Cultivating Indestructible Gratitude
By Mark Matousek
This speech by popular Shift faculty Mark Matousek was presented for The Seekers Forum, a global online community of seekers and spiritual friends that Mark founded in 2013. Mark gives a monthly talk on topics of interest on the spiritual path, from a non-sectarian perspective.
Listen to the audio recording of Mark’s speech here:
Welcome everyone in the United States and around the world. We have a lot of people on the call tonight which is terrific.
We’re going to be speaking about indestructible gratitude and the question of sufficiency and what is enough.
We’re nearing the end of the year, and here in the states at least, the holiday season is upon us, when we’re celebrating the feast of Thanksgiving, this ritual of offering gratitude for the lives that we have, the people we love, the food we eat, the air we breathe. Thanksgiving is an opportunity to give thanks for our very existence and the opportunity to live a precious human life on this mysterious planet.
Today we’re going to be talking about what it is to have enough, to be enough, and to cultivate what I call indestructible gratitude.
I’ve spoken to you before about indestructible happiness, the need we have for a larger definition of what it means to be happy. This definition can include all of our experience, including the bitter, confusing, and disappointing elements, a definition of happiness that isn’t the superficial, smiley-faced version we feel when things are going just the way we want them to, a kind of conditional happiness that passes with the mood or the season. Indestructible happiness isn’t based on everything going our way or on the absence of problems or challenges. It’s based on the recognition and appreciation of the blessing of being alive, full stop.
I used to know an old man who had had a really, really hard life and every time I saw him and asked him how he was, he’d say, “Every day is a good day.” He wasn’t being Pollyanna or saccharin. This wasn’t idiot cheerfulness or cluelessness, but instead a deep and very easily overlooked truth, that from a spiritual perspective every day is a good day, even when bad things are happening. Every moment is a good moment because it offers the opportunity to wake up, to change, to learn, to grow, to deepen, to get clearer, to be truthful, to savor the surprise of every new and original moment.
Indestructible happiness comes from a deeper source than mere passing pleasure or satisfaction. In fact, happiness that depends on passing fancies, the turn of fortune’s wheel, is no happiness at all, any more than fair-weather love is worth very much. Remember what Shakespeare said, “Love is not love which alters when it alteration finds.”
In the same way, happiness is not happiness that collapses at the first clue of darkness or pain. And the gratitude that we feel only when things are going hunky-dory isn’t the indestructible gratitude that we’re going to be talking about when considering the question of what it means to have enough, to be enough, and to be satisfied — deeply satisfied — with our own existence.
This definition of gratitude can be hard to take in sometimes, and part of the reason for that is that we live in a culture of insufficiency. It’s an addictive, acquisitive society where more is very often seen as better, and where striving and struggling and craving and reaching are the bywords of everyday life.
By how much we strive, you could say, so are we judged. By how much we have or know or master, so do we esteem it ourselves. We tend to locate our sense of worthiness through external achievements and shows of value. In a materialistic culture, of course, we’re raised to feel partial and dissatisfied. Capitalism is a system that encourages us to stay hungry so that the wheels of commerce can keep on turning.
What would happen if tomorrow the majority of us woke up and said, “I don’t need the latest iPhone or the name-brand tennis shoes or the aromatherapy yoga mat?” The consumer machine would grind to a halt. We’re fed images and ideas that promote the myth of neediness, of never quite being good enough or having enough. That myth of insufficiency allows the culture of capitalism and consumerism to continue.
My friend, Andrew Harvey, put this very well. Andrew says, “This culture feeds off an anxiety and depression that it carefully nurtures with a consumer machine that needs to keep us greedy to keep going. It is highly organized, versatile, and sophisticated. It assaults us from every angle with its propaganda and creates an almost impregnable environment of addiction around us. Obsessed with hopes, dreams, and ambitions which promise happiness but lead only to misery, we’re like people crawling through an endless desert dying of thirst and all this culture holds out to us is a drink of salt water designed to make us thirstier.”
That may sound extreme, but I happen to believe that Andrew is right. One of the paradoxes of living in a wealthy nation such as the United States is that our sense of entitlement, this puffed-up grandiose sense of self, is actually built on an underlying foundation of extreme insecurity. That’s why wealth, for all of its advantages, often elicits a proportional degree of neurosis and suffering in people who mistake what they have for who they are.
The trouble is that in this climate of acquisition and insufficiency, the experience of having enough is counterindicated, you could say. Just think about the word “content.” The word content is likely to call up different kinds of pictures in different people’s minds. A lot of people, when they hear the word content, get images of dullness and resignation, a kind of complacency, lack of ambition instead of a sense of happiness.
That’s how twisted up our ideas have become about what makes a human life worth living and where we should direct our energies. Without this driven, hungry feeling, we’re afraid that our lives will come to a standstill, that ambition and effort will just disappear and we’ll be abandoned to mediocrity.
That is the ego’s fear of contentment, because the ego relies on our sense of lack for its own survival. I want, therefore, I am. That’s one of the ego’s favorite mantras. And even though desire in itself is a vitalizing force, a wonderful creative power that we can channel toward creativity and personal development and spiritual awakening, when our appetites come to consume us, they become our saboteurs.
Whether the object of our desires is materialistic, or emotional, wanting the perfect relationship or perfect sex or unceasing attention from others, or whether it’s spiritual and striving for some idea of enlightenment, doesn’t really matter. This is because hidden inside the desire for more is an insidious sense of not enough, of not being whole as we are. That is the root of our suffering.
Gratitude is the antidote to this myth of insufficiency. Gratitude is a protest against the great lie that in order to be happy you must want more. Roger Housden has written a book called Dropping the Struggle in which he identifies seven key areas of striving and how we get caught in their pursuit. He talks about the struggle for more time, the struggle for more knowledge, the struggle for more love and so on.
The underlying question is, and always remains, what is left when you drop the struggle? What is left when you drop the struggle? The answer is everything that makes a happy life. When you drop the struggle, there’s wisdom, there’s awareness, there’s peace of mind, there’s choice, there’s flexibility, there’s equanimity, there’s creativity, freedom. What do you lose when you drop the struggle? Nothing but greed and fear and insecurity and stress and anxiety.
This isn’t to say that struggle, in the sense of making concerted effort, is harmful all the time. Of course, it’s not. To reach your potential, to master a skill, whether it’s playing the piano or raising a family or practicing meditation, a great deal of effort is required. But this effort need not take on a life-and-death quality of desperation, or a dread of not achieving our goals or fulfilling our desires.
Effort that’s driven by desperation and terror is what Roger Housden is pointing to when he describes toxic struggle, effort that’s driven by desperation and terror, healthy versus destructive effort, poisonous craving. Addiction, of course, arises from such cravings, which are fueled by compulsivity and low self-esteem.
The wonderful expansive desire for growth is fine, but the noxious, reductive clamor for what we believe we need in order to be worthy human beings is not. Between those two, of course, it’s the intention that is different. And it’s the intention that matters. When you understand the truth behind your intention, you have the chance to finally step off the treadmill of getting ahead and begin to travel down your own path in your own time and for your own reasons.
Let me give you an example. I worked with a man, let’s call him Mike, who suffered from what’s known as a Napoleon Complex. The French emperor Napoleon was a diminutive guy, very, very short, I think something like five-foot-three in high heels. The Napoleon Complex refers to that overcompensating, self-aggrandizing need to puff yourself up and swagger through life in order to feel bigger than you actually are. In Napoleon’s case, this need manifested in the need to conquer the world, to prove what a big man he was by dominating others and multiplying his conquests.
In my student Mike’s case, this insecurity manifested itself in an insatiable desire for social status and conspicuous demonstrations of so-called success, houses, cars, boats, a series of trophy wives, one divorced right after another, all intended to bolster his tiny self-image. To support his conspicuously grand lifestyle, Mike worked like a slave in a lucrative but corrupt industry where profits were earned by first-world nations benefitting at the expense of the poor.
And though Mike wasn’t a stupid man and was well aware of this exploitation, he also felt trapped by the choices that he’d made. He felt tied to a position whose ethics really disturbed him, but where he was bound, kind of “golden handcuffs” style, as if he’d made a pact with the devil himself.
Mike hoped that by writing his own life story, he’d be able to free himself from this vicious cycle of over-earning and over-consuming in order to figure out who he really was behind the mansions and the Porsches and the beautiful women a fraction of his age who were hanging on his arm like a sugar daddy. Who was he behind all of that?
My heart went out to Mike. In spite of everything that he’d earned, he was really one of the unhappiest people I think I’ve ever met, really hopeless and very lonely and profoundly self-hating. He reminded me of something I heard once from an Indian teacher. This teacher said that as miserable as life is for the poor in his country, the misery he finds in the West is often worse than the misery he finds among Indians who live on the street. He said that at least they have community, they know where they belong in society, they can enjoy the simple pleasures of a charitable meal or the warmth of the morning sun on their faces. This wasn’t to romanticize poverty, not at all, but to point out the crucial paradox that less really can be more sometimes, and that appearances can be deceptive.
Surrounded by his wealth as an outward success story, Mike was as poor emotionally and spiritually as a beggar on the streets of Calcutta. In our work together, I encouraged him to investigate this sense of impoverishment and where it had begun in him. First, Mike pointed to his physical stature, which as he put it, is smaller than your average girl, and the brutal teasing that he had endured as a child. He was isolated, humiliated, and deeply angry. And Mike apparently decided when he was old enough to think a little like Napoleon himself that no one was ever going to look down on him again or make him feel like he wasn’t worthy.
This impulse, this response, was understandable, but it was misguided, because it was Mike who was looking down on himself with scorn. It was Mike’s own approval that he couldn’t earn, a personal ideal that Mike could never satisfy, that tortured him and kept him striving.
Three months into our work together, we’d really made very little progress, which is unusual. This writing practice is very powerful, but Mike hadn’t really shifted much. No matter how many insights he had, his foundational sadness didn’t seem to budge. When Mike moved forward a little bit, he tore himself down. When he had a breakthrough, he followed up with a torrent of self-judgment. When I asked Mike to consider what he was grateful for, he kind of went through the motions — family, health, lifestyle, so on — without any credible affect or feelings.
To be honest, I was beginning to fear that Mike was a nut that was just a little too tough to crack through this form of self-inquiry.
Then something terrible happened. Mike’s 14-year-old daughter was hit and killed by a drunk driver while riding her bike home from school. He got the news on the telephone apparently. I heard nothing from him for several weeks. Then one day Mike wrote to me explaining what had happened. Even though he’d had a great deal of pain in his life, nothing had approached this devastating grief. When Mike’s wife fell into a depression, he was left to oversee the care of their other two children, whose sadness, he said, he could hardly bear.
For the first time in his life, Mike’s heart was shattered. He felt what we all do, or most of us do, in times of deep grief, that he and his family had been exiled to a foreign country where nobody really spoke their language and where they were profoundly alone. He was struck by the injustice of his daughter’s death. For the next few months, we corresponded by mail, with Mike gradually, gradually becoming a bit more introspective and insightful, strangely enough, as time went on.
With his wife out of commission, he’d been forced to summon a strength and nurturing compassion toward her and their kids that was unlike anything that he’d experienced before. He felt that he was being stretched past his limits and even though it was very painful, Mike also noticed that something else was happening as well, because for all the trauma and the sadness, he admitted that he wasn’t feeling his usual level of unhappiness or self-torture.
The anger, the self-pity, the need to strive to prove himself was absent for the first time that Mike could remember. The insecurities that drove him, the kind of bitter, self-referential myth that had dragged him down for so long was actually subsiding. He started to see with his own two eyes how deluded he had been for so many years to imagine that his privileged problems were as serious as he made them. He began to see that in a world where real tragedy happened, where people were truly suffering, where many are so crushed by genuine loss they can barely function, a thing as minor as being short or insecure or less than ideal in some superficial way, didn’t have any true value or impact at all.
Mike was feeling the paradox of being a survivor, the amazement that in the midst of darkness, in the worst of the worst, something else begins to appear that’s the opposite of grief that in fact is a kind of peace, a new kind of perspective, that’s both more sober and more free.
In the truth of the moment, as terrible as it was, Mike felt liberated from a lifelong illusion of his existence and of he, himself, not being enough. This completely surprised him. Suddenly just to wake up in the morning, to be alive, with a roof over his head, with two healthy kids, a wife who slowly began to get better, the sun coming in through the windows, was a true amazement. It was a cause for wonder. It lacked for nothing. There was nothing that Mike needed to add to make it better.
As strange as it sounds, at a time when common sense would have dictated that he was much less happy than before, Mike actually began to feel better and to become aware of feelings of gratitude, true gratitude. It wasn’t a cheerful gratitude or a corny gratitude or gratitude based on good luck. It was spiritual gratitude that needed no reason except for the chance to be alive. Catastrophe itself endowed Mike with a new kind of vision and even though he wasn’t grateful for what had happened, God forbid, he couldn’t deny this change in himself, of finally seeing a truth about life that he’d never been able to make out before.
He wrote to me about feeling like he’d been asleep in a kind of self-loathing trance, but now he’d begun to truly wake up. No one ever could have convinced him before this happened that that’s what Mike needed, spiritually speaking — a genuine heartbreak to free him of his self-induced suffering, but that’s exactly what Mike needed. He was witnessing what poets and spiritual teachers have taught for millennia, that in dying to an old sense of self a new perspective on life is born, that in the words of poet Theodore Roethke, “In a dark time, the eye begins to see.”
In Mike’s case, what he saw was the truth that everything can be lost in a minute, that nothing, nothing, nothing is guaranteed and that to miss this fundamental fact is to miss the miracle of life itself, whose nature is to endure against all odds. When you see this, there’s nothing to do but be grateful. It’s like something someone said to me, someone who had cancer and survived. He said, “If life is actually a gift, then the only proper response is ‘Thank you.’”
Mike never ended up writing his memoir because his reason for needing to write it had disappeared. He finally understood why he had been unhappy and he set about devoting himself to loving the people who needed him and to being happy for the time that they had together.
That brings us back to indestructible happiness. There’s a link between the human condition as the only animals that are aware of our own impermanence, mortality, and spiritual awakening. We have a choice as human beings to embrace the mystery or reject it, to realize the perfection of things as they are even when they hurt, or waste our lives wishing that they were different, that we were closer to some idea that would finally make us happy or finally bring gratitude as if all the boxes on our wish list had gotten checked.
To live that way is to miss the essential experience and our true potential because we are here to grow, to awaken, to savor existence in all of its strangeness with all of its changes, and to stop being the judges and juries of the game of life, and start being willing players. This kind of attitude of happiness and gratitude that’s indestructible requires courage and determination. It doesn’t come naturally and it doesn’t come cheap. It costs the sacrifice of childish illusion in favor of complex and grown-up truths.
As Terrence Des Pres wrote in his book, The Survivor — which is so wonderful, if you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it — he wrote, “There is a power at the center of our being, at the heart of all things living, but only in man does it assume a spiritual character and only through spirit does life continue by decision.”
Isn’t that great?
Let me repeat that. “There is a power at the center of our being, at the heart of all things living, but only in man does it assume a spiritual character, and only through spirit, does life continue by decision.”
Isn’t that great!
Not by chance, not by self-centered desire, not by struggling for impossible ideals, but by the decision not to be drowned by adversity or quashed by pain, to be grateful and happy in spite of these things and to bless this world and the life that we’re given with all of the uncertainties.
That’s what awakening is really about. It’s learning to smile when the shadows fall and we can’t find a reason or the strength to continue. When we reach down in those moments by decision and hold tight to the power of spirit, that’s what generates this force of survival and gratitude and awakening. It’s not easy and it’s not guaranteed. But, when you choose to live that way, it does transform your sense of possibility.
As Thomas Merton wrote, “True prayer and love are learned in the moment when prayer becomes impossible and the heart has turned to stone.” That’s when true prayer and love are learned, in the moment when prayer becomes impossible and the heart is turned to stone. That’s just what Mike found out in his own grief and what each of us can discover on our own.
So, ask yourself, what blocks you from indestructible gratitude and indestructible happiness?
What do you imagine you would need in order to feel these things?
Where do you sense that you’re insufficient or faulty or broken or shrunk to fit?
Where are you unable to forgive and not be controlled by your past? Without forgiveness, there’s no gratitude.
How can you practice being happy in the midst of the mess of life, before you’ve arrived at your optimal state? That’s the question.
What prevents you from embracing all of life, including the bad parts, with bravery, with awe, and with determination instead of self-pity and fear?
These are fantastic questions to ask yourself and to write about.
That’s what I wanted to say to you today about what is enough and indestructible gratitude. Thanks everybody for tuning in. It’s great to talk to you as always and have a great night.
Mark Matousek is a bestselling author, teacher, and speaker whose work focuses on personal awakening and creative excellence through self-inquiry and life writing. He’s an award-winning author of five books, including When You're Falling, Dive: Lessons in the Art of Living, and Writing to Awaken: A Journey of Truth, Transformation & Self-Discovery.
Mark’s first book, Sex Death Enlightenment: A True Story, became an international bestseller that was published in 10 countries and nominated for two Books for a Better Life awards.
A featured blogger for Psychology Today, Purple Clover, and Huffington Post, he’s contributed to numerous anthologies and publications, including The New Yorker, O: The Oprah Magazine (contributing editor), The New York Times Magazine, Harper’s Bazaar, Yoga Journal, Details, The Saturday Evening Post, AARP, Tricycle: The Buddhist Review, and many others.
Mark, who’s on the faculty of Omega Institute for Holistic Studies and the New York Open Center, teaches transformational writing workshops around the U.S. and in Europe, and is the Creative Director of V-Men (with Eve Ensler), an organization devoted to ending violence against women and girls.
He brings three decades of experience as a memoirist, editor, interviewer, survivor, activist, and spiritual seeker to his penetrating and thought-provoking work with students. His workshops, classes, and mentoring have inspired thousands of people around the world to reach their artistic and personal goals and transform their lives.
Click here to visit Mark’s website.
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This article appears in: 2018 Catalyst, Issue 23: Thanksgiving and Indigenous Wisdom