Shabbat Chol Ha-Mo’ed Sukkot 2021/5782
Gratitude and Happiness Within
(adapted from previous versions)
We entered the final act of the High Holy Days period on Monday night and Tuesday, as the seven-day holiday of Sukkot began. The first days are a festival, and then we have the intermediate days (chol ha-mo’ed). Right after Sukkot, we have the holiday of Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah.
Two of the most important spiritual themes of Sukkot are gratitude and joy/happiness – Hodayah and Simchah in Hebrew. In the dimension of the ego-self, we are grateful when we receive something we want or need and are grateful to whomever has provided it. At the ego-self level, we are grateful when we are gratified. We have all experienced the down side of this – we can become resentful when we don’t receive what we need, want or demand, and then we can become unhappy when our needs are not gratified.
At the dimension of spiritual psychology, however, gratitude and happiness are not just responses to what we receive, but rather states of mind and soul that we cultivate as spiritual disciplines. In other words, cultivating gratitude and joy within begins as an act of will and forms into a spiritual discipline. I am not recommending that we try to become grateful and happy with whatever comes our way. Bad things happen to us. I am recommending that we cultivate an inner life discipline of gratitude and happiness in spite of what happens to us. We don’t mortgage our inner lives to vagaries of other people and events out of our control.
This idea, that gratitude and joy begin in the will, is an extension of my teaching on the High Holy Days about the ego-self. The unconscious ego-self and the various ego-states found there can be hypnotized by what happens outside of us and to us – we are mesmerized by the world and all the inhabitants thereof. This fixation on the outside world is the job of the ego-self; it must be vigilant for threat. The pleasure at having needs met is entirely natural. Anger and frustration at not having our needs met is also entirely natural.
Natural to the ego-self does not mean good. The higher self, and the soul, however, have their own nature, and it is not the same nature as that of the ego-self. Natural to the higher self is the experience of Love, Justice, Truth and Beauty, of the Good and the Holy, and of the Divine.
I believe that one way to define the soul is that the soul is the non-linguistic, experiential dimension in which life takes on meaning and purpose, where the Divine can be experienced.
The realms of Higher Self and Soul are, for most of us, mostly unconscious, until we work on bringing them to consciousness. We often have fleeting moments of depth and clarity, but we should try to make them more stable and accessible parts of our day to day lives.
The goal of wisdom work and spiritual psychology, and the spiritual practices connected with them, is the rooting of our consciousness in those realms of Higher Self and Soul as often as we can, and shaping those realms, as well. Gratitude and Happiness/Joy should become basic attitudes, not just responses to the outside world.
How does one hold gratitude and joy/happiness within? Let’s imagine you have received a gift, something that you think is both especially beautiful and an expression of loving care. Or imagine that joy we feel when justice has been done; imagine the need to celebrate when some wrong has been righted. With a bit of contemplation, we can see that, at the core, joy and gratitude are often connected with the spiritual values of love, justice, truth and beauty.
I often meet people for whom life is not giving them joy and they have little for which to be grateful. They are often lonely, either alone, or lonely in a relationship. Their marriages are sometimes rocky, their kids distant and their jobs (if they have one) give them little gratification. In the realm of the ego-self, they are starving.
In the realm of soul, however, happiness does not come from what we get, but from an inner character – the joy of being on this journey in a conscious way, the gratitude to the Nameless One for our lives and our souls. Once one taps into the source of joy and gratitude that flows into the soul, the decision can be made: do I shape my consciousness around what happens to me, or do I shape my consciousness around the decision to be a certain kind of person, a person who is characterized by joy and gratitude?
As you can imagine, certain problems in life start to clear up when we go from being joyless and ungrateful to being people who exude, from an inner wellspring, happiness and gratitude. In tough lives, the will to be joyful and happy may only be aspirational – but even the aspiration can be transformative.
Shabbat Shalom, and Chag Sam’each!
Rabbi Mordecai Finley