all should share them. When gratitude means being relieved to know that our wants and needs have been met and will continue to be met, then with that thankfulness comes a sense of peace and security, as opposed the hollow, anxious sense that it could all be taken away if we're not grateful enough. There is no envy or bitterness, greed or anxiety when all have enough.

We need a sense that our good fortune is not due to luck nor the result of merit, that in fact we are all worthy and deserving and it is a good thing when everyone gets what they need. But how to train the mind and understanding to this more positive, inclusive, trusting and adaptive way of being? Yoga has an answer.

(The basis for this concept of gratitude comes from the second and third principles of Yama, the ethical guidelines of Yoga, the two principles of Satya and Asteya, which, properly understood, allow us to feel secure that, 1) what we have is always enough for now and that, 2) with practice still more will be given. We'll be talking more about this topic in future sessions.)

In both understanding and in practice, Yoga provides us with the possibility of relief from anxiety about lack. The practice of daily meditation using mantra in the Yoga tradition gives us a practical way to formally instill this secure knowing in ourselves by conditioning the mind to naturally maintain this more positive, more adaptive, more secure way of being.

But not all forms of meditation work this way. Vipassana Meditation, which emphasizes a sense of detachment or neutrality, teaches us to relinquish desire itself and learn to avoid both liking or disliking as a way of avoiding clinging and attachment. But Yoga says desire is not wrong; equanimity is not detachment; not all attachments are bad; and neutral isn't the same thing as good. The mind and heart want to appreciate, to value, to love, to grow, to tend toward the good.

The kind of meditation that renounces desire makes sense for a renunciate, someone committed to a monastic life, but not for a householder living an active life in the world. That person needs to grow and fulfill the promise of the world, not renounce it.

Meditation is about releasing resistance, releasing negativity, but it is even more about expanding appreciation and growth. Meditation should support joy and abundance, not indifference and austerity.

Regular practice of this Mantra Meditation supports the development of an innate discriminating intelligence (prajna) that automatically favors what we like and what nourishes us and releases what is resistive or harmful. The mind is thus trained to move away from what is pointlessly stressful and to move toward that which is is genuinely rewarding.

This kind of meditation promotes and supports the full range of positive emotions and releases and nullifies the full range of negative ones. The mind and heart become more balanced and clear about what is better for us and what is worse, and we orient more appropriately, making better choices and affirming better values.

In contemporary Buddhism, perhaps because it has its roots in monasticism, emotions are too often seen as disturbances of the "rational" mind. In Yoga, emotions are not "disturbances" in the mind. They are support systems that motivate, guide and steady us. When they work as they should, they are currents of positive energy that support the cognitive processes (perception, understanding, judgment) in coming to better conclusions and making better, more life supporting choices.

Positive emotional states like love, forgiveness and appreciation enhance the benefits of meditation, just as cultivating an attitude of gratitude enhances one's experience of living day to day.

The attitude of welcoming, allowing, and appreciating recommended in the practice of Mantra Meditation trains the mind to see more of the possibilities, less of the limitations; more of the joy, less of the sorrow. The world becomes a better place for us because we can more easily see the good in it and we stand inspired to add to it's abundance of goodness.

We must accentuate the positive because one cannot remove or resist the negative. Resisting the negative only adds to the negativity. The only way forward is for each of us to recognize and find ways to add our efforts to the good that is already in the world.

Compassion is a beautiful thing, but it is no substitute for love or joy. Nor is it enough to simply care or sympathize. We must take positive action to relieve suffering, first in ourselves and then in one another. True charity, a profound form of love, is a powerful force, especially when charitable actions are performed from a place of gratitude and joy.

An article by Dave Mochel recently published in Quartz.com makes some very good points about the relationship between gratitude and meditation, both in practice and in terms of benefits:

http://qz.com/558908/the-psychological-benefits-of-gratitude-closely-mirror-those-of-meditation/

From the article:
"The biggest challenge of giving thanks is that your brain will give you lots of compelling reasons to resent, resist, and complain about circumstances and people you do not like. Being grateful is not a replacement for addressing injustice, asserting values, working toward important goals, or dealing with challenge. But practicing gratitude is a way to improve your quality of life and relationships while you are doing these things.

Despite what your brain may tell you, your capacity for being grateful is not dependent on either your circumstances or how you feel. Put simply, gratitude is available to you whenever you choose to practice it. This is why mindfulness and gratitude are powerfully complementary. Mindfulness is the skillful use of attention. When you are caught spinning in a pattern of worry, rumination, self-judgment or blame, it can be very helpful to notice how you are spending your time and energy."

Mantra Upaya, Mantra Meditation in the Yoga tradition, is a wonderful way to practice gratitude privately, in your heart, so that you are better able to practice it in your daily life.

Come join us this Thursday, December 3 at Firefly Yoga, 311 Washington St, Westwood, MA, for our regular Thursday Night Meditation Group. Session starts at 7:30pm. All are welcome.

Article originally appeared on Counseling - Coaching (http://www.dennisyoung.com/).
See website for complete article licensing information.