It’s almost a cliché to talk about Thanksgiving and gratitude. Gratitude platitudes surround the holiday, just like the newspaper inserts for Black Friday specials. We eat too much, often remarking about it while continuing to eat (which is ironic for a society grappling with an epidemic of obesity). We remember to say thanks on Thanksgiving, but do we give thanks for each day?
At the risk of being perceived as either maudlin or insensitive, I want to share an essay on Gratitude by Francis Weller that my sister Sara shared with me. It’s been a difficult year for a lot of people, including my family. And it’s not over. We can learn a thing or two about gratitude from the Iroquois Nation.
Happy Monday! On to Christmas! Barbara
Gratitude for all that is
by Francis Weller
There is a tradition among the native people of the Iroquois nation that goes back over a thousand years. It is known as the Thanksgiving Address. In the language of their people it is called, “Oh’nton Karihwat’hkwen,” which translates, “Words Before All Else.” The tradition involves the invocation of creation in a manner that extends thankfulness to all living things for their gifts to us. In this way, the people are brought into alignment with Nature. This eloquent ritual practice places gratitude as the beginning point for any further matters. Words Before All Else. What if our daily practice was to include this deep-seated reverence for creation and to acknowledge the never-ending flow of blessings that come our way? I remember Brother David Steindl-Rast saying, “It is not happiness that makes gratefulness, but gratefulness that makes happiness.”
Gratitude is a central value to the indigenous soul. It forms the very heart of a life rooted in the awareness and recognition that we truly live in a gifting cosmos. Our deep time ancestors and those remaining indigenous cultures still living in the old ways know that everything we need has been given to us. In the ecology of the sacred our responsibility is to receive these blessings with gratitude. After all, what is the proper response to a gift if not gratitude? This understanding formed the basic attitude of traditional people and it is also readily recognized when we too, turn our attention to this fundamental truth.
Gratitude furthers the soul, calls it forth into the world in an act of intimacy. The simple gesture of receptivity paired with the expression of thankfulness completes the arc that binds the soul and world together in communion. Doing so confirms our relatedness with the cosmos and it is relationship that we are so in need of today. Our isolation and loneliness are in great part the consequence of forgetting to say thank you. This may sound simplistic, but the opposite is true. We live in a completely interdependent world and gratitude is the full acknowledgement of this fundamental reality.
There is an old thought that says the strength of a community is reflected in the presence of gratitude. In other words, the richness of the village is made visible by the expression of appreciation, recognition and thankfulness for the ways the people support one another and the way the world holds the people together. It seems that we are bereft of such a unifying ingredient at this time. Rather than acknowledging the multiple layers of gifting that are offered to us, we focus more on lack, on what is missing. This isn’t some cynical move but rather a consequence of conditioning that continually references us back to what it is we don’t have. Modernity keeps us hungry for more by turning our gaze towards absence. Psychology colludes in this as well by focusing primarily on what’s wrong, what we didn’t get in childhood, and so on. This chronic feeling of not enough makes it difficult to register blessing and to feel gratitude.
It is our task to stay aware of what is being gifted here and now and to register the primary satisfactions that enrich our soul life, our emotional and bodily life. These are what make the moment thick with meaning and contentment: we have enough.
Gratitude is a spiritual responsibility. A grateful heart acknowledges and participates in the ongoing exchange with life. Gratitude is an act of faith, of trust in the ways of life. It is a confirmation that we are inextricably bound to each other thing in the cosmos. In this sense it is a reflection of belonging. Another thought of Br. David’s was that we can feel either grateful or alienated, but never both at the same time. Gratefulness drives out alienation. Our belonging is celebrated in thanksgiving, in full appreciation that we are both giver and receiver in the exchange of blessings.
How do we develop gratitude? Perhaps the most fundamental practice is listening. This attentive move slows us down to the speed of life where we are more resonant with the movements of the world. By listening we are able to register in our bodies just how fluid this flow of blessing is in our lives. Think about that. The constancy of the sun, moon, and stars, the generosity of the rains, rivers, the earth, the abundant richness of birdsong, the fragrance of roses, wet streets after a downpour, the delectable sweetness of blackberries warm with the heat of the day, the luscious colors of fall, all are offered to us freely. When we listen and take in the astonishingly sensuous earth we come awake to the thunderous beauty that surrounds us. We are literally inundated with the world pouring through every opening and in this awareness we recognize a fundamental truth: we are of the earth. In fact, as cosmologist Brian Swimme suggests, humans were put on earth to gawk. That is our cosmological destiny! To be astonished, amazed, delighted in the intricate weavings of the cosmos is to listen fully and to send out our sigh of appreciation is what is asked in return.
A second means by which we develop gratitude is through ritual. Ritual is that pitch through which our personal and collective voices are extended to the unseen dimensions of life, beyond the point of our minds and into the realms of nature and spirit. There are many opportunities for daily rituals that can drop us into a felt connection with life. Every meal we eat is a cosmological event. Thich Nhat Hanh reminds us that through the practice of mindfulness we become aware of the deep story within every meal. We are wedded to the cycles of sunshine and rain, the movements of microbes and root systems, the farmer and butcher, the animals and plants, the grocery store clerk, the entire cycle that brings the morsel to our mouths is what we are ingesting and to behold that movement with gratitude is to sacralize the moment.
Our annual Gratitude For All That Is ritual is a beautiful gesture to the visible and invisible worlds. To communally send our prayers of thanksgiving into the world is a rich and verdant act. Our ritual is eloquent and simple. After building a gratitude shrine we make our prayers and offer small gifts to the other world of tobacco, corn meal, agates, or whatever has been brought. These offerings are made in a small crawl-in grotto made of fir boughs and ferns where they are left over night. In the morning someone is asked to gather the offerings together and we form a procession across the grounds into the woods where a small opening is waiting to receive the gifts. At that time, the children that are there come forward and place handfuls of the offerings into the Mother’s body and for that moment we are aligned with the rightness of our lives and the community. We have placed something back into her body in an act of recognition that everything we have comes from her. It is such sweet medicine.
Gratitude is the other hand of grief. It is the mature man and woman who welcomes both. To deny either reality is to slip into chronic depression or to live in denial of life’s difficult means. Together they form a tension that makes tangible the exquisite richness of life in this moment. Life is hard and filled with suffering. Life is also a most precious gift, a reason for continual celebration and appreciation. To everything, as the old prophet said, there is a season. This is the time of Thanksgiving.