Usually, when we talk about gratitude, we express gratitude for our blessings. For example, I’m grateful for my beautiful daughter Siena. I’m grateful that I live by the ocean among the redwoods in the most beautiful place on earth. I’m grateful to feel like I am smack dab in the center of living and fulfilling my calling to be of sacred service in my own unique ways. Gratitude for our blessings opens the heart and raises our vibration, calling in more blessings. Being grateful for our blessings feels good and reminds us to appreciate what is with us already.
But can we also practice radical gratitude, meaning, can we feel just as grateful for our struggles—our painful experiences, our crises, and the Dark Nights of the Soul that we experience both individually and as a collective? Can I access the state of consciousness that allows me to feel grateful that I lost five people I love this fall—most of them way too young and tragically? Can I be grateful for the breakup I just experienced from someone I adore? Can I be grateful that my spiritual retreat center Harbin Hot Springs—the place I would go to heal from this kind of grief—burned to the ground in a wildfire?
More radically, can we as a culture feel grateful for what is happening with ISIS, as innocent people are murdered around the world in the name of a jihad? Can we find it in our hearts to not only accept but even thank those suffering souls who think they must become suicide bombers in order to stand for what they think is right?
Can we be grateful for climate change? For extinction of animal and plant species? For genocide? For sexual trafficking of women and children? Can we be grateful for starving babies and suffering refugees and mega storms that threaten to flatten whole cities?
The Story of Separation
Can we be grateful for all of these things as they all point toward how far we’ve ventured into what Charles Eisenstein calls the “Story of Separation”—the world view that marks us as separate from one another, separate from nature, separate from the Divine, separated from the Oneness mystics point toward? If we can find a way to feel grateful for the ways in which our eyes are being opened as individuals and as a culture, so we can be radically grateful for what we are realizing about the nature of this Oneness, maybe . . . maybe . . . we can finally—humbled to our knees with the painful experiment of “progress” in the name of Western culture—start to come together to write a new story—the Age of Reunion?
Maybe in the Age of Reunion, we won’t choose to judge everything as right and wrong, black and white, good and bad? Maybe we can just be grateful for everything that allows us to grow as souls, to be fully embodied as souls in a human body, to open ourselves radically to the deep experience of being alive.
The Paradox of Pain and Gratitude
Remember, this isn’t about condoning terrorism or celebrating the ways in which humans violate each other and the natural world. It’s not about employing some sort of spiritual bypass that asks us to skip past the devastation of losing our loved ones and watching humans destroy each other. It’s not about numbing the pain or using some mental construct to distract us from the pain the Story of Separation creates in our hearts.
It’s about cultivating the ability to hold a paradox. We can both feel the deep pain of grief, loss, and tragedy, and we can be grateful for the ways in which such experiences crack us open, shatter the illusions of the ego, and wake us up to the truth of being. These experiences allow us to finally be able to see and feel and experience that we are all One, and we are simply here to love each other and care for one another, should we finally choose to say yes to this true calling.
We can cry out with the horror of the heartbreak, and we can also feel gratitude for the opportunity to dive all the way into the fully enlivening human experience of heartbreak. Both can be true at the same time without skipping anything. We can welcome it all—the betrayal, the violation, the disappointment, the horror—but also the ways in which tragedy brings us together, reminds us who we are, helps us remember what our core values are, and knocks us out of the complacency of everyday life.
Recently, I met Will Pye, who is a year out from brain surgery. His book, Blessed with a Brain Tumor: Realizing It’s All Gift and Learning to Receive, takes this concept of radical gratitude to its extreme. Will is genuinely grateful to have been blessed with a brain tumor because of all the gifts that came alongside the tumor. I too am grateful to have lost five people I love. There were as many miracles alongside these losses as there were tears. And it also hurts and feels scary, tragic, painful, and devastating. Both are true if we’re able to hold the paradox.
Getting Shaken Awake
The more I explore this practice of radical gratitude, the more I am curious about what a fully ensouled human might feel, be, and do. In the memoir I wrote about my own journey to ensoulment, The Anatomy of a Calling, I came to realize that my journey had necessary pitfalls built into it, that I couldn’t have skipped the hard parts without slowing down my own journey of awakening. I have needed these Perfect Storms as wake-up calls in order to give my soul more input in how I live my life.
When I was comfortable, it was easy to go back to sleep, but when I get shaken by grief, I remember why I am here and what really matters. My new mantra, borrowed from Martha Beck, is “Cave early.” Please God, let me choose the more graceful path as often as possible so I don’t have to be knocked back into wakefulness. But if I need to be shaken awake, please—bring it on.
Embodiment of the Soul
Shortly after my fifth loved one had died, I sat in meditation at a five-day silent meditation retreat with Danish Tantrika Aisha Salem, and I really came face to face with the realization that the deep ensoulment process includes both ascension and declension. It’s a true enlivening of both the ecstasy and the pain in equal measure, without judging ecstasy as “good” and pain as “bad.” Even in the deepest of my grief and loss, I recognized that when I went all the way down into my grief, not resisting life, not resisting the pain, what I discovered was something that felt very close to joy, very close to the pure feeling of just being alive.
Perhaps ecstasy and pain are only one cell layer apart. After all, the only reason I hurt so much when those I loved transitioned is because I loved so deeply. The only reason we hurt so much when terrorists murder innocent people is because we feel the pain of the Story of Separation and we long for the Age of Reunion. Our souls crave Oneness so much that everything that takes us away from it slices us open, bare to the vulnerability of all the ways in which we still buy into the illusion of separation, naked to the pain of the human experience.
But perhaps all this pain is just a growing pain, as we as a culture go through the birth canal of our collective awakening. Might we find a way to be grateful that we as individuals and as a collective are finally waking up?
As Kahlil Gibran writes, “Your pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding.” In her book Halfway Up the Mountain, Mariana Caplan writes, “It is quite conceivable that not only is pain a necessary aspect of the spiritual process, but that to consciously enter into and experience suffering is the doorway to a more profound understanding of reality, something even to be sought after.”
A Practice of Radical Gratitude
Recently, I was dancing at my “church” of ecstatic dance—the Open Floor which used to be called “Sweat Your Prayers.” Our teacher Claire invited us to dance to the mantra “Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you.” Thank you for the dance. Thank you for the people we love. Thank you for our homes and careers, for the redwoods and the ocean, but also thank you for the wars and terrorist attacks, thank you for the betrayals and the violations. Thank you for all that grows us as souls and helps us strip away the layers of all but who we really are. Thank you for life. Thank you for love. As we danced to this mantra, the vibe in the room was ecstatic indeed.
Try it yourself. Try making this a practice every day. Walk through life with the mantra “Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you.” Open your heart. See what happens . . .