gratitude, obligation, and generosity

20150802_094903Recently I listened to about 20 minutes of a special on NPR about the science of gratitude. I happened to tune in at the point where the specific topic was how some people feel indebtedness in circumstances in which others feel gratitude instead. Apparently this indebtedness view goes at least back to Aristotle, who said that “doing good is proper to the superior person, and receiving it to the inferior”. I’ve found a larger philosophical analysis of this topic here, which delves at length into the question of gratitude as moral obligation. Reflections on this concept in the modern era refer to Kant’s thoughts on the subject:

. . . Kant suggested in the Lectures on Ethics that beneficiaries should cringe at receiving favors, since in doing so, a beneficiary becomes the debtor of his benefactor—a shameful position (Kant 1775–1780 [1981]: 118–119). For Kant, owing an obligation of gratitude is especially bad, since duties of gratitude are sacred duties—duties which can never be fully discharged. This is because any attempt on a beneficiary’s part to “pay off” the debt of gratitude will always be done essentially as a reaction to the original act of benevolence. The benefactor alone has the honor of having acted benevolently in a purely proactive way. Insofar as we would want to avoid being in such an eternally imbalanced relationship, we should be wary of accepting gifts and favors.

I had never thought about this dichotomy before and my initial reaction was decidedly negative. I try to prize gratitude. I think it’s important to thank my husband for things he does, to always thank whoever cooked dinner, to say thank you and write thank you notes and teach my children to do the same. One of our family practices at Thanksgiving is to write down what we are grateful for – our health, our home, the food on our table. Continue reading


Jizo 25[Just one more full day left in National Novel Writing Month! It’s really crunch time writing-wise as this point, quite frenetic. I hope you’ve had a great Thanksgiving. This is the last of the pre-written blogs. Fingers crossed that I’ll be able to report 50,000 words written the next time I post!]

With the end of Thanksgiving comes the start of the consumer shopping season; actually this year it appears that the holiday and the shopping actually coincide. It is so easy to get swept up with the desire to accumulate stuff. I find it particularly difficult to resist what I think of as greed in the guise of generosity, which can lead me to dramatically overspend my allotted holiday gift budget. Often my shopping excess is more about me being excited by having an excuse to buy things than because the people I’ve buying the gifts for need or even want the things I’m buying. I have realized that the best gifts are usually edibles and handmade offerings. But despite knowing that, every year I get swept up in shopping, often obsessing over finding just one more gift, some perfect item to awe and please the recipient. The thrill of the search in these situations becomes more important than the gift-giving itself.

I’ve previously written about why taking less can be difficult when we are overwhelmed by the suffering in the world and think that our actions won’t make a difference. More cynically, sometimes we resist taking less because we simply WANT more. This is hungry ghost mentality. When I fall prey to this during the holiday shopping season, I feel like whatever I have bought to give as gifts is not enough to satisfy my obligations, real or imagined. I must keep acquiring more, and yet, like the hungry ghost whose throat is too small and whose belly is so ravenous, the grasping never satisfies. I’m so certain that the next thing I buy will cure the dissatisfaction I feel. And yet, the Mara of greed can never be satisfied. Once I get the thing I’ve searched for, the thrill of the search dissipates and then the original feeling of dissatisfaction returns. I need yet one more gift in order for people to think well of me. Ultimately, Mara in any of his forms can never be satisfied, causing us to run ourselves ragged in circles of desire, attachment, and disappointment trying to meet his demands. Continue reading


Jizo 9[Today is halfway through National Novel Writing Month! So hopefully I’m near or have surpassed the 25,000-word mark at this point on my novel. As I’ve explained before, I’ve prewritten my blogs during November so as to focus on my writing.]

Thanksgiving is just around the corner so I wanted to tell how we approach the holiday.  I didn’t used to care for Thanksgiving that much; the holiday always felt over-stuffed with food, people, and television – more excess than enjoyment. Our efforts to have a more relaxed holiday have become a lot easier since we started hosting the Thanksgiving feast ourselves, with a much lower-key festivity focused just on our own family. Our morning typically starts out with the children going outside to find the perfect Thanksgiving branch. We set this upright in a vase weighted with stones and marbles and then settle in to watch the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade, with construction paper, scissors, and thread at hand.

Each of us cuts leaf shapes out of the construction paper and writes on each leaf things for which we are grateful: each other, the food we will share, the house we live in, the love and peace we know, our good health. We use thread and tape to attach the leaves to the Thanksgiving branch. Casually, we begin preparing our food; since we have a completely vegetarian feast and separate out the bulk of the desserts for the following day, there is no need to rise early for frantic cooking. Continue reading


Jizo 17[Happy November! It’s the first day of National Novel Writing Month, popularly referred to as NaNoWriMo. As I plan to participate in the awesome craziness of writing a 50,000-word novel in 30 days, I have prewritten my blogs for November and loaded them to automatically post on the appropriate days. So they are not as immediately relevant to my life as prior blogs have been; however, they are just as true reflections. Enjoy and if you’re a fellow Wrimo – happy noveling!]

With the arrival of colder weather and the typical interpretation of Thanksgiving and Christmas as feasts, November always seems to me to begin a winter season that resolves around food. Therefore I will be diverging this month from the spiritual into some discussions about food. Of course, everything is interconnected, so there is actually a great deal of the spiritual in food.

One of my favorite cookbooks is More-with-Less. It is not a fancy cookbook; it’s certainly not as exciting as any of those written by Isa Chandra Moskowitz. But when our kids move out, I will be giving each of them their very own copy of the More-with-Less Cookbook, something my son has already asked for because he’s leaned to do a lot of cooking from that unassuming little book, filled with Mennonite simplicity and big-family efficiency. The book offers more than just a wonderful homemade alternative to Bisquick, which can be used to make the very best pancakes and biscuits, more than just filling casseroles and stews. It contains quite a lot of thought-provoking text about how we can make our diets more reflective of the world reality, which is that most people live in state of not having enough to meet their needs. Its sister books, Extending the Table and Simply in Season, continue that conversation with advice on how we can bend our diets to match the realities of the natural cycle, rather than bending the entire world to meet our every culinary whim. Continue reading


Jizo 20As Chinua Achebe said, things fall apart. This is true in all aspects of life and a key teaching of Buddhism. All things are composed of compound elements and are subject to change, decay, and dissolution. Impermanence affects our own bodies as well as everything around us. It’s something Buddhists are taught to reflect on in order to reduce our attachments.

Impermanence is a fact, not a value judgment. As Thich Nhat Hanh writes in his commentary to The Sutra on Knowing the Better way to Catch a Snake in Awakening of the Heart: Essential Buddhist Sutras and Commentaries: “Impermanence allows us to transform and move in a better direction. If things weren’t impermanent, your situation couldn’t change, a child couldn’t grow up, a grain of corn would never become an ear of corn to eat. . . thanks to impermanence, everything is possible . . . Because of impermanence, there is hope.”

In a house with active children, however, impermanence often seems less hopeful and more aggravating. Things break, things are broken. Lots of things. In our house, the things broken are toys, watches (so many watches!), alarm clocks, dishware, coat zippers, glasses, even little Jizo figurines. Oftentimes, the discovery of a broken item is accompanied by denials of responsibility couched in mystery or the passive tense: This is broken – I don’t know how. It just broke somehow, sometime, somewhere. Then there are the things that simply disappear: goggles, bathing suits, cameras. It’s gone – I don’t where, I don’t how, I just can’t find it anymore. Continue reading


Jizo 13Parenting, publishing, taking the metro to work each morning – I have found that every aspect of life benefits from the practice of equanimity, described by Kalu Rinpoche in The Dharma That Illuminates All Beings Impartially Like the Light of the Sun and the Moon, as a state of mind in which “you are not overpowered by emotional afflictions such as desire, hatred and stupidity, but instead remain in the natural state of the mind.” Without mindfulness practice to ground me in equanimity, I all too easily get swept away by the emotional currents around me. In parenting in particular I have a real tendency to get caught up in whatever is going on with my children and husband. I have nicknamed this “empathetically induced anger”, though it’s simply lack of equanimity. A phone call from an upset teacher, a email from a stressed spouse, a child crying about something his or her sibling has done, and suddenly my own mind is about as far from peaceful as could be imagined. Almost immediately I feel corresponding physiological changes in my body and soon I am mired down in the very hell realm that I’d like to be able to raise those around me out of.

I wrote In the Garden of Our Minds and other Buddhist stories over a period of years where I was struggling to maintain my own sanity while also co-parenting two very energetic children and working full-time. The dialogues and practices described in the book are based very closely on ones I experienced and developed during that time. Parenting has been the most challenging experience of my life; it requires such a high number of on-the-spot reactions. For instance, it is one thing to consider questions about life and death in the abstract, but I have found a much higher degree of pressure when the questions are being posed by small sentient beings who I’ve vowed to raise and nourish and who are looking to me for specific answers about what I believe – and why. And there is no test of mindfulness and equanimity like parenting. I can have the most positive intentions in the world as I calmly breathe my way up the driveway, but if I walk through the door into a room full of people on edge and cannot maintain my peaceful mind, I will soon find that my own seeds of anger are not seeds at all, but little grasping vines ready to rise up and choke away every last good intention. Continue reading