The following is a excerpt from a talk given by Radhanath Swami on Thanksgiving day November 28th, 2013 at the Bhakti Center in New York City.
Bhakti is the nature of our true self. It is unconditional, unselfish love, which everyone is ultimately looking for. Bhakti is also a process by which our love is awakened from within our hearts. It is not that we obtain love of God, or bhakti. It’s just that we remove all of those things that are obscuring our spiritual vision so we can see what is already there, waiting to be uncovered. Srila Prabhupada would quote Sri Chaitanya, that when we chant the names of Krishna, or God, it is like cleaning the mirror of the mind. When we look at a mirror we expect to see ourselves. But if the mirror is covered with layers of dirt, dust and pollution, then that is all we will see. When the mind is covered with egoism, arrogance, selfish passion, envy, anger, greed and illusion, then we naturally identify ourselves with that. We think, “I am meant to be in the center; I am meant to be the enjoyer.” Whatever obscures that enjoyment becomes a great disturbance to us. Therefore people are very easily disturbed. Our bodies are vehicles meant to be used in giving and serving, as an instrument of the true nature of the self—to love. When we forget this, the body becomes an instrument with which we try to satisfy our egoistic misconceptions.
In order for that spirit of loving service – the spirit of bhakti – to grow, a very essential element is thanksgiving, or gratitude. The seed of love can only take root and grow if it is in fertile soil. Gratitude is that fertile soil. Whatever spiritual practices we do, like chanting God’s names, coming to satsanga, doing seva, all of these things are like watering the seed of that love that is within us. But that watering process will be ever more effective to the degree that our consciousness, or our heart, is a field of gratitude.
A person who is ungrateful can never really be happy because they will always be expecting something else or something more. A truly grateful heart actually finds fulfillment and opportunity in every situation. Gratitude is a state of mind. It is not a response to circumstances. If our gratitude is a response to circumstances then it is going to be very fickle. But if it is something that is coming from within, coming from a deeper place, then we can be grateful in every situation. If we cannot be grateful for the challenges and disappointments that come in our lives, then we can’t really be grateful for the things that go our way either.
How to be grateful when things really don’t go our way? When we are trying to see the whole picture of who I am and what life really is for, then we can see – there is an opportunity to grow in every situation. The day of Thanksgiving did not begin by some people who came to America by a first-class British Airways flight and arrived at the JFK airport, and had a limousine and five-star hotel room waiting for them with a thanksgiving celebration. Thanksgiving started with people who were being persecuted and who were really struggling in Europe. They came by boats, in which many of them died. There was nobody to greet them and they encountered a lot of difficulties. But what they did get they were very thankful for, because they had struggled.
If you really expect something to happen and feel that you deserve it, can you really be grateful for it? For example, if you go to a restaurant with your American Express credit card and buy a meal with your credit card, you may tell the waiter how grateful you are. But imagine if you are starving in the street and someone comes and gives you that same meal… you are going to be so much more thankful because you really don’t think you deserve it. Humility and gratitude are inseparable. If we are arrogant we really cannot be grateful for anything – not deeply. Even if one works for years to earn something, a humble person will not think “I deserve it.” Rather, he will think, “I am so grateful for every single person who helped me learn how to do this. I am grateful to every person who was instrumental in giving me a chance, and I am grateful to God for everything I have been given.”
The American revolutionary Thomas Paine’s was famous for writing “These are the times that try men’s souls.” He wrote it during the Revolutionary War. Paine writes that the value of everything is in our appreciation, and that if things come too easily we will not really appreciate their value. The struggles that come before us, the hardships and reversals – if we are grateful for them, they will really help us turn to God and go deeper into the spirit of devotion. Winston Churchill… I don’t usually quote him, but he did say something really inspiring. He said that success is to go through failure after failure after failure after failure and never give up the enthusiasm to succeed. In other words, the success is not in the end result; the success is in the attitude. Take this to a higher spiritual dimension and this is what Krishna teaches in Bhagavada-gita. He tells Arjuna, you should work with integrity and dignity, with a spirit of devotion, and the success is found in that attitude, not in the end physical result. This is what integrity really means, that we have sacred values that we live by. How we speak and what we do should all spring from the ideals we hold sacred from within ourselves.
To the degree we are grateful for every little thing that we have gotten, we really have full lives and our hearts will be receptive to understanding what real love for God, humanity and all beings could be.
True Thanksgiving means to be thankful for what we have received, whatever it may be. If it is something we like, we are thankful because we can use it for a wonderful purpose and it is helping us and giving us joy. If it is something we don’t like, we are still thankful because it helps us to appreciate more what we do like, and it also helps us to go deeper into our real experience of life. Gratitude is generally felt in relation to what we receive, but thanksgiving could also be understood in terms of being grateful for the opportunity to reciprocate with what we receive. Because real gratitude is not just getting. If someone gives you something and you say “Thank you,” this is a good thing. This is polite. But gratitude has a much greater depth. Gratitude is when we actually want to express ourselves by reciprocating and doing something from our heart. And this is very much what bhakti is. Krishna, or God, has given us so much. We say “Thank you,” but the real gratitude is when we say, “My Lord, how can I serve you? I am so grateful for the opportunity to serve you.”
Thanksgiving is when we really develop this consciousness — that the greatest gift is the opportunity to serve. To serve God and, in our service to God, to serve as many people as we possibly can. Then our life becomes so deeply meaningful, and any storm that may come will only enhance our appreciation.
Srila Prabhupada gave us a prayer to meditate upon while we are chanting our mantra. The prayer is, “Oh Radha, the compassionate, loving, giving aspect of the Divine Supreme, Oh Krishna, the all-attractive one, please engage me in your loving service.” As we are chanting, this is the highest state of consciousness – chanting with a grateful heart in a mood of “Please allow me to serve and give. Let me be an instrument of your love.” That is a liberated state, where nothing can interfere with our joy and the joy in giving to others.
I wish you a happy Thanksgiving. – Radhanath Swami