I never taught my son to “say thank you.” This was an intentional omission, an experiment. My mother was shocked. “What’s wrong with saying thank you?” Nothing, of course, but in order to be authentic, the expression must follow the feeling, not the other way around. I didn’t know how it would turn out, and I certainly didn’t want him to seem rude or ungrateful to adults. The result was pretty magical. My son thanks me — and other people — all the time, in the most genuine, heartwarming way.
Not long ago, I heard Maharaji say that, in order for there to be gratitude, there must first be gratification. This is quite logical, yet it seems to undermine the structure of common etiquette, which dictates that one must show gratitude for a kindness, whether it is felt or not. We don’t want to appear ungrateful, after all, do we?
Throughout my life I’ve thanked hundreds of people for all sorts of things, both significant and trivial. However, this was largely out of habit and social conditioning, and the feeling of real gratitude was very often absent. I’m glad to have made people feel good about their kindness and the favors they’ve done for me, but when the expression didn’t stem from the feeling, it always seemed a little dishonest and empty.
I’ve thought a lot about this, and I’ve concluded that thankfulness and gratitude are two entirely different things — both enriching and important, but different. Here’s the thing. The act of thanking someone is secondary to something else — a kindness, a gift, or a favor. I had been taught to respond this way by my parents, and for most of my life I’ve done this as a matter of form. Often enough, I actually felt thankful at the time, and it was a good thing. I don’t remember when I first started thanking people. It’s just been a part of my social life since early childhood.
I’ll never forget the first time I felt what I can honestly call true gratitude. I had learned the techniques of Knowledge — four simple ways to turn within — and was practicing them, when a feeling came over me. Or, more accurately, a feeling expanded from somewhere deep inside and enveloped me in a warmth that was both dynamic and utterly still at the same time. It was small in a way, and yet it was instantly obvious to me that I had been urgently yearning for this feeling all my life. Tears spontaneously slid out from under my closed eyelids, and I began to laugh. I can’t say how, but I knew in that moment that I had found what every living thing most desires: the state of bliss. Full, empty, high, low, held, released — everything at once — and the unmistakable crown of it all, gratitude!
I floated in the embrace of that feeling for a while — I don’t know how long — and then, cathartically, like water that fills a jug to the brim and begins to spill down the sides, the words of thankfulness appeared on my lips, “Thank you, Maharaji.” He wasn’t there to hear me, but it didn’t matter. My heart was swollen with gratitude and I couldn’t stop myself from expressing it. I felt like the luckiest person alive, and yet I couldn’t call it luck because I had the clear sense that this was actually intended for me — a gift, to make my life complete.
Gratitude is a real, palpable feeling, like pleasure or pain, and thankfulness is the most natural response to it. Two distinctly different things, joined at the hip.
Illustration by Sara Shaffer.