Gratitude is a prayer, not a precept

Geschreven door Annemarie Bijloos

15/03/2023

In this blog we explore the concept of gratitude, and how it can only be received, not enforced.

“If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you, it will be enough.”


Master Eckhart

Reading time: 5 minutes

Text by Annemarie Bijloos

 

Painting by Emma Bijloos

Countless benefits

Master Eckhart, a medieval philosopher and mystic, shared his vision – “If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you, it will be enough” – more than 700 years ago. He knew, through experience or intuition, about the power of gratitude.

Since then, countless studies have reported on the benefits of gratitude. An image of a panacea emerges, a magical medicine to cure all our troubles. Being grateful is associated with greater happiness and contentment, stronger relationships, increased hope, resilience and the ability to deal with adversity, less anxiety and depression, even better immunity and health. We want to be, or be around, grateful people, as they tend to be kind, empathetic, non-judgemental, helpful and forgiving.

 

Memories of forced gratitude

And still… The word ‘gratitude’ annoys me.

It evokes in me a memory of the daily obligatory prayers in primary school. Sweaty little children’s hands clasped together. I peek from a semi-closed eyelid to see whether the teacher has finished talking. A half-heartedly mumbled ‘amen’ so we can all get on with our lives.

It makes me think of people – and cringe – who believe you should be grateful for everything that happens to you, because it all holds ‘a lesson’ – including the hurtful and traumatic. Right after finding out that the cartilage in my knee was irreparably damaged (and looked like ‘a barren desert,’ in the supportive words of the orthopedist), a friend of mine urged me to look on the bright side, and be grateful for this experience. “It’ll teach you so much!” Even though it did, I really did NOT care about that at the time. I needed time and space to be sad, to grieve for the change in my abilities and my experience of self. If you’ve seen the Pixar animation Inside Out, you know exactly what I mean (and if you haven’t, cancel your plans for tonight!).

An obligation to be grateful is what actually kills it.

Count your blessings

The way I see it, gratitude can never be imposed from the outside. It can only be born within. And even in there, thankfulness remains this elusive quality. You can cultivate and practice being grateful, but true gratitude visits you through grace.

Like yesterday, it pierced me like an arrow as I cycled through the rain, everyone looking as grey as the sky above us. Then this guy overtook me, blasting salsa music from his cargo bike, singing along and brightening up the day like an unexpected ray of sunshine.

Merely counting your blessings in a gratitude journal is not the same as opening your heart to the experience of gratitude. We simply cannot force ourselves, or enforce others, to feel it.

 

In a culture that demands us to always be happy (called by psychologist Susan David ‘the tyranny of positivity’), and see every setback as a ‘gift’, we fail to do justice to the fact that life can hurt, sometimes terribly. Yes, pain (and loss, and death) can eventually break us open and make us more receptive to the beauty of life. But that’s an inner process with a pace all of its own, which can never be accelerated by other people’s well intended advice on how we should live our lives.

When we insist on ourselves or others to be thankful, we are like the impatient Chinese farmer in the ancient story by Mencius, who pulled on his rice shoots in an attempt to make them grow faster (and, not surprisingly, killing them).

Gratitude as a prayer

Gratitude is something you receive, not demand. And can you truly receive something if you’re closed off? When a call to gratitude is aimed at a person who’s not open, be it physically, mentally or emotionally (like me when I found out about my knee), it can fall on deaf ears, or even have a boomerang effect. You cannot choose to be grateful, but you can choose to open yourself to the experience of it.

Perhaps that’s why Master Eckhart calls gratitude a prayer. It’s a request, a hope. A heartfelt wish to be open. As you pray the words ‘thank you’, maybe over and over again, you turn to something higher, something sacred. You cup your hands and ask for gratefulness to visit you.

 

As always, know that you are welcome at Movement Matters. We cannot give you gratitude or its benefits directly, but we can help you soften your body, open up your heart and mind a little, and put yourself in the way of gratitude.

 

This painting was made by artist Emma Bijloos. 

Read about the story of this painting here.

 

Annemarie Bijloos is a philosopher, masseuse and yoga teacher. 

More of her stories you can read here.

 

 

Sources

Big Think (2018). The Tyranny of Positivity: A Harvard Psychologists Details Our Unhealthy Obsession with Happiness. Available at:

https://bigthink.com/plus/the-tyranny-of-positivity-a-harvard-psychologist-details-our-unhealthy-obsession-with-happiness/

Brown, J. & Wong, J. (2017). How Gratitude Changes You and Your Brain. Available at:

https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/how_gratitude_changes_you_and_your_brain

Gielens, J., Sikkel, M., De Gier, V. & De Wit, M. (2015). De Kracht van Dankbaarheid. Available at:

https://www.psychologiemagazine.nl/artikel/dankjewel-voor/

n.a. (2021). Giving Thanks Can Make You Happier. Available at:

https://www.health.harvard.edu/healthbeat/giving-thanks-can-make-you-happier

n.a. (2012). Pulling Up Rice Shoots to Help Them Grow. Available at:

https://chinaconnectu.com/2012/06/15/pulling-up-rice-shoots-to-help-them-grow揠苗助长揠苗助长/

Misschien vind je dit leuk om te lezen…

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