Maybe seven years ago a dear friend and teacher, KJ Song, shared with me a spiritual practice which I found both inspiring and impossible. Whenever KJ hits a big stumbling block of finds themselves in a deep funk, they start thanking God for everything they can possibly think of, over and over and over and over, until it shifts.
As a lifelong sceptic, true to my Jewish and Soviet heritage, I find this hard to swallow. There is so much suffering in the world, how can I thank God even in the face of that? The Talmud teaches us "a person's insides should match their outsides" (Tractate Yoma 32b). In other words, don't be a hypocrite, don't do or say things which aren't true. I cannot bring myself to say things which are not true and reciting gratitude in the face of pain feels like lying to myself. I want to be open minded but I remember my father's warning,
Don't be so open minded that your brain falls out!
As a Jew and Rabbi, I find KJ's practice inspiring. Spiritual traditions around the world praise the value of gratitude. Judaism teaches us to start the day with gratitude, praying Modeh Ani - Thank you God, for giving me my soul back for another day. The Talmud says we should bless God 100 times a day (Tractate Menachot 43b). It makes an even more startling demand, enjoining us to bless God for the good and for the bad, based on the belief that everything that happens, God directs for our highest good (Tractate Brachot 54a). Does my friend KJ believe this? Perhaps. Does the Talmud? Some of it. Do we have to? I know that when people try to convince me of this my neck gets stiff and my kishkes churn. I get more angry, not more grateful.
On the other hand, I think we all have a sense that there is some deep wisdom in these teachings, that gratitude is good for us. Neuropsychology research agrees, showing that gratitude not only makes us happier, but also lessons the intensity of physical pain, relieves painful emotions, improves sleep, aids in stress regulation, and so on. So, what if there is a middle path, allows us to invoke more gratitude while honoring our integrity, the reality of pain as well as blessings in our lives?
I think that path begins with the Hebrew word for gratitude - Hoda'ah. The infinitive, lehodot, means "to be grateful" but also "to acknowledge" or "to confess." The connection here is that lehodot is the acknowledgment and confession of that for which we are grateful. You might wonder, why do we need to admit these things or why would anyone not admit something they're grateful for. Evolution and psychology provide us with important answers. Human brains have evolved to pay more attention to danger than safety, in order to survive. In the desert or jungle, we needed to prioritize vigilance for safety to survive. Our ancestors living under oppressive anti-semitic regimes needed to do the same thing. Where I was born, in the Soviet Union, frivolous joy without vigilance for danger was a sign of ignorance. These traits have all been passed down to us, setting up our brains and nervous systems on hyper-alert, sometimes permanently. However, this comes at a cost. It keeps us hypervigilant even when we are safe, piling stress on our bodies, causing heartburn and other digestive problems, contributing to family discord and distracting us from the joy that is indeed before us.
As my teacher Rabbi Yehoshua Karsh taught, just think of any particular day in your life, filled with thousands of minutes and millions of seconds. Think of how often just one event, or maybe two or three at most, comprising just a few minutes or hours, felt like they ruined the whole day. or week or month. What about honesty and integrity to all the other seconds, minutes, and hours when you were safe and everything was alright?
There is a middle path of gratitude does not require us to bless God for the bad or avoid our grief and rage. This is the path of Hoda'ah - the search and acknowledgement of each granular moment which is good.
I'll take this moment as an example, I feel a tension and an anxiety in my belly, it hurts and I wish it wasn't there. I also feel the rush of blood and energy in my body from a short 4 minute burst of exercise. It feels good. I am so grateful that my body can do sit ups and crunches. I am so grateful for the relaxing music playing as I type. I'm grateful for my fingers telling me they're tired so that I can know to take a break in a minute. I'm grateful for the ability to take deep breaths and for the cool clean air I'm breathing right now. I'm grateful for the flowers on my windowsill and for the rain last night which nourished all the greenery outside of my window. I'm so grateful for the flow of gratitude I'm now feeling, there's so much more I could now add.
Now you try, without lying to yourself but also without skipping any of the good, take 3-5 minutes to begin a list of acknowledgments of that which is good in your life.
How did it feel? Did you notice the momentum building up, wanting to add more and more good, or did it feel like a chore? Is your gratitude muscle strained, perhaps not yet strong, in need of more practice and exercise?
Our brain is a kind of a muscle. It doesn't get bigger from exercise, but neurons which fire together build bridges together. The more they do so, the more their neuronal bridge transforms from a narrow string to a well walked and durable path. Eventually, perhaps the path of Gratitude - Hoda'ah grows from something awkward and strange to a well-trodden sweet and familiar path. Like the Jewish practice of blessings, Hoda'ah, should not be restrained to any one time of the day. What if it becomes a way of life, a question always in the back of our heads,
"What else can I be grateful for right now? Where else can I acknowledge goodness or blessing, right now?
If your skepticism is coming up again, don't worry, you can still worry, rage, grieve, and problem solve. Don't stop doing those, but take a middle path, don't favor one worry or problem solving over gratitude. You see, because of the way our brains are hardwired to pay more attention to danger and problems, research shows that negative events stimulate our brains at least three times more than positive ones.
That's just to get to neutral. However, to do justice and respect to every moment that is good, we might strive for more.
Afterall, our very name as a people, Jews, comes from the Hebrew Yehudim, from the same root as Hoda'ah. The Tribe of Yehuda, from which we carry the name Jews, means "the thankful ones"