Although gratitude is an important topic, I have avoided it so far. The reason is that in our culture it often has a sentimental flavor on the one hand and a moral, demanding one on the other, as expressed by the often heard statement: “You ought to be a little grateful now. After all, there are many who are far less lucky than you are.” Moreover, gratitude appears to be something necessarily presupposing duality and it therefore seems misplaced in connection with Advaita Vedanta.
However, in Advaita topics are always considered from different perspectives. This is also reflected in the essays found on these pages. Some focus more on the preparation of the Seeker, which is of course given shape in dualistic terms and rests on actions – keyword Karma Yoga. Other essays take a higher perspective, as they wish to promote the recognition of the highest Truth (hence non-duality).
In India, the country of origin of Advaita Vedanta, gratitude is expressed less obviously than it is here. In the West it is considered to be particularly rude not to say “thank you”, “please” or “excuse me”. In India, such set phrases are considered overdrawn or unnecessary, a nod or a smile appear to be more appropriate here. Hence the Vedanta-scriptures do not mention gratitude. The reason is that gratitude is taken for granted.
But for us in the West, gratitude is an issue. On the one hand, depending on the regional mentality it may be expressed more or less exuberantly. On the other hand, gratitude is demanded through moral pressure. Dissociating oneself from the latter, without sliding into sentimental verbosity, implies finding a balanced and ultimately natural position.
But whether it is expressed or not and what shape this expression is given is ultimately unimportant, because one thing is for sure: Without gratitude there is no spiritual advancement.
Depending on attitude and maturity, the following questions arise:
- What to be grateful for?
- Why be grateful?
- Whom to be grateful to?
- From the perspective of non-duality what is gratitude?
What to be grateful for?
There are people who do not really know what gratitude is. Either because they have always had everything or because they are doing so badly that they see no reason for gratitude. In the first case, life will ensure a corrective in the course of time. At some point things will get tough and once it ends, there is opportunity for a hint of gratitude. In the second case, on the other hand, if one cannot find a reason to be grateful, the following question is useful: What should I be grateful for? The answer is actually very simple, because even under the most adverse circumstances there are things that could have been even worse.
In both cases the disenchanting realization is decisive that none of us is entitled to a comfortable life. There is no authority from which we could claim this supposed entitlement. In the American Declaration of Independence we read about the right “to pursue one’s happiness”, but one cannot make a legal claim to the Declaration of Independence 1, nor do we read about a supposed right to find one’s happiness. The fact that allegedly the constitution of Bhutan mentions a right to happiness is of no use to most us of either, because who of us is Bhutanese, after all? In this context anyway, happiness is to be understood merely in economic terms and while we all know that possessing money makes life easier, it does not make us necessarily happier.
Why be grateful?
Hence, no-one is entitled to happiness. By the same token, there is no obligation to feel grateful, which leads us to the second question: Why be grateful? To begin with, it is clear that the decision to be grateful or not is up to every individual. Yes, this is actually a decision. Observe the course of your life for one day, or even just for an hour. Starting right from the roof over your head and warm clothes, via sufficient food and clean water, right up to the many opportunities for being informed and relative freedom of speech – none of these can be taken for granted.
Now, one can accept all of these and be done with it, or one can be grateful for them. The question is: What is more uplifting for one’s attitude toward life? Gratitude makes us happy. Hence the absurd situation that even when luck doesn’t seem to be on our side, gratitude for the small things in life still brings happiness. By contrast, in case of those showered by luck, happiness will continue to remain absent as long as they merely accept their luck, thus taking it for granted and are done with it
Hence, the answer to the question “Why be grateful” is: Because it makes us happy. And this is actually reason enough.
Whom to be grateful to?
With this third question we approach the spiritual domain. After all, of course one can mostly find something or someone to be grateful for: starting with one’s own parents, who have given us life, right to the corner shop, where on a Saturday night one can still manage to buy the last pack of milk, to the author of the book one just reads. But such allocations are not always easy to make. After all, an infinite number of factors are always involved in an outcome. And most of these we are not even aware of.
Ultimately, everything that happens to us is based on the interplay of universal law and hence is actually entirely impersonal. Whether the sun is out or it rains is just as little the result of personal doings as the fact that the book I am devouring has come into being and has ended up in my hands. Quite apart from the fact that the universal law is also responsible for my ability to see, my mind’s ability to read and my intellect`s ability to appreciate the contents.
One can hence just be grateful for the interplay of these underlying laws. Incidentally, this includes gratitude for what we don’t like, as it depends on the very same interplay. However, as we saw earlier, there is no moral pressure to be grateful. Who should demand gratitude? The underlying laws?
Demanding gratitude comes into being through a dualistic worldview, as represented by Christianity, for example. Only a God who is distinct from me may demand gratitude. The underlying laws permeating everything (and hence also me) are simply at play and I am part of it. 2 He who is grateful is grateful, and he who is not is not. The underlying laws don’t care. However, this too is a fundamental law: He who is grateful is happier, he who is not grateful is less happy.
Gratitude and non-duality
By recognizing these fundamental laws we went beyond the personal domain and moved into the realm of the spiritual. Being embedded in the play of creation already gives us a taste of non-duality. But this is not yet actually non-dual, because if we break down everything right to the smallest building blocks of matter, two things still remain: the building blocks and the perception thereof.
However, non-duality means that there is but one single principle. I won’t prove this single principle in a logical manner here, although it is possible, because the topic of this essay is gratitude. Now, how does gratitude fit in with non-duality? Duality implies separation; with it comes a feeling of separateness. But if we assume that ultimately everything is non-dual, then whatever questions the feeling of separation is valuable. And since gratitude leads to a feeling of embeddedness, it overrides the feeling of separation to a certain extent. Hence, gratitude is an important factor while preparing for the highest knowledge.
But especially amongst those who have moved beyond preparation and achieved the highest knowledge we find gratitude. It is not focused at anyone, because there is no Other in non-duality. This gratitude is the unseparated Being of all that is. It is unconditional love without object and hence pure abundance, which doesn’t exclude anything and permeates everything. It is simply there and it is actually what all spiritual seekers yearn for so urgently: bliss. 3