Spiritual Thanksgiving: Levels of Gratitude

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Although I have written a fair amount about the importance of gratitude, and giving thanks, in honor of the day (which is Thanksgiving on Thursday in the USA), I thought I would add a few more thoughts about it, hopefully from a slightly different perspective. While those of us who are vegetarians find it odd to celebrate our gratitude with a dead bird, many don’t have that sensitivity, and to them, that is food. Without belaboring that point, the general idea of giving thanks is certainly a good thing, especially in relationship to the Supreme Lord. From a religious perspective ordinary everyday gratitude for material facilities, things, and relationships is a step in the right direction. While gratitude isn’t “ordinary”, and is welcome, there are levels of gratitude, which are practically never considered.

Students of Bhagavad Gita learn that everything we do, eat, speak, think, give, sacrifice, and know, etc., can be seen according to the three gunas, or qualities of nature, goodness, passion, or ignorance. Everything we do will have various results depending on our intention, attitude, and many other factors. While I am not trying to discourage any expression of gratitude, I am making the point, that how, for what, and why we feel grateful, makes a difference. Although we don’t have to be great Vedic (or in any other scriptures) scholars, it is helpful to be conversant with the essential teachings, and to see life philosophically. Specifically in this short blog, I will look at what we are grateful for, and what is the true purpose and benefit of being thankful.
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As a person’s consciousness and material and spiritual standing can be understood according to our attachments, what we are grateful for (and have faith in) reveals our attachments, and who we are. My guru’s teacher, Shrila Bhaktisiddanta Saravati Thakur, was sometimes critical of gratitude for only material things or sensual enjoyment. Why? I believe the reason was that since this type of gratitude sees God (if it includes Him at all) as the order supplier, it may easily degrade into anger at God if there is any shortage objects of enjoyment (we are “fair-weather” worshippers). Additionally, there is no knowledge of the soul, or that our material condition is temporary, and that the true benefit of life is to revive our eternal nature as servants of Krishna. If gratitude doesn’t include God, and knowledge of the soul’s real self-interest, such gratitude remains in the material level. It may be good, yet we require more than material goodness to make spiritual progress.

Anything short of actions that help our spiritual progress is often condemned, even while in other places, any steps toward God are encouraged. What is good and bad is different from the spiritual perspective compared to our ordinary views that seek material happiness, and to avoid pain. In fact, spirituality goes against the grain of our modern materialist world, and to understand that perspective, requires us to sort out different perspectives, and to examine our own bias. To harmonize what appear to be conflicting perspectives, I might say that ordinary gratitude coupled with spiritual practice directed toward pleasing Krishna, and loving Him, is part of the path of perfection. Our knowledge and goals also define our life. Since human life is a special facility for realizing our spiritual identity in relationship to God, everything we do or celebrate should in some way foster that.
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I will use my wife and I as an example, since I have their permission to speak about them. Compared to most of the world we live in a palace (considered middle class here), with incredibly gorgeous and merciful Deities (forms of Krishna), in a beautiful country setting, along with many devotee friends (a real opulence). The two of us feel very grateful for what appear to be material facilities. (Good material facilities can be a blessing or curse depending on how you see/use them and our attitude about them.) We understand that due to our past, we have been given this standard of living—not for solely material enjoyment, but to help us be peaceful and satisfied so we can dedicate our life to spiritual practice, and helping others.

Krishna conscious philosophy teaches us that everything can be accepted for Krishna’s service, but with detachment, since nothing really belongs to us. We are merely the caretakers of these facilities and possessions, and we are only here for short time. We see Krishna behind our good fortune, and even our difficulties or illness, we see, (or make the endeavor to see), as Krishna’s grace to help us depend on Him. God is light, and darkness, and it is up to us to see the hand of Krishna. Life teaches in all circumstances if we are open. While we don’t pray that our house burns down, or is destroyed by a tornado, or our spouse dies, the unexpected happens, and we have to see it as meant for our good. Perhaps not at first when we have to go through the stages of grieving the loss as human beings, though eventually the Vedic philosophy and our loving relationship with Krishna will give us solace and joy. “It’s all good”, is a state of perpetual gratitude. We will find what we look for! Those on the spiritual path accept in principle that whatever will facilitate divine life is desirable. Let us be thankful for that!

To conclude, as a general rule, any kind of gratitude is good. Better, is giving thanks to God for whatever we have. Best, is to see all material facilities as meant to help us come closer to loving and serving God, and to center our gratitude on that perspective. Human life and awareness is meant to be progressive for the purpose of fostering spiritual understanding. According to our realization we can be encouraged in our gratitude, and encourage others. Every day we are meant to be grateful, yet at least on occasions such as this we are recommended to take special time to be grateful, and think about it more spiritually. Gratitude on any level is one of the keys to happiness and cures for depression. Happiness means to be focused on the positive, even while acknowledging difficulties, whereas depression takes anything that is wrong and dwells on that. Spiritual life awakens our eternal gratitude expressed in faithful joy, in the certainty of our loving relationship to Krishna. Kirtan is a celebration based on this principle! This is my attempt, insignificant as it is, to give you some spiritual thoughts to consider and serve as at least a tiny dish for your meal of thanks. Hare Krishna!
Krishna, Balarama with cows and gopas

Prabhupada on giving thanks

Here is a nice quote from SP: "Anyone can pray. It does not require any education. If you simply feel, "Oh, God is so great. Oh, He has created the sun. He has created this moon. Oh, He has created the ocean. He has created this air. He has... created so many fruits, so many flowers." Go on. You don't require any education. Simply try to understand how great God is. There is no other education required. In the Bhagavad-gita the Lord says, prabhasmi sasi-suryayoh. He says that "I am the taste in the water." Who does not take water? Water is our life. So when you take water, quench your thirst, you can immediately thank God because that taste is God. So immediately you can remember, "O my dear Lord, You have created so nice thing, water. Oh, I am so thirsty. It is quenching my thirst. Thank You.'" Prabhupada lecture on Shrimad-Bhagavatam 7.9.12-13 in Montreal, CAN on August 20, 1968

A grateful attitude

I have to admit that it takes effort for me to remember to be grateful. I wonder if I ever even said the word growing up? My particular conditioning is to accept my circumstances without much thought or judgment. I learned early on to not identify myself much with my living circumstances--as a reaction to pain--and to find peace and contentment, and often indifference. I am easy to please for the most part, and even if I would like things to be different, I am adaptable, and don't often exert much energy to change the situation. My existential crisis and search for meaning and spirituality was a notable exception, and well, I am grateful for that, if I think of it. Being in contact with those we are struggling, suffering, or less fortunate can help put our life in perspective. In general, understanding the shortcomings of the material world and experiencing the positive spiritual alternative can naturally help one to appreciation one's good fortune. This reminds of the importance of regular study of the Vedic literature, daily spiritual practice, and association with advanced devotees and saintly persons. And any reminder to be grateful is welcome. It is a spiritual attitude or global perspective that can make a huge difference in our life. Counting our blessings isn't just something that should be done like some official piety, but it is the life of joyous celebration in our life of spiritual practice. We are so blessed!