I would be remiss if I left out sobriety as a way to mental wellness. This concept doesn’t just apply to alcohol or drugs, but to all the ways that we intoxicate ourselves. Today, the number one drug in the world is the smart phone and the internet. We live inside a tiny screen that brings a highly biased version of the world to us. All forms of intoxication poison our mind and often poison our bodies as well. When I got sober after twenty years of drinking and using, I realized that what I’d been seeking in getting high was actually right here in front of me. Happiness isn’t something you have to manufacture or stimulate; it is in the simple beauty of life that we can all connect with. Yes, it can take some time to make that connection, but it’s there for each of us if we are willing to do the work to make it happen.
As we all know, times are tough right now. In addition to the acute medical crisis caused by the Pandemic, in our post COVID world, we are also experiencing what some have called a “mental health pandemic”.
What can each of us do to get out of this “Pandemic Induced Mental and Emotional Funk”?
One tool that each of us has access to is the simple power of daily gratitude. As a part of our series about “How Each Of Us Can Leverage The Power Of Gratitude To Improve Our Overall Mental Wellness ” I had the pleasure of interviewing
Kevin Griffin is a Buddhist teacher and author of several books, including One Breath at a Time: Buddhism and the Twelve Steps, and his latest Buddhism & the Twelve Steps DAILY REFLECTIONS. A longtime Buddhist practitioner and 12 Step participant, he is a leader in the mindful recovery movement and one of the founders of the Buddhist Recovery Network.
Kevin is a husband, father and musician. His album “Laughing Buddha” is a collection of rock and world beat tunes with Buddhist themes. Learn more at www.kevingriffn.net
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dive into our discussion, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about you and about what brought you to your specific career path?
As a young man, I followed two powerful impulses: one to stay high and play rock ‘n roll, and the other to find spiritual healing. My musical career never got beyond the drudgery of traveling bar bands, but I did manage to stay high all the time. In the course of that, I found Buddhist meditation and tried to fix myself through that practice without moderating my lifestyle. The failure of that project led me to get sober in a 12 Step program. Eventually, my connection to Buddhism started to infiltrate my 12 Step program. By then I’d taken training as a meditation teacher and recovery became one of the central themes of my teaching and writing.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
In 2004, when my first book came out, One Breath at a Time: Buddhism and the Twelve Steps I was an unknown teacher and author. One of my friends ran a small dharma center in Minneapolis, Common Ground Meditation Center, which was essentially just his house. He was kind enough to host an event for me. That evening people started showing up, and soon all the seats were taken. By now there might have been 80 or 100 people stuffed into this space. But folks kept coming. My friend’s partner was at the door, and started to tell people, “I’m sorry, there’s no more room.” Later on she told me that people insisted they come in, telling her that they’d stand in the back. They didn’t care about seats.
When that happened I realized I’d tapped into something big. No one had really offered the 12 Step community a guide to Buddhism and meditation before, and it became evident that people were hungry for that connection.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Why do you think that resonates with you? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?
Every morning I recite Buddhist teaching that “I am of nature to age, to sicken, and to die.” Perhaps not the most uplifting quote, but it reminds me how fleeting this life is, and that I must accept the changes that happen to me, my body, and to everyone around me. That helps me appreciate what is here right now.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story about why that resonated with you?
Jack Kornfield’s A Path with Heart arrived just when I needed it. It’s a guide to the “perils and promises” of the spiritual path, as the subtitle says. I was about seven years sober at the time had been studying Buddhism for over a decade. It spoke to the healing that I was experiencing and the depth of spiritual transformation — as well as the challenges inherent to that transformation — that was unfolding in my life.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
I just published my sixth book, Buddhism & the Twelve Steps Daily Reflections, and I’m hoping that this will be a support for people on their path of recovery for years to come. I kind of packed in everything I know into this book. I’m also mentoring new teachers in the Mindfulness Meditation Teacher Certification Program led by Tara Brach and Jack Kornfield. I hope to guide new teachers who want to continue the work of helping folks in recovery find a spiritual path.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I’ve had remarkable mentors appear in my life at just the right moment. My sponsor was probably the first of these. But the moment that perhaps changed my life the most was when I went back to school at three years sober. My first semester I took English composition (I’d dropped out of high school twenty years before, so I was starting from scratch). At the end of the term, my teacher took me aside and said, “Did you ever think about being a writer?” I was shocked and actually a little dismayed. I was trying to find a career that would give some stability after getting out of the music business. But I suppose my ego was flattered, so I followed his advice and signed up for a creative writing class. And the rest, as they say, is history,
Ok, thank you for all that. Now that we are on the topic of gratitude, let’s move to the main focus of our interview. As you know, the collective mental health of our country is facing extreme pressure. We would like to explore together how every one of us can use gratitude to improve our mental wellness. Let’s start with a basic definition of terms. How do you define the concept of Gratitude? Can you explain what you mean?
Frankly, I struggle with the idea of gratitude. Not that I don’t have spontaneous moments of feeling it. But to turn gratitude into a kind of practice brings resistance in me. For one, the word seems to suggest that I should thank some external power for something. As someone who doesn’t believe in an intercessionary God, that doesn’t resonate for me. To whom or what am I being grateful?
When I look around at a lot of the good things in my life, I realize that much of it comes from my position of privilege: economic, class, gender, and racial. Should I feel grateful for being born a white man, son of a lawyer? Should I be grateful that our economy rewards a meditation teacher better than a grocery store worker?
Finally, from a Buddhist view, everything arises out of karma, that is, actions guided by intention. This suggests that the way things are is just a natural unfolding, dependent upon natural forces. Again, to me that doesn’t really leave space for gratitude, per se.
So, for me, I think more about appreciation. Appreciating the beauty of nature in this moment; appreciating the person I am sitting with; appreciating the breath coming in and out. This is about just being alive and enjoying that. It’s about mindfulness. To then try to add in gratitude just confuses and complicates that for me. It brings in all kind of questions that undermine the simplicity of appreciation. So, I try to keep it simple.
Why do you think so many people do not feel gratitude? How would you articulate why a simple emotion can be so elusive?
I don’t know if others have the same struggles I do, but I think that for everyone, life is difficult. That’s the Buddha’s First Noble Truth, the truth of suffering or unsatisfactoriness. Given that truth, it’s easy for people to stay caught in the struggle to deal with all the difficulties and forget to enjoy the gift of life.
This might be intuitive to you but I think it will be constructive to help spell it out. Can you share with us a few ways that increased gratitude can benefit and enhance our life?
Again, I wouldn’t call it gratitude, but when we bring mindfulness and appreciation into a moment of experience it creates a shift from judgment, resistance, frustration, or stress, into the simple enjoyment of the senses, of the body, and of the people and things around us. It takes a certain conscious effort to step out of dukkha, the Buddhist word for dissatisfaction, into appreciation.
Let’s talk about mental wellness in particular. Can you share with us a few examples of how gratitude can help improve mental wellness?
When we start to bring mindfulness to our thoughts and mental states, we see how much of our agitation and distress is created through our own thoughts, our judgments, our craving, and our fears. When we learn to interrupt those tendencies, we can break the cycles of anxiety, stress, and depression.
Ok wonderful. Now here is the main question of our discussion. From your experience or research, what are “Five Ways That Each Of Us Can Leverage The Power Of Gratitude To Improve Our Overall Mental Wellness”. Can you please share a story or example for each?
From a Buddhist view, we “train” our minds with meditation. There are certain elements of that training that have powerful healing effects.
Number one is mindfulness. On my first meditation retreat we were taught to slow down and take every action very carefully and with great attention. One day after breakfast I brought this approach to peeling an orange. It came out looking like a blossoming flower. In that moment something that ordinarily would seem like garbage or compost became art. I realized that the world around me was filled with beauty that I rarely recognized.
The second element of meditation is concentration or samadhi. This is the quality that allows us to sustain our attention on a particular thing, like the breath — or an orange peel. When we settle the mind with this power — which takes a fair amount of time and effort — a deep peace arises. Our capacity for insight and letting go of destructive clinging are enormously enhanced. If you want to access this type of experience, I recommend starting with a 7–10 day silent meditation retreat. When I first experienced this kind of concentration, I was on a meditation retreat in the High Desert of Southern California. After days of struggling to calm my mind, suddenly a quiet and still seemed to drop over me like a blanket of calm. I realized I had finally arrived at the peace I sought. That moment changed my life and affirmed my commitment to meditation as a lifetime practice.
Two other elements of Buddhist meditation and teachings are lovingkindness and compassion. Lovingkindness meditation aims to cultivate a universal friendliness, to help us to view all beings as worthy of love. This counters the tendencies toward anger, ill-will, judgment, and bias. Again, this practice is a training, an intentional, repeated effort to change our reactivity and conditioning.
Compassion is more specifically aimed at those who are suffering. It calls on us to recognize our own internal struggle and see that all beings face challenges in their lives and need care and support. This attitude helps the mind to be more expansive, open, warm, and inclusive. It trains the heart to move toward suffering with the wish to heal, rather than to move away out of fear or self-centeredness. After my that first retreat, for a week, I found myself spontaneously crying, something I hadn’t done in years. My heart had opened, and I was now feeling connected to the world in a way that enriched my life, even though it also made me vulnerable. Learning how to hold that vulnerability without losing my emotional center became a key piece of my spiritual development.
Finally, I would be remiss if I left out sobriety as a way to mental wellness. This concept doesn’t just apply to alcohol or drugs, but to all the ways that we intoxicate ourselves. Today, the number one drug in the world is the smart phone and the internet. We live inside a tiny screen that brings a highly biased version of the world to us. All forms of intoxication poison our mind and often poison our bodies as well. When I got sober after twenty years of drinking and using, I realized that what I’d been seeking in getting high was actually right here in front of me. Happiness isn’t something you have to manufacture or stimulate; it is in the simple beauty of life that we can all connect with. Yes, it can take some time to make that connection, but it’s there for each of us if we are willing to do the work to make it happen.
Is there a particular practice that can be used during a time when one is feeling really down, really vulnerable, or really sensitive?
My emphasis combines a couple things: first, recognition and acceptance of the difficult emotion. My tendency is to want to avoid, push away, suppress , or ignore feelings. Those strategies backfire and tend to feed the painful states. Instead, when I breathe into the feelings, letting them in, fearlessly, I can see that they are just energies; I can let those energies move through me. At the same time, with mindfulness, I can challenge the negative thoughts that are coming up. Most of these are just based in fear or negativity and don’t reflect reality. When I see my thoughts clearly, they lose their pull. Supporting this approach is remembering that everything is impermanent: a central Buddhist tenet. Even if the thoughts and feelings are really troubling, if I remind myself that they are bound to pass, and often pretty quickly, they lose their grip on my mind.
Do you have any favorite books, podcasts, or resources that you would recommend to our readers to help them to live with gratitude?
The Buddhist Recovery Network has information about recovery meetings, teachings, and other resources at www.buddhistrecovery.org.
The podcast “10% Happier” is terrific. Very accessible explorations of the power of mindfulness.
“Dharmaseed.org”, which is a website and can be listened to as podcast, has an enormous trove of great talks form Buddhist teachers.
I like the Insight Time app for simple guided meditations.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Turn all the oil and gas companies into power companies, shifting their orientation from extracting fossil fuels to researching and developing climate-friendly power sources.
What is the best way our readers can further follow your work online?
Thank you for the time you spent sharing these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!