Some people think that monks have these esoteric practices and “What can we poor laypeople do?” But when you really understand what the monastic life is about, you realize that we are only doing — under more favorable circumstances and in an environment that generations have worked on to make more favorable — something that could be practiced anywhere. I’m not talking about long hours of prayer, long hours of meditation, spiritual reading or studying, or anything like that, because the essence of monastic life does not consist in any of those. Those are all means to an end. The end — in all of the monastic traditions, of both East and West — consists in cultivating mindfulness, being mindful. And “mindful” may be a little misleading, because it sounds a bit much like mind-over-body, but it has nothing to do with mind over or against body. I think “wholeheartedness” is the English word that expresses better what mindfulness as a technical term means; that you respond to every situation from your center, from your heart and that you listen with your heart to every situation, and your heart elicits the response.
If you’re really mind-full, and if you underline that aspect of fullness, wholeness, or wholeheartedness, it reveals the gift character of everything. A partial view often misses the gift character of things. The full view consists of seeing each situation as purely gratis, and if you get that in mind, then your response is gratefulness.
That would be my practice: to try to live gratefully. Sometimes gratefulness has a passive connotation: You sit back and say thanks or something like that. Well, again, that’s not grate-fullness. The fullness shows itself when you realize that the gift within every gift is opportunity — mostly the opportunity to enjoy. We have thousands of opportunities every day to be grateful: for having good weather, to be able to sit in such a beautiful room on such comfortable furniture, to have slept well last night, to be able to get up, to be healthy, to have enough to eat. When you begin to think about just those most basic and obvious things, then you begin to think of the other people who don’t have any of this — of the people who are blind, who are lame, who are sick in bed, who are dying. But even before you start that, you should learn to enjoy those things which you have and be grateful. There’s opportunity upon opportunity to be grateful; that’s what life is.
Gratefulness is the only appropriate response to that which is given — and this life is a given. Every human being can realize that: We didn’t make ourselves, we didn’t even choose this life. If you train yourself to be grateful for everything, every moment, then when you come to something that you don’t like, you realize it’s still given and you have to deal with it. You will be alert to the gift within every gift, which is opportunity. In this case it may not be opportunity to enjoy but primarily the opportunity to do something about it.
That’s what we find ourselves confronted with now. The arms race, nuclear disasters, ecology, and world hunger, and all the different things we could list are not something for which you could off-hand be grateful, but you can be grateful that you see the challenge and that you can do something about the challenge. And that will give you the energy to do something.
So even in this respect, I think gratefulness is the key to everything. If you want a one-word description of monastic practice and of my practice and the practice I suggest, there it is: gratefulness — with an emphasis on fullness and on activity and on opportunity, taking the opportunity.
About Brother David Steindl-Rast, OSB:
For decades, Brother David divided his time between periods of hermit’s life and extensive lecture tours on five continents. On a two-month lecture tour in Australia, for example, he gave 140 lectures and traveled 12,000 miles within Australia without backtracking. His wide spectrum of audiences has included starving students in Zaire and faculty at Harvard and Columbia Universities, Buddhist monks and Sufi retreatants, Papago Indians and German intellectuals, New Age communes and Naval Cadets at Annapolis, missionaries on Polynesian islands and gatherings at the United Nations, Green Berets and participants at international peace conferences. Brother David has brought spiritual depth into the lives of countless people whom he touches through his lectures, his workshops, and his writings. For decades, Br. David was a close friend and spiritual partner in interfaith work of Integral Yoga founder, Sri Swami Satchidananda. At present, Brother David serves a worldwide Network for Grateful Living, through Gratefulness.org, an interactive website with several thousand participants daily from more than 240 countries and territories.
Reprinted from an interview with Brother David Steindl-Rast by Rex Weyler and Catherine Ingram in New Age, September 1983, Vol. 9, #2, pp. 36-40 and 62-64.