On Friday 13 March I tasted spring in its fullness. I was flooded with gratitude. Yet ‘gratitude’, especially in religious settings, was for a long time a tainted term in my life.
Growing up, I faced demands to be grateful whether I felt it or not. Over time I came to link this idea to formal performance and competitive public piety: being seen to be ‘good’. It also left my natural feelings of gratitude, when they came up, unrecognised and untended. In this stunted state I developed a cynicism about how language is used, rather than finding ways about how, authentically, to identify and cultivate my own sense of gratitude.
I am sad about this, because, even from a self-referential perspective, the capacity for gratitude is linked to wellbeing, happiness, self-acceptance and a sense of purpose in life. Psychological studies (1) show that gratitude is an active agent and not simply the result of already existing wellbeing. Exercises in gratitude work for many people, for much of the time. There are now considerable academic and self-help literatures on the subject.
Most spiritual traditions recommend gratitude, and for many of them this is linked to a sense of the divine, or some other ultimate point of reference. But this isn’t necessary. Gratitude is named as the third of thirteen principles in Atheopaganism (2), which is based on an entirely naturalistic, science-based cosmology. Here too, gratitude is seen as a habit that has to be learned and practised. The practice can alter both our internal dialogue and our behaviour. “It is good for ourselves, our relationships, our society and our world”.
I came late to gratitude, in the sense being discussed. But I’m a convert now. Being older has somehow helped. There was a decisive moment just under fifteen years ago, when I was 56 years. I was diagnosed with a cancer that might have killed me and I started to ask myself how I was going to maintain my quality of life remaining if I found myself on a downward slope.
I concluded that I would need to do what I could to count my blessings whilst I still lived. I recovered – with the insight still in place. I have built on that with greater awareness over the years, especially since beginning my contemplative inquiry. Now I’m nudged by the coronavirus and the same principles apply. I’m enjoying the experience of spring, usefully aware of my mortality, and grateful to be here, now.
(1) Rupert Sheldrake Science and Spiritual Practices Coronet, 2017
(2) Mark A. Green Atheopaganism: an Earth-Honoring Path Rooted in Science Green Daragon Publishing, 2019 (Foreword by John Halstead)