Here in our Stories of Grateful Living, we honor the voices of our community as we invite people to share their personal experiences with gratefulness. Join us in appreciating the explorations, reflections, and insights of fellow community members as we collectively learn what it means to live gratefully.
On October 8, 2017, 16 wildfires broke out in Northern California one night. All of the residents at the Abhayagiri Buddhist Monastery, which is where I was living, were evacuated at 2 o’clock in the morning. We became refugees for a week. We were fortunate that nobody from our monastery was hurt and that we got out safely. We owe a huge debt of gratitude to the first responders and firefighters who saved the monastery. The fires did burn about 70% around our property and we lost about 50 acres of trees, but no structures were damaged. Our neighbors were not as fortunate as nine people died and 500 homes and businesses were lost.
Shortly after the fires, I moved to a small hermitage in White Salmon, Washington. During one of my early meditations, I noticed I was scanning my body, looking for unpleasant bodily sensations with the intention of trying to make it more pleasant. When I noticed this, my immediate thought was, How selfish! Look at all the stress and loss your neighbors are going through, and you are worried about a little pain in your knee?
I remembered hearing that one of my teachers gave a three-month retreat focusing on neutral feelings. I have not listened to those talks, but the idea of using neutral feelings as a theme for a three-month retreat has always been intriguing. So, I gave it a try. Instead of looking for pain or pleasure, I scanned my body for areas that were neither painful or pleasant, and I set my attention on these areas and sensations.
I think for most people our predominant experience is neutral, but we are always looking for pain (to get rid of it) or pleasure, and thus we miss most of our life. Neutral feelings are very closely related to a state of mind called equanimity. As the felt-experience of neutral strengthened while I continued scanning my body, I found that I was no longer afraid of pain and no longer grasping for pleasure. This strength and interest of mind made it feel safe and interested in the painful and pleasurable sensations, but I could choose not to pick those up or focus on them as a meditation subject. So 33% of my experience became painful, but I was not afraid or averse to the pain and thus it wasn’t a focus. Through this practice, I noticed that instead of my life feeling say 2.5% pleasant, it felt 33% pleasant.
When I really open up and allow myself to experience the world, there is a lot of joy and a lot of pain. Opening up to these feelings with equanimity helps me feel less reactive to them, but the pain is still painful and the joy is wonderful.
For three months, I practiced silent meditation at the hermitage. As my retreat came to a close, I noticed that I was crying everyday. Initially this lasted for about six months, then it stopped, only to have something trigger the tears again. It would be safe to say in the first six months after the fires, I cried more than I had in my entire life. I wondered if I should be worried, but something about it felt right. I think in many ways tears are a natural and healthy way to respond to the world. When I really open up and allow myself to experience the world, there is a lot of joy and a lot of pain. Opening up to these feelings with equanimity helps me feel less reactive to them, but the pain is still painful and the joy is wonderful. So why wouldn’t I respond with tears of joy or tears of knowing the pain of another?
Since June 2019 I have been on retreat at Birken Forest Buddhist Monastery in British Columbia, Canada, sauntering in the surrounding hills and wetlands. In the over 500 miles (800 kilometers) that I have wandered off-road, I have been struck by the pure beauty of the landscapes, the fragrances of the trees and flowers, and the subtle changes in temperature as I entered a patch of forest or neared a lake. Often these simple observations would bring me to a feeling of ecstasy, and I would start to cry for seemingly conflicting reasons. I felt gratitude that I was given this opportunity to be on retreat and gratitude that I had learned enough to be able to appreciate some of the wisdom from so many good teachers who took me on as a student. But part of me still felt the pain of the world amidst the gratitude. When I entered a stunningly beautiful but also totally ordinary meadow, my heart would break because there was this feeling that what I was experiencing in that moment–this joy at being in nature and observing all this beauty–is so simple to “get,” and I sensed that this feeling of simple joy is what people are working so hard to “get”. So I would feel this sadness: how can you show people that attaining joy is actually so simple?
The idea to saunter was partly to get in shape for a long hike I hope to do in 2021. I decided to film while I ambled, initially so that I could show friends where I was living, but I quickly discovered that videography could be an ideal way to communicate about spiritual truths.
I began sauntering to get in shape, but I was also seeking solitude; I knew this would be a period of healing.
Now, I’ve already shared one self-produced video, documenting my recent saunterings. I began sauntering to get in shape, but I was also seeking solitude; I knew this would be a period of healing. The video, which is called With Gratitude, reflects my spiritual journey over the past couple of years, which has been guided by gratitude amidst some painful experiences.
I want everybody to feel joy. But even though I might have a way of getting there myself, I might not have the skills to communicate with others how they too can get there. I hope the videos of my experiences, including With Gratitude, can help people realize how easily we can experience gratitude for the joy in our lives, even amidst the pain.
We invite you to share a story about yourself or another person, reflecting on the question: “How has gratefulness shifted a moment, an experience, or a lifetime?”