Gratitude plays a important role in our ability to be happy and to make spiritual progress.
A few years ago when I was working in a community mental health clinic, some of us therapists put together a Christmas party for poor families in our program. We had gotten local stores to donate winter coats, hats, and gloves to give to the children as gifts. The children were excited about the party, but when they open ed their presents, some of them were disappointed. Expecting an electronic high tech toy rather than something to wear, they became morose and irritable. They didn't want to take part in the rest of the festivities. Other children were happy to receive the gifts, and they showed their gratitude with hugs and thanks. They went on to enjoy the Christmas party.
I observed that the happy children had gratitude whereas the other children didn't. Probably both groups had some un met expectations, but one group allowed their disappointment to overshadow the entire experience and felt no gratitude for what they were given.
Gratitude is an important quality that affects how we see the world. When working with depressed clients, I often notice their inability to appreciate what they have. Rather, they concent rate on what they lack. There is a saying: "What we focus on tends to expand."
This concept is corroborated in the teachings of bhakti-yoga. Here we learn that our thoughts are so powerful that they mold our character and determine our destination.
Over the years I have observed people on a spiritual path. I have seen how gratitude plays a significant role in a person's ability to feel happy and make spiritual progress. To illuminate this point, I'll share a story a friend recently told me.
LESSONS FROM A SAVED CAT
Driving home on a cold, rainy day, he saw a small animal running back and forth in the middle of a congested intersection. At first he thought it was a rat, but then he realized it was a small black kitten.
He watched the kitten parade around the large tract or trailers, completely oblivious to his dangerous predicament. Feeling compassion, my friend pulled over to the side of the road to rescue the kitten. Careful to avoid the traffic, he made several futile attempts to catch the kitten. Finally he was able to grab h old of him.
He put the wet, dirty little cat next to him in the front seat of his car. The kitten made an ugly face and hissed at him. Incensed, my friend took the cat by the l scruff of the n eck and looked him in the eyes, saying, "I saved you. Don't you know you would have been killed out there on the street ?" The kitten seemed unimpressed by this lecture. My benevolent friend took the cat to a nearby church tha the knew would find him a home.
After dropping the kitten off, he reflected on the incident. He thought that in some ways he was very much like that little cat. How many times h ad Krsna saved him from destruction , and how many times had he rejected or minimized the Lord's help?
Remembering how we have been saved from material suffering is crucial to our spiritual lives. Unlike the little kitten, we have the ability to underst and this point to some degree. I know th at before becoming a devotee of Krsna I was constantly struggling under the dictates of my mind and senses. I didn't have any understanding of the purpose of life, and I was aimlessly going through the motions of living. I understand how my spiritual master and Krsna saved me from this, but what I tend to forget is the volurnes of future suffering I have been spared by becoming a devotee.
We owe a great debt to our spiritual predecessors, who come to guide us to our eternal home. They are compassionate, selfless persons who know that the Lord wants all of us to return to the spiritual kingdom. As beneficiaries of their efforts, we can show our gratitude by assisting them in their mission.
"Again Become a Mouse"
On the other hand, ungrateful persons forget the gifts they received and may even do harm to their benefactor. My spiritual master, Srila Prabhupada, tells a story about a mouse who sought shelter at the feet of a sage while being chased by a cat. The sage asked the mouse how he could serve him, and the mouse asked to be transformed into a cat. The sage, having such powers, granted the mouse his request. Soon the mouse, now a cat, returned to the shelter of the sage, complaining that he was being chased by a dog. This time the cat asked to become a dog. Again the benevolent sage granted the cat's wish , and the cat became a dog.
Shortly thereafter the dog appeared before the sage full of fear and crying for protection. Now he was being chased by a tiger. The sage, understanding the desire of the dog, mercifully allowed the dog to become a tiger. At this point in the story we can think about how grateful the dog should have felt towards the sage for giving him shelter and saving him once again. But rather than feeling thankful, the dog, now a tiger, stared hungrily at the sage. The sage, understanding the mind of the tiger, waved his hand and said , "Again become a mouse."
By performing devotional service under the guidance of a competent spiritual guide, a person can become empowered to do extraordinary things. Srila Prabhupada is a prime example of such empowerment. His spiritual master asked him to spread Krsna consciousness to the English speaking countries. At the advanced age of sixty-nine, Srila Prabhupada crossed the Atlantic on a cargo ship, enduring two heart attacks at sea. With no money and no support , Srila Prabhupada started a worldwide movement. Filled with love and gratitude, he always remembered and glorified his spiritual teacher.
Unlike Srila Prabhupada , we may become intoxicated by the power and fame that may come to us by efforts to serve our spiritual master and Krsna. Then we may become like the mouse that became a tiger-forgetting where our good fortune has come from. And we too will again become a mouse.
An antidote to becoming proud and forgetful of our benefactors is to always give thanks to our spiritual guides. Before starting any spiritual activity, we should thank our spiritual master for giving us the opportunity to engage in spiritual life and for teaching us the process for reawakening our dormant love for the Lord. A grateful h eart shields us from complacency and depression.