Grace, Gratitude, and
the Sacred Experience
Jean Shinoda Bolen


I move through my day-to-day life with a sense of appreciation and gratitude that comes from knowing how fortunate I truly am and how unearned all that I am thankful for really is.  To have this perspective in my everyday consciousness is in itself a gift, for it leads to feeling "graced," or blessed, each time.  For example, my workday commute takes me through a tunnel toward the Golden Gate Bridge.  Sometimes I emerge to see a panoramic view of bay and bridges and city, or perhaps I see only the tops of the bridge towers emerging through the thick fog.  I am struck by how beautiful each sight is.  Every time I see beauty around me I appreciate what I am seeing, and simultaneously I have this sense of appreciation--for being alive to have this particular moment.

My children evoke a much deeper sense of gratitude.  Feelings mixed with simultaneous appreciation well up in me toward them.  There is a sensation in the middle of my chest, and the words that I stopped saying out loud, "You warm the cockles of my heart," come to mind.  I have never taken my children for granted or have been unaware that things could have been different.  That they were preceded by three miscarriages is only part of it.  The miracle of new life that I felt when they were born left an indelible mark on my psyche.  I remember being awed, recalling the perfection of a little hand with nails perfectly formed in miniature and the stillpoint numinous experiences of nursing or holding them during the middle of the night.

In my work, when I am able to make a difference to someone, catch a glimpse of a person's soul, or hear a dream and sense how profound the human psyche is, I feel privileged to be in this moment.  And when I narrowly escape being in an accident or have some sense of a close call, I literally and physically appreciate being alive and unharmed in this moment.  When I feel this gratitude-for-being, it is like singing a thank-you and hearing a response in which divinity is present.

When San Francisco suffered an earthquake in which most were spared and the potential for devastation averted, it seemed as if our entire community responded from the heart with thankfulness and helpfulness.  People commented on how wonderful this was, how what really matters became clear, and why did we have to have a disaster for us to realize this?  For a time, what we had, compared to what could have been taken away, was in our consciousness, and we felt gratitude.

As I was growing up, I became very much aware that bad things happen to people; medical school, internship, and residency further brought this home to me, case by case.  My work as a psychiatrist has added to this awareness.  I do not know that there is an answer to the question, "why them and not me?"  As a consequence, however, of witnessing the suffering and abuse that has happened to others, when bed things happen to me I do know that this, too, is part of my life:  my turn to experience pain and loss, which is partly redeemed by my conviction that no experience goes to waste.  As a therapist and teacher, through my writing or analytic work, whatever happens to me will help me someday to better understand and help someone.

Over the years I have come to believe that life is full of unchosen circumstances, that being human has to do with the evolution of our individual consciousness and with it, responsibilities for choice.  Pain and joy both come with life.  I believe that how we respond to what happens to us and around us shapes who we become and has to do with the psyche or the soul's growth.  Now that I am in my fifth decade, I can look back and say that the hardest and darkest times in my life led me deeper and farther along my spiritual path.  At the same time I am not at all sure that, at least in this life, such is the case for everyone, especially the very young who are abused or who arrive in this world innately handicapped.

It has not been the difficult times, however, that most shaped my spiritual life, but the times that were "sacramental"--situations that were imbued with grace, sacred moments in which I felt the presence of God or Goddess or felt connected to the universe or Tao.  Or those times I was in nature or at a sacred site, and felt myself enter a sacred place, or have a sacred meeting, a soul-to-soul communion with another person.  These are the experiences that have really mattered, the ones that changed me--the spiritual experiences that led me to what I am doing with my life.  I directly felt the presence of divinity, and knew it.  Each experience was subjectively and intensely real, more so than ordinary reality.

One of the most profound needs of our age, when so many violent conflicts are based on perceived religious differences, is to affirm the common ground of organized religion and personal spirituality. In this accessible collection, 25 of the world's foremost spiritual thinkers -- Mother Teresa, the Dalai Lama, Sue Bender, Matthew Fox, Shakti Gawain, Rabbi Harold Kushner, among others -- describe their concepts of spirituality and universal wisdom.

More thoughts and quotes on grace and gratitude.


Life without thankfulness is devoid of love and passion.  Hope without
thankfulness is lacking in fine perception.  Faith without thankfulness
lacks strength and fortitude.  Every virtue divorced from thankfulness
is maimed and limps along the spiritual road.

John Henry Jowett


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