Can You Be Grateful for Both Blessings & Challenges? A Practice of Radical Gratitude


Last Thanksgiving, I wrote about Radical Gratitude, and this Thanksgiving I feel it calling me again. Usually, when we talk about gratitude, we express gratitude for our blessings. I’m grateful for my beautiful daughter Siena. I’m grateful that I live by the ocean among the redwoods in the most beautiful place on earth. I’m grateful to feel like I am smack dab in the center of living and fulfilling my calling to be of sacred service in my own unique ways. Gratitude for our blessings opens the heart and raises our vibration, calling in more blessings. Being grateful for our blessings feels good and reminds us to appreciate what is with us already. This kind of thanksgiving is easy, when we remember to pay attention to it.

But can we also practice Radical Gratitude? Can we feel just as grateful for our struggles—our painful experiences, our crises, and the Dark Nights of the Soul that we experience both individually and as a collective? Can I access the state of consciousness that allows me to feel grateful that I lost five people I love this fall—most of them way too young and tragically? Can I be grateful for the breakup I just experienced from someone I adore? Can I be grateful that my spiritual retreat center Harbin Hot Springs—the place I would go to heal from this kind of grief—burned to the ground in a wildfire?

More radically, can we as a culture feel grateful for what is happening with ISIS, as innocent people are murdered around the world in the name of a jihad? Can we find it in our hearts to not only accept but even thank those suffering souls who think they must become suicide bombers in order to stand for what they think is right?

Can we be grateful for climate change? For extinction of animal and plant species? For genocide? For sexual trafficking of women and children? Can we be grateful for starving babies and suffering refugees and mega storms that threaten to flatten whole cities?

The Story of Separation

Can we be grateful for all of these things as they all point towards how far we’ve ventured into what Charles Eisenstein calls the “Story of Separation”—the world view that marks us as separate from one another, separate from nature, separate from the Divine, separated from the Oneness mystics point towards? If we can find a way to feel grateful for the ways in which our eyes are being opened as individuals and as a culture, so we can be radically grateful for what we are realizing about the nature of this Oneness, maybe . . . maybe . . . We can finally—humbled to our knees with the painful experiment of “progress” in the name of Western culture—start to come together to write a new story—the Age of Reunion? Maybe in the Age of Reunion, we won’t choose to judge everything into right and wrong, black and white, good and bad? Maybe we can just be grateful for everything that allows us to grow as souls, to be fully embodied as souls in a human body, to open ourselves radically to the deep experience of being ALIVE.

The Paradox of Pain & Gratitude

Remember, this isn’t about condoning terrorism or celebrating the ways in which humans violate each other and the natural world. It’s not about employing some sort of spiritual bypass that asks us to skip past the devastation of losing our loved ones and watching humans destroy each other. It’s not about numbing the pain or using some mental construct to distract us from the pain the Story of Separation creates in our hearts.

It’s about cultivating the ability to hold a paradox. We can both feel the deep pain of grief, loss, and tragedy, and we can be grateful for the ways in which such experiences crack us open, shatter the illusions of the ego, and wake us up to the truth of being, so that we are finally able to SEE and FEEL and EXPERIENCE that we are all One, and we are simply here to love each other and care for one another, should we finally choose to say yes to this true calling.

We can cry out with the horror of the heartbreak, and we can also feel gratitude for the opportunity to dive all the way into the fully enlivening human experience of heartbreak. Both can be true at the same time without skipping anything. We can welcome it all—the betrayal, the violation, the disappointment, the horror—but also the ways in which tragedy brings us together, reminds us who we are, helps us remember what our core values are, and knocks us out of the complacency of everyday life.

Recently, I met Will Pye, who is a year out from brain surgery. His book Blessed with a Brain Tumor: Realizing It’s All Gift and Learning to Receive, takes this concept of radical gratitude to its extreme. Will is genuinely grateful to have been blessed with a brain tumor because of all the gifts that came alongside the tumor. I too am grateful to have lost five people I love. There were as many miracles alongside these losses as there were tears. And . . . It also hurts and feels scary and tragic and painful and devastating. Both are true if we’re able to hold the paradox.

Getting Shaken Awake

The more I explore this practice of radical gratitude, the more I am curious about what a fully ensouled human might feel, be, and do. In the memoir I wrote about my own journey to ensoulment, The Anatomy of a Calling, I came to realize that my journey had necessary pitfalls built into it, that I couldn’t have skipped the hard parts without slowing down my own journey of awakening. I have needed these Perfect Storms as wake up calls in order to give my soul more input in how I live my life. When I was comfortable, it was easy to go back to sleep, but when I get shaken by grief, I remember Why I Am Here and What Really Matters. My new mantra, borrowed from Martha Beck, is “Cave early.” Please God, let me choose the more graceful path as often as possible so I don’t have to be knocked back into wakefulness. But if I need to be shaken awake, please—Bring It On.

Embodiment of the Soul

Last month, shortly after the fifth loved one had died, I sat in meditation at a 5-day silent meditation retreat with Danish Tantrika Aisha Salem, and I really came face to face with the realization that the deep ensoulment process includes both ascension and declension. It’s a true enlivening of both the ecstasy and the pain in equal measure, without judging ecstasy as “good” and pain as “bad.” Even in the deepest of my grief and loss this fall, I recognized that when I went all the way down into my grief, not resisting life, not resisting the pain, what I discovered was something that felt very close to joy, very close to the pure feeling of just being ALIVE. Perhaps ecstasy and pain are only one cell layer apart. After all, the only reason I hurt so much when those I loved transitioned is because I loved so deeply. The only reason we hurt so much when terrorists murder innocent people is because we feel the pain of the Story of Separation and we long for the Age of Reunion. Our souls crave Oneness so much that everything that takes us away from it slices us open, bare to the vulnerability of all the ways in which we still buy into the illusion of separation, naked to the pain of the human experience.

But perhaps all this pain is just a growing pain, as we as a culture go through the birth canal of our collective awakening. Might we find a way to be grateful that we as individuals and as a collective are finally waking up?

As Kahlil Gibran writes, “Your pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding.” In her book Halfway Up the Mountain, Mariana Caplan writes, “It is quite conceivable that not only is pain a necessary aspect of the spiritual process, but that to consciously enter into and experience suffering is the doorway to a more profound understanding of reality, something even to be sought after.”

A Practice of Radical Gratitude

This Sunday, I was dancing at my “church” of ecstatic dance—the Open Floor which used to be called “Sweat Your Prayers.” Our teacher Claire invited us to dance to the mantra “Thank you thank you thank you thank you.” Thank you for the dance. Thank you for the people we love. Thank you for our homes and careers, for the redwoods and the ocean, but also thank you for the wars and terrorist attacks, thank you for the betrayals and the violations. Thank you for all that grows us as souls and helps us strip away the layers of all but Who We Really Are. Thank you for LIFE. Thank you for LOVE. As we danced to this mantra, the vibe in the room was ecstatic indeed.

Try it yourself. On this Thanksgiving and every day, trying making this a practice.

Walk through life with the mantra “Thank you thank you thank you thank you” . . . Open your heart. See what happens . . .

With deep thanks,

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  1. Violet Murphy

    Hi Lissa. I doubt that if you were in the grasp of torture, if you or your daughter were the one being trafficked, if you were starving, if you were poor and lost your entire family, that you’d still hold to the same mentality. You probably will never be the subject of one of these many injustices to humanity. You bask in the comfort of your abundant supply of money, going to retreat after retreat. Lissa, you have little experience with the harshness of reality. You’ve had minimal exposure to it, so it’s easy for you to witness suffering and be “thankful,” detached and apathetic to it. I respect that you are a dreamer and idealist Lissa, and I am in no way berating you. For all I know, maybe you would be all giggles and joy if you were the subject of one of ISIS’s beheadings. Or maybe in that split second you’d think: “Oh crap! This is a cruel and ruthless world, and me turning a blind eye to it doesn’t make it any better. Me sending love to it doesn’t affect it positively. Hold on, I’m no god, I’m a human! This mess on earth can only be cleaned up on a cosmic level, not by human effort, thought or emotion. This mess can only be cleaned up by God.” I know you are probably spilling over with joy right now and proud over making your Radical Gratitude known to the world, but please cultivate empathy and be sensitive to people who are suffering these things you claim you are thankful for, even though you’ve never experienced these horrendous things. You have not experienced starvation, being a sex slave or being tortured. You may have cringed at the thought or felt pity for the sufferers, but even though you claim we are all One, you don’t experience firsthand being drugged by your pimp and having ten men abuse you on a daily basis. You never had to care for your starving child whose skin was rotting off it’s body that you couldn’t provide for. So please, don’t blindly give your thanks for suffering you will never experience.

  2. Mary Campagna

    I just HAD to share this in response to your writing Lissa.
    It’s something I wrote the day after the Paris attacks.

    Prayer for Peace

    And so I ask of thee…
    Who are you that you choose a life of cancer?
    Of what are you so fearful
    That you would kill a son or daughter?
    Of what threat entangles your heart
    That you would kill a mother or father?
    Of what hatred are you grasping
    That you would kill a child?

    Are we not ALL but human beings…being human?
    Doing our best to live our lives
    Surviving our own challenges and misfortunes
    Holding gratitude when gifts are present
    Traveling our own paths…?

    And so

    I beg thee…killer of innocence and of life
    Consider your heart’s natural yearning toward inner peace
    Uncover the courage within your soul to stand in love
    And to diminish the darkness of your own personal deamons
    So that you can
    Where you breathe in the sky
    And hold hands with compassion
    As you walk on your path, your own journey
    To Love
    To Acceptance
    Of yourself
    And of others
    To Peace

  3. Katy

    Your piece was quite disturbing but absolutely necessary. Thank you for posting. I pray for the terrorists and ask others to do so also. What better way to stop terrorism than to convert them to peace. Are we not asked to love our enemies? Were they not also created by a loving God. We must help them in whatever way we came. I do that by praying and fasting for their souls.

  4. Mohammed

    This piece is interesting. Thank you for writing it. Terrorists that blow themselves up are most of the time women and children and men who are forced to wear the bombs. They are VICTIMS of terrorism. Social media, news, I think these are also subjects to be thankful for. They give mixed messages and 1/4 of the story. Makes those, us, who are truly concerned want to find out more. Educate ourselves so we don’t have half truths. Everything is a blessing even the blissful ignorance


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