Thoughts on Gratitude from Jack Kornfield

jack kornfield


In some Buddhist traditions, there’s a prayer in which one makes a rather unusual request of the universe: Bring me challenges and obstacles.

Jack Kornfield’s words from an interview with the Huffington Post.

In certain temples that I’ve been to, there’s actually a prayer that you make asking for difficulties,” Western Buddhist master Jack Kornfield told the Huffington Post. “May I be given the appropriate difficulties so that my heart can truly open with compassion. Imagine asking for that.” 

Being grateful for not only life’s blessing but also its suffering is a key component of living a spiritual life — and more broadly, to a fulfilling and meaningful life.”  

If we see the world as sacred, which is an expression of the spiritual life, then gratitude follows immediately and naturally. We’ve been given the extraordinary privilege of incarnating as human beings — and of course the human incarnation entails the 10,000 joys and 10,000 sorrows, as it says in the Tao Te Ching — but with it we have the privilege of the lavender color at sunset, the taste of a tangerine in our mouth, and the almost unbearable beauty of life around us, along with its troubles. It keeps recreating itself. We can either be lost in a smaller state of consciousness — what in Buddhist psychology is called the “body of fear,” which brings suffering to us and to others — or we can bring the quality of love and appreciation, which I would call gratitude, to life. With it comes a kind of trust. The poet Pablo Neruda writes, “You can pick all the flowers, but you can’t stop the spring.” Life keeps recreating itself and presenting us with miracles every day. 

“I remember my meditation master in the jungles of Thailand who would ask at times, Where have you learned more compassion? Where have you learned more? Where has your heart grown wiser — in just having good times, or going through difficulties? “There’s a Buddhist-oriented therapy in Japan called Naikan Therapy, and one part of that training is to review your life and begin to remember all the things you have gratitude towards, even the things that were difficult and taught you lessons. Or even the people that were difficult, sometimes in your own family — [remembering] the gratitude you have for family, that they’re even there. 

And speaking of gratitude, in a group that I taught recently, there was a man who spoke up whose son and daughter-in-law had become meth addicts. They were both addicts to the point where this fellow and his wife as grandparents had to take the children and raise their grandchildren. After a moment of great despair, he began to do a gratitude practice to see what he could be grateful for. He was grateful to have the grandchildren in that way, he was grateful that his children were still alive and that they were considering treatment. He was grateful for the depths of compassion that had grown when he learned about the waves of addiction that were prevalent in the country, and that he could somehow contribute to bringing an end to it…. He said that by being able to find gratitude as well, he was able to bear the difficulties and to bring some grace and love to it. 

To become mindful — which Zen master Suzuki Roshi also called “beginner’s mind” — is to see the world afresh without being lost in our reactions and judgments, and in seeing it afresh with a clarity, we begin to be able to respond to the world rather than react to it. (I like to translate mindfulness as loving awareness — an awareness that knows what’s present, and also brings a quality of compassion and lovingkindness to that.) 

The cultivation of mindfulness — which modern neuroscience has now shown in 3,000 papers and studies in the last two decades to help bring emotional regulation, steady attention and physical healing — really allows us to become present for our own body, for the person in front of us, for the life we’ve been given. Out of that grows quite naturally the spirit of gratitude. Now it turns out, like all good things, they feed one another. Cultivating an opening to gratitude also helps us to become more mindful of the life around us and what circumstance we’re in. 

Anne Wilson Schaef [author of When Society Becomes An Addict], has described ours as an addicted society. Whether it’s consumerism or addictive substances or just keeping ourselves busy or being online or working 80 hours a week, we have things that keep us busy because, in some ways, the culture wants us to keep engaged and not to look around much… not to see the struggles of people, the continuing injustice, the economic disparities, the people who are hungry, climate change. What becomes clear is that there’s no outer fix or satisfaction — no amount of computers, no amount of nanotechnology or biotechnology and all the great things that we’ve developed that will stop us from continuing warfare, racism and environment destruction. 

Those outer developments have to be matched by a transformation of human consciousness to realize that we are interdependent and we depend on the air we breathe, and on people in other nations as they depend on us. We are woven, as Dr. Martin Luther King said, into a single garment of destiny. When we see this, we begin to realize that the values of consumerism and getting more and more — which start to become emptier and emptier — don’t satisfy the heart. When we look at what’s satisfied us in the past week or month or decade, it’s been the connections, the love and the openness of our lives to the places we’ve traveled and the people we’ve met. This really is the basis for gratitude. Then we start to sense that it is possible to live with a quieter mind and an open heart, and with a sense of satisfaction within ourselves — it’s the satisfaction of well-being. 


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