Seasons of Grace: The Life-Giving Practice of Gratitude

(Hardback - Jan 2003)
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Praise for Seasons of Grace
"In this beautifully written book, Alan Jones and John O'Neil deliver a timely antidote to the stressed-out, spiritually barren lives that too many of us accept as the price of success. This is a book that may both comfort and challenge you to change your life and the world for the better."
-Dean Ornish, M.D., author of Dr. Dean Ornish's Program for Reversing Heart Disease and Love & Survival
"I love this book. It is packed with inspirational stories from the lives of the authors and their friends that illustrate how feelings of gratitude for even the smallest gifts and kindnesses and joys help us to live each day to the full. Reading Seasons of Grace will help you to cope with the hard times, to find the silver linings. It is a splendid, joyous, and enriching recipe for life."
-Jane Goodall, author of Reason for Hope and The Ten Trusts
"Most people are grateful because they're happy; wise people are happy because they're grateful. Thank you, Alan Jones and John O'Neil, for reminding us of this happy fact."
-Roger Walsh, M.D., Ph.D., author of Essential Spirituality: The 7 Central Practices to Awaken Heart and Mind
"As gentle as it is wise, Seasons of Grace shows us everyday life as a joyous spiritual art: the art of receiving, day by day, the life we are given-every last bit of it."
-Jacob Needleman, author of The American Soul


  • SKU: 9780471208327
  • SKU10: 0471208329
  • Title: Seasons of Grace: The Life-Giving Practice of Gratitude
  • Qty Remaining Online: 129
  • Publisher: John Wiley & Sons
  • Date Published: Jan 2003
  • Pages: 253
  • Weight lbs: 1.11
  • Dimensions: 9.20" L x 6.38" W x 0.93" H
  • Features: Table of Contents, Price on Product, Index, Dust Cover, Bibliography
  • Themes: Theometrics | Secular;
  • Awards: 2004 Nautilus Award (Winner - Spirituality)
  • Category: SPIRITUALITY
  • Subject: Spirituality - General

Chapter Excerpt

Chapter One

The Unexpected Gift

Love wholeheartedly, give thanks and praise-then you will discover the fullness of your life. -Brother David Steindl-Rast

* * *

Risking Our Inner Lives

Sometimes we want to break out of our own skin-to smash through the boundaries we sense are confining our spirits so we can experience something like ecstasy, so we can feel alive. From all around us come reports of people feeling dead, or at least distanced from the kind of living they sense is possible. Feeling disconnected, unrooted, unreal. Ordinary tonics-stimulants, sex, travel-don't seem to carry enough charge to jolt them back to life. They demand stronger medicines.

We die by seconds and live by inches. As a matter of course, we maneuver cars through heavy traffic at speeds where survival is a matter of good brakes and millimeters of tire tread. We take off and land in planes (mostly safely) and undergo medical procedures of extraordinary complexity (not quite as safely). Yet most of the time, living at the edge of literal death is not part of our awareness. We often push our fears down and reduce them to something manageable. The little near-deaths somehow help us feel more alive; some even seek ever more hazardous pursuits to counter the fear of a living death.

"New economy" types, occasionally emerging from their self-imposed work prisons, sign up for expensive adventure trips that involve strenuous trekking, whitewater boating, or high-altitude ascents-another kind of addiction to velocity. At the extreme, risk-takers throw themselves off precipices, bridges, and buildings; for them, even skydiving has become too safe and predictable. Then there are the professional daredevils: athletes who put their bodies on the line for fame and gain, or journalists obsessively drawn to whatever world conflict is raging hottest.

That a few people are drawn to such extremes is surely part of the human behavior curve. But why, today, do so many find the need to amp up their already stressed lives? The answer, we think, is that they sense their inner lives are at risk. The risks we take with our inner lives are usually less obvious but more insidious-starting with simple neglect. Deprived of attention, the starving spirit weakens and soon can barely make its voice heard above the external din. Our most fundamental needs-for loving contact, communal reassurance, sensory stimulation, ritual, and ceremony (to name just a few)-may go unmet. And all the stock-market scores, trophy homes, partners, and toys disappear down a bottomless void. Unless we can feed our inner life, our ability to perceive and savor the outward world in all its splendor withers.

Your Gratitude Quotient

We need to develop a sense of smell to help us figure out where true life can be found. We may not lack courage, but we sometimes lack discrimination in our risk-taking. Not all risks are life-bearing.

Our hunger to break out and go live is a sign that we're on to something important. We're on the edge of a great adventure of the human spirit-if we only knew it. Somewhere inside, we know that our right destiny is to experience joy, warmth, sweetness, communion, cathartic sorrow, creative work, and play-not just to imagine or recall those feelings in fleeting moments, but to feel fully alive all the time. Spring.The surest path to that ever-renewed sense of being alive is through gratitude. A grateful heart, we've concluded, is an absolute prerequisite to a fully human life.

Gratitude-as conviction, practice, and discipline-is an essential nutrient, a kind of spiritual amino acid for human growth, joy, and creativity. Take away the daily experience and expression of gratitude, and life is quickly diminished. Like a weakened immune system, the spirit is left vulnerable to the diseases of cynicism, anger, low-grade depression, or at least an edgy sense of dissatisfaction. Gratitude-deprived, we suffer a relentless loss of vitality and delight.

It's easy not to notice when gratitude goes missing. More and more gets taken for granted. Privileges such as physical health, a child's love, freedom of action, and a comfortable home are all seen as entitlements. We fail to notice things. Travel becomes boring; even exotic adventures bring a very short wave of satisfaction. Meals are consumed mindlessly, without any ceremony of appreciation. Friends disappoint us. Boredom becomes a constant and finally sadness settles in, an unwanted, lingering guest. Under such conditions, there's no chance for the greening power of spring to take hold.

We want to expand your idea about what gratitude means. We're guessing that your gut response to the words "gratitude" or "being grateful" is slightly impatient or even dismissive. "Grateful" is what you feel when someone gives you a present, right? Or does you a favor? At least, it's how your parents said you should feel, and they trained you to say "thank you"-even for that ghastly sweater you got from an unpleasant aunt when you were seven. Later, expressing gratitude carried the weight of obligation. You were suddenly in someone's debt. You owed. This idea of gratitude carries the burden of having to pay back.

At best, gratitude can sound like an incredibly simple, harmless notion. "Live with a grateful heart? Sure, why not? Couldn't hurt. I'll do it! Check that off the list." But you might as well simply decide to live mindfully, upon first hearing of that fundamental principle of Buddhist thought. Mindfulness is being completely aware each and every present moment. Such life-changing, soul-shifting practices tend to be intellectually simple to grasp but elusive to master in everyday life. Incorporating them into our being takes not only the will to do so but time and effort.

So the practice of gratitude, as we conceive it, has a lot in common with living mindfully-in a heightened state of awareness-and our approach to it borrows from many spiritual traditions. In fact, all the great religious traditions emphasize wakefulness, gratitude, and compassion.

A deeper conception of gratitude encompasses a stance toward life and a discipline in which it is forged, tested, and strengthened. In this stance, we choose to be open to what life offers us: to seek out all that makes us fully alive and present to experience, to acquire discernment about what works toward that fullness of life in the long run. Ram Dass says that whatever happens in your life is your curriculum-the vehicle for your learning. In practicing gratitude, we choose to view life fundamentally as a source of joy, the world as loving and giving of what we need, rather than the reverse. Or, as the poet Wendell Berry wrote, "Be joyful even though you have considered all the facts."

Why does appreciation for the gift of life come more easily to some than to others, regardless of objective cause? This is one of life's great mysteries. Some who have been through horrendous circumstances are able to appreciate and enjoy life, while others blessed with abundant resources respond to life mainly with resentment, anxiety, or anger. The capacity for gratitude seems to have little or no relation to wealth or circumstances, or even to whether or not we were raised in a loving home. M. Scott Peck, in his book In Search of Stones, even speculates that some people carry a gene for gratitude that others lack.

We would agree that everyone seems to have some mysterious, built-in setting on the gratitude spectrum. To be congenitally inclined toward gratefulness is a great gift in itself, as Peck observes. Some might call it a gift from God; others would consider it a result of brain chemistry. It doesn't really matter, though. What matters is that everyone can benefit by nurturing this gift, to whatever extent we're endowed with it. And if you think your gratitude quotient is low, then deliberately cultivating a grateful heart can make that much more difference in your life. Whatever we're least good at, we need to practice most.

Opening to Wonder

Alan set down this memory when he began thinking about occasions in his life when he was surprised by an unexpected gift:

A sunny afternoon in Paris a few years ago I took the Metro to Montmartre and walked up the steps to Sacre Coeur, when all of a sudden the world was ablaze with glory and the light of it was around me and in me and shining through everything. Where did this joy come from, with its gift of presence and rightness? What triggered it? Was it the kid with the ice cream-great gobs of it dripping down her seraphic face? Was it the couple entwined on the grass who had eyes only for each other? Was it the sunlight playing on the leaves of the trees, delighting the eye with every shade of green imaginable? I don't know and I could drive myself crazy trying to work it out. All I do know is that it had something to do with amazement at the sheer gift of life.

It seemed to me then that joy is a bit like reading a story that never comes to an end. You get caught up in it-even lost in it. The joy of it is that it is all gift. I also had tears welling up. I discovered the strangeness of a joy because tears can be mixed up in it. You never know when life is going to surprise you and stun you with a joy that makes your eyes wet with tears.

Just for a few moments on that September afternoon, joy became my raison d'ĂȘtre. I knew why I was here. I learned something about adoration-the amazement at being our true selves in the presence of life as gift. Joy makes adoration, compassion, and community possible. And while these are possible, so are we. And it had something to do with very ordinary things like the kid with the ice cream, the lovers in the park, and all those greens of the leaves that luminescent afternoon on Montmartre. I learned that joy is in the particular, and I still worry a little bit about missing what's under my nose.

The groundwork of any gratitude practice is opening to wonder, recovering the ability to be astonished. In order to experience gratitude as more than a trivial acceptance of what is given (perhaps owed) to us, we must first be able to experience life's gifts as truly extraordinary and miraculous. In this way, the springtime of gratitude entails a revival and deepening of the imagination. Our horizons easily become narrowed, our perceptions blunted. The soil on which our growth as humans depends can be poisoned by patterns and strategies of denial, cynicism, resentment, and revenge.

Humans have an inexhaustible need for something that honors our capacity for wonder-we see this demonstrated over and over in scientific research and scholarly inquiry; in our awe of natural phenomena and our urge to explore space; in our admiration for humans who perform miraculous feats of creativity, virtuosity, or athleticism. We all need to get out of our skins, to journey outside the confines of our own little world. However, that need can also get us into trouble. If it's not fed something nourishing then it will attach itself to activities that can do harm, such as taking unreasonable risks and doing foolish or destructive things.

Risk taking exerts such a powerful attraction because it is related to freedom-the awesome freedom to break boundaries and go beyond our limits. That's why some of us tempt fate by risking all that we have and are. Like the dormant seed in the ground, we want to respond to the warm sun and the soft rain, break out of our shell and see the light of day.

Practicing gratitude both feeds our need for wonder and frames ways we can get out of ourselves (off the treadmill of me, me, me) and risk appropriately and courageously. We can then dare to love. We can risk openness to others and the world. We can be less attached to material things. We can see how absurd our mentality of scarcity is in the light of our relative wealth. In short, we can stop playing dead and become fully alive. Specific practices that help open us to wonder include slowing down, paying attention, giving up some control, and being alive to the unexpected.

Slow Down

To experience wonder, you have to notice what's going on around you, and most of the time our lives are going by in a blur. We need to cultivate a new attitude towards time if we are to open ourselves again to wonder and heart-piercing surprise. Slowing down is not an end in itself, but a first step toward a more creative and soul-nurturing relationship with time. Instead of being irritated or enraged by life's ordinary inconveniences-waiting for an elevator, sitting in traffic, even being stuck on the runway on a delayed flight-we can use them as opportunities to open up and take notice. Unsolicited gifts often come at these inconvenient moments.

Pay Attention

Every day the world offers itself to be seen. Seeing things with a grateful eye requires attentiveness and engages our imagination; imagination is a way we take part in the world, not escape from it. We can train ourselves to see the immensity of the commonplace, the world offering itself to our imagination every moment. A poem, a piece of music, a particular smell: if we pay attention, these can open up new worlds.

Such ordinary experiences not only affect the present moment but also shape our sense of the future. In other words, they give substance to hope. Sometimes it's as if a piece of music or a painting or a book takes possession of us, and we feel amazed and honored to have such guests inside us. We become the host of the undreamed and unexpected. The genuinely new becomes possible. Springtime returns.

Going live involves deciding where to focus our attention. Human beings, suggests the poet and translator John Ciardi, "are what we do with our attention." Or as the mystics would say, we are what we contemplate. If we give our best attention to things that ultimately fail to satisfy us, we get into trouble. Going live, then, may be the act of attending to what's really going on inside and around us. This can be unnerving, because it sharpens our awareness of life's fragility and difficulty. But it also awakens us to life as a gift and starts the wheels of gratitude turning. The positive feedback that gratitude produces is what allows us to stay live, to not shut down.

Give Up Control

"Do something every day that won't compute," says our friend George. Part of what he means is to get yourself out of the place where you feel comfortable and in control in order to expose yourself to someplace where you can't predict the outcome.

Technology's pervasive power offers the illusion that everything is fixable. Worse yet, it can render life sterile.



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