Posted June 18, 2003
Opening To WonderFrom Seasons of Grace: The Life Giving Practice of Gratitude
by Alan Jones and John O'Neil with Diana Landau
This book has already been cited on our website
Alan set down this memory when he began thinking about occasions in his life when he was surprised by an unexpected gift:
A sunny afternoon in Paris a few years ago I took the Metro to Montmartre and walked up the steps to Sacre Coeur, when all of a sudden the world was ablaze with glory and the light of it was around me and in me and shining through everything. Where did this joy come from, with its gift of presence and rightness? What triggered it? Was it the kid with the ice cream — great gobs of it dripping down her seraphic face? Was it the couple entwined on the grass who had eyes only for each other? Was it the sunlight playing on the leaves of the trees, delighting the eye with every shade of green imaginable? I don't know and I could drive myself crazy trying to work it out. All I do know is that it had something to do with amazement at the sheer gift of life.
It seemed to me then that joy is a bit like reading a story that never comes to an end. You get caught up in — even lost in it. The joy of it is that it is all gift. I also had tears welling up. I discovered the strangeness of a joy because tears can be mixed up in it. You never know when life is going to surprise you and stun you with a joy that makes yours eyes wet with tears.
Just for a few moments on that September afternoon, joy became my raison d'etre. I knew why I was here . I learned something about adoration — the amazement at being our true selves in the presence of life as gift. Joy makes adoration, compassion, and community possible. And while these are possible, so are we. And it had something to do with very ordinary things like the kid with the ice cream, the lovers in the park, and all those greens of the leaves that luminescent afternoon on Montmartre. I learned that joy is in the particular, and I still worry a little bit about missing what's under my nose.
The groundwork of any gratitude practice is opening to wonder, recovering the ability to be astonished. In order to experience gratitude as more than a trivial acceptance of what is given (perhaps owed) to us, we must first be able to experience life's gifts as truly extraordinary and miraculous. In this way, the springtime of gratitude entails a revival and deepening of the imagination. Our horizons easily become narrowed, our perceptions blunted. The soil on which our growth as humans depends can be poisoned by patterns and strategies of denial, cynicism, resentment, and revenge.
Humans have an inexhaustible need for something that honors our capacity to wonder — to see this demonstrated over and over in scientific research and scholarly inquiry; in our awe of natural phenomena and our urge to explore space; in our admiration for humans who perform miraculous feats of creativity, virtuosity, or athleticism. We all need to get out of our skins, to journey outside the confines of our little world. However, that need can also get us into trouble. If it's not fed something nourishing then it will attach itself to activities that can do harm, such as taking unreasonable risks and doing foolish or destructive things.
Risk taking exerts such a powerful attraction because it is related to freedom — awesome freedom to break boundaries and go beyond our limits. That's why some of us tempt fate by risking all that we have and are. Like the dormant seed in the ground, we want to respond to the warm sun and soft rain, break out of our shell and see the light of day.
Practicing gratitude both feeds our need for wonder and frames ways we can get out of ourselves (off the treadmill of me, me) and risk appropriately and courageously. We can then dare to love. We can risk openness to others and the world. We can be less attached to material things. We can see how absurd our mentality of scarcity is in the light of our relative wealth. In short, we can stop playing dead and become fully alive. Specific practices that help open us to wonder include slowing down, paying attention, giving up some control, and being alive to the unexpected.