I was once given a mug with the text: it’s not happiness that makes us grateful, but gratefulness that makes us happy. My grandmother talked about counting her blessings as a way to get through the nights, when worry for each one of her children robbed her of sleep. We can count blessings rather than sheep and put our inner focus on that which enriches rather than depletes us. It is as much a mental discipline as a form of devotion to the pure beauty of being alive. And it doesn’t come for free. More often than not, it is a disciple that is forged, not once, but time and again, in the fires of adversity, when our happiness seeking ego finally collapses and dares to fall apart in the loving arms of the divine mother.
My own forging began as a young Dutch journalist in the UK, determined to change the world with her insightful writing, but having very little of value to say. Up until then I’d led a happy-go-lucky life in which pretty much anything that I set my mind to, came about without too much effort. I felt charmed, loved by the gods, and more than a little smug! Gratitude came easy in those days. The kind of superficial gratitude that goes hand in hand with a life not yet fully lived. And to no one’s surprise, except perhaps my own, this brittle gratitude quickly morphed into narcissistic outrage when my ‘decision’ to become a mother was thwarted by not one, but multiple miscarriages. What the hell did God think she was doing? I, the paragon of superficial joy and servitude to the masses, to be so humbled, so humiliated. What was she thinking?
Probably, ‘time to grow up Lysanne. Wake up to the depth of suffering that will truly teach you to appreciate joy.’ Only by coming face to face with my deepest and darkest nature, could I begin to appreciate the light that inevitably shines through when all seems lost.
It was a deep process, lasting many years, and because I’m as human as the next, a process that regularly needs updating and upgrading.
A few weeks ago, I arrived back home on my houseboat in Holland after a week abroad in which a number of overdue ghosts had needed to be laid to rest. I had done well, accomplished the mission I had set out to accomplish, and drove home with a smile on my face. I was feeling grateful for having found the strength to confront what needed confronting and yet stay in a place of love and compassion. As I opened the door to my floating home I was literally taken aback by a much deeper and almost overwhelming sense of profound gratitude. It was as if I was seeing my home for the first tiime, and what struck me most was the light streaming in through the windows overlooking the water and the meadows. The growing inner light and expanse that I had been feeling inside me as I drove home was mirrored back to me as the light reflected the waves rippling across my ceiling.
This effortless deep gratitude and joy lasted for several days. And then it stopped. As it must. At least, the effortlessness of it stopped. The need for discipline returned, the counting of blessings in the night, as I now lay worrying about my financial situation and my apparently brittle trust in and connection with life, the divine, the source, whatever name we give to the unnameable.
Grateful happiness comes and goes and is not ours by right. The hard work of happy gratefulness is never glib and superficial. It requires the constant inner work of re-establishing trust in the universe, banking those moments of effortless gratitude, and mining the far richer, deeper, seam of gratitude in adversity. There is nothing more corroding than concern for the future, just as there is nothing more uplifting than the pure innocent joy of the moment. Here and now. Breathing, upright, needing nothing more than to know you are held unconditionally by this deep unseen force that is life, even at times you believe the connection to be lost. The times when the dark night of the soul take over. Yet through accepting our forging in the fire of adversity we understand that this nameless and yet powerful presence is with us even in the deepest darkest moments. Perhaps more powerfully so.
In these gloomy and sometimes superficially happy December days, as we slowly inch our way towards the moment when the sun returns to us in the midwinter solstice, we are invited to practise holding our own inner light when it seems the light of life is busy elsewhere. We learn to develop the ability to nourish and shine our inner light, not only on ourselves, but also on those around us. And we serve the greater light that is born again and again, in the midst of winter, be it our own lives or as a date on the calendar.
When we can embrace the seasons of darkness and light in our lives with the same equanimity and faith with which we trust that summer will follow winter, light will follow dark, life will follow death, then we develop a profound gratitude for belonging to the great arching wheel of fortune, tumbling and turning us through this incarnation, until joy and pain become forged into one grateful breath that sings gratitude for the miracle of just being alive.