By Michele Benzamin-Miki
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You may have heard about the internment of American citizens of Japanese origin during the Second World War. Most of them practiced a form of Buddhism known as Jodo Shin. I once heard my friend Rev. Ryo Imamura give a talk about his Jodo Shin Practice. His family, like many others in the camps, had been in the U.S. for several generations. He spoke about how Jodo Shin practice, even in the internment camps, was centered on gratitude. Imagine, your own government puts you in an internment camp, confiscates your property, and you spend years there practicing gratitude every day!!
As I listened to him I thought, “Wow! Impressive!” And I was proud too because I feel deeply connected to these Japanese-Americans through my own Japanese heritage.
I was inspired by his story knowing how difficult it actually was for Japanese-Americans to have everything they’ve known taken away for an indefinite period of time; to be continually under suspicion; and to spend years in bleak and sparse conditions in the remotest parts of the western U.S. Many of them had strong practices of gratitude already, so it wasn’t as if gratitude was new to them. It was something that came naturally. But even so, I was impressed.
My thoughts ran to how this might have looked to their captors, as if these Americans behind barbed-wire, who were now no longer to be regarded as Americans, were somehow delighted to be having this happy vacation and to be spending time away from their familiar lives. They all looked so happy and in such good spirits even though their lives had completely fallen apart. What they were doing was continuing their practice of gratitude, in order to keep going through the nightmare.
I’m telling this story because it’s easy to be grateful when things are going well. It’s easy to be grateful for our victories in life, large or small; for our connection with family and loved-ones; for the fulfilment of our goals and dreams. What about when things are challenging, difficult, oppressive? What happens when things are falling apart? Why would you even bother to be grateful when things fall apart?
The reality is that when things cannot be changed on the outside, it is even more important to change yourself on the inside. Unless you do, you become entirely the victim of circumstances.
If you are asleep at the wheel, or just rely on someone else to drive your bus, you may end up in a big pot-hole, or worse! When you’re awake, the bumps in the road are little wake-up calls. If you’re asleep the difference between a precipice and a road bump is the difference between life and death, survival or disaster.
A mentor of mine says, “First you get a message, then you get a lesson, then you get a mess!” Then you are in crisis – you’ve hit the wall.
The best way to avoid this sequence is to stay awake, to stay out of the pot-holes and away from the precipice. To stay awake is to be open, to be in alignment, to be in tune; and one of the most reliable and direct ways to stay in tune is to practice gratitude every day. Don’t wait until you’re in a crisis.
It’s not that life doesn’t come up with challenges all the time. What’s most valuable about practicing gratitude as a core part of how you stay focused every day, is that you learn to be grateful for everything!
You learn that the most important time to be grateful is when life is challenging you the most. Eventually, gratitude becomes a reflex. When something really challenging happens you figure out that somehow it might just be one of the best things that could of happened. You learn to stay open and you see that that those things that seemed like disasters at first, really are some of the best things that could have happened.
My friend spoke only briefly about the deep wounds that Japanese Americans still carry. Of course there were wounds, despite that practice of gratitude, deep unconscious wounds that call for transformation on the deepest level; limiting beliefs, old decisions and stuck emotions that have been passed on through the generations.
He did say that gratitude is an essential part of healing. It is how we all learn to take responsibility for our own lives, to move into our own power, however we may have suffered in the past.
It is the same in my own work with the individuals I mentor. Everyone has their own version of an internment camp; in some cases not as harsh as the real thing, in some cases, maybe even more so. Everyone has a story, limiting notions about what their life can or cannot be, fears and uncertainties.
To move from being a victim of circumstances, toward being aligned, integrated, empowered spiritual beings with real choices, results, and purpose, the best place to begin is with gratitude.
Every morning when I wake up, the first thing I do is to check in to how I am, my thoughts, emotions, body, and my state of being. I practice being grateful for all I find there. It is the most important first task of my day, because it sets the tone for everything that follows. Then I practice gratitude for the people and events of my life, the land where I live, my students and clients. It’s hard to imagine beginning my day any other way.
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