I awoke this morning with a heavy heart. Last night as I was slipping into bed to go to sleep, I opened my phone and saw a share from a friend that Harbin Hot Springs had burned to the ground. A place of so much refuge, beauty, healing, and love….a place where I myself have had profound opening experiences. What a great loss for so many.
After a beautiful evening spent with Ayla Nereo, Lydia Violet, Penny Livingston and other musicians and community, dedicated to Music as Medicine in our Planet Time, I lay in bed feeling the grief wash through me….not only for Harbin and its community, but for the land, the trees, the animals, and the people whose homes and businesses are in the greater community of Middletown and the surrounding areas. I felt grief for our current drought in California, for these warning signs of greater climate-change related disaster, for the future generations, including my own children. And I felt my own smallness as one human in the midst of it all.
To reach for gratitude in such a time is a radical act. I came into gratitude practice in a time in my life when my own grief was so strong that I could barely get out of bed in the morning. It was stumbling upon Thich Nhat Hahn’s teachings that guided me into gratitude…learning that no matter how great the grief, I could always name something that I was grateful for—be it my legs that could get me out of bed, my arms that could hold my small child, my breath, or even my life itself. This practice became a lifeline that helped sustain me through the challenge.
Angeles Arrien wrote, “Gratitude is a feeling that spontaneously emerges from within. However, it is not simply an emotional response; it is also a choice we make” In every moment, we have a choice to turn towards gratitude…even in our deepest pain. Brother Steindl-Rast, a great teacher on gratitude, also says, “With training, one can learn to focus on 'opportunity' as the gift within every given moment. This attitude towards life always improves the situation.”
In my experience, gratitude in such times is not a bypass - it is in fact the profound opportunity and possibility that arises. The more deeply are hearts are cracked open with grief, the more we can also feel our love and joy. Most often, what we are grieving is in fact what we most love, and thus the grief we feel and tears we cry can open the well more deeply for our love to arise. As Kahlil Gibran wrote in The Prophet,
“Your joy is your sorrow unmasked.
And the selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears.
And how else can it be?
The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain….
When you are joyous, look deep into your heart and you shall find it is only that which has given you sorrow that is giving you joy.
When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.”
So in this time of great planetary grief, how can we hold both our grief and our gratitude? How can our tears be a healing balm that can wash over the pain of the planet and all its inhabitants? And though this, how can we anchor ourselves radically in gratitude, so that our love and appreciation for the things that we DO might be an offering, a prayer, an honoring, and part of the transformation of our planet in this time?
In the post that I read last night in which Emmett Blake shared his story of being the last person at Harbin before the fire passed through, I was struck not only by the grief but also by the beauty of his share - the way that he used his last moments there to profoundly appreciate and offer gratitude for that place. He took time to have a last, deep drink from the waters. He took time to take this water, and to bless the Quan Yin statue where so many had prayed and sought solace, and he offered his words of gratitude as he took one last look at the pools as we have known them.
As we reach into gratitude, we can also hold onto hope. Last November, I wrote another blog on gratitude when I had just received the news that Thich Nhat Hahn had had a massive stroke. I felt great grief for what I interpreted to be the impending loss of a great teacher, and in my post, I shared that he might be on the threshold of passing into the next realm. In fact, he then began a beautiful and miraculous process of recovery, and a year later, he has just spoken his first words. What were they?
In, out (several times)
Happy (several times)
Thank you (several times)
and “Vui quá” (meaning, “So happy,” in Vietnamese)
He came out of this ordeal with his first words being utterances of joy and gratitude. What a powerful teaching. As Ayla Nereo sang last night, “Oh love…tearing me apart from the inside out, so I can see myself from the inside…” How many times have I experienced great grief, laid on the floor in tears, only to rise with even deeper love and gratitude and appreciation for all of the beauty that is life in its full spectrum? Can we hold these two together courageously, not as opposites but as two sides of the very same cup?
May the fires that burn outside of and within us clear all that is old and no longer serving, may they transform and alchemize our pain, and may they crack open our hearts and this planet to receive more and more beauty and grace.
For a deep dive into the practice of gratitude, join Katia Sol and Valerie Chafograck for THE GRATITUDE RETREAT at Orr Hot Springs, November 20-22. More information HERE.