Religious Operating System: ROS beta (Part 2) — gratitude

The start of the year is a good time to look back and forward too, in as many ways as it fits to do so.  If you’ve got a moment, think about what stands out for you among your hopes for this new year, and you strongest memories of the year past.  What’s the link between them?  Is there one?  Here we are in the middle, between wish and memory.  In his great and intellectually self-indulgent poem “The Waste Land,” Eliot said “April is the cruelest month, mixing memory and desire.”  But April need not be cruel — we can make any month crueler, or kinder — and neither should January.  Let’s take a sip of the mental smoothie of memory and desire that often passes for consciousness during most of our waking hours, and consider.

To recap from previous posts, if we’re looking for a workable and bug-free Religious Operating System, we can start with persistence, initiation and magic (working in intentional harmony with natural patterns).  You’ll note that all of these are things we do — not things a deity, master or Other provides for us. While these latter sources of life energy, insight and spiritual momentum can matter a great deal to our growth and understanding, nothing replaces our own efforts.  Contrary to popular understanding, no one else can provide salvation without effort on our part.  We can “benefit” from a spiritual welfare program only if we use the shelter of the divine to build something of our own.  Yes, a mother eats so she can feed the fetus growing within her, but only in preparation for it to become an independent being that can eat on its own.  We may take refuge with another, but for the purpose of gaining or recovering our own spiritual stamina.  If we’re merely looking for a handout and unwilling to do anything ourselves, we end up “running in our own debt,” Emerson termed it. We weaken, rather than grow stronger.

The recent SAT cheating scandal involving the Long Island students paying a particularly bright peer to take the tests for them is a case in point.  We condemn such acts as dishonest on the societal and human level.  Why do we imagine they’re any more ethical or viable on the spiritual level?  Just as no other person can fall in love for us, undergo surgery in our place, eat for us, learn on our behalf, or do anything else for us that so intimately changes and affects us, so nobody else can do the necessary work we all end up doing whenever we’ve grown and changed.  It takes effort, and it’s up to us.  This usually comes both as a sobering realization and as a wonderfully liberating discovery.  Our spirituality and growth are up to us, but that also means they’re in our hands, under our control, responsive to our initiative and effort and attention.

For a ROS to actually work, then, it needs to fit our own individual lives and circumstances.  Jesus confronted this squarely when he observed, “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath.”  While we can overdo the jettisoning of old religious forms and habits, convinced they have nothing more to offer us, it can be a very good thing to haul out and burn the old stuff to make way for the new.  What have we elevated to “god status” in our lives that, in spite of worship, offerings and adoration, is actually giving us little or nothing and holding us back from growing?  For too long we have clutched old forms and outmoded beliefs and held them tightly to our hearts, convinced that forms can liberate us.  But they have no more power than we give them.  Belief is a ladder we construct.  Reach the goal, and the ladder is merely extra weight to carry around.  We don’t need it.

So you say I’m just supposed to up and cull out-of-date beliefs and dump them?  Easy to say (or write), harder to do.  One of the most useful items in our spiritual tool-kits is gratitude, the WD-40 of spiritual life.  As a solvent, it can loosen hard attitudes, stubborn beliefs, closed hearts and dead growth.  We may think of gratitude as an often wimpy sentiment — something softhearted — but I like to call it the grr-attitude. It’s an attitude with teeth, and helps us build a “spiritual firewall” against destructive energies.*  Every life without exception, no matter how hard, has something in it to praise and be thankful for.  Gratitude, along with persistence, can show us how to make do when every other avenue seems closed.  It’s the great “life-unsticker.”  It moves us out of spiritual ruts and ravines like nothing else.  In fact, an entire life spent in gratitude and persistence, without any other “spiritual garnish,” could carry us remarkably far.  It would be a very full life.

I can be grateful for habits and attitudes that have brought me to where I am, and I can often let them go more easily by thinking kindly of them, rather than hating them and beating myself up for being unable to move on from them.  But the value of gratitude isn’t just anecdotal.  The field of positive psychology is producing significant research findings.  Here’s just one example, from Prof. Robert Emmons’ book Thanks! on Amazon:  “[R]egular grateful thinking can increase happiness by as much as 25 percent, while keeping a gratitude journal for as little as three weeks results in better sleep and more energy.”*

Every aspect of our lives has spiritual lessons to teach.  I even feel gratitude for my cancer, because it has brought me back into balance with myself, revealed friends to me, brought me more love than I could handle, and reminded me again to make the best use of my time here that I can.  And that’s just a start.  Gratitude is a choice of consciousness.  It definitely belongs in any religious operating system.

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Cartoon source.

*Emmons’ book Thanks! deserves reading — it’s in paperback, and you can get cheap used copies online (and no, I have no connection with the author!  The title was on the list of books for the course I took this fall — one of my subsequent favorites).

The term “spiritual firewall” I’ve derived from the excerpt below.  The book helped strengthen my growing understanding of gratitude as a stance or posture toward life that has palpable strength in it, a kind of spiritual toughness and healthy resiliency — with powerful consequences, too — rather than an exercise of mere empty sentiment.

Grateful people are mindful materialists.  Deliberate appreciation can reduce the tendency to depreciate what one has, making it less likely that the person will go out and replace what they have with newer, shinier, faster, better alternatives.  The ability that grateful people have to extract maximum satisfaction out of life extends to material possessions.  In contrast, there is always some real or imagined pleasure that stands in the way of the happiness of the ungrateful person.  Consumerism fuels ingratitude.  Advertisers purposely invoke feelings of comparison and ingratitude by leading us to perceive that our lives are incomplete unless we buy what they are selling.  Here’s a frightening statistic:  by the age of twenty one, the average adult will have seen one million TV commercials.  By playing on our desires and fears, these ads fabricate needs and cultivate ingratitude for what we have and who we are.  Human relationships are hijacked.  Consumer psychologists argue that advertising separates children from their parents and spouses from each other.  Parents are portrayed as uncool and out of touch with their teenage children, who are encouraged to reject the older generation’s preferences and carve out their own identity around materialistic values.  Gratitude for our spouses can have a difficult time surviving the constant parade of perfectly sculpted bodies exuding perpetual sexual desire.  In a classic study conducted in the 1980s, researchers found that men who viewed photographs of physically attractive women or Playboy centerfolds subsequently found their current mates less physically attractive, became less satisfied with their current relationships, and expressed less commitment to their partners.  Gratitude can serve as a firewall of protection against some of the effects of these insidious advertizing messages.  When a person wants what they have, they are less susceptible to messages that encourage them to want what they don’t have or what others have (Emmons, 42-43).

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