Many church goers recently heard again a New Testament Bible story about two men praying in the temple. This story always strikes a chord with me, as I can easily identify with the self-righteous man.
The self-righteous man prays: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.”
The other man praying, the tax collector: “would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, `God, be merciful to me, a sinner!'”
Thanksgiving is a time for reflection on gratitude. The self-righteous man was praying a prayer of thanks that he isn’t like some other person. As this political season winds down, haven’t we all found ourselves praying some version of that prayer? It is easy to do, and both sides of our political process do it. Thank God I’m not part of that basket of deplorables; thank God I’m not an immigrant trying to move to the United States. We, of course, believe we are right thinking and on the side of the angels. Thank God we aren’t like that other person.
What Blocks Generosity and Gratitude?
Tara Brach, a wise voice of Buddhist wisdom coupled with insights of Western psychology, takes up our seasonal topic of gratitude in a dharma talk entitled Feeling Gratitude, Giving Love. She reminds us, first, that gratitude and generosity allow us to live fully. Research has confirmed that happiness is correlated with gratitude and generosity. Think of happy people you know, Tara Brach suggests; aren’t they people who are gracious and generous?
If gratitude and generosity are good things, what blocks them? Tara suggests three causes:
Fear. We don’t respond to the other with generosity because we fear the other. Our primitive brain takes over and rather than seeing the other as real, we objectify and distance the other.
Self Criticism. We look inward, and get down on ourselves. When critical of ourselves, we aren’t open to the other.
Grasping. We fall into the trap of wanting things to be different than they are. If only something, I would be happy. While absorbed in our self-criticism, we don’t live in a spirit of gratitude.
What is the Path to Generosity and Gratitude?
As she identifies three obstacles, Tara Brach offers us three avenues towards living in generosity and gratitude:
Mindfulness. You are always going to find mindfulness at the center of a Buddhist prescription for resolving a dilemma. Be attentive to the moment as it is, and let it be as it is. This opens our heart to respond in freedom. We must intend to notice.
Resist Negativity Bias. We are programmed with a negativity bias. We expect something to go wrong, and scan the horizon expecting a problem. Living this way, we aren’t going to be open and generous.
To overcome the negativity bias, we must remember what we love and appreciate. The mind will be inclined to what we dwell on. We can choose the object of our attention.
Express our Love. Expressing our love activates and opens our minds toward generosity and gratitude. We are programmed to give; however, too often our primitive brain takes over and inclines us to fear and grasping.
We can express our love in many ways. First, we can give our attention; second, we can remind the other of their goodness; and finally, we can give our thanks.
Thanksgiving Reflection Practice
We can resolve to do better than the self-righteous man praying in the temple, and better than our political leaders have demonstrated. As we gather with friends and family this Thanksgiving, we can seek to be alive in the moment, to remember that for which we are grateful, and to express our love and thanks to others.