Unconditional Gratitude: Finding Our Way in an Era of Fear
Shiva Tigunait, PhD
April 13, 2020Year Long Meditation
How do we retain our feeling of gratitude in the midst of a pandemic? How do we keep our gratitude and sense of interconnectedness from being swallowed up by fear, anger, selfishness, and isolation?
Closed borders and multiple cancelled flights; long lines for health screenings; close quarters in airports and planes as strangers coughed and sneezed around my two-year-old; fear and uncertainty everywhere. I’d never been so happy and grateful to be home from a trip as I was to return to the US from India on March 17, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. For a day or two, I floated on a cloud of gratitude. We were home, everyone in my family seemed healthy, and no one we knew personally was suffering from the virus. I breathed a sigh of relief.
But as life settled into the new normal of a two-week quarantine, that floating feeling of gratitude started to evaporate like mist after a storm. Day-to-day realities returned—mostly first-world problems like how to keep my toddler from going stir-crazy and how to have socially distanced conversations with neighbors across the lawn.
And yet, something subtler and much more painful was eating away at my gratitude, as I saw and to some extent internalized the suffering of those affected by the virus—of families separated, of doctors and nurses and others on the front lines who do not have the luxury of self-quarantine and who face shortages of PPE every day. And then there was the horrific situation in the India we had just left, with millions of migrant workers and others unable to get home in the midst of a military curfew, and starving on the roadside. With this came a more deeply felt sense of collective pain. We really are all in this together.
Each time I would remind myself of all the bountiful gifts I have, starting with the basics of nutritious food, shelter, a warm home, and a loving family, the sense of gratitude would return in various degrees. But I realized that something more is needed than just to remind myself of what I have—this is only the first step of gratitude, and a low-grade one at that. It is the gratitude of short-lived and self-centered relief (I’m not sick; those around me are healthy; my family and friends were spared) instead of a deeper gratitude that comes from knowing we are all connected in every way—and ultimately, that we are all nurtured and protected on every level. The tradition of Sri Vidya teaches that every experience, both “good” and “bad,” the blissful and the painful, is here for our upliftment—to teach us how to live in the world, how to grow and expand into fully-formed humans, how to give and share the best of ourselves. This is something we can aspire to even in the dark night of the soul, when we are suffering and the world is suffering.
As I scrolled through my social media feed and tuned in to the news every few hours to see the jumbled kaleidoscope of COVID-19 advice and quarantine updates from friends, experts, and policymakers alike, a common thread emerged: it became clear that the virus of fear and uncertainty, of anger and paranoia, of loneliness and isolation, is in many ways as pervasive and as harmful as a physical virus. It is insidious and can hijack our minds and nervous systems, both individually and at a collective level, even if we are quarantined and out of reach of a physical virus. As I continued to practice meditation and contemplation every day, I slowly began to realize that this “virus” of fear has an antidote: gratitude born of trustful surrender.
Gratitude born of trustful surrender is the quintessence of gratitude itself. It is unconditional. It means being grateful no matter what comes our way, even if our plans change and we are uncomfortable; even if we run out of what we want or need—and ultimately, even if our loved ones or we ourselves become sick, or worse. This deep-seated gratitude eventually becomes internalized and leads us to the state of yogic realization that Swami Rama, the founder of the Himalayan Institute, and an enlightened master, called constant awareness. In the state of constant awareness, we realize that we are fully nurtured and protected, every second of the day. This awareness begins to envelop us in gratitude-born contentment at all times. In this state, our mind’s equanimity takes over, and we cannot be rattled by anything life throws our way. It is a lifelong lesson, and one I personally am trying to learn from and apply as new situations, with their attendant mental states (and, ideally, fewer reactions) arise each day.
As I cultivate gratitude and aspire to embody it, I turn to a set of Vedic mantras that my teacher taught me in both Sanskrit and English as guideposts for my own practice. These mantras from Vishve Deva Sukta remind us that we are guided and protected on every level, in ways we can’t even begin to imagine, by the divine forces of nature that permeate every nook and cranny of ourselves and the universe. These mantras fill us with hope and positive thinking, rather than fear and worst-case thinking.
Here is an English paraphrase of the first of these Vedic mantras, which I hope will help you as they continue to help me:
May all the divine forces that are auspicious and conducive to growth always accompany me, and in the ceremony of life, may they fill me with joy and gratitude, and help me conduct my every action as worship. May these unstoppable forces of nature rise up within me with full determination, expanding the scope of my consciousness. And may these divinities become real to me, breathing the essence of vitality and nourishment into my life, so that I can move forward without obstacles to find life’s purpose. With this prayer, I ask them to be my constant protector day by day.
When we begin each meditation session, or begin our day as we wake each morning, with this simple affirmation of gratitude, notice how we can begin to internalize it—how it begins to be recited not as lip service, but matures into something that is actually experienced and felt. We are stronger, more aware, and better able to serve humanity when we all aspire to embody unconditional gratitude.
Om shanti shanti shanti.
About the Teacher