Sylvia Boorstein learns how daily messages of gratitude exchanged between friends can bring insight and the inspiration to practice.
It’s a year now since Carol Wilson and I, sitting across the room from each other at Spirit Rock Meditation Center, heard our friend Jane describe her gratitude practice. Jane emails a colleague every day with a report of what she feels grateful for. The colleague sends Jane a gratitude message daily as well. “It’s not like writing letters,” Jane said, “because we aren’t obligated to respond to the contents of the other person’s message. We are witnesses to each other’s practice. That’s all.” I glanced over at Carol, who correctly read my look as, “Do you want to do that with me?” Carol nodded, “Yes!” We started the next day.
I am grateful for your heart as my compassionate witness.
The first of the daily emails were easy. Carol returned to Massachusetts and could write about the pleasures of being at home. I live in California, where spring arrives early, so I could wax eloquent about crocuses and daffodils in March. The novelty of looking for things to delight in and the pleasure of being in daily communication after twenty years of a cordial relationship with only occasional times of being together kept both of us cheerful. Our emails continued to pass each other daily. Inevitably, they became weightier: “I am grateful that I have you to write to because I have had a terrible day and I am in an awful mood and I am trying to be ‘spiritual’ about it, to no avail. Now that I am writing to you about it, though, the whole thing seems less overwhelming. I feel reassured that I can manage. I am grateful for your heart as my compassionate witness.”
Our emails include details of our lives, news of this or that relative, health updates, work considerations, joys and woes in all those categories. We rarely respond to the particulars of each other’s messages. We never offer advice. I feel Carol’s presence and concern for me in her diligent, faithful sharing of her own experience, and I think she feels the same about me. We both keep exclaiming, in our separate messages, “This practice is surprisingly good for me! I am telling you my troubles but I am not falling into despair. This somehow holds the heart up,” and “Who would have thought this would be as profound as it is?”
I think I understand, in more ways than I did before, the story of Ananda, the Buddha’s closest disciple, asking, “Is it true that noble friends are half the holy life?” The Buddha responds, “No. That’s not true. Noble friends are the whole of the holy life.”
Carol and I, having always been amicable and respectful colleagues, have, by sharing confidences, become good friends. My experience of how dear she has become to me inspires my practice, for my own sake as well as for hers. I see how each of our emails, in addition to sharing news, is a teaching that supports our dharma understanding. The specific details of our messages are unique to our individual lives, but the three characteristics of experience that the Buddha taught were the insights that liberate the mind from suffering are always visible just under our words. Here are those insights:
Change is constant. Carol and I are telling each other, by way of our stories of the day, that everything is always new and that the changing feeling-tones of our experience, pleasant and unpleasant, require constant accommodation.
“I am grateful to have you to tell this to,” allows my mind to relax and frees my attention from being held captive by distress.
Suffering is the extra tension created in the mind when it struggles. Carol and I mirror for each other the ways in which we lament the passing of pleasant experience and yearn for an end to unpleasant experience. We continually discover that when we are able to surround displeasure with gratitude the mind avoids the extra pain of anguish.
Nothing has a substantive existence apart from everything else and exists only in the context of everything else. Being able to connect with the truth that “I am grateful to have you to tell this to,” allows my mind to relax and frees my attention from being held captive by distress. I see my life in a wider context. I can experience “The Drama of My Life Today” as part of the larger story of “The Rest of My Life” and sometimes even the story of “Life Itself.” Knowing that Carol is somewhere in the world waiting, as a trustworthy and concerned friend, for my news, I am inspired, in support of her practice, to tell her all of my stories.
As I write this column, Carol is leaving for Burma and will be out of email reach for six weeks. I realize how much I’ll miss her and how much I’ve come to love her for her dedication to practicing in this way with me. She’ll be back around Valentine’s Day, and we’ll begin again. I am thinking that an invitation to someone, “Do you want to do this with me?” would be a wonderful present for that day, a great way to say, “I love you.”