It's the last week of my Writing as a Spiritual Practice Course. I haven't written a great deal about the course as it's progressed. Mainly because it's been hard to articulate how it's affecting me. It is so personal and requires a lot more exploration, but I do want to write about this.
This week's topic is Praise. This word has uncomfortable connotations for me. It reminds me of the days when I was mired in fundamentalist Christianity and praising God was a given, something one had to do - visibly, vehemently, loudly, in order to prove what a good Christian you were. Not praising God, not being grateful for every little blessing was so frowned upon, that I hid all my doubts and fears and negative feelings even from myself. I'd had plenty of practice in doing so, so it wasn't new to me. But over time, it came to bother me. The need to always be in that place of euphoric exultation, the way that praising God became a way of proclaiming one's own rightness, one's own superiority over others who did not believe, or did not believe as fervently as you.
Even away from fundamentalist Christianity or any religion or set of beliefs that demands rigid blind obedience, the concept of gratefulness has always well, grated on me. Because it was something that was always forced down, from the outside, usually from parents or relatives who delighted in telling you how wicked you were for being ungrateful. The hypocritical insincerity of it has always made me suspicious, and rightly so.
So I was relieved to be given a new way of thinking about praise, of being offered the possibility of having a different relationship with it. Without regurgitating the whole of Fiona's essay on the subject, in a nutshell, praise is offered as an alternative to blame. As human beings, we blame all the time when things don't go as we want them to - from the little things to the big things. We blame others or ourselves or both. And even though it may feel justified and absolutely right to do so, blaming does not change the situation, doesn't offer solutions or ways through it. Holding on to blame means you hold on to hostility, anger, uneasiness, anxiety. You hold on to suffering. The suggestion is that you don't have to. Of course this is easier said than done. Knowing this doesn't mean you can practice it. But being aware of it is a start. And maybe the next time something happens, even something trivial that upsets you, and you blame yourself or someone else, you might remember that you don't have to. You might remember that you don't have to slap yourself (literally or metaphorically) for not being perfect. You might remember that you're human and that no blame is necessary. You might be able to let it go.
One way of practicing this letting go of blame, is to find things to praise in your life, things to be happy and grateful for. But not in a rigid, I must do this because someone else told me I should kind of way. This is tricky, because if you feel particularly resistant to it, then it might mean that it's something you could really benefit from. But, how to reconcile that with not just doing what you're told? I don't know. But maybe there's a way, a middle ground you can start from, even if that middle ground is a patch that is only a few square inches wide. If, however, this becomes an exercise in resentment, then stop.
I'm writing about this because it's a practice I want to embrace. The way writing small stones has helped me to see more clearly and keep me grounded and connected with something bigger than myself. Because this resonates with me:
"Praise helps us to remember how interconnected we all are, and how much we receive in every moment.
It helps us to stay humble - to escape from the tyranny of me me me. It reminds us that we need less than we think we do.
If we can find enough to praise, we will want to offer something in return - to give something to others, and to the world.
If these noble reasons aren't enough, then listen to Mary Oliver*. Holding an attitude of praise makes us feel amazing. It kills us with delight." - from Fiona Robyn's essay on Praise
*"Every day I see or hear something that more or less kills me with delight."
The reason I'm writing all this? I'm adding another practice to my repertoire. In addition to writing a small stone every day, I will also be making a list of things I have received which I am grateful for. In doing so, I acknowledge that there will be days when I don't feel very grateful, when I struggle to see what I have received. Maybe those days will be a signal to me, to look deeper, or to ease up a bit, to try and find what's blocking me, what's getting in the way of seeing, or maybe to stop looking so hard. Maybe I will be able to see through it. Maybe I won't. Maybe the best I can hope for on those days is that I might be able to sit with whatever I'm feeling, without judgement.
I named this blog the heartful blogger so many years ago. It came about because the name I wanted to give to the blog, the artful blogger (tacky pun on artful dodger) was taken. So heartful came to me instead. It has always made me feel a little phony and pretentious - because it's something I wish I could be rather than something I believe I am.
This week, reading about mindfulness, I came across the phrase heartfulness. It was used to describe the attitude of mindfulness - of paying attention without judgement, in a gentle, nurturing way. I don't know why, but it surprised me. That it's okay to be this way, gentle and nurturing towards the self.
So, this practice of praise is maybe an attempt, a step I'm taking, towards that heartfulness.