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Zen and the Martial Arts

The Zen Mirror

The Cultivation of Gratitude

By Jeff Brooks

We live in a world that is over-stimulated – that is our senses are continually disturbed by our environment and our heart and mind are continually disturbed by our desires. We learn to be continually disturbed. One of the disturbances to which we succumb is a perpetual dissatisfaction with our current circumstance. This is a pervasive human malady. It can be overcome and it should be, because it makes us always unhappy and it makes us bother the people around us and degrade the natural environment around us, all the time.

The chief antidote to this perpetual dissatisfaction is not working harder, protesting, reducing carbon footprint, becoming more insistent upon our victim status, making other people suffer more, gaining more power or status, or having more sex activities – or any of the usual methods we employ to try and end our disturbance.

The chief antidote to perpetual dissatisfaction is gratitude.

Gratitude is rarely taught or encouraged, but it has three transformative effects. First it makes us appreciate what we have so we can be happy here and now. Second it stops us from doing non-virtuous actions to make ourselves happy – a futile approach that inevitably leaves us exhausted and envious and always wanting even more. Third it brings us into the present moment. This ontological transformation, produced by the sincere and continual practice of gratitude, has the deepest transformative effect and can lead us toward enlightenment.

The past and the future do not exist. They are fantasy lands concocted by our minds, in which we store our desires, regrets, fears and other negative mental states. The past and the future have no other content. To the degree that we live in turmoil – filled with grievances, anger, desire, jealousy and so on, we neglect what is possible now.  Instead of engaging in virtuous action in the present, we are carried away by ignorance and non-virtue.  In this way we miss our entire lives. We cultivate a habit of looking toward the next stage, never really mastering – or enjoying – this one. It is wasteful and it causes us to lose the opportunity this precious human life offers us to be kind, strong and decent, to take care of the people who may need us, and to build something of lasting value for all time by our virtuous acts in the present moment.

This is why it is useful to consider the blessing and good opportunities we presently enjoy. A healthy body, a clear mind, good friends and family to share our lives, time to do good things, freedom of action are all blessings which we can enjoy ourselves and which we can put at the service of others.

We cannot afford to anticipate the actions of an opponent, being tricked into premature movement, lulled into complacency, or hesitate when the moment for action has come. We must engage the opponent only in the present moment. When we train we cannot afford to dwell on the past or future. We will make best use of our training time when we are fully dedicated to the moment in which we are training.

Therefore it is very practical to cultivate gratitude, appreciate what we have, and not squander this one brief chance at real happiness.

Copyright Jeff Brooks and 2010

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About The Author:

Jeffrey Brooks, Seventh Degree Black Belt, has been the director of Northampton Karate Dojo in Northampton, Massachusetts since 1987 and director of Northampton Zendo since 1993. He is a police officer and police instructor, and the author of “Rhinoceros Zen – Zen Martial Arts and the Path to Freedom.” His column Zen Mirror and other articles appear on

To find more articles of interest, search on one of these keywords:

Zen philosophy, mental living the now, gratitude

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