Real gratitude is the rarest of sentiments. Once cultivated it can be the basis for true happiness.
R: What is the secret to happiness?
It had been a cloudy day with more than a premonition of rain in the air. It was one of those days when melancholy seems as though it is a simple aspect of nature. The clouds were gray, the grass was dark and even the birds seemed to have lost their predilection to sing. Within the context of the day the question seemed more than natural, as was Mr. Babushnik’s reply: Mr. B: Why, there are many secrets to happiness.
R: I'd settle for one.
Mr. B: Well, it's really quite simple. If you want to be happy you merely have to learn and practice the quality of gratitude. How to say thank you.
R: That's it.
Mr. B: I told you it was simple. Why do you think all the religions are always praising and thanking this god and that god? Hallelujah! Praise the Lord—that kind of thing. Just to look like a bunch of mindless idiots? Of course not. It's just that they're smarter than most other people. It's just the quickest way to happiness. It's just they often don't realize how smart they really are.
But that doesn't mean it's easy. In fact, real gratitude is one of the hardest states to accomplish. You see, you've been running around your whole life saying "thank you" for this, "thank you" for that. Every time some one gives you a glass of water you say thank you. This, of course, is not gratitude. These are the meshing of the gears of civility, the politeness that we learn from time to time. There is no gratitude there.
Gratitude is a feeling of deep felt appreciation. It's a very rare state that has to be practiced. Most people I know have never really even felt the state of gratitude—really.
If I had a child, there is only one skill I would teach her or him—how to be grateful. Why? Because, that would guarantee that child a happy and fulfilled life. And where would a child learn that skill? Well, from the parent. But, of course, just telling little Bozo to be grateful doesn't work. After all, we all teach them, or at least we use to, how to say thank you. But children absorb their parents' feelings. That's how they really learn from them. And, if a parent doesn't know the state of gratitude then a child will have a difficult time with it.
So, notice that I say it's a practice, a skill. It's a subtle feeling at first.
I, of course, stared at Mr. Babushnik quite wide-eyed. It was rare for him to talk at such length and frankly with such passion. It was as though, I had finally found a topic that truly engaged him.
R: What does it feel like?
Mr. B: Well, if you have never known it, it is hard to describe. You may run into it by accident. Unfortunately, you often only feel grateful after something terrible has happened and it's over. Like taking your tight shoes off or when one is better after being sick. Another way to learn gratitude is too stick around people who can feel true gratitude. That's where religious people come in. With gratitude you feel happy about the world, you appreciate what you do have.
Most folk, figure that they must wait until a certain set of criteria are met and then they will be happy. And finally when they are happy, they might consider being grateful. First, few people even know what those criteria are. And most people who say they know what will make them happy, aren't happy when they reach those criteria. And not a wit would they feel grateful.
So it's really the other way around. First one must practice the feeling of gratitude.
Mr. Babushnik looked down at me quizzically just to make sure I was listening.
Mr. B: Just start by saying thank you, blessing folks for no particular reason and try to feel it. If it's a nice day, thank your neighbor. If you get some money, say thank you and appreciate it. Eventually you may feel a tingling somewhere deep inside, wherever this supposed inside is. Once you can feel even the smallest flame of something, you can fan it. And then practice, practice, practice, until it grows and grows. And you have may have a sense of what gratitude is.
Gratitude is the beginning. It's step number one in the Stepping Stones to Freedom. In fact it's maybe the most important step to everything else.
Now notice right away that I said feeling instead of emotion. Big difference.
So this is how it works. First, practice gratitude over all the little things. Oh, things like a nice flower, some delicious food, a friend, even another child, much like yourself. Then you can notice further tinglings inside that spread around what you call your beingness. That's the beginning of happiness. Then after you've got all this happiness, other good things begin to happen. To help this feeling of gratitude grow, you should go around to friends and maybe not so friends and give them gifts because they are in your life. Even if you don't mean it.
Gratitude is great. You should practice it.
I was growing concerned, both because of the intensity of Mr. Babushnik’s exposition, but also that he might be serious that I should start giving gifts to everyone, friends and enemies alike. My question was most practical.
R: For how long?
Mr. B: For at least a year. In fact, you probably shouldn't even think of moving ahead until you've gotten even a little good at gratitude. At least a year.
Now, the Buddhists say you can become happy through not desiring. I tried it and it works, but I was still hungry.
Oh, dear look at the time. It must be time for some tea and cookies. All this talk has made me hungry, not to mention dizzy.
Oh, and don't forget. Always act on insight. Insight without action becomes just another layer of confusion. So if this is insight, you must act. Bye.
And with that Mr. Babushnik got up and walked away. It was most peculiar because he had never quite acted that way before. He walked down his favorite path. I watched until he disappeared behind a stand of trees that covered a bend in the path. I was alone. The world was still dark and cloudy. In fact, the wind had picked up a chill and I felt a drop or two of rain. Yet, the world was different. There was a beauty there that I had not noticed a few moments before. The fulmination of the clouds possessed a magnificence I had never seen before, the smell of the wind that signified the approaching storm was invigorating. Though I never said the words “thank you”, somehow I felt it. And then I noticed the edge of light that rimmed the approaching thunderclouds that filled the darkening sky.