As practitioners, we eventually need to face the fact that this is it. Our lives are this moment, and they are the way they are…at least for right now. There is no other time or place where we can fully meet ourselves or our lives. The grass isn’t greener anywhere else, because we have only the grass that’s here and now. There is no other side of the rainbow. There’s only the side we are on.
The truth is, everything we could possibly need for joy, ease, wisdom, and compassion is right here and now, in the ordinary messiness of our lives. At some point, we finally realize this and learn to let go of the struggles and the wishes for some other life, and, with a sense of wonder and courage, trust-fall into our actual lives with a deep sense of radical acceptance—a profound OKness that meets the reality of this moment with an authentic gratitude and balanced appreciation for all its beauty and pain.
Recently, I came across a story that shows this very subtle yet radical acceptance and appreciation. The story goes like this: There was a Zen master named Sono who was a very intense and well-respected Buddhist teacher who offered everyone she would meet the same teaching: “Thanks for everything. I have no complaints whatsoever.” No matter what was happening in someone’s life, she would give this simple mantra and would have them repeat it day and night. One day a man came to see her looking to find ease in his heart, and she told him to repeat this mantra every morning, evening, and whenever anything whatsoever happened to him. The dedicated practitioner did as he was instructed for a whole year but came back frustrated because his heart was still not at peace. Nothing in his life had changed, he said. The mantra didn’t work. He looked to Sono for further instructions to move forward, and she immediately said, “Thanks for everything. I have no complaints whatsoever.” When the man heard these words, he burst into laughter and left in peace.
What was it that this man realized that put his heart at ease? His life hadn’t transformed after a year of practice, so what did he understand at that moment? More importantly, are we capable of realizing the same thing?
I have my own interpretation of what this mantra is pointing to, but I feel like no matter what explanation I offer, it will miss the mark, as the true meaning of this story seems to be unspeakable. That being said, I hope the following words offer a useful lens for interpreting the story and can guide you to an experience beyond words.
“Thanks for Everything.”
To me, the first line of this mantra is waking up to a deep sense of appreciation for the actual lives we lead. I’m not talking about the inauthentic, phony type of gratitude we often see in spiritual practice, where people force themselves to be grateful as a way of avoiding or ignoring their pain. I’m also not talking about repeating positive affirmations or making a list of what we’re grateful for. The appreciation realized by the man in the story was a natural surrendering and opening to his life, just the way it was. He was angry and selfish. Of course! These are the expected ingredients of a human life. His lightheartedness came from a deep letting go of wanting some other spiritual, perfected version of things. At first, he was repeating the mantra, hoping to get some other life, while all that kept showing up was life itself—the one thing he was trying to run away from. In that final moment of the story between him and Sono, he realized this is life and he burst out into laughter.
Over the years, I’ve had many glimpses of this “thanks for everything”–type of appreciation, and they all seem to arrive during the most mundane and ordinary moments. I once remember going to the grocery store—a task I typically don’t care much for. As I grabbed my shopping cart, I was infused with love, ease, and gratitude. There wasn’t anything special going on, and nothing particularly profound or exciting happened earlier that day. But there I was, in a place I normally can’t stand, filled with appreciation, wonder, and seeing beauty all around me. It’s very hard to describe in words without sounding like a complete lunatic. But, much like the man in the story, I, too, could have easily burst out into laughter (or even tears!).
So many of us believe we have to clean up our lives, and like the man in the story, that our practice is going to magically fix all our problems. But what we’re really looking for is right here in the messiness of our humanity—in the struggle of our ordinary lives. “Thanks for everything” is not just being grateful for times when things feel good or go according to plan, but a deep appreciation for what Zorba the Greek would deem “the whole catastrophe.”
What practice can do, however, is, in some mysterious way, help us fall into that gratitude for the whole catastrophe. It’s kind of like tending a garden. We don’t get to decide when, if, and how things will grow, but every day we can show up, plant the seeds, and nurture the soil. We can offer daily doses of water and make sure to keep the animals out, but at the end of the day, we can’t force anything to happen. “Thanks for everything” doesn’t just magically happen because we want it to. It’s offered to us by life itself when our hearts and minds are ripe enough to receive it. Had the man in the story not done a year of working with the mantra, there’s a good chance he would not have awakened at that moment.
Our practice is like a journey, because there’s a natural unfolding that happens in our hearts and minds when we practice consistently for a long period of time. That being said, our realizations come and go just as the moon waxes and wanes and the tide rises and falls. There are times where we just don’t get it at all and we think our practice is complete bullshit, and we go on struggling, fighting, and resisting. Then, much like myself at the grocery store, we have moments where we actually get it: “Oh, wow! Yes! Thanks for everything! Thanks for all of it!”
“I Have No Complaints Whatsoever.”
While the first line gets us in touch with this underlying gratitude and appreciation, the second one helps us realize and connect with an underlying profound OKness.
The man in the story spends a whole year doing all of this work repeating the mantra over and over again, and what keeps happening? Life! The messiness of his life just as it is. He’s still selfish and still angry. He still gets frustrated and still loses his cool. He sounds a lot like me! Well, in fact, the man in this story is each of us. We show up to our practice and spend twenty to thirty minutes a day sitting quietly with our thoughts and moods. We go on retreats, aim to be kind, continually bring attention to our moment-by-moment experience, and what happens? We try and try and try again, and still we end up confused, imperfect human beings. It’s actually very humbling.
At some point, though, usually when we least expect it, it hits us like a lightning bolt. This is it! Thanks for everything. I have no complaints whatsoever! All of a sudden it’s all OK and everything—the good and the bad—has its place. I don’t think it’s an intellectual knowing, though, but rather more of an embodied understanding of radical acceptance.
Our meditation practice, when correctly understood, encourages this “I have no complaints whatsoever.” As we show up to our cushion, day in and day out, we are learning to sit with everything—absolutely everything. We sit when we feel good and things are going our way. We sit when our lives feel like they’re going to shit. We sit with our happiness and joy, our grief and pain. We sit in sickness and health, youth and old age. And as our practice leaks into daily life, we will surely make mistakes there as well. But that’s OK.
A Zen master is nothing more than someone who has repeatedly screwed up and eventually learned something. We can do the same.
I am reminded of the story of a fish swimming around asking all the different fish gurus where the great ocean is. He swims around and around, searching for the great ocean, not realizing he’s already intimately part of it. No one could explain it to him; it was something he had to wake up to himself.
In the Chan tradition I studied in, my teacher would always say, “Enlightenment is an accident, and meditation makes you accident-prone.” Master Sheng Yen, the main teacher of the lineage who I unfortunately never met, used to say something similar on retreats: “Let the universe do it.”
So are you willing to take on the mantra: “Thanks for everything. I have no complaints whatsoever.”? Are you willing to let go and stop resisting your life? Could you try pausing and slowing down long enough to allow the grace of appreciation and beauty to flow through you, and even if your life is currently not full of smiles, be willing to show up anyway with balance, joy, and ease? Can you show up and hold yourself, no matter what you did wrong today, no matter how much you may have messed up, and no matter how you’re feeling at this moment? Can you show up and sit with everything and love it anyway?
I believe you can and I wish you the best of luck!
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