The Practice of Gratitude
Self-development is the reduction of ego and egocentric desires. It traces our human maturity, bringing a greater sense of autonomy and enhanced empathy with others. Ego reduction is achieved through personal development practices. They are the integrated disciplines of devotion for the mind, rational inquiry for the intellect, and selfless action for the body, (See for more on these).
Devotion is the emotion that arises when the intellect recognizes its own limitations, exposed by questions like How has all that we see around us come to be?
“An acute awareness of the infinite blessings showered everywhere followed by gratitude would constitute the fundamentals of devotion.”1 - A. Parthasarathy
The development of gratitude falls under practice of devotion.
Gratitude can be understood by considering its opposite. The self-centered ego has various expressions, two of which are :
- Taking things for granted.
- A sense of entitlement, the notion of “I deserve. I demand.”
Taking something for granted is an expression of ignorance. That which is ubiquitous in life remains unrecognized. When life remains unexamined, we remain in a state of ignorance, a state of limitation. We remain locked in our own immature, ego-centered perspective. Worse still, we are not aware enough to recognize that this is the case. We are encumbered by limitation, yet do not subject it to the inquiry required to dispel it. Thus Plato wrote,
“The unexamined life is not worth living.”2 - Plato
The feeling of entitlement is subjectively experienced as ‘I don’t have enough.' This feeling exists independent of circumstances. One could be in the top 1% or the bottom 1% and yet still remain in a state of perpetual yearning and dissatisfaction.
The essence of gratitude is the effacement of ego, thus is opposed to these states of ignorance and dissatisfaction. It is positive and pleasing to experience, and has an effect on the mind that is and deactivating and calming. It enhances our satisfaction with life irrespective of circumstances, and promotes harmonious relationships with others.
Eliciting gratitude can become a specific practice that we take time to implement in our lives. We set aside a specific time of the day – prior to a meal, directly before morning study, etc – and spend a few minutes 'counting our blessings.' We search the crevices in the personality: looking for those areas of our life that we take for granted, identifying areas where we are driven by egocentric demands, and by comparison those things for which we feel a genuine sense of gratitude. We are essentially asking What am I genuinely grateful for?
One must take care that this practice does not become the mere mechanical repetition of a list of preconceived ideas. We are searching for a subtle but significant shift in the emotional tone of the personality. Gratitude is emotionally buoyant and at the same time calming. It is a deactivation of anxiety, and the opening of humility. Having located this feeling, we sit quietly and simply absorb it. The practice need not take more than several minutes. It requires no writing of lists, and is not something we need share with others. It is a private practice to ensure our emotional well-being.
Gratitude also develops naturally as we develop insight into the nature of life and living. This insight arises from reflection upon the truths that govern the nature of human experience. This inquiry is born out of the love of truth itself, not for personal gain. When we seek knowledge free from the taint of personal gain, the insights obtained liberate us from ignorance and emotional distress, and thus we become devoted to knowledge itself. Humility always accompanies true knowledge.
Thus, the two practices of study and self-reflection serve to promote gratitude.
Reflection and thus the development of insight are impaired by egocentric assertions of ‘I-know’. Recognition of ignorance is a prerequisite to genuine investigation. Hence humility has been called "that premiere scholarly virtue."3 A person may acquire information, but this is not the same as gaining insight. Only when we have the humility to recognize 'I-don't-know' do we open our minds to receive genuine knowledge. Mental agitations will also inhibit reflection. Put simply, when the mind is agitated, the intellect cannot think.
Gratitude provides a means of circumventing both of these tendencies. It calms the mind and makes the intellect receptive, enabling insight. There is therefore a virtuous cycle between gratitude and insight: gratitude promotes insight; insight elicits gratitude.
A sense of gratitude for what we have received is certainly a higher state than the immaturity of complacency and entitlement. However, gratitude retains the taint of an ego-centered perspective. Gratitude is a feeling of thankfulness for what 'I have received.' It makes 'Me' and 'My experience' the central focus.
In its higher form, gratitude is a general acknowledgement of the universal 'benevolence' of nature, the awe-inspiring expression of nature in all it forms. It is not an individual acknowledgement of what I alone have received. Nature does not preferentially provide for one individual, race, culture, species, or environment alone. Rather, we develop a general awareness of the benevolence received by all: plants animals, humans, and the universe at large. Un-personalized gratitude is essentially Devotion. A. Parthasarathy eludes to this as the divinity in the world:
"Though unknown, one can tune in to the divinity in the world by feeling the wonder of nature"4 - A. Parthasarathy
We must begin to look with a sense of awe and wonder at the functioning of life around us. Our investigations into the more profoundly perplexing questions of life ultimately terminate at the same place: 'I don't know.' True devotion is therefore merely the recognition of the limitations to our own understanding, even as we strive to expand beyond it. In the words of Stephen Hawking,
Try to make sense of what you see and wonder about what makes the universe exist. Be curious.5 - S.Hawking
Lying at the heart of all of our worldly knowledge exists a profound ignorance. a thread of uncertainty that never leaves us. Arrogance is the ramparts of ignorance. Maintaining an awareness of our limitation is essential in our search for greater self-knowledge and self-development.
3^ Musgrove, L. (2008). Mystery and humility in general education. The Chronicle of Higher Education, 54(36), B28.