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Grounding in Gratitude

World as Lover, World as Self: Courage for Global Justice and Planetary Awakening
30th Anniversary Edition
by Joanna Macy
Edited by Stephanie Kaza

Excerpt from Chapter Two

The root of joy is gratefulness . . .
It is not joy that makes us grateful;
it is gratitude that makes us joyful.
—BROTHER DAVID STEINDL-RAST

We have received an inestimable gift. To be alive in this beautiful, self-organizing universe—to participate in the dance of life—with senses to perceive it, lungs that breathe it, organs that draw nourishment from it—is a wonder beyond words. And it is, moreover, an extraordinary privilege to be accorded a human life, with self-reflexive consciousness that brings awareness of our own actions and the ability to make choices. It lets us choose to join the praising and healing of our world. Gratitude for the gift of life is a primary wellspring of all religions, hallmark of the mystic, fuel for the artist. Yet we so easily take this gift for granted. That is why so many spiritual traditions begin with thanksgiving, to remind us that for all our woes and worries, our existence itself is an unearned benefaction beyond any we could merit.

In the Tibetan Buddhist path, we are asked to pause before undertaking meditative practice and reflect on the preciousness of a human life. This is not because we as humans are superior to other beings, but because we can “change the karma.” In other words, graced with self-reflexive consciousness, we are endowed with the capacity for choice—to take stock of what we are doing and change direction. We may have endured for eons of lifetimes as other life forms under the heavy hand of fate and the blind play of instinct, but now at last we are granted the ability to consider and judge and make decisions. Weaving our ever more complex neural circuits into the miracle of self awareness, life yearned through us for the ability to know and act and speak on behalf of the larger whole. Now the time has come when we can consciously enter the dance.

In Buddhist practice, that first reflection is followed by a second, on the brevity of this precious human life: “Death is certain; the time of death is uncertain.” That reflection awakens in us the marvelous gift of the present moment—to seize this chance to be alive right now on planet Earth.

EVEN IN THE DARK

That our world is in crisis—to the point where survival of conscious life on Earth is in question—in no way diminishes the value of this gift. On the contrary, to us is granted the privilege of being on hand to take part, if we choose, in the arising of a just and sustainable society. We can let life work through us, enlisting all our strength, wisdom, and courage, so that life itself can continue.

There is so much to be done, and time is so short. We can proceed, of course, out of grim and angry desperation. But the tasks progress more easily and productively with a measure of thankfulness for life; it links us to our deeper powers and lets us rest in them. Many of us are braced, psychically and physically, against the signals of distress that continually barrage us in the news, on our streets, and in the wider world. As if to reduce their impact on us, we withdraw like a turtle into its shell. But we can choose to turn to the breath, the body, the senses, for they help us to open to wider currents of knowing and feeling. The great open secret of gratitude is that it is not dependent on external circumstance. It’s like a setting or channel that we can switch to at any moment, no matter what’s going on around us. It’s a posture of the soul. Like the breath, it helps us affirm our basic right to be here.

Thankfulness loosens the grip of the consumer society by contradicting its hidden but pervasive message: that we are insufficient and inadequate. The forces of corporate capitalism continually tell us that we are needy—we need more stuff, more money, more approval, more comfort, more entertainment. The dissatisfaction it breeds is profound. It infects people with a compulsion to acquire that delivers them into the cruel bondage of debt. So gratitude is liberating. It builds a sense of sufficiency that is quite subversive to the consumer economy. Elders of indigenous cultures have retained this knowledge, and we can learn from them.

Published by Parallax Press
2236B Sixth Street Berkeley, California 94710 parallax.org

Parallax Press is the publishing division of Plum Village Community of Engaged Buddhism, Inc.
© 1991, 2007, 2021 by Joanna Macy
All rights reserved
Printed in Canada

No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, without permission in writing from the publisher. Permission granted to Shalem Institute for one time use, August, 2021.

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[…] Joanna Macy, from her book, World as Lover, World as Self: Courage for Global Justice and Planetary Awakening as quoted in Grounding in Gratitude […]