Originally published November 2018 on AppliedMindfulnessTraining.org


With no family nearby, this year we’ll be spending Thanksgiving with friends, sharing the cooking. Our host will cook the turkey. I said I’d bring dressing and deviled eggs, and offered to make the gravy just before the meal. “Oh, would you?” My friend was pleased. “That’s always so tricky.” She’s not the first person I’ve heard say something like that. It started a train of thought that led me to contemplate grace.

Grace and gratitude share a Latin root, gratus, meaning pleasing. But in life we can count on some things being unpleasant. And every generation may think so, but these seem like such tumultuous times that I wonder how we might muster the civility to build a harmonious society.

Imagine if we could somehow catalyze a movement toward principled compromise. Toward respectful dialogue. Toward appreciating what we have in common. We might actually invoke a state of grace on the state of our nation. And even our world. That truly would be amazing grace and something to be thankful for indeed.

Pondering, I realize what grace and gravy have in common: a recipe can only take you so far. Even if you gather the right components and create the conditions conducive to your desired result, an excellent outcome will still depend on a little luck. Or magic. With that in mind, though I can’t offer a fool-proof recipe, here’s at least a partial ingredient list that might, if you’re persistent and lucky, invite grace to your table.


Grace before meals expresses gratitude, of course, but perhaps even more importantly, it expresses humility. It’s an acknowledgement of all that we can’t control, of appreciation for what we’ve been given, and of aspiration for what we would like to have. But modestly, gently; grace is not rude, crude, or overbearing. It’s humble and kind, it keeps its elbows off the table, it joins hands with its neighbor.

The more solidly we hold onto to our opinions and complaints, the harder it is for grace to find us. The ability to identify when we’re caught up — in self-importance and certainty that we’re right — arises from training our minds. To drop all of that calls for a surrender of our habitual patterns. Mindfulness practice helps us develop the ability to get out of our own way.


We all know the sarcastic expression — So happy you decided to grace us with your presence! — but some people really do bestow grace with their presence. I have a friend who unfailingly tries to find the best in people, even those with whom she disagrees. Her kindness is palpable. It elicits from others a willingness to be more open, to share who they are. This skill is especially valuable in contentious times because the more we share our aspirations and admit our fears, the more likely we are to discover how much we have in common.

Being open works both ways. It calls for mindful listening. Really listening. Not to the news channels that channel our opinions right back at us, but to our neighbors. Our co-workers. The people who fix our cars or ring up our purchases. We can cultivate the attitude that there’s no need to be constantly espousing our own point of view quite so vigorously. We can afford to actually pay attention to what others say. It also calls for care in what we say, speaking the truth as we see it, but without aggression. Mindful communication is key to creating community; a healthy community is one that accommodates differences. We can treat one another as if we realize that we’re all on the ride of our lives, common travelers on spaceship earth.


Grace loves to dance with grit, which is what it takes to make a difficult task look easy. Beautiful, even. At the ballet, we don’t look at the dancers and think about their aches and blisters; we don’t see years of hard work. We see a pin-point pirouette, the arc of an arabesque. Grit doesn’t step into grace’s spotlight, but you can count on it being behind the scenes.

Last November, in a post called “Gritty Gratitude,” I wrote about how to appreciate things that aren’t easy for us. It takes grit to be grateful for those who annoy or infuriate us. Some races from last week’s election are still uncertain but one thing is sure: nobody was happy with the outcome of all the races. If our favored candidates didn’t win, we may not feel like being civil. But demonizing or wishing away fellow citizens with whom we disagree merely fills our minds, our media, and our society with more turbulence.

So how can we summon the grit to meet with grace what doesn’t please us?


We can learn to come back. We can stop, for a moment, the constant chatter in our heads and drop into our bodies. We can feel what it feels like to be alive, right here, right now. Athletes display grace in action when they are in the zone; instead of being caught up in thinking about what they’re doing, they are fully immersed in the ongoing flow of the game.

People who exhibit grace under pressure, who set aside personal agendas and reactivity to respond skillfully in crisis, are always the greatest natural resource on the planet. And that is a resource that we have the power to renew. Resting in presence, we find a kind of clarity and the ability to act skillfully that arises from the final, and most essential, element inviting grace:


How in the world do we create space? First, we can try creating a little space in our own minds. Regular mindfulness practice can help, but even if we aren’t able to dedicate time and space to formal meditation practice, we can develop the intention to notice when we’re caught up reacting to things we don’t like. Then we can use that noticing as a cue to take a breath. Taking a conscious breath creates space.

Think about having a heated argument. If you keep blurting out whatever comes to mind, things tend to escalate. But if you take a moment and take a breath, you create space in which you might notice something. Maybe your anger is masking fear. And if you really look at the person you’re arguing with, you might see the possibility that their anger is also rooted in fear. At that point, acknowledging fear in the conversation could transform an argument into a moment of connection. Even if you agree to disagree.

Focusing on what unites rather than what divides us takes grace and more than a modicum of equanimity, qualities that are easier to come by when we aren’t caught up in habitual mental busyness. Underneath the perpetual and often turbulent bumper-to-bumper thinking that’s normal for most of us lies the space of wakeful presence. Mindfulness practice helps us experience that space. And space brings grace.

Whether we think of grace as a gift from God, the universe, or ourselves, we have to be open to receive it; if we’re full of ourselves, there’s no space for anything to come in. If, instead, we open to the space of our own wakeful presence, we just might find we’re the vehicles to be our own saving grace. As for making great gravy, good luck!

Originally published November 2019 on AppliedMindfulnessTraining.org.


One of the more provocative…and okay, sometimes annoying…slogans in the Buddhist teachings says, “Be grateful to everyone.” Even if we take it as something to aspire to rather than accomplish, it still raises the question, why? Why would I want to be grateful to the person spewing hatred on social media? Or the one yelling at his kid in the grocery store today? Or the woman who invited most of my friends to a party and left me out?

Upon reflection, I came up with three reasons. But first, let’s go a little further down the rabbit hole of unlikely gratitude. What if the slogan took one step more? Be grateful for everything? That could be especially challenging since we tend to divide so much of our experience into the categories of either blessings or afflictions. And why not? It seems obvious. A financial windfall is a blessing. Illness, like the bronchitis that was my companion for several weeks recently, is an affliction to be wished, willed, or medicated away. In this case, preferably in time to avoid interfering with already scheduled cataract surgery. 

Such a surgery could be considered both: a blessing offering potential benefits and an affliction requiring recuperation. Any surgery, however simple, stirs up anxiety; after all, somebody comprises the tiny percentage for whom things go wrong, and it could be you (or your loved one, as I found out not so long ago.) Still, whenever I mentioned cataract surgery, someone told me how easy it had been for them and what a miracle it was to see clearly again.

Such testimonials mitigated my anxiety. Though I decided to go for it, I wasn’t looking forward to it any more than I would a trip to the dentist. So imagine my surprise: it turned out to be entertaining! As any new parent knows, swaddling babies calms them; the operating room staff has adopted that principle. Bundled in sheets, my head cradled at a comfortable angle, the only slight irritation came from the tube in the vein on the back of my hand. Then something cool flowed there and it wasn’t irritating any more, the anesthesiologist having fulfilled his promise of something to take the edge off. Versed, I would later learn.

But back to the entertainment. First came the light show. The doctor said I would see lights, but not how compelling they would be. Bright, slightly shifty, one maintaining its round integrity while another slipped into eclipse mode and the third just hovered. Then this inner light show gained a soundtrack, rhythmic noise that gave way to tootles and moans, like woodwinds and reeds improvising instrumental scat. I asked what it was and the doctor said it was the machine that vacuums out the bits of cataract. I told her it sounded like progressive jazz. “I never heard that before,” she said. Of course, it could have been the Versed.

Relaxing more, I remembered how cataracts had crept up on me, the fuzziness and filtering largely unacknowledged until I found myself wishing for binoculars at Hamilton, unable to bring the actors’ faces into focus. Next signs on the interstate started taking longer to decipher. By the time I went for an eye exam, I wasn’t legal to drive at night in Florida. I got glasses and started learning about cataracts.

As we age, the lenses in our eyes become less flexible, less transparent, and thicker. Tissues break down and clump together, forming cataracts, cloudy filters obscuring clear vision. But thanks to the resourcefulness and skill of generations of researchers, inventors, and surgeons, these days a condition that once led to blindness can be corrected relatively easily.

What a great metaphor for the way our minds age. As we grow older, unless we know how to work with them, our minds too become less flexible. An overlay of preconceptions renders our perceptions less transparent. Our attitudes thicken. Beliefs and storylines clump together and color our experience, filtering and obscuring clarity about our world. Thankfully, this condition doesn’t require surgery. But it does take training in the operation of mindfulness. 

And it is in the operation that the metaphor breaks down. Because in surgery the cataract-thickened lens is shattered into pieces and vacuumed out, after which an artificial lens is inserted to restore the eye’s normal functioning. Without that technological addition, we would be left truly blind. 

But working with our minds, nothing need be gotten rid of and nothing need be added. As we learn to direct our attention to become aware of our thought process, we detect the habitual patterns indigenous to our own inner state, and our previously solid sense of who we are — replete with constant self-reference, ossified opinions, and automatic reactivity — starts coming unglued. 

But the pieces — our tendencies of thought, word, and deed — don’t need to be vacuumed out; instead, awareness of them renders them transparent, thus less likely to confuse us. And no artificial lens is needed because wakeful presence, our basic nature, the lens of awareness, is always clear. Though it may be temporarily obscured by our habitual patterns, thoughts do not adhere and thus can never stain it the way cataracts do the lens in our eye. Wakeful presence will inevitably emerge, just as the clear blue sky does when clouds dissolve.

Certain habits of mind tend to dispel inner clouds and invite wakeful presence to take its natural place in our lives. Gratitude is one such tendency. If you get in the habit of it, you’ll probably come up with even more but for now, consider at least these three reasons to be grateful to everyone and for everything: 

First, because you don’t know what’s coming next. I’m reminded of the Taoist story about the farmer whose neighbors, when his horse ran away, decried his bad luck. “Maybe, maybe not,” he said. The horse returned with several other wild horses, adding to his stock and prompting neighborly comments about his good luck. “Maybe, maybe not,” he said again. In trying to tame the wild horses, his son got a broken leg. Bad luck? You know what he said. Then the king’s recruiters came around to draft young men for the army but his son with the broken leg was spared. The moral being it’s hard to tell what’s good and what’s bad when you’re in the thick of it, so even if you don’t think you can be grateful, it’s at least wise to suspend judgement.

Second, because your energy affects the environment you inhabit and curiosity engenders more benefit than complaint. So even if you aren’t thankful right away, at least evince a little inquisitiveness about what lessons you might learn about yourself or the world if you were to take what’s happening as exactly what you need.

Third, because reality beats opinion every time and as long as you are alive and paying attention, you get to experience it. And that tendency we have to divide experience into blessings and afflictions is, in itself, a tenacious and pernicious affliction. Everything in life is worthy of being your path, if you change your attitude and relax as it is.

Oh yes. That last is another one of those annoying Buddhist slogans!

Originally published November 2017 on AppliedMindfulnessTraining.org


Two cashiers were working the front of the store. It wasn’t an organized “wait here for the next available” situation, but people were standing back queued up just the same, waiting for whichever cashier finished first. Taking my place at the end of the line, I waited and finally made it to the front. Eagerly eyeing the customer who’d finished paying as she put her change away, I was edging forward when a man strode up and plopped his six-pack on the counter in front of “my” clerk.

“Excuse me,” I said to him. “I was waiting here for the next cashier.”

“I know,” he said. Turning his back to me, he took out his wallet. The flood of feelings and thoughts that arose in me at that moment are probably best left undescribed, but I assure you they weren’t ignored. Irritation is excellent grist for insight’s mill.

This is good to remember now that the holiday season is upon us again. Last week across America people gathered and gave thanks. Before you know it we’ll be ringing in another new year. In between, tasty food, lively libations, congenial companionship, and general goodwill are the kind of things it’s easy to be grateful for, and being grateful is good for us. Science shows that an attitude of gratitude confers all sort of benefits.

But what about all that other stuff? The holiday hubbub, mandatory celebrations, traffic, rude people, and other aggravations can get under our skin and our first reaction isn’t usually gratitude. It takes work to learn how to appreciate things that trigger us, but it’s work worth the trouble. Because if you dismiss the idea of appreciating life’s aggravations as nuts, you miss out on a real source of wisdom, as well as a chance to leave future generations a saner world.

When we were children, Thanksgiving seemed uncomplicated. But if we pay attention, eventually we notice that what counts as a blessing depends on one’s perspective. There are more than seven billion unique perspectives on earth these days, and while these differing perspectives can create conflict, they can also create rich situations.

Consider the holidays: when family and friends congregate, conversations and competitions follow. Intertwined personal histories and expectations generate dramas. Then, as they say about movies, hilarity ensues. Except when it doesn’t. Because, whether we’re talking about relatives or nations, there’s nothing like history and expectations to create awkward situations, or worse.

Our reaction to conflict around the table may be to flee. Or to stick around and try to fix other people, like the uncle holding forth on politics we can’t stand, or the sister who won’t discipline her children. Giving thanks for the food on the table is easy; what’s harder to appreciate is the chronic complainer, or the chaos of competing chatter, or the person who manages always to be elsewhere at clean-up time.

But those challenges help make us aware of what we’re carrying within. Each of us has a kind of inner baggage consisting of tendencies of all sorts. Some of them help bring blessings into this world, and some of them…well, let’s just say that while they may generate heat, they rarely shed much light. But if we pay attention to our feelings instead of trying to get rid of whatever triggers them, it invites insight.

Trying to get rid of things that bother us is like wanting to cover the earth with leather because the ground hurts our feet. Staying present with irritation instead of jumping to react creates the space that allows a more nuanced perspective to arise. Then we can make a conscious choice about how to respond. It’s more like covering the soles of our feet with leather. What a great idea! And these metaphorical shoes, unlike ruby slippers that might transport us elsewhere, instead help keep our feet firmly on the ground, even when it’s rocky.

When we’re caught up in the heat of the moment and burning to do something – maybe even something we already know we’ll regret later – the attention we’ve cultivated makes it more likely that we’ll notice we’re on fire. Then we can apply a subtler version of the instructions kids are taught for what to do if they’re on fire: we can stop, drop, and roll. And we’re the only ones who’ll even know we’re doing it.

Stop. Instead of firing back at the object of our irritation, we can stop and pay attention. Just remembering to notice will cut reactivity’s momentum.


Drop. Then we can drop into the present and discern tendencies that recur when we’re triggered: how we feel in our bodies, what our thought patterns are, whether we’re remembering to breathe. Creating this momentary gap allows us to remember that we have a choice about how to inhabit this particular moment in time and space. The process, which may take only seconds, ideally ends with our asking ourselves “What will bring benefit now?”


Roll. Then we roll. And roll with it.

Because let’s face it: life – meaning circumstances and other people – will inevitably offer up everything from minor annoyances to heartbreaking tragedies. The times that try our souls are the ones that determine whether we’re what Thomas Paine called “summer soldiers and sunshine patriots.” And at such times we can ask ourselves, Am I running around spreading flames of conflict? Am I trying to smooth out the road of life, one patch at a time? Or am I willing to take responsibility for unpacking my own inner baggage?

C.S. Lewis wrote, “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our consciences, but shouts in our pains.” When we pay attention to our inner experience, we don’t need to do so much shouting in the world around us. The things that push our buttons can launch us into the space of insight in which, with our minds clear and our hearts open, we can see what the situation needs.

Then, instead of reacting with annoyance, we can respond with whatever will help. Which is nice not only during the holidays, but in all seasons. And that’s something everyone can be grateful for. Even people who cut in the checkout line.