I think if you teach yoga the week of Thanksgiving and you don’t theme your class around the idea of gratitude, they revoke your teaching certification. Of course, I’m joking — sort of. It’s an obvious thing to focus on, especially this week. As I was planning my class today, it’s where I went, but with a slight twist.
I was thinking in particular of this quote from Pema Chödrön that I’ve used in my classes before. It goes like this,
There is a story of a woman running away from tigers. She runs and runs and the tigers are getting closer and closer. When she comes to the edge of a cliff, she sees some vines there, so she climbs down and holds on to the vines. Looking down, she sees that there are tigers below her as well. She then notices that a mouse is gnawing away at the vine to which she is clinging. She also sees a beautiful little bunch of strawberries close to her, growing out of a clump of grass. She looks up and she looks down. She looks at the mouse. Then she just takes a strawberry, puts it in her mouth, and enjoys it thoroughly.
Tigers above, tigers below. This is actually the predicament that we are always in, in terms of our birth and death. Each moment is just what it is. It might be the only moment of our life; it might be the only strawberry we’ll ever eat. We could get depressed about it, or we could finally appreciate it and delight in the preciousness of every single moment of our life.
I’ve had students tell me this is a bit dark, this particular explanation of gratitude and joy. To me it feels exactly right. So often we bypass the reality of the bad things that happen and head straight for gratitude, looking for the lesson we are sure is present in our current suffering and offering thanks. We believe that we must force ourselves to always focus on the positive, the “good,” and reject what’s bad. We think this makes us kinder, wiser, more highly evolved spiritual people.
I don’t think we need to do this. We are perfectly capable of sticking with the awfulness of what is happening, making room for all of it while still managing to find our joy. To be aware that things are hard and bad things happen isn’t any kind of denial of wonder, delight, the potential joy in our lives. We can stay open, be curious, and be present for all of it.
To practice gratitude, we often skip past joy. We list the things we are grateful for with a sense of duty, of obligation — we give thanks, look for ways to return the kindness. Appreciation is something we offer, extend out. I am going to suggest to my class today that we spend some time sinking into the joy we receive, open to it, let ourselves notice it, allow ourselves to fully experience it. My suggestion is going to be that we embody gratitude by feeling our joy.