Growing through Gratitude



WHEEL 1

P E R S O N A L  L I F E


 F O U R

Growing through Gratitude


We must find positivity in the bleakest situations and live by the principle of gratitude.

‘We learned about gratitude and humility—that so many people had a hand in our success, from the teachers who inspired us to the janitors who kept our school clean . . . and we were taught to value everyone’s contribution and treat everyone with respect.’

—Michelle Obama


Harry’s fair complexion brought out the contrast in his dark-brown eyes.The eyes are the window to the soul, I thought. As he stared at me, I noticed parts of his sclera were bloodshot, partly from the stress of telling me his miseries and partly from the excitement of the conversation that lay ahead of us.

   ‘The traffic of the mind, you were saying . . .’ Harry said, eager to get back on track again. We lost eye contact briefly as he stretched his neck above the steering wheel to see if the traffic was clearing ahead. It was, albeit at a sluggish pace. ‘So, the traffic of the mind,’ he repeated.

   ‘The traffic of the mind,’ I smiled at him. ‘The mind is what we use to perceive the world. We don’t see things as they are, we see things as we are. Like your sunglasses . . .’ I pointed to his designer glasses resting on the dashboard. ‘When you wear them, the way you see the world changes. Things that once looked bright now look dull and lifeless. The things themselves haven’t changed. Our perception has.’ The car at a complete standstill, Harry fiddled with the frames of his sunglasses, pondering my point.

   ‘But things do change over time. My wife and I have become entirely different people.’

   ‘I agree. The sands of time slow for no man. Things change for better and for worse, but what we choose to perceive is up to us. And that is a personal choice. Do we see the positive or the negative in a situation?’

   I could sense his confusion.

   ‘Let me give you a personal example,’ I said and explained.

See the Positive

We all boil at different degrees. Some of us have temperaments like the Indian summer—hot, sticky and easily irritable. Yet some can remain level-headed in the worst of calamities, and as a monk, I was taught to control my emotions. So naturally, I assumed that I was in the latter level-headed category. That was until the day I realized I wasn’t there yet.

   To most people, the word ashram induces a romanticized vision of a temple situated in the foothills of a mountain whose name is difficult to pronounce. But not our ashram! Our ashram is a network of corridors in South Mumbai, a part of town that never sleeps. With over 100 monks living together, it can feel congested at times. One can imagine how long we’re waiting for the bathrooms in the morning.

   One day, ten years ago, I stormed into the room of my spiritual guide, Radhanath Swami. We’re fortunate that he lives with us in the ashram, giving us easy access to him to share our joys and listen to our grievances. Have you been inside his quarters? They’re extraordinary! If you could capture the smell of simplicity and sell it as a fragrance, it would be the essence of his room. Measuring a mere 5 sq. metres, with two simple tube lights and straw mats that line the floor, it feels as if one is entering a village home. The place is barren of furniture except for a small table that rests a few inches above the ground and a wooden chair for the elderly guests who visit him. Bookshelves line two of the walls up to the ceiling, with ancient books of wisdom sitting side-by-side with contemporary research. Musical instruments—a harmonium, and a mridangam drum—sit next to the focal point of the room, a small altar on which rest the deities of his meditation.

   ‘It’s all changing,’ I whispered under my breath as I knocked on my guru’s door.

   ‘Come in!’ he said. I sulked through the wooden doors with my head down. Radhanath Swami was sitting on the floor at his modest desk, his legs crossed and back straight. I repeated what I had said a little louder as I sat down and crossed my legs.

   ‘It’s all changing!’ I couldn’t take it; I had to tell him.

   ‘Gaur Gopal?’ he said inquisitively in his American accent that now had hints of an Indian one. He peered at me over his reading glasses with a penetrating gaze. He closed the book he was reading, which had a cover that looked like a relic from a bygone era, and went back to his original stance with his hands in his lap. I had his attention. That was my signal to speak.

   I exploded. For forty-five minutes I nitpicked every grievance I had with the management of the temple and the many people who had wronged me. I complained that if this continued, it would ruin our community. I felt like a self-appointed saviour who had to point out these negative mannerisms creeping into our society. ‘If we do nothing about all this, everything will be spoiled,’ I finally ended. He sat there with a grave look on his face. Not a word left his mouth as I grumbled on.

   ‘Have you finished?’ he said sternly.

   I sighed, ‘Yes.’

   ‘There are so many positive things happening in our community,’ he started. For the next forty-five minutes, he did not mention a single complaint I had made. He only focused on the positives, uplifting my mood. ‘I am not saying these problems don’t exist, but the real problem is that when negativity consumes the mind, not only do we lose the vision to see the beautiful things around us, but also the ability to solve the problems that confront us. We have to train our mind to focus on the positive and feel empowered to deal with the negative.’

   He then spent equal amounts of time going through the practical solutions to all my problems and then swiftly instructed me to go for lunch with all the other monks in the dining hall. He did not ignore the fact that some of my complaints were genuine.

   It was not that the problems I had were not real. We all go through real challenges, for which solutions should be found. But what Radhanath Swami taught me was the power of having a positive state of mind whilst dealing with problems constructively.

   ‘That brings a lot of clarity,’ Harry said.

   I could sense a ‘but’.

   ‘But how long did your positive attitude last? Are you telling me that Radhanath Swami just told you to be positive and it miraculously happened?’

   ‘Well the miracle lasted at least an hour until lunchtime,’ I laughed. ‘This state of mind develops over time, and I realized that fully while eating lunch.’

An Unforgettable Lunch

I left Radhanath Swami’s room in high spirits. That’s one of the effects of enlightened people; they make others feel inspired in their company. I galloped to the lunch hall (not physically; anyone who has ever worn a dhoti would understand how hard that is) elated and full of positive energy. The kitchen at our ashram cooks lunch for over 200 people daily. They have pots bigger than some grown men, and gas burners with flames larger than many ceremonial wedding fires. National Geographic featured our kitchen in their documentary on India’s Mega Kitchens.

   Steamed rice, dal (lentil), spicy vegetable curries and hot flatbread chapattis— a simple, but satisfying lunch. What enhanced the flavour for me even more was the new appreciation for the people around me. The people in the room were a bit like my lunch. On occasions, the dal does not have enough salt, the curry is too spicy, or the gulab jamun has a bit too much ghee. However, they still nourish me. I looked at every face in that hall. I may have perceived faults in them in the past, but they had all helped me in my journey. I learnt on that day that when we think negatively of people, we should immediately counteract that energy by contemplating three positive qualities they have. I did make some awkward lingering eye contact with many of the monks in that hall as I gawked at them, leaving them with confused expressions. But my intention was correct; I was training the mind to see the good.

   As I digested my thoughts and lunch, I returned to my room to plan for a lecture that I was giving that night. I opened my laptop that revealed a hoard of unread emails. I did not have time to read them considering my pressing evening deadline. What to speak about? I thought as I rhythmically tapped my fingers against the side of the laptop and rocked in my chair. Nothing came to my mind.

   I was preoccupied with something in my teeth. A small cumin seed had lodged itself between the lower molar teeth on the right side of my mouth. I relentlessly fiddled with it. It was as if my tongue was playing tennis against my teeth, with the seed as the ball. After fifteen minutes of frustration, and feeling as if I was two sets down in this heated game, I went to the bathroom. My first tactic was rinsing my mouth with water. I used a range of motions to flush out the cumin seed, but I had no luck. The spice that had usurped the space between my teeth stayed put.

   My second tactic increased the pressure on my unwelcome friend: dental floss. To be honest, and I want to apologize to any dentists reading, I rarely flossed so I did not have the manual dexterity to use the minty-fresh string. My last port of call was my interdental brushes that I used occasionally. They are little fine-bristled brushes which fit between the teeth and look like tiny plaque-fight swords. As you can guess, I was successful. With one delicate swoop in between my teeth, I stabbed the cumin seed straight in its core, banishing it from my mouth forever. It was a small, but significant victory.

   Returning to my laptop, I knew precisely what I would present that evening: my experiences with ‘Radhanath Swami and The Cumin Seed.’ It was a sufficiently intriguing, but ridiculous, title to entertain the crowd. However, my incident with the seed had a valuable lesson.

  The mind is like the tongue. It drifts towards the negative areas of our life, making us restless and uneasy. It schemes to uproot the problems that are causing us so much pain, not realizing that the persistent scheming is causing us more emotional damage. The mind neglects the thirty-one other ‘seed-free’ areas of life, choosing not to focus on the simple joys available to us. This is not to say we shouldn’t deal with problems in our life. We need practical solutions too—interdental brushes are necessary. But we should not be consumed by them; that leads to misery. We have to focus on gratitude.

   Gratitude is not a feeling; it is a state of mind that can be developed, and it allows us to tap into a reservoir of unlimited positive energy. Being grateful happens in two steps. The first is to realize that there is good in the world and that good has fallen upon us. The second is to know that goodness is coming from something other than us, an external reality is giving the gifts of grace to our very own reality. This could be our family, our friends, nature and even God. We have so much to be grateful for!

   Statistically, we always have more to be grateful for than ungrateful. Ingratitude means to forget the blessings in our life, to ignore the kind things people have done for us. It is not just positivity we feel when we embrace gratitude. Better sleep, the ability to express more kindness, feeling more alive and even having a stronger immune system are all benefits of being thankful.

   A poem composed by Johnson Oatman, Jr, which we had sung in our primary school, summarizes my message eloquently:

When upon life’s billows you are tempest-tossed, 

When you are discouraged, thinking all is lost, 

Count your many blessings, name them one by one, 

And it will surprise you what the Lord has done.


   ‘So gratitude is the key to remaining positive and happy?’ Harry confirmed.

   ‘Certainly,’ I replied. ‘It’s not the happy people who are grateful; it’s the grateful people who are happy. Does that make sense?’

   ‘Partly,’ Harry hesitated. ‘I can think of things I should be grateful for, but that’s not the case for everyone. I know people who have been through hell and back, whether it’s losing loved ones or being disease-stricken. How can they be grateful?’

   For some reason or another, the thought of my friends in Mumbai whose daughter had been diagnosed with terminal cancer came up. ‘Yes, you’re right, Harry. It’s hard to be grateful in certain situations, and we must be careful while explaining this principle to others. When people are suffering, we should not insensitively tell them to be grateful. That would be uncompassionate. Gratitude has many layers to it. Let’s understand them thoroughly.’

Incurable

What is the worst disease you can think of? For most people, it would be cancer.  But they would not associate it with the young. Professor Peter Sasieni says, ‘Cancer is primarily a disease of old age, with more than 60 per cent of all cases diagnosed in people aged over 65.’ It’s a disease of the old. However, this was not the experience of my friends whose four-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Gandharvika, was diagnosed with the fastest growing tumour in humans, Burkitt’s lymphoma.

   Gadharvika’s father, Mr Mukund Shanbag, a close friend, narrated the story to me: ‘“I can feel a lump in her stomach,” the doctor said to me. “And it feels pretty large.” The doctor paused and turned away to his computer screen, scribbling some notes. “I don’t want to worry you,” he continued. Those six words are enough to worry someone. I am a dentist by profession; sometimes we say this will hurt a little bit, but in reality, it may hurt a lot. “I don’t want to worry you, but as your daughter is also complaining of a stomach ache I think we should take her to the hospital.”’

   ‘“That’s fine,” I said to the doctor who was now dialling away on his phone making arrangements for something. “Will your referral letter come by post? How long will it take?” I asked naively.’

   ‘“No, what I mean to say is, we need to get her to the hospital right now!” he said. I looked at him in panic. We had plans as a family after the appointment, but the urgency on his face signalled to me that he thought it was serious and had be attended to right away.

   ‘After a short car ride we arrived at the hospital with the radiologist waiting there to meet us at the reception. Our doctor had made some calls. The radiologist looked familiar; he was a member of our spiritual community too. He took my daughter and me upstairs to his clinic, making small talk on the way. I was nervous, but Gadharvika was having the time of her life. This was an adventure for her. I tried to make conversation with the radiologist, but oddly enough he was also nervous. Had our doctor told him something that we did not know?

   ‘In his clinic, the radiologist performed sonography (ultrasound) on Gadharvika. The cold gel tickled her stomach; I remember her laugh. He did not say much, but he did perform a biopsy and said that he would call us with the results. I cannot speak a sentence long enough to describe how long those forty-eight hours were. I picked up the phone when it rang, but I immediately dropped it—the doctor said that Gandharvika had a rare form of cancer. Just the word fills me with fear.

   ‘How can one be grateful knowing that this excruciating disease is going to affect someone that they love more than their own life? My wife, Pavitra, and I found it impossible at first, but the love we received from our community exemplified how much we had to be grateful for.

   ‘Our friends and family stepped in as soon as the treatment began. Yet the stress in the beginning was still overwhelming. Our whole family was suffering. Not only was Gandharvika going through hell, our other two children Radhika and Rasika, aged seven and two at that time, were not seeing their parents for extended periods of time. They were too young to understand what was going on. It was hard for my wife and I to be strong for them, knowing that the three of them could soon only be the two of them. I was at the hospital for almost six months continuously as Gandharvika went through the vicious cycle of chemotherapy, her blood count dropping, infection and readmission. It was a constant loop of suffering; the toughest six months of my life! What kept me sane was my spiritual practice, but primarily the outpouring of love from our friends around us.

   ‘One of our friends would take my kids to their home every weekend and treat them like her own so they would not miss their mother. Both my sisters would watch my kids during the week as we rushed between work and the hospital. My father insisted that he would cook for us daily so that she would not miss home-cooked meals. Three months passed like this. This abnormal situation became our normal routine.

   ‘By the age of four it is said that a child starts to understand that they are an individual being, capable of having their own thoughts, aspirations and dreams. But still being children, they are not fully mature yet. That is why their response to questions like, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” is so entertaining. Walking through the dark corridors of the hospital I would wonder if I would see my daughter become a grown-up.

  ‘In late September an issue cropped up. Gandharvika’s birthday was fast approaching, and she had understandably lost all her initial patience, she wanted to go home to celebrate. The problem was that she had contracted a burning fever after her last round of chemotherapy. There was no chance she would be leaving the ward, the doctors warned us. It broke my daughter’s heart. That is when we received more support.

   ‘At lunchtime, as Gandharvika went through another round of tests, our friends and family, led by her class teacher, decorated the hospital room for her birthday as a surprise. They brought cake, party-poppers and all sorts of presents from my daughter’s classmates. It was better than any birthday we could have planned! Gandharvika and our whole family were overwhelmed with joy.

   ‘Cancer treatment in India can be very costly due to the intensive nature and long duration of the treatment. We were managing fine, but it was causing a strain on our family. Although we tried to refuse, one of our dearest friends offered to help pay for the treatment. “We really want to serve your daughter in this way,” they said. I was deeply touched. To serve your own children is honourable; to want to give so much to serve another’s children is downright heroic. We accepted their gift because of the love that it was accompanied with.

   ‘During those trying times, our spiritual teacher Radhanath Swami met with us too, enquiring about our daughter’s health. He held my hands and looked into my eyes. “I am intensely praying for Gandharvika and I am intensely praying for all of you too,” he said. Many people today belittle the power of prayers. But we had all the faith that the prayers and good wishes of those with deep-rooted spirituality in our community gave us the strength to deal with this turbulent phase of our life.

   ‘Gandharvika is an energetic child; she loves to make friends. In her ward, there were many other children with the same disease whom she would play with and we would bond with the families going through the same crisis. As they say, there is strength in numbers. Nurses would comment that our daughter was different from other children; she would be praying, reading and even doing meditation. They took so much hope from this, and many even started practising spirituality themselves.

   ‘Although we took great courage from seeing someone battle cancer together with their family, we would panic when they lost the battle. Kids who were playing with the same toys Gandharvika had, were passing away right before our eyes. Innocent children being consumed by such a devastating disease! What if Gandharvika relapses? was a recurrent thought for me. As I said earlier, these types of negative thoughts would pop up when I was alone, in the emptiness of the hospital listening to the cold silence. “How would we be able to cope if we lost her?” At times like that we could not thank those who wrapped us in love enough, helping us to heal our wounds. The gratitude that we felt for our entire spiritual community in Mumbai was a beacon that guided us and little Gandharvika through her disease. And though we thought that her disease was terminal, Gandharvika is still with us today, laughing and praying. Those who are grateful are not immune to distress. However, gratitude on many different levels offered us unlikely solace in a time of great difficulty.’

   ‘My car is fast,’ Harry said, as my consciousness returned to the conversation. ‘But that was an emotional rollercoaster. It seems like Gadharvika’s father had a deep connection to the quality of gratitude.’

   ‘Indeed,’ I said. ‘Indeed.’ I wiped my teary eyes. ‘We need to make time to practise gratitude if we want to be like him.’

   ‘Definitely,’ Harry said in a sombre mood. ‘I lead a very busy life . . .’

   ‘Even more reason to truly understand gratitude. If we don’t, we can miss the most beautiful aspects of our existence,’ I emphasized.


Summary:

  • We must have a positive state of mind when dealing with problems.
  • Think: Is there anything positive about this situation I am in?
  • Being positive does not mean we neglect the negative. We must constructively deal with negative situations whilst simultaneously focusing on the positive.
  • Just like our tongue can be obsessed with something stuck in our teeth, our mind has a default setting to be obsessed about the negative.
  • Gratitude is a state of being that allows us to see the positive. It comes from realizing that there is good in the world, that some of that good is with us and that those good things are coming from an external reality. That state of consciousness imbibes us with positivity.
  • Even in times of difficulty and sorrow, we can feel inner strength, when we are grateful for the support of caring friends and family.



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