Gratitude and Grief

Gratitude and Grief

Training as a Buddhist monastic, we rose at 4:00 a.m. I generally enjoy waking up early, but 4:00 is a stretch. I felt groggy, irritable, and found it difficult to meditate. My teacher suggested I reflect on gratitude for the first ten minutes of morning meditation.

Gratitude changes everything

After running through the obvious—food, shelter, my health, the opportunity to practice—I was stumped. Nonetheless, I continued contemplating gratitude each morning, lingering with the feeling it gave me. Interestingly, long-forgotten memories began to appear eating a snow cone at a baseball game; chasing our dog in the park; my mother buying me clothes for school. My heart lifted, my mind brightened, and energy returned.

Equally fascinating, I began to notice small moments of goodness outside of meditation: a kind remark from a monk, a lay visitor asking after my well-being, the beauty of the monastery’s masonry, the cozy warmth of my bed. Those ten minutes’ reflection each morning set a tone for the whole day. If we look closely, we find countless inspirations for gratitude.

Perhaps you’re reading this and wondering, “But how can I be grateful for the blessings in my life when there’s so much suffering and violence in the world?” Gratitude and grief may seem to be in tension with one another, but gratitude and loss are inseparable. Awareness of what is present calls forth what is absent.

Grief embodies our humanity even as gratitude allows us to embrace pain and hardship. Far from imagining a rosy alternate reality or suggesting that those suffering or oppressed should be “grateful” for what they have, genuine gratitude opens us to all of life—the hurt and grief alongside the blessings. It broadens our view so that we don’t overlook goodness in the face of suffering. It supports us in opposing injustice while affirming, “This too is true.”

Making space for all of our feelings keeps the heart healthy and supports wise responses in a complex world. Lulled to sleep by comfort and convenience, we don’t act. Overwhelmed with grief, we can’t engage. Gratitude widens the heart so we can include all our emotions, touch the fullness of life, and stay nimble.

Cultivating gratitude transforms our inner life. It brings happiness, nurtures presence, and creates energy. It teaches us to appreciate goodness, strengthens resilience, and fosters tenderness for suffering—all of which positions us to respond more skillfully in life.

From Your Heart Was Made for This: Contemplative Practices for Meeting a World in Crisis with Courage, Integrity, and Love © 2023 by Oren Jay Sofer. Reprinted in arrangement with Shambhala Publications, Inc. Boulder, CO