Aspen Times Weekly cover story: Gratitude and spirituality
November 25, 2011
ASPEN – We approach religion and spirituality through our own individual lenses. Universal questions float across our minds, disappearing like clouds before we can name them.
What is God? What is good? How can I be happy? What is real? What happens when I die? Does existence have a beginning and end?
Daily life often distracts us these essential questions. During the holidays, however, those clouds drift back in, reminding us of friends, family, mortality, and the choices we make.
I recently asked three members of our religious and spiritual community to explore the meaning of “gratitude.” Ed Bastian, President of Spiritual Paths, a center of meditation training based in Santa Barbara with programs held at the Aspen Chapel, drove the conversation. Bastian, who is Buddhist-inspired, resists the confinement of following a traditional religious path.
“I’m interested in how the principles, techniques and experiences of the great teachers from many different traditions fit into our regular lives,” Bastian said. Now, he explained, he gets more pleasure from finding common threads between the different religions.
Rabbi Mendel Mintz, of the Chabad Jewish Community Center, Cynthia Bourgeoult, visiting Episcopal Priest at the Aspen Chapel and leading voice in contemporary contemplative Christianity, and Father Thomas Keating, the 88-year-old Benedictine Monk and founder of Centering Prayer, living at the Snowmass Monastery, remind us that we’re all one – on this journey called life and that “gratitude” is everywhere.
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Hilary Stunda: Father Keating, you’ve been on your spiritual path for seventy years. How do you see your journey?
Father Thomas Keating: You see how clumsy you were, self-centered or over-concerned with security; and control issues that are such a radical foundation of the ego. You realize, and this is a great source of gratitude, that circumstances, or your prayer, or some kind of awakening to the deeper truths of life and human values, has happened, without you necessarily doing it yourself. Certainly not doing it alone. You can’t control the circumstances of your life. Life happens. It’s no use fighting it but we all do to some degree.
HS: For many people the holidays are emotionally very tough. Many people have no relatives or friends, or perhaps they have shunned part of their life. So these issues bubble up. How can we turn the holidays into potentially transformative moments?
FK: Yes! That’s a very good insight and suggestion. In other words, how can we bring the attitude to the holidays that this is a chance to develop your own compassion and relationship with yourself as you’ve lived life up until now and also all that you have received from the source of your being.
HS: Yes, rather than feel embittered. There are so many who have been dealt a bad hand. They might be living in their car because they’ve lost their homes. They are losing their way. They feel there’s no God. How can they keep faith if they are consistently dealt such tough hands? Should they just perceive it as another challenge to greet with dignity and elegance?
FK: Gratitude is not upfront in their experience. Most of the things they’re experiencing they are not grateful for. But if they can look at the holidays as a chance just to be quiet, and see if they can contact some of the good things they have received in their lives and just be as maybe they haven’t had the time to reflect, being that the pace and noise of our culture is simply off the charts.
Cynthia Bourgeoult: I believe that gratitude is found in the experiential discovery that the universe is neither random nor indifferent. There is an intimacy that reverberates through the cosmos – and can be picked up easily by a quietly attuned heart – imprinting a sense of felt meaning right into our marrow (whether we can understand it with our minds our not) and assuring us of our inalienable belonging. Gratitude is simply our natural human response to intimacy.
Rabbi Mendel Mintz: Gratitude is not just appreciating what we have but understanding the responsibility of what we have and what that means. Having gratitude – – being healthy, friends, family, God, whatever it may be, carries the responsibility of how can I help those less fortunate. When I have something, I am grateful. I am grateful to God. God has helped me or blessed me and I’m going to return the favor. Having gratitude is sharing what we have and reaching out to those who need some help if we have the ability to help.
FK: We certainly didn’t produce our own being. So, here we are, without being consulted. Are we grateful for this or are we annoyed that we are thrust into this rather hazardous world? Is “being” a real gift; something worth being grateful for? I think the essence of being is loving, or becoming more capable of expanding our embrace of it so we don’t exclude any other reality from our heart. We may disagree with it with our distinguishing mind. But that’s not a rejection. That’s a judgement. We have to make it in this world of options. Gratitude doesn’t judge other people. Even if you have a lot of suffering, there are so many experiences wonderful and expressable. Man has to begin with a radical acceptance of gratitude for being here and who we are and accepting ourselves just as we are. It’s the foundation for a relationship of truth; reality with the higher power we call God in the Judeo-Christian tradition.
HS: As an Episcopal Priest, how do you define “spirituality?”
CB: I’d define “spirituality” as the river that carries the deep yearning for meaning and cosmic intimacy that seems to flow through our human nature. It flows through all religions but is not limited to any one of them. When people speak today of being “spiritual but not religious,” they usually mean that they acknowledge the yearning but not the dogmatic and divisive packaging that organized religion so often brings.
HS: Father Keating, you once said your definition of sin was someone who refused to change, grow and adapt. Someone not willing to dive deep and recognize their true essence. It takes courage to shed the mask layers.
FK: Yes. And gratitude is one of the fundamental dispositions of an acceptance of the transforming process. So if you are grateful for what you are now, you are much better disposed to the future plans … your destiny.
HS: It seems as if the world is building toward the momentum of a crisis?
FK: A huge crisis. The human family is not separate a species. We are all of one genus. One source. One destiny. One human nature. Everybody experiences its limitations yet we don’t know where to go from here because we have no experience of higher states of consciousness, except those very few have stabilized themselves in a kind of enlightened state of consciousness. Violence of course is the negative aspect of not loving each other. This is what makes sense. Loving each other and being present and trying to share what we have with others and meet their needs so they can concentrate more on their becoming. Being is really becoming. It’s not static. It’s always changing, dynamic, growing.
RM: Truly good and genuine people are deeply hurt and touched by seeing others going through difficult times. Those people, I’ve seen it almost on a daily basis, want to see that people are looked after. They think of their own blessings in the material sense as a means to really help those who are going through difficult periods. A person was facing eviction and someone stepped up and paid for a year of rent. They did it, by the way, in 15 minutes. It wasn’t as though they thought about it for months and came back. A lot of money and a little money is a relative term. But it was $15,000 that someone put down without blinking an eye.
FK: In our present world, we may be on the edge of a movement toward a human consciousness or spiritual consciousness that enables us to be fully human instead of regressing..
HS: Do you feel that living in Aspen fosters a more spiritual life?
RM: Clearly. It’s not just about life being the daily grind. Because of living here and our surroundings, people are much more spiritually inclined and tend to want to connect to things that are larger than life; larger than themselves in many ways. Just being around mountains has that affect on people. I’m a better person because of it. I feel so blessed that of all the places I could have ended up, I ended up here.
FK: Just walking in nature and receiving the conscious sensation; the delicious flowers and their perfumes. The silence or the interesting sounds of the birds and animals, the vistas…Religion unfortunately can serve some of the egoic needs so it doesn’t work automatically, but letting go of our attachments to our security blankets, material, or spiritual or religious even, is a way of opening ourselves to the divine reality from which we come. There are many ways of drawing people into acceptance and friendship, religion is only one.
RM: When we’re born it’s God saying you matter. We have to do something with our life. It’s not just about going out and working and having a family and making a living. Rather, it’s doing something unique and special that we have the capability to do. Every individual has that ability. So many people struggle with self-esteem and confidence. Why are we here? Why am I going through all this? Just imagine if you got up everyday and thought, I got up today and that’s God telling me I matter. I have a purpose. There’s something I need to accomplish today. That’s probably one of my bigger motivations. If I can help people do that and frankly feel it myself everyday – a sense of meaning and purpose…there’s no better feeling.