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An article called “Gratitude” by Joanna Macy was published in the November issue of Shambhala Sun, appropriately for Thanksgiving in the U.S., and also for the post-gifted holiday season.  

But Macy’s concept of gratitude is especially interesting in that it doesn’t change as circumstances do: whether or not you got what you wanted for Christmas, or everyone in your family is healthy, or any of the other good things we are of course grateful for.

Macy is writing about a deeper gratitude, with spiritual and political ramifications.

The article begins:

“We have received an inestimable gift. To be alive in this beautiful, self-organizing universe–to participate in the dance of life with senses to perceive it, lungs that breathe it, organs that draw nourishment from it–it is a wonder beyond words. It is an extraordinary privilege to be accorded a human life, with self-reflexive consciousness that brings awareness of our own actions and the ability to make choices. It lets us choose to take part in the healing of our world.”

“Gratitude for the gift of life is the primary wellspring of all religions, the hallmark of the mystic, the source of all true art. Yet we so easily take this gift for granted. That is why so many spiritual traditions begin with thanksgiving, to remind us that for all our woes and worries, our existence itself is an unearned benefaction, which we could never of ourselves create.

That our world is in crisis–to the point where survival of conscious life on Earth is in question—in no way diminishes the value of this gift; on the contrary. To us is granted the privilege of being on hand: to take part, if we choose, in the Great Turning to a just and sustainable society. We can let life work through us, enlisting all our strength, wisdom and courage, so that life itself can continue.

There is so much to be done, and the time is so short. We can proceed, of course, out of grim and angry desperation. But the tasks proceed more easily and productively with a measure of thankfulness for life; it links us to our deeper powers and lets us rest in them….”


Macy is writing within a Buddhist tradition (she mentions specifically the Tibetan Buddhist path) and much of what I’m leaving out relates to Buddhist practice. What she says more generally pertains directly to that path, but certain points jumped out at me as being more universal. Especially this paragraph:

“The great open secret of gratitude is that it is not dependent on external circumstance. It’s like a setting or a channel that we can switch to at any moment, no matter what’s going on around us. It helps us connect to our basic right to be here, like the breath does. It’s a stance of the soul….”

Gratitude not for what we have but what we are, and for the given world we are part of. Gratitude not for what we have versus what other people don’t, but for what we have in common: being alive and human in the web of planetary life.

She directs her ideas towards another feature appropriate to this week: consumerism.   Macy’s approach to gratitude, not being dependent on possessions and comforts, turns it a different way:

“Thankfulness loosens the grip of the industrial growth society by contradicting its predominant message: that we are insufficient and inadequate. The forces of late capitalism continually tell us that we need more–more stuff, more money, more approval, more comfort, more entertainment. The dissatisfaction it breeds is profound…

So gratitude is liberating. It is subversive. It helps us realize that we are sufficient, and that realization frees us….”

Macy directly relates gratitude to activism:

“There are hard things to face in our world today, if we want to be of use. Gratitude, when it is real, offers no blinders. On the contrary, in the face of devastation and tragedy, it can ground us, especially when we’re scared. It can hold us steady for the work to be done.”

She writes of “the activist’s inner journey” as a spiral, which begins with “opening to gratitude”, then “owning our pain for the world,” “seeing with new eyes,” and “going forth.” Gratitude is the wellspring:

“[Gratitude] reconnects us with basic goodness and our personal power. It helps us to be more fully present in our world. That grounded presence provides the psychic space for acknowledging the pain we carry for our world….

Then, ever again, we go forth into the action that calls us… Even when we don’t succeed in a given venture, we can be grateful for the chance we took and the lessons we learned. And the spiral begins again.”


  1. Really lovely thoughts for this time of year.

    I wrote an essay a few weeks ago where I tried to summarize some writing by Nezua over at The Unapologetic Mexican (links in the essay) on the topic of “Finding the Nexus.”

    He posits that the root of all “isms” is entitlement and the answer to that is humility and gratitude:

    What happens when you nurture a sense of humility in place of entitlement? You place your feet on the same ground as I. You remove racism without really chasing “racism.” You remove environmental harm without getting caught up in side arguments. You remove sexism without feeling less-than as a man. You remove road rage. You remove exploitation. You remove rape. And you join with others in the understanding that you are not entitled to a damn thing. Nope. Entitlement is the antithesis of gratitude. And honestly, you are one lucky human.

    • Faber on December 27, 2007 at 3:17 am

    Which raises the question of who or what does the according.  While the universe seems to have a tendency to become progressively more interesting, I have to question whether it is interested — in us, that is, individually and severally, except insofar as we are components of a process, life, which as Alfred Russel Wallace said, is always on the point of indefinite departure.  We are points on a curve headed somewhere else; we are not going there ourselves.  

    The thing to remember, as Carse pointed out, is that the celebrated Problem of Evil looks suspiciously like the belief that history can be tidied up and brought to a sensible conclusion.  In practice, this is always some definition or other of good Indian as dead Indian — an unseemly haste to end the story for the sake of putting a moral to it.  Trying to have the last word on behalf of even so noble a conception as justice, therefore, means silencing all subsequent voices.  

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