3 levels of evolving Gratitude


It’s a day of gratitude. A day we are invited to become present to and give thanks to all who have gifted us.

We’ve all known, to some degree or another, what it feels like being grateful. Those moments when another gives to us out of the spontaneity of their heart something that contributes to our lives so deeply we feel a kind of positive indebtedness to this person. The sense that no matter how much we thanked them that our thanks could never give back what we had been given.

The first person I think of was my fourth grade Special Education teacher Mrs. Brutches. For many reasons, as a child I struggled deeply with all kinds of learning disorders. I was taken from school to school and special learning program to special learning program and after being held back in fourth grade my parents wondered if I could ever make it. Then, in fourth grade, for two hours each day, Mrs. Brutches would come get me out of class and take me to someplace different. I don’t remember exactly what we did, however, by the end of my fifth grade year my reading comprehension caught up to my own grade level. The amazing thing about this is she somehow taught me to read without me even noticing it! I just remember one day bringing home from school a stack of graded papers and my mother crying in surprise and wonderment that, for the first time, I had brought home A’s and B’s. When I think of Mrs. Brutches her face grows in my mind with the radiance of a Goddess. For I know without a shadow of a doubt that it was the generous and spontaneous love for me that pulled off this miracle. The pure gratitude I have for this incredible women I could ever bring to words. I know, in the deepest sense, I am blessed with this debt to her, and the only way I could ever pay her back is to make my life about  loving in the way that she demonstrated to me.

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All religions speak of the virtues of gratitude and giving thanks. Even archaic religions included some version of sacrifice which acknowledges a sense of indebtedness to something greater. And modern day secular science has done studies showing the health benefits of cultivating a sense of gratitude in our lives.


Yet what exactly is gratitude? I think one way to get at this is to look at gratitude’s opposite. Stress happens when your environment is demanding more of you than you have the ability, desire, or resources to give, and you are in some way dependent on that environment. We all know what that’s like! It’s the classic situation of working at a job that you depend on to pay your bills yet the demands of this job are so high it takes over your entire life and you end up working hard so that you can pay for a life that requires you to work more. Or the stress of being in a relationship that uses all of your emotional resources to make the relationship work and drains you of your ability to enjoy the relationship.

Gratitude has the opposite structural economy of stress. Gratitude happens when the environment (person, place or situation) contributes to you in a way which you could not equal the return, and that this contribution does not compromise the integrity of the contributor, and, even enhances it. Yet the enhancement received by the gifter is intrinsic in the joy of contributing itself and in this sense is non transactional. For example, Mrs. Brutches went above and beyond the call of duty of her job as a teacher. It is easy to see that the joy she felt from the way she was being with me was, in the deepest sense, the gift she gave me. If she had felt obligated and stressed out by the demand of the task with me, this would have yielded a very different outcome. She would have performed the same procedure, however it wouldn’t have been the same thing, if it worked at all.

There are three levels of gratitude I want to distinguish and invite us to cultivate here. They are relative gratitude, existential gratitude and ontological gratitude.

Relative gratitude is when you feel gratitude for the fortunate position you are in relative to others, and when you, by yourself, could not have accounted for your fortune. Relative gratitude is the perfect antidote to remind us to keep perspective in times when we are caught in our righteous demands that life treat us better. We can always think of someone who has it worse off than we do in ways and that we can’t take complete credit for. Or, as my coaching client who is a paramedic said the other night, pausing in the middle of complaining about his lack of motivation, “Dude! Really though! I look around at some of the people coming through work and I am great! I have nothing to complain about!”


Then there is what I’m calling existential gratitude. Existential gratitude is more primordial than relative gratitude in that it is built into the very structure of your existence. It transcends the circumstances which relative gratitude is based on. Existential gratitude or indebtedness is the faint yet ever pervasive background sense of pressure which comes with the fact of your very existence. This background pressure arises from the recognition that you are already more than you could ever accomplish. Given that you yourself are an existing being, you, literally, in every way, could have never earned or even wanted the existence you are given. Therefore, no matter what you do, you could never repay this gift because any attempts require this existence in order to repay it. It is arguably what accounts for your insatiable quest for meaning, significance, and self esteem, and in a very real way is the foundational horizon which gives rise to your sense of self.

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Yet this drive for significance and meaning, if not properly understood, can become manic and lead to its opposite, i.e. existential stress. This is what Ernest Becker refers to as “Denial of Death,” or “immortality projects.” This happens when we do not embrace the paradox at the very heart of our humanity. The paradox that we are creatures given self consciousness which can imagine infinity, which is the same capacity which gives us ability to see our own mortality. We are “Angels with anuses.” Like the horizon line which we can never reach, true existential gratitude embraces this tension in the recognition that our self consciousness is not “for us” as some kind of manic, self existing and universe-consuming entity, but rather is a very special part of a whole cosmic process. To practice and embody existential gratitude is to recognize that you are not only a guest of the cosmic whole but are even more primarily a host of it. You are a moment of space and time folding back on itself becoming aware of itself through your very ecstatic finitude. The world is worlding itself as your self recognition in a way it has never ever done before. You are the occasion where all-that-is looks out at the very dawn of its own remembrance.


Rilke perhaps speaks a pure expression of existential gratitude contemplating itself:

“I am circling around God, around the ancient tower, and I have been circling for a thousand years, and I still don’t know if I am a falcon, or a storm, or a great song.”

― Rainer Maria Rilke, Rainer Maria Rilke’s the Book of Hours: A New Translation with Commentary


Ontological gratitude goes beyond relative gratitude, which is arrived at through comparison, and existential gratitude, which finds its home in our acts of meaning. Ontological gratitude, on the other hand, is the moment when the giver and the receiver realize their real unity and this realization of unity is the actual gift.


Right now, as you read this sentence, notice your breath. Now notice where you are not noticing your breath. In fact you, except on special occasions, normally you do not notice your breath nor do you need to notice it. Seeing this, it would be more true to say not, “I’m breathing,” but rather “I’m being breathed.” Taking a step even deeper into our lived experience it would be even more true to say the breath breaths itself uniquely as me. The breath “me’s.”

Imagine what it would be like for you to breath someone? Invisibly and anonymously following someone through an entire lifetime, from the moment of conception, the first 9 months in the womb, birth until the moment of death breathing someone. Now imagine doing this without any requirement or prerequisite that you ever are noticed for this astonishing act! Imagine the pure love this would take and express on your behalf. In fact, consider that there were no difference between this love and your gifting this One’s breath. The breathing is the Loving. The Loving the breathing. This One’s life the very gifting of and as your anonymous gift.

Now…Notice your breath. The rise and fall, in your belly, on the inhale and exhale. Finding your interest in the subtle movements of this breath. The perceiving of the breaths rhythms throughout the entire rib cage. The chest. The breaths fluctuating waves in your legs, feet all the way down your toes. Noticing the waves of breath all the way up in in the subtle movements of your head and neck…Sense-ing being loved.. Breath by breath the movement of love desiring your existence as your life IS being lived as-loved.

Happy Thanksgiving to you. This is my thanks…

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