This Thanksgiving week there will probably be as many expressions of grievances as there are expressions of gratitude. Some of us will experience travel difficulties; instead of feeling grateful that, in our lifetime, we can travel so far in such a short time, our minds will focus on conditions over which we have no control—airport security, overcrowded airplanes, and delayed departures. When we arrive at our destination, we might be faced with that one relative who irritates us. Instead of being filled with gratitude for the incredible standing of living that we enjoy, our minds will focus on the minutia of the grievances we hold.
Separating ourselves from the reality of life, we make ourselves miserable. While, on the surface, this way of being in the world seems normal—it makes no sense. We have all experienced how bad we feel as we struggle against life and hold onto our grievances. Further, many sources of the perennial spiritual wisdom tell us the same thing: Those with whom we have difficulties can be our greatest teachers; because of them we can remember the happiness and love we seek. Consider for example, this statement from A Course in Miracles:
Only appreciation is an appropriate response to your brother. Gratitude is due him for both his loving thoughts and his appeals for help, for both are capable of bringing love into your awareness if you perceive them truly. And all your sense of strain comes from your attempts not to do just this.
To an ego, this statement can be maddening. Gratitude is not only due those who seemingly cause us difficulties, but our feelings of being upset are caused not by what they have done to us but by we have done to them. No ego wants to take on this responsibility. An ego can never be a happy learner.
But, how can we truly live by this spiritual wisdom? The very instructive novel Paulo and the Magician by Bernard Groom gives us guidance. The book is a fantasy, and Paulo is living in medieval times. He has begun to question the way he has always walked through the world—some happy days punctuated by many days filled with grievances. His teacher is the mysterious Zeph.
Paulo is in the process of awakening from the mistaken belief that others are responsible for how he feels: “His feelings about life and himself seemed to change constantly, and literally all the time yet the world never changes that much. It had to be something inside, he concluded. Yes, it must be something inside that keeps changing its story from day to day.”
Zeph responds, “You think the problem is out there in the world, because if you looked honestly within your own thoughts you would discover the terror that’s sitting there. So to avoid looking directly at this horrible sight, you see the problem as everywhere except where it actually is.”
Zeph continues: “Over time you will learn to use the outside conditions of your life in order to turn your attention inside and work with what you find there. This will help you already to stop blaming the outside scenes in your life so much. Only, in the beginning, what you find there won’t please you one bit because you haven’t learned to look inside yourself without judgment and fear.”
In other words, Zeph is instructing us, what we react against on the outside gives us a picture of what is going on inside. The objective facts may be that we are at the airport and our airline has broken its commitment to us. We may need to calmly take appropriate action. But if we find ourselves mentally rehearsing our grievances against the airline, we need to go inside. Looking inside we may ask, “What does the behavior of the airline remind me of?” “Have I recently broken a commitment?” If so, our holding of grievances is really a grievance against ourselves.
Or, has the TSA agent been rude? Again, that may be a discernible fact. On the inside, sometimes we remain calm, while at other times we react mentally with feelings of anger rising up. Again, if we have gone beyond merely discerning a fact, we may ask questions of ourselves: “What am I reacting against inside myself?” “Recently, have I treated someone with less than kindness?”
Paulo reflected about the townspeople: “Everyone was feeling miserable with something around them, no one was considering for a second that the real problem and the real solution may be entirely inside them. No one, in fact, was really happy at all; and everyone was still convinced it was because of something on the outside that had to be fixed.”
If our happiness really depended upon correctly lining up all the chess pieces on the board, happiness could be only a temporary experience. But there is indeed another way, and for that we can feel much gratitude this Thanksgiving. Without our seeming problems and the difficult people in our lives, we would have little clue as to what is really going on in our minds. The happiness we seek is found by removing the barriers that we have placed in our mind. Happiness, rather than fleeting, can be an ordinary condition of life—once we get our ego’s grievances out of the way.