Gratitude Altar

April 22, 2013

Gratitude AltarThere is a mind-training (lojong) slogan the Tibetan Buddhist tradition that says, “Be Grateful to Everyone”. (There are 59 of these slogans, and they’re all inspiring and awesome!)

The slogan attempts to point us to the reality that nothing that happens to us occurs in a vacuum. We are all connected to each other on this planet — even the non-human “things” like air and water and earth — in an infinite variety of ways.

As an example, consider the pair of shoes you’re wearing right now, and attempt for a moment to imagine every single person or resource that ever had anything to do with the existence of those shoes and their eventual landing place on your feet: their invention in the first place and all the inventors of shoes they were based on; their manufacturing and everyone who had anything to do with the factory, even down to the person who cared for the child of the person at the supermarket who sold the food to the person who worked at the factory (you get the idea); all the natural and synthetic resources that went into their construction, and the people who cultivated those resources; all the marketing, sales, storage, transportation, packaging, and everyone who ever had anything to do with all of that, and all the people who enabled THEIR work. Whew! All this for a single pair of shoes we typically take for granted.

It is literally endless, and you begin to get a real sense for how we truly are all interconnected, and how absolutely nothing we “have”, whether it be an experience or a thing, comes to us without being touched by the hand or essence of other people or the resources of the earth.

And if you adopt the attitude (hard!) that even our most challenging experiences and interactions can be re-framed into something we can learn from, this gratitude extends even further. When we are able to find gratitude for even the people who “hurt” us, we are really getting somewhere: What lessons can we learn about establishing healthy boundaries, or our own victim identity? How we can use the experiences to help us “wake up” and “grow up”, drop our baggage, relax our triggers and minimize reactivity? Can we learn to forgive?

All of this is what “Be Grateful to Everyone” means.

Here is a family practice activity that revolves around the concept of gratitude, and tracing back the gratitude to as many sources and in as many directions as possible. The basic idea is as old as the hills: a found-object altar. You may already have one, but I’m suggesting adding the Gratitude twist for some depth and as an opportunity to explore the concept of inter-being with your kids. Basically, it goes like this:

Gratitude Altar
Create a special place in your home or yard for a Gratitude Altar. You can start with a natural object you find while walking in the park, but your kids will want to add “trash”, too, which is also instructive!

Each time you add something, take a moment to discuss what went into the creation of that thing. If it’s a pine cone, for example, talk about the seed that produced the tree and how it might have gotten there (carried on the back of a raccoon?); the soil, sun and rain that nourished the tree; the wind that shaped the tree and eventually blew the pine cone to the earth; the birds that sang near the pine cone (the pine cone must have enjoyed that!); the gardeners and rangers who cared for the park; the people that picnicked underneath the tree and moved the pine cone aside to the exact spot where you found it; your parent who took you for a walk; your strong hands which carried the pine cone lovingly home.

Express your gratitude for the web of people and resources and actions and magic that went into the existence of this pine cone, on your altar, in this moment. Then, if you wish to ritualize your offering, say:

I am grateful for this pine cone.
I am grateful for the earth, sun, air and rain.
I am grateful for the people and the animals.
I am grateful for the world and all it offers me.

I guarantee this altar will become a thing of beauty filled with both natural and “human-made” items (which all ultimately come from the earth, too). You can paint a sign that says “Gratitude Altar” and hang it up, or decorate the altar. Let your creativity flow and be magical with your children, with this project and all things, for they grow up even faster than you ever imagined they could.

I am grateful for you!

There’s an Ancient Tiny Place

April 1, 2013

I just found out that April is National Poetry Writing Month (NaPoWriMo for short) — an annual project encouraging poets to write one poem each day in April. What a cool idea, and why not give a try? Here’s a link to the NaPoWriMo web site for more info. If you’re inspired to join the project or are already part of it, please leave me a comment so I can follow your work! Here’s my 4/1 poem:

there’s an ancient tiny place

there’s an ancient tiny place
in the core of my heart
where the wind whistles low
and hollow are the walls
and the doorways

there’s an echo swirling round
but you cannot make it out
for its from another time and
something melancholy flies
beneath its shadow

I didn’t used to know
all this pain was waiting here
for I’d mastered how to live
and I’d learned a thousand ways
to do the numbing

I didn’t used to know
of the emptiness behind
all the patching and the pruning
and the silencing and smoothing
and the running

when I slow it all down
and stand and meet what’s there
the terror is just this: it will
engulf, control, abuse
obscure, delete, kill
survive and then forget me

but I sit anyway —
for there’s nothing left to do —
waiting for the stars to fall
and all the worlds to end
and I watch and I listen
to my heart

a little while goes
and on the very other side
I can feel more than see
an old sun shining bright and
something softens like a sigh and
for a time then I can hear
the choir singing

like I never did before
both the awakened and forlorn
hurling souls against the sky
that must gather all their voices
and shelter their illusions
in its bosom

so brazen with their screams
and so trusting with their keening
how I long to open wide
set my sorrow free to fly
and join their story

and then it’s there, exploding out
crashing round, smashing open
all the dead and dying walls
and the locks left over
from the brutal sad and barren
hiding times

and when the rising chorus kisses
on the cheek the olden sun
and melts back to my gaping heart
without a toll
without a threat
without a sound
I’ll be forgiven