Appreciation, in a spiritual sense, is often talked about as a practice of cultivating happiness and joy in the good qualities of something, or of someone, or of taking joy in the happiness of others, of cherishing the wholesome. Appreciation is a lovely quality on its own, and it’s part of a path that leads to a collectedness of mind.
In daily life, appreciation of the very small things—a pleasant interaction, a beautiful sky or a breath of fresh air—can bring a sense of satisfaction, of connection. A long time ago, one of my spiritual teachers, told me that when something lovely registered with me, to stop and rest with it for a moment and say to myself this is enough. It’s a stop and smell the roses approach, but something in saying those words, this is enough, lets me take it in deeply. Instead of brushing it off before it’s even passed, and then letting the mind return to busyness or problem solving, I can pause to acknowledge and rest in an appreciation of the lovely. In the moment, this is enough.
It didn’t occur to me for a long time that this was something to cultivate in meditation as well, but in the last few years of my meditation practice, I’ve been purposely giving more attention to the pleasant moments as they arise, to appreciating them and resting in them. It turns out that there are a lot of them, right in there along with the aching body and the wandering mind. They’re often subtle, and that’s one of the reasons we need to train in appreciation. Because we’re survival-oriented, the unpleasant will be louder, more attention-grabbing than the pleasant. The itch or ache will feel more important than the pleasantness of the breath rising and falling.
Just as we don’t have to believe every thought, we don’t have to trust every feeling. Because the unpleasant may feel more important than the pleasant doesn’t necessarily make it so. Long ago, I heard someone say that in meditation practice, first we learn to sit with the unpleasant and then we learn to sit with the pleasant.
In the dictionary, appreciation has a second meaning: “a full appreciation of a situation.” Interestingly enough, I think it’s this second meaning that allows us to be equanimous with both the pleasant and the unpleasant. This second type of appreciation supports the arising of compassion. For example, we don’t have to stretch our understanding far to appreciate the difficulty of sustaining attention in meditation. The Buddha called it swimming against the stream. We set out to do something that’s not usual and when we find ourselves not succeeding in the moment, we can appreciate the difficulty, regard ourselves with some compassion, and start over. When we find ourselves thrown off in the difficult moments of daily life, it’s much the same. A full appreciation of a situation asks us to open our hearts and minds in understanding, a compassionate understanding that this is how it is now.
A full appreciation of the situation may not always be within our grasp, but we can appreciate that everything arises out of causes and conditions, myriad and complex, bringing both the lovely and the difficult into our lives. When appreciation of the lovely is cultivated, we have some ballast in facing life’s less than lovely situations. It’s a foundation for equanimity.
Recently I heard Christina Feldman speak about appreciation and that the quality of appreciation brings about joy; joy brings calm; calm brings happiness and in happiness the mind gathers in samadhi.
It’s quite a string of association. Appreciation brings joy. I think we can all get that. When we open to something in appreciation, there is a quiet joy that does, indeed, seem to lead to calm, to the peacefulness of a joyful heart. And the kind of happiness that flows out of calm is something else, something bigger than joy, it’s the kind of happiness that we meet in quiet moments of intimacy, in the natural world or in our sitting practice.
Last Sunday, we had the yearly teacher appreciation dinner at the San Francisco Integral Yoga Institute. It was the first teachers’ dinner in two years and being together was a blessing for us all. It was a joy to see the people who came in person and a joy to see those who dropped in via Zoom.
The winter holidays are upon us, with all the annual joys and possible difficulties. This life, with its ten thousand joys and ten thousand sorrows, continues to unfold in mystery. If we can cultivate appreciation of the lovely it will help balance the difficult and bring us the kind of calm happiness where the mind gathers in samadhi.
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