When we appreciate God for the things that bring us closer to Him, we grow in our gratitude.
By Vraja Vihari Dasa
An effective way to ward off negativity and increase happiness is to cultivate true gratitude.
“Appreciation is a wonderful thing; it makes what is excellent in others belong to us as well.” – Voltaire
What’s the default setting of your mind – to moan about opportunities lost or to celebrate the gifts bestowed upon you?
Early in the morning, I often catch my mind slipping into thoughts of my own inadequacies – the many things I haven’t achieved or the holes in my spiritual standards that I need to plug. One day I tried a different approach. I decided to focus on all the things I am grateful for. Each morning when we wake up, our mind is like a tranquil water body. The first thought we consciously put in our mind is like a pebble dropped at the center of a still lake – ripples extend in all directions. If we choose a positive thought, the rest of the day is more likely to witness waves of favorable emotions and progressive thoughts. What we choose to think and do in the predawn hours affects us throughout the day.
When I thanked God for the gifts I have received in life, the rest of my day was a productive one. But when I saw the gaps first thing in the morning, I lived the day feeling a gnawing incompleteness. When the contrasting experiences of both approaches became obvious to me, I decided to live the first few minutes of the day in a space of gratitude and appreciation. I slowly persisted with the practice and soon realized three levels at which I could live appreciation.
First Level: A Practice of Fresh Gratitude
When we write down five things that we are deeply thankful for, the happiness induced by this practice of gratitude is palpable. Give it a try, and if the exercise gets boring, try recalling the five best things that happened to you in the last twenty-four hours. This will keep your gratitude fresh and exciting. When we thank the Lord and our parents or teachers daily for all our blessings, it can get monotonous. To break the worn-out patterns of the mind, we can meditate on what has happened in the recent past.
Many people remain disconnected and find spiritual joy inaccessible because they see only the bad in their lives. But this first step – to be thankful for our good fortune – is a liberating experience. It liberates us from the slide towards despair because we enter the space of celebration.
This celebration is real, unlike the experience of those who seek to escape their daily worries by hard partying. A positive celebration of life is more fulfilling than a denial of suffering through indulgence in pleasurable sensual experiences. Although the focus of gratitude is still oneself, it’s healthier because we focusing not on our discomfort but on our blessings.
It’s important to note that our gratitude becomes spiritual only when we thank God for experiences that align with universal principles of goodness. For example, if we were to use illegitimate means to earn quick money, and then thank God for our devious intelligence, that’s not exactly spiritual. When we appreciate God for activities that bring us closer to Him, we grow in our gratitude. That’s also when we are ready to tap a richer source of contentment – at level two.
Second Level: From “I” to the Other Person
After gratitude for what you have received in life, you can try thanking people not for what they have done for you, but for who they are, and for what they do independent of you. Here the focus is on the good qualities of the other person, which everyone has and which are a cause for celebration. This other-person-centric approach is an effective way to tap divine happiness.
We are usually centered on ourselves; even when we appreciate something, we are happy because of the benefits it gives us. And that means we are still at the level of “I.” Now if we appreciate others for their existence and activities in general, we begin to touch a higher dimension of happiness. “There’s more to life than me and my worries” is the message we send out. That’s when we also learn to see our existence in general and our miseries in particular as tiny compared to the vast goodness in the universe. It’s a paradox: we feel insignificant, yet deeply satisfied.
Lord Chaitanya Mahaprabhu appreciated devotees and praised them as if He had five mouths. He could see an unknown elderly woman rushing to see Lord Jagannatha as spiritually advanced. In her enthusiasm she climbed on Lord Chaitanya’s shoulders, and when Govinda, the Lord’s servant, admonished her and she begged forgiveness and hastily left, the Lord was unhappy. He scolded Govinda for his insensitivity and appreciated her devotion. Socially, Lord Chaitanya Mahaprabhu was a leader, a stalwart sannyasi, whereas the apologetic elderly woman was unknown. Yet He saw her as more exalted than Himself, and therefore His appreciation was authentic.
The Chaitanya-charitamrita describes the pastimes of Lord Chaitanya Mahaprabhu and His devotees. One striking feature of this book is the strong culture of appreciation and gratitude that flows through various pastimes. Chaitanya Mahaprabhu’s glorification of Rupa Goswami and Anupama when speaking to Vallabhacharya at Prayag is one example that reveals the Lord’s mood of appreciating others. The gratitude He expresses to His mother and also to Sarvabhauma Bhattacharya sets the standard of Vaishnava behavior and culture.
If we have a healthy practice of thanking others, then we are ready to enter the third level of spiritual experience.
Third Level: Moving from this World to Krishna’s Space
The third level of a spiritual experience is when we move from others to the force that governs them; we appreciate them, but now we reflect on what moves others to do what they do or be what they are. As Krishna says in Bhagavad-gita (15.15), “I am seated in everyone’s heart, and from Me come remembrance, knowledge and forgetfulness.” A devotee of Krishna therefore sees the Lord acting wonderfully through people of this world. Krishna appreciates this vision as well. “That knowledge by which one undivided spiritual nature is seen in all living entities, though they are divided into innumerable forms, you should understand to be in the mode of goodness.” (Gita 18.20).
At this level we especially acknowledge and appreciate Krishna in the heart of others who spread goodness around. For example, I once thanked a friend in our ashram for his consistent cooking services. I was one of more than a hundred fortunate brahmacharis who were the daily recipients of his benevolence. As he heard me patiently, I realized my appreciation was about how his cooking had given me satisfaction and nourishment. I decided to take my appreciation to the next level: I focused on him, rather than on my own needs and joy. I wondered aloud how he managed to balance his tight schedule to find the time to develop his special skills. His humility and willingness to learn were a great inspiration. As I genuinely praised him, I could see he felt happy and encouraged. And I had entered a spiritual space; life in general and the day in particular seemed blissful. My worries and anxieties seemed insignificant compared to the rich goodness that prevailed in our ashram.
Then I decided to take my appreciation of him to the third level, asking myself, “Who is responsible for his being so wonderful? What energy is common among many good men and women? What force has inspired people over the millenniums to love others and to contribute to and sacrifice for others’ welfare? How does goodness spread even as hate and anger threaten to destroy our world?”
Slowly, I could see my consciousness enter a larger space – from “I” to “him” and then to the ultimate “Him.” I was now connecting to Krishna, the spiritual being who inspires goodness in me and others in the cosmos.
Daily Application at the Three Levels
Practically speaking, this is what I had done: At the first level, I thanked my cook friend for what I received from him. At the second level, I was thankful for what he is. Finally, at the third level, I was thankful to Krishna for giving food to countless living entities daily. Srila Prabhupada would often point out that Krishna is providing for all, from tiny ants in our room to huge elephants in Africa. When I thank Krishna for what He constantly gives, I enter a spiritual space, almost instantly.
Once, two hundred of us brahmacharis went to a holy place for pilgrimage. In the context of the event, I tried to implement the spiritual practice of three levels of gratitude.
First level: I thanked a friend who organized the four buses to transport us from one place to another. His taking care of this was a big relief. (I was also thankful when I escaped bee stings when our bus disturbed a beehive and the bees went on a rampage. Although I offered a sincere expression of thanks, I’ll admit that my spiritual practice was at the lowest level at that moment.)
Second level: The bus organizer is an engineer by profession and didn’t take any money for his services. I thanked him for his example and meditated on his dedicated services over the last decade. I was appreciating him not for the help he offered me, but for his being who he is. I also spent time with my friends who were badly stung by the bees. In my kindness to them, and in my silent appreciation for their tolerance of the pain, I was being human and also spiritual; the experience of the heart is real. “In giving we receive,” and we discover the truth of this adage when we raise the bar to live at the second level.
Third level: I thanked Krishna for our safety during many pilgrimages. The brahmacharis who got stung recovered in three days. The bus might have gone over a cliff instead of just hitting a beehive, which was therefore a relatively minor incident and thus a cause for gratitude and celebration.
We returned in trains, and I thanked Krishna for protection and shelter.
Srila Prabhupada’s Instructions
Lord Chaitanya Mahaprabhu exemplified and taught the mood of being Krishna conscious. He saw everything in relation to Krishna. When He appreciated others, He saw their devotional heart. He saw and accepted God’s will in the passing away of His dear devotee Haridasa Thakura. While debating with the conquering scholar Keshava Kashmiri, He gave credit to Krishna for His own ability to memorize the one hundred verses the scholar had just composed and recited. In His role as a devotee, Chaitanya Mahaprabhu always saw the big picture – Krishna – and saw Himself as an insignificant servant of Krishna. In this mood He could appreciate all devotees, including His critic Ramachandra Puri.
Srila Prabhupada taught us to appreciate Krishna on at least two levels: We can thank Krishna for what He does in our lives, and we can thank Him for who He is – wonderful, attractive, and most merciful to all living entities. In the two poems Srila Prabhupada composed on the ship while traveling from India to New York for the first time, in 1965, he glorifies Krishna as the most wonderful friend who frolics in the pasturing grounds of Vrindavan. He then also thanks Krishna for having brought him to America and for using him as a puppet to execute His will.
We are all connected to Krishna, and therefore to each other as well. While many philosophers and scientists admit that all living entities are chemically and atomically connected, we devotees of Krishna know Him to be the common factor that unites all of us. When we appreciate others and Krishna, we are touching Krishna.