Tag Archives: gratitude

Recognizing the Good

The truth of the happenstance circumstances of my life is that I am very fortunate. I was born into a family with two dedicated parents, one kind older sister who tolerated my unending interest in her glamourous, five-year old life, and a brother-to-come who quickly became and remains one of my best friends. We lived in a house that just contained us and a dog. The lights never went out because we couldn’t afford the utility bills. Mean people from the government never stormed into our home, scaring us out of our wits or worse. Mother nature never unleashed her fury upon our heads. None of my friends ever died or disappeared. I managed to survive a rebellious adolescence. I have had interesting work experiences and along the way, met people with talent, commitment, and integrity. That is all before I met my husband and we began our life together which includes a move across the country to start anew, two healthy children, and many friends here and afar who we love.

I have a lot to be thankful for. Most of the time, I don’t even think about it.

In the Mussar class I am taking we have moved on from studying humility to gratitude.  Here’s how it is described in the book, Everyday Holiness. “The Hebrew term for gratitude is hakarat ha’tov, which means literally, ‘recognizing the good.’ The good is already there. Practicing gratitude means being fully aware of the good that is already yours.”

A big part of practicing gratitude is learning not to take for granted the good things in your life. We forget to notice the good, Mussar teachers say, for a few reasons: We are too busy pursuing the enjoyment of worldly things, we become so accustomed to our gifts that they appear to us as permanent and unremarkable, and we are so focused on the travails and afflictions of our lives that we forget to notice that our very being and all we own are among the good things that we have to be thankful for.

It is this last point, recognizing the gift of my being, that strikes me the most. I can see that I take for granted all of the things and the important people in my life. And I can see how it could be beneficial to acknowledge all of my good fortune, both to improve my perspective on my life (are things going well or not?) and also to create a more open heart in how I relate to others.

But in my meditation practice, as I sit and focus on my breath trying to cultivate mindfulness, I keep thinking about how grateful I should be for my breath. It sustains my life. Without it, there would be nothing else. It reminds me of a story I read recently about a person who was struggling with mindfulness meditation and went to speak to a teacher about it. The student found following the breath to be boring. The teacher suggested they do a practice in which it quickly became difficult to breathe, leaving the beginner gasping. “Now is it so boring?” the teacher asked.

An essay I read recently said that when we focus on the breath, we are focusing on the life force. Life begins with our first breath and will end after our last. To contemplate breathing is to contemplate life itself. As I go about my day today, I will try to remember not to take for granted all that I have to be thankful for. But most of all, I will try to remember to be very grateful for the breath that sustains me in the most basic way.

Gratitude in a hut

Usually once Yom Kippur ends, me and most of the Jews I know pack it in as far as synagogue is concerned. But since I’m paying attention, tonight my family is going back for Sukkot, the holiday in which observant Jews build impermanent shelters outdoors to eat their meals in for a week. Some also sleep out there.

The holiday celebrates the end of the growing season and the harvest. The huts recall the structures the ancient Israelites built near their ripened crops during harvest time as well as the impermanent homes they used as they traveled through the desert for 40 years. (More on that at Passover time.)

These structures are actually pretty cool. They are made out of natural materials – that which has grown, but is no longer attached to the earth – and the roof is meant to provide shade from the sun, but allow light from the stars in at night.

In New York City this past week, there was a display in Union Square of Sukkah City, the results of an international design competition to reimagine the sukkah. Here’s a slide show to see photos. Beautiful structures. The entire display is down by now, but the Center for Architecture in NY is having an exhibit from now until October 30.

Everyone loves a harvest festival so it’s not hard to get with this holiday. But true to my search for meaning in this religion, I looked up the symbolic significance of the sukkah. I found this sermon from Rabbi Stuart W. Gershon, from Temple Sinai in Summit, N.J., near my hometown.

So what does God want us to think about on Sukkot? On Sukkot, God wants us to count all our blessings and to grow in our capacity for appreciation and gratitude. Why? Because it is our human nature to take our most important blessings for granted. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said, “Humankind will not perish for want of information, but only for want of appreciation.” Robert Louis Stevenson once said, “[the person] who has forgotten to be thankful has fallen asleep in the midst of life.” Poet Marge Piercy writes, “…the discipline of blessings is to taste each moment, the bitter, the sour, the sweet and the salty, and be glad for what does not hurt.”

I don’t believe that there is a God that wants me to think about anything, but I like the idea of remembering to have gratitude.

Last week my family invited friends over for dinner on Friday night and I suggested we recognize Shabbat by lighting the candles and saying the blessings over the wine and bread. This family is not Jewish so I tried to explain what the blessings mean. It was hard not to use the word God. Later I thought about how I could articulate those blessings in a way that felt true to me.

I could say that I am grateful for the light of life within me and the people I love. I am grateful for healthy fruits and vegetables we have to eat. And I am grateful for the beautiful bread on our table. I could say those things and mean them.

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