Meditations on Communities and Gratitude

Patheos, NOVEMBER 12, 2017

This has been a year of numerous shifts in my life: officially finishing my Ph.D.; submitted just days after the swearing in of our current president, finding joy and fulfilment in offering courses on mindfulness to members of my community, moving to a new city – Seattle – followed by my second year teaching in China and finally, slowly, settling back into this, my new home.

Leaving Montana for this city, not terribly far away, has been difficult. I had not planned for Helena to become my “community” after returning there in 2015 to finish writing my thesis, but it did. People entered, I found a church (something this atheistic Buddhist never thought he’d say), new friends, a philosophy based non-profit, and more. I found a familiar rhythm, and pace of life, a doorway into nature, and a new appreciation for my childhood home town.

Now I seek out that rhythm once more in the “big city,” sharing, with my wonderful girlfriend, a 300 square-foot apartment overlooking both a chaotic 3-way stop and a large city park. I’ve found new friends, reconnected with old ones. I found a church -Unitarian Universalist- even before my move. And then a Buddhist group -Zen- and a welcoming host for more mindfulness offerings.

As these new communities take shape, a new sense of home arises. And yet I feel the precariousness of this home in every corner. Perhaps that will pass. Perhaps it is just a matter of time, allowing the body and mind to adjust to a new place in the world. And I’ve adjusted some already. The traffic and the occasional mentally ill homeless person, the refugee from our broken healthcare system, yelling at himself and the world around him, no longer wake me in the middle of the night. I have a favorite grocer, a sense of the traffic, two favorite parks I can reach on foot.

Community. It requires a letting go. Letting go of the past; the futures hoped for as new futures arise. Like so much of fullness, it requires this letting go; emptying our cup, as the old Zen saying goes, to allow new tea.

Gratitude. It is much the same, isn’t it? Letting go of wants and clinging to aversions allows for the arising of appreciation of this, just as it is. That can take some work, no doubt, sorting through layers of grievances to find that place of peace and still and calm. This, just as it is.

I have never lacked for things or people to be grateful toward. Yet, unsettledness, and that ever-present want of life, the Buddha called tanha or thirsting, can quite easily hide the feeling of gratitude from me. I think often of privilege, most often my own which shields me from much of the worst suffering around me these days – even the anguish and fear that might plague many of those homeless not far from where I sit now. But it seems fair to say that no level of privilege or accomplishment can put me, or any of us, beyond tanha.

The Buddha’s teaching, however, is that there is a cure, a cessation of thirst. That cure is found in his prescription: the noble eightfold path. This path is often pictured as eight spokes on a wheel. From the periphery, a superficial experience of life, we move toward the center, toward seeing what makes things turn. The eight spokes support one another, there is no sequence in this way of teaching the path (though other ways advocate a clear progression from ethical dimensions to meditative, and finally wisdom). One begins wherever one is and moves forward, inward, to the heart of things.

And it is at the heart of things that gratitude lies and community is found.

This is very often, too often, I think, taught in the West as a very solitary journey. Yet it is a journey that calls upon community so deeply. The Buddha so valued his community that he made it one of the precious three jewels toward which Buddhists all go for refuge. Spiritual friendship, he once told his attendant, Ananda, is not half of the holy life, but all of it.

Friendship and community and gratitude, and we circle back again and again.