illustration (attribution, if any possible, is at the end of the article)
In the comments of « Stillness of mind is, and is not, the Middle Way » (gplus.wallez.name/c3MZXBaXzuJ), asked « How to work with positive emotions so one doesn't actually become more attached, and have future suffering later? »
This was linked to a mention of gratitude and an associated difficulty: « gratitude is a tricky emotion for me. Almost anything I am grateful for and take comfort in, soon ceases to be. Which is one reason I generally dislike indulging in it. I don't want to get attached to an object of gratitude, because it will magnify suffering later. »
Indeed, gratitude can be mistaken with an appreciation leading to clinging, which —by the impermanent nature of phenomena— would be a good recipe for future dissatisfaction. But the issue is pointed out directly: the problem is not with gratitude itself, but with the potential arising of clinging…
Fact is: "I enjoy what I have —but I want more" is not gratitude, it is (basic) greed, so we need to 'suspend' our train of thoughts at the 'but…'.
An important aspect though is that we can do so, we can program "alarm bells" so that we stop and reflect when the word 'but' arises. And we can learn to be grateful for everything, just like we can develop unconditional love. Some elements were provided last Christmas with and on An Attitude of Gratitude #PrayerOnAir Hangout: A Short Guided Meditation & Discussion (and gplus.wallez.name/Uqqpdv9f6qq).
One key way to practice gratitude without overly promoting attachment is to cultivate 1. constant gratitude, 2. gratitude for 'small' phenomena and 3. gratitude towards strangers. These promote the quality of perception and discernment, which will in turn prove useful in meditation. Gratitude is linked to a sense of what was done, i.e. to an aroused ability to see the causal web and the processes of reality, beyond the illusion of entities and selves.
A key 'risk' of gratitude is that one may associate absence of suffering to 'external' factors, rather than to the mastery of a wholesome state of mind and the unfettered manifestation of wisdom.
When practicing gratitude, we need the clarity that this is about our mind, our attitude, about our own "not taking things for granted" (which is a manifestation of wisdom, of not-knowing, of non-attachment), but this is not (really) about what we receive. If we're clear about this, then we can mindfully practice gratitude without fear of the 'object' of gratitude, because the true 'object' is our "not taking things for granted"! We can also appreciate "small things" just as much as "big things", for their appropriateness rather than the usual context-less fallacy "more is better".
« But it does seems like a fruitful way to start. I feel a strong embodiment and ownership with gratititude that makes it a good antidote to my other issues. »
Gratitude isn't necessarily so stressed in the buddhist practice, but this solely is a matter of presentation. In a way, it is extremely wholesome and spiritually-nurturing attitude, and should be cultivated accordingly; in another way, it might easily drift into social bargaining, which should be avoided.
Gratitude when directed at a person would usually fall under the "sympathetic joy" brahmavihara (and occurs in the transfer of merit gplus.wallez.name/1rw5xVFuLgF): rejoicing for the others in relation to 'their' merit. But this is about 'being inspired' by kindness, not about 'repaying' (we might in fact express our gratitude e.g. by "passing on" what we received! Or gratitude might in fact be present in fully 'enjoying' the gift received, allowing the full merit to accrue to the benefactor, rather than by spoiling it with thoughts of "how will I repay this?" or with dissatisfactory and/or anxious feelings of 'debt'. It is a mindset).
« These two people are hard to find in the world. Which two? The one who is first to do a kindness, and the one who is grateful and thankful for a kindness done. »
— AN 2.118
A common, ignorant tendency is to appropriate whatever goodness we enjoy as 'ours'. This is done via the usual delusion of attributing unwelcome events to "bad luck" but welcome events to one's own 'merit'. This is also done by trying to limit who can enjoy the said goodness, by making ourselves the exclusive beneficiary (possibly with 'our' loved ones, but not so much with anyone else). So indeed, gratitude is a useful antidote to ignorant tendencies well-shared by the ordinary sentient beings.
But this is about valuing kindness, or valuing generosity (the first Perfection —parami/paramita)… without falling into self-based ignorance: this is not about us, nor about the benefactor, this is about the manifestation of non-appropriation, of non-exclusivity, of inter-dependent fruitful functioning! This is about valuing 'wise' kindness (a 'kindness' unconditioned by anticipation of rewards), 'wise' generosity… Gratitude is a manifestation that we understood the wholesomeness of a generous intention.
« At the same time, i don't know how to work with it, to loosen it up, into something more selfless or non-attached. »
Pure Land Buddhism (gplus.wallez.name/GV9CwowZUdm) has somehow clarified this question:
In Jōdo, the nembutsu is perceived as a purifying method, i.e. the alliance of self-power (of one's own efforts toward salvation) and the other-power (of Amida 's compassion). Jōdo practitioners chant continuously to purify their karma and have the right state of mind at death to facilitate the appropriate rebirth in the Pure Land (one never knows when death comes, so it is better to chant continuously!).
In Jōdo Shin, the nembutsu is seen as purely an expression of gratitude to Amida. Jōdo Shin practitioners do not believe in self-power at all, so any entry in Pure Land is purely due to Amida 's compassion and there is little point in, or insistence on, continuous chanting.
True 'gratitude' actually propels us to do the best with what we're given, and this expressly includes not wasting time with even mild forms of obsequiousness or of obsessiveness (in the form of forever-repeated "thank you").
It comes with the acceptance that 'we' didn't deserve what we received, that other people were as meritorious or more than we but they didn't enjoy what we received, so true 'gratitude' comes with the desire to make oneself worthy of what has been received (by opposition to the mental proliferation explaining why an 'old' self made this 'fair')…
True 'gratitude' is manifested by the wholesome view that the opportunity to do one's best will not last and should be embodied here&now (gplus.wallez.name/Tnx1pJdhsvv).
This is relevant even for the other buddhist schools of course: if we're grateful for the teachings, the appropriate manifestation of such a gratitude is to diligently practice… it is not found in praising the Buddha while continuing one's 'normal' way of life in saṃsāra, because "that's the way society is"!
It goes further: remember the parable of the raft? Imagine you Awaken, in part thanks to Buddhist teachings. After you reached the other shore, is the wholesome thing to do then akin to spending time repeating "thank you, thank you, thank you…"? Or is it akin to spreading the teachings for the benefit of others (not even as a personal acknowledgement of what they did for you: who cares? If you're awakened, you don't actually feel an urge to claim that you are), akin to manifesting Wisdom, akin to living the full, inhibited, creative, responsive and responsible life?
« The original source was a strong awareness of suffering averted, so it isnt blind. On one hand I would be a fool not to ride any successful practice deeply, since its rare. On the other hand I don't want to bind myself either. »
Temporary binding to wholesome practices is valuable and shouldn't be discarded too soon though… A few wholesome tendencies are antidotes to many unwholesome tendencies so, even from an utilitarian perspective, it still makes sense —when aiming to let go of 'all' views— to somehow cling to the few wholesome views until the myriad of unwholesome views are fully abandoned. The key is in mindful and intentional 'clinging', and not clinging to an antidote one second longer than needed in relation to what it is an antidote to ;-)
Unattributed photo: model (during her yoga class for "Earth Hour" 2012?)