Unwrapping Life’s Gifts
by Gregg Krech
I had dinner with Cathy in New York recently. Cathy is an attractive woman in her late fifties whom I have known for many years. During the course of our dinner Cathy proceeded to report on each of the key people in her life and describe how they were not meeting her needs and expectations. One of her good friends had failed to invite her to dinner, even though some other mutual friends had been invited. Her daughter and son-in-law did not allow her to spend enough time with her newborn grandchild. Her business partner was not attending to his work properly. Her husband had lost interest in making love to her. Her son had not sent her a birthday card. There were several others who fell short of her expectations. As she reported her stories I could see how much she was suffering. Just talking about all the people in her life this way resulted in an experience of suffering. I doubt that she even noticed what she was eating and who was serving it.
Cathy has an idea of what the ideal friend would do, say, feel, think, and give. She has a similar image of the ideal son, daughter, husband, colleague, waiter, grocery clerk, and auto repair person. Each day she searches for her image of the ideal. Each day she experiences reality. Each day she focuses her attention on how reality fails to meet her image of the ideal. She has mastered the recipe for depression and disappointment. She has discovered a guaranteed formula for suffering. Over the years she has trained her mind to focus on the gap between her ideal of the world and her reality. Her mind has graduated with honors. It operates this way with less effort than it takes Cathy to brush her teeth. So Cathy suffers as each day brings her more disillusionment. With every story she reaches out for sympathy. But the sympathy others offer her pales in comparison with her ideal of the sympathy she wants.
How often have our minds played this same game? How often have we sunk into disappointment and resentment because others fell short of our ideals? We occupy a moment in time and a few cubic feet in space in a universe both timeless and without boundaries. And yet we believe that the universe should conform to our ideals. Can we be so arrogant as to think that such a cosmic speck is capable of knowing what is truly ideal? As long as we hold fast to our ideal of what we deserve from the world we blind ourselves to the gifts we are receiving. We look back on our childhood and notice what could have been done for us and given to us that, we think, would have made us happier. The gap between our reality and our ideal of what it should have been like attracts our attention like a magnet. But to focus on this gap is to miss most of reality. We miss the countless moments when we were perfectly cared for and attended to. We trade the reality of how we were loved for the illusion that we should have been loved more and better. It’s an unworthy exchange that leads us to spiritual and emotional bankruptcy.
When I narrow my vision to search for an ideal that my mind has created, life seldom complies. But when I broaden my vision to simply notice what life is offering, I find that I am surrounded by an abundance of care and support. Yet, we can repeatedly observe the mechanics of a mind that is rarely satisfied with what it has at the moment because it is always yearning for some manufactured ideal. We can witness eyes that scan reality for what they want, failing to see what they are being offered. Such awareness is the first step in retraining ourselves to truly open to the gifts the universe is offering to us.
Have you ever seen a young child who has a single, rigid idea of what he wants for Christmas? On Christmas morning he rapidly unwraps all his gifts, looking for the single gift his mind has targeted. In the absence of this item he cries, sulks, and pouts as he walks away from the Christmas tree in disappointment. In his wake he leaves all of his presents, abandoned and unappreciated. How often does this pouting, spoiled child surface in our own daily encounters with life? How many gifts have we left lying under the Christmas trees of our past? How many presents remain unwrapped because we have failed to even notice their presence? Take a moment, Cathy, to reclaim your gifts and abandon your ideal images. You have it backward. Open your eyes and see how many gifts there are to unwrap. Notice the presence of your presents. It’s not your life that is disappointing: it’s your mind.
Reprinted from Naikan: Gratitude, Grace and the Japanese Art of Self-Reflection (Stone Bridge Press, 2002) by Gregg Krech.
© Copyright 2002 by Gregg Krech. All Rights Reserved.