His Holiness Gyalwang Drukpa, Jigme Pema Wangchen: Be Grateful
While we are busy complaining and looking for reasons to dislike or be angry with our circumstances and the people around us, we still expect ourselves to be happy. But if our minds are only looking for problems, how can we be? If gratitude and appreciation are lacking in our lives, we will miss the path to happiness.
What is going well in your life?
People often tend to focus on what is going wrong in their lives, rather than giving themselves a chance to dwell on what’s going well. It is true that we can learn very helpful lessons from things that happen which we would describe as mistakes. And learning such lessons allows us to develop our skills, our compassion and the ability to see things from alternative points of view. However, sometimes I think we forget there are great lessons to be had from the parts of life that fill us with joy. Simply the act of shining a light on those good feelings encourages them to grow and infuse the rest of our life, or at least the rest of our day.
Why not celebrate and develop the things we do well? We can’t all be good at everything, and while it’s no bad idea to challenge ourselves and look for new areas in which we can learn, we can also hone the skills we have been blessed with. After all, they then become gifts with which we can improve other people’s lives in some way. When we feel like we are a very good fit with what we are doing — whether that is in our job, our relationship or any other aspect of life — we don’t need to spend so much time looking around the next corner for happiness because we feel it in our contentment and our relaxed confidence. When we get back to the simplicity of doing something well, we are lucky enough to remind ourselves of the essence of life.
We seem to find it much easier to believe in the negative side of things (this is where our belief is at its strongest) and we have no confidence in the good things. But to change life in the positive sense, let’s start with believing that happiness, joy, peace — all the great things — can happen with us first. We can be fearless if we want to.
So we might wake up in the morning and think for a few moments about the loving people in our lives, that we have a roof over our heads, a cup of tea first thing and the ingredients in our cupboards for a good breakfast. We then think about the things we are grateful for that we don’t have today: illness, for example, if we are in good health, blindness, if we can see, homelessness, if we have a home. This kind of thinking not only helps to bring our happiness to the surface, but also to tune in our awareness. As we train our minds to consider the things in our lives that make us want to say ‘thank you’, we begin to notice more of them and take fewer things for granted. The other benefit is that by practising this kind of thinking we also help to develop our compassion for others; we are able to acknowledge suffering and have the strength to look directly at it, so that we may also have the motivation to help those in need.
Work on your strengths
Don’t be afraid that appreciation for what is present in your life right now will somehow stop you from striving or being ambitious. To be content and appreciative is not to be confused with being complacent. If you can hold gratitude in your heart and mind, you can begin to live in the present, rather than wishing for the good old days of the past or putting off happiness as something you will only allow yourself as a reward for some outstanding goal or desire. You continue to create goals and to strive, but you also allow yourself to recognise the positive things in your life right now, today. The more you work on your strengths, the bigger the contribution that you will make to the world and to all the people around you. By turning your mind around in this way, you give nourishment to those good things — your loving relationships, for example — and they begin to bloom in even more beautiful ways.
Even those who are a little more on the pessimistic than optimistic side of the scales can begin to see what’s right in front of them with appreciation, rather than spending so many of their thoughts on worrying about things in the future. Likewise, if you are someone who is very optimistic, but always running towards the next project, or if you can’t wait for the next turning along your path, you can use this sense of appreciating your life right now to bring you back into the present moment, so you can enjoy today as much as the thought of tomorrow.
Put aside your complaints
When we develop our appreciation of every day we begin to be able to let go of our ideas of perfection — the ‘if onlys’: this present my husband gave me for our anniversary is lovely, but if only he’d thought to take me out for dinner; this job is challenging and exciting — if only my boss weren’t so moody, I could really enjoy it …
Sometimes I think we make life very complicated for ourselves. We go the long way round in our search of happiness or inspiration when it’s right there, with us all the time. I can see why this happens though. Just turn on the news and you’ll think nothing ever good happens in the world — all you see and hear is bad news, sad news and violent news. Then you start to believe that the only way to get a bit of attention yourself is to act like a drama king or queen; you may find yourself saying things like, ‘You think your day was bad, listen to mine’. Think how much more happiness you could have if you banished all the complaints in your thoughts, at least for a few minutes of the day!
I have met many people on my travels who have taught me some incredible lessons about appreciating every day. People who have been initially devastated by the diagnosis of a serious condition will often let go of all the small complaints they’d normally find themselves making and see the gift of life with a new sense of clarity. It might sound morbid, but when we truly accept the certainty of death we truly appreciate life. This is why Buddhist teachings encourage people to reflect on death, rather than hide it away in the corners of their minds. If we don’t accept today that we might die, at any moment, then how will we really live? And instead of fearing death, we can use this one certainty in our lives to inspire us to release all the conditions we place on happiness. There is no need to put off happiness; you can allow it into your mind and your heart today.
Below is an excerpt from my own diary, from the Eco Pad Yatra to Sri Lanka, a country torn apart by war but where we found joy and appreciation every step of the way. The Eco Pad Yatras are ‘walking pilgrimages’ that we organise each year with hundreds of nuns, monks and volunteers so that we can visit remote villages while picking up all the plastic waste we find along the way.
Besides the warm hospitality that we received throughout our one-month walk from the south to the north of Sri Lanka, we were moved to witness the possible harmony among different religions and races. Whenever we passed through pockets of Muslim and Hindu areas, we were offered shelters, food, drinks and prayers. No one came with an angry face whenever hundreds of us walked through their towns, villages and holy places. For a country that had gone through three decades of violent war, it was very difficult for me to believe that the people could continue their life with smiles and forgiveness. We walked from south to north and it wouldn’t be easy for the government or the people to hide any negative happening from us. We were free to interact with anyone. I asked many people why were they able to keep themselves free of pain after what they had gone through. Most of them gave credit to the Buddhist monks who gave teaching on karma, appreciation, tolerance and forgiveness. I know that many of my friends and students have doubts in the teachings, and especially in karma, but we all could see in Sri Lanka how important Dharma was for the people who were going through thirty years of war. Parents had to tell their children every morning before going to work that they might not return — they could be killed in terrorist attacks. They told their children that they had to follow the teachings of the Buddha and continue living with love, patience and understanding because it would come a time when the negative karma is exhausted, peace would prevail again. This is the effect of putting Dharma into practice.
In America, the Thanksgiving holiday is as significant as Christmas Day, if not more so, perhaps, as it is celebrated by many faiths and communities. Being thankful is really the best tool we have for bringing happiness to the surface of our minds. So don’t wait to be thankful for one day in the year — give yourself a few minutes every day to remind yourself of the things in your life for which you can say thank you.
Each morning when you wake up, spend a few moments thinking about everything you have to feel good about in your life:
Think of the people closest to you.
Think of your body and be thankful for your senses and the health you have.
Think of the things that you are happy not to have in your life, such as illness or homelessness.
Think of what has inspired you recently.
Think about the good parts of your work.
This exercise encourages you to look both inwards and outwards. It is a simple but powerful reminder of the riches you have in your life already. You might be thankful for your health, the roof over your head, the fact that today might be an interesting or fun day. And as you mentally say thank you to your loved ones, you may find that you tend to focus more on their good points and that this, in turn, will encourage you to show your happiness towards them through being thoughtful and caring and asking what they need as a way of saying thanks for being in your life.
It is easy to get caught up with analysing what we need to fix or change in our lives; to turn such questions over and over in our minds. We worry a great deal about the things that might go wrong while forgetting to nurture and enjoy all the things that are already going right. And if we can practise saying thanks every day when we are generally feeling ok, it will stand us in good stead when we are faced with more difficult times. The habits of happiness that we will develop will give us an underlying strength and resilience.
When you practise this very short meditation daily your whole outlook on life begins to be easier, happier. It is the best way to get out of bed on the right side.
Challenges are gifts too
We also need to appreciate any difficulties we are going through — because without difficulties, we will not learn. When people are unkind to us, talking nonsense about us and forming unfair judgments, we can either make ourselves depressed and dislike them or we can take it as an opportunity to reflect on what we may have done wrong and how we can improve ourselves. It’s often the people who create tremendous difficulties for us who help us to progress on the path by making our journey much more interesting. So rather than being conquered by our own emotions of hatred and unhappiness today, we should take the opportunity to greet those people — to wish them a happy day.
Often, we will join others in complaining about a particular person or group of people because our egos have taken control, allowing our emotions to take over. This is when we need to withdraw from the vicious circle of gossip. If you find yourself in this situation, the best thing to do is to keep your cool and take a step back It’s their business, not yours. By practising meditation you will gradually find it increasingly possible to take that step back, to appreciate the good and also the difficult things in life. It’s the best tool for taking care of your mind, your happiness.
It is easy for life to become a pattern or a series of daily habits and to-do lists. The days whizz by, but somehow we feel that we are not quite making the most of them. We know life is precious, but we have many responsibilities; how can we just drop everything to find our inspiration?
And then, suddenly, we get lost — or rather found — in the moment: we read a line of beautiful poetry, we see an old couple holding hands, we cook the most delicious meal or have a breakthrough in our work. We are inspired. These moments are gifts that open us up to happiness.
Our mental and emotional habits keep us chained, and then we experience moments which reveal to us the true spaciousness in our minds and the universe around us. Those moments that, for example, nature offers to us every day through the sunrise and the sunset. A woman I met told me that she’d gone to look at the sunset on the shortest day of the year, the winter solstice, but she wasn’t sure if she would be able to see anything because it was a very cloudy day. As she was standing, looking out over a valley in the English countryside, about to turn back for home, the smallest crack appeared in the clouds and the sun rays streamed through. She hadn’t expected anything but walked home with a feeling of potential — such a generous gift from the sun.
When we feel inspired we look beyond and also into the mundane and notice what is really important in life, we understand the meaning of life, every day. When inspired we find it so much easier to concentrate, to be in the flow and get things done — we walk with a lightness in our step, we notice the detail, we are happy and that makes others feel happiness too. We feel lucky. Inspiration feeds our inner wisdom and even feeds our body; we are inspired by the food we savour, by human touch, words, even by a walk in nature.
Inspiration leads to action
Somehow, inspiration helps us know what we want to do; and then it’s up to us to set our minds to go ahead and do it.
Many people think we Buddhists are only about thinking and never doing, but really it’s more that we need to think so that we are then able to do. In other words, if we lack intention, motivation or determination, then we will soon struggle with the ‘doing’ part of the equation. It’s like waking up one morning and immediately trying to go on a diet: you might be surprised or disappointed in yourself when you give up within days or even hours. But if you expected your body to make an instant change without working on your mind first, you were more than likely going to be in for a disappointment.
Appreciation helps you to notice what inspires you and it encourages you to grab that inspiration and turn it into action. So you are no longer following your dreams, always one step behind; instead, you are being them, from moment to moment, day to day. You get back to the heart of yourself and what you do.
When you give yourself the space in which to be inspired, you will likely want to share your inspiration, your joy, with others. The happier you feel, the more generous you become. You become a better listener, you reach past your fears of what may or may not happen in your life and open yourself up to the possibilities.
Find your inspiration
Rather than wait for inspiration to find you, why not look for it in your life, in the everyday. I know you’ll find it. Be lovable, be kind … start there and you’ll soon see what inspires you. Appreciation and inspiration are close allies. Just spending a few moments each day reminding yourself of the good in your life gives you a peaceful but powerful energy.
I feel inspired by nature, people, all beings, every day. From the smallest ant to the highest mountain there is always a reason to say ‘Wow’. And my job in life is simply to remind people of the good in their hearts and their capacity for love and compassion towards others — to be inspired by this life, so that we may share with others in whatever way we can.
Put simply: inspiration deserves our attention because life deserves our attention. Just as my mother tends her garden, for example, we can all cultivate what inspires us. If we nourish our own talents, then we have so much more to give; then there can be great joy in both our work and play, and we can become more relaxed about ourselves and about others. We can let go of the nonsense that so often rules our day and focus on what really matters. We can let go of the need for praise or blame and even be inspired by our mistakes, as there so often lie the best lessons. We can even be inspired by our fears because breaking through them is often the biggest catalyst for transformation. We can live life daringly.