Gratitude is amorphous, ambiguous. We consider gratitude a virtue but see it used in petty, trivial, and self-serving ways. On the one hand gratitude acknowledges the infinite and unknowable gifts of the moment; on the other hand, it is taken to be pleasure in luck or fate, satisfaction in consuming or possessing or occupying what one happens to have at this moment and hopes to perpetuate.
Things may fall to us serendipitously, but to be grateful for that is to be grateful for luck or chance, which is necessarily not of our own doing, not the result of our own virtue or strength.
Gratitude set right is the recognition and conscious awareness of that which is present to us and which we need. Conscious gratitude must be the companion of mindfulness, where mindfulness places us fully in the process of the task so that we understand what we are doing and where we are going. Then gratitude will consist of reflection on this track or path. Gratitude will be conscious thinking that affirms to us that the task is right, that we embrace it. At that point we can be grateful for the path. Gratitude is a self-confirmation that the task is worthwhile and the pattern of engagement full, that we will not be distracted.
This is not the conventional way of looking at gratitude. Conventional gratitude is gratefulness for a gift. Conventional gratitude relies on pleasant surprise, social contrivance, material procure-ability, and a cycle of reciprocity. Such gift-giving and gratitude is ultimately projected to diurnal existence as a gift and our necessary acceptance of it, even obeisance. The entire process remains dependent on a mysterious ritual process which we cannot address, control, or hope to understand.
The ground for a mature gratitude is based on the human possibilities revealed by altruism. Neuro-science maintains that altruism is but a device for nurturing the brain, a behavioral response that has a beneficial social function in the cycle of reciprocity: mutual back-scratching. It does not work that way with individual versus social life, though. Reciprocity is based not on individual worth but on social relations of power and order.
But it turns out that altruism is not a social expectation after all. Altruism is easily overwritten in the brain by more primitive and negative emotions. Nor is altruism strictly speaking a neurological expectation, being simulated by science but empty of anything other than utilitarianism as an explanation for why it exists.
We must return to the human possibilities of altruism and gratitude not only to see that such virtues are real but also that such virtues are reproducible outside of social conventions like gift-giving.
This point about potentialities is important because gratitude must be extracted from the cycle of self-gratification and pleasure (which is a “social” cycle within the self) and projected into a new individual potential, both as virtue and as philosophy of life.
Buddhism speaks of codependent origination to show that the substance of everything is basically a version in space and time of something else. Gratitude limited to space and time (that is, to a particular social event, for example) dooms gratitude to impermanence. The gift or courtesy received and the pleasure experienced is impermanent. Rather, gratitude is not an experience but a way of life not dependent on the vicissitudes of gifts or even feelings of altruism. Rather, gratitude is conscious of interdependence and the experience of being conscious of that relationship to everything.
Gratitude is embodied in a way of life that is conscious of our part in the whole, no matter how small our knot of complexity or our ties to space and time. Gratitude for sun, moon, life, trees, books, music, art, food, land, birds, water, or other people, is not an experience so much as a way of life. We must have a way of life that expresses gratitude at his very moment for … this very moment.