Gratitude and Grief

Oren Jay Sofer
November 17, 2023
A person eating food with their cat on the table

Editor’s Note: This week, we’re celebrating the publication of well-loved meditation teacher Oren Jay Sofer’s new book, “Your Heart Was Made for This: Contemplative Practices for Meeting a World in Crisis with Courage, Integrity, and Love.” Below is an excerpt from the book on the topic of gratitude, courtesy of Shambhala Publications.

Training as a Buddhist monastic, we rose at 4:00 a.m. I generally enjoy waking up early, but 4:00 is a stretch. I felt groggy, irritable, and found it difficult to meditate. My teacher suggested I reflect on gratitude for the first ten minutes of morning meditation.

After running through the obvious—food, shelter, my health, the opportunity to practice—I was stumped. Nonetheless, I continued contemplating gratitude each morning, lingering with the feeling it gave me. Interestingly, long-forgotten memories began to appear: eating a snow cone at a Little League game; chasing our dog in the park; my mother buying me clothes for school. My heart lifted, my mind brightened, and energy returned. 

Equally fascinating, I began to notice small moments of goodness outside of meditation: a kind remark from a monk, a lay visitor asking after my well-being, the beauty of the monastery’s masonry, the cozy warmth of my bed. Those ten minutes’ reflection each morning set a tone for the whole day. If we look closely, we find countless inspirations for gratitude.

Perhaps you’re reading this and wondering, “But how can I be grateful for the blessings in my life when there’s so much suffering and violence in the world?”

Gratitude and grief may seem to be in tension with one another, but gratitude and loss are inseparable. Awareness of what is present calls forth what is absent. Grief embodies our humanity even as gratitude allows us to embrace pain and hardship. 

Far from imagining some rosy alternate reality, or suggesting that those suffering or oppressed should be “grateful” for what they have, genuine gratitude opens us to all of life—the hurt and grief alongside the blessings. It broadens our view so that we don’t overlook goodness in the face of suffering. It supports us in opposing injustice and oppression while affirming, “This too is true.”

Making space for all of our feelings keeps the heart healthy and supports wise responses in a complex world. Lulled to sleep by comfort and convenience, we don’t act. Overwhelmed with grief, we can’t engage. Gratitude widens the heart so we can include all of our emotions, touch the fullness of life, and stay nimble.

Cultivating gratitude transforms our inner life. It brings happiness, nurtures presence, and creates energy. It teaches us to appreciate goodness, strengthens resilience, and fosters tenderness for suffering—all of which positions us to respond more skillfully to injustice.

Gratitude wants nothing, subverting the culture of consumption, competition, and achievement. A mindset of gratitude opens the door to contentment and feeds generosity: the more aware we are of what we have received, the more we long to give back.

Gratitude also counteracts our negativity bias—the pervasive habit of noticing what’s missing or wrong. When the brain veers off into negativity, gratitude understands its adaptive function. Meeting the negativity bias with gratitude quiets it, allowing our hearts to rest.

When we face how quickly the years pass and how radically everything can change at any moment, we appreciate the immense gift of being alive. The Talmud instructs Jews to recite one hundred blessings every day (upon waking, eating, drinking, washing one’s hands, doing anything for the first time, and so on). Similarly, Thich Nhat Hanh taught short verses, called “mindfulness gathas,” to cultivate awareness all day. Such practices nourish gratitude for each unique moment. When we leave a loved one, gratitude reminds us of impermanence: this could be our last goodbye.

Gratitude also supports social change in important ways, strengthening us and urging us to respond to collective hardships. Awareness of suffering can enrich our appreciation for simple things, like a glass of clean water. When I appreciate the beauty and love in my life, I am more available to connect with the suffering in our world. Acknowledging how aspects of my gratitude are connected to my privilege invigorates my commitment to use those advantages to combat injustice.

Collectively, gratitude flows into celebration. We need celebration to sustain us on the long road to freedom. Climate and racial justice activist Daniel Hunter sees celebrating victories, even minor and mixed ones, as an antidote to the cynicism that saps energy for the difficult, constructive work of social change. After four years of organizing and direct action, a small Quaker group in Philadelphia eventually convinced PNC Bank to partially divest from mountaintop-removal coal mining. Encouraging the group to celebrate, Hunter reflected, “We cheered amidst tears and relief. We weren’t cheering PNC, or even the policy change, but the web of communities and practices of resistance that were building a better world, inch by inch.”

Injustice may never end. To keep going, we must stop periodically to be grateful and celebrate—to connect with one another, our vision, and renew ourselves. Gratitude forms the foundation of this renewal.

Oren Jay Sofer is a nationally recognized teacher of meditation, mindfulness and Nonviolent Communication and a regular contributor to the Ten Percent Happier app. A member of the Spirit Rock Teachers Council, he holds a degree in Comparative Religion from Columbia University, is the author of Say What You Mean: A Mindful Approach to Nonviolent Communication, and is the co-author of Teaching Mindfulness to Empower Adolescents. Oren also teaches online courses in Mindful Communication. Social: @Orenjaysofer

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