Message 148, Finding Gratitude for Life and Health, 11-10-13

(c) Doug Slagle, Pastor at the Gathering UCC, All Rights Reserved  gratitude life

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When was the last time that you felt truly alive?  When did you last feel energized, aware, awestruck and ecstatic about life?  Such a moment or period of time hopefully came when every part of your body and mind felt the power of “being”.  You were without pain, fear or limitation.  Feeling alive was perhaps a transcendent experience in which you were fully grateful for life and for a body in which to enjoy a great moment.

I have to admit that I don’t feel such truly alive moments very often.  I last felt that way two months ago when Keith and I were hiking near Sedona, Arizona.  We were descending into a canyon when a vista of red layered rock walls, millions of years in the making, loomed to our left.  Huge, billowing white clouds scudded across a blue sky above the canyon wall.  Pine trees framed the scene and softly whistled in the wind.  Off in the distance there were more red rock formations that extended far into the distance.  As we stopped to quietly look and listen, I glanced at Keith and there were tears in his eyes.  “It’s just so beautiful”, he said.

As I’ve thought about that moment since then, I’m both grateful for it and sad too.  Why should it take traveling across the country to experience such an alive moment – when my mind and my body felt both a thrill and a certain peace?  Such moments of transcendence can happen anywhere and anytime.  Indeed, the miracle of the trees lining the street outside, or of all of us in our differences, these are also things to behold in awe.  Even more, the fact that my body walks, talks, breathes, thinks and functions in a thousand different but integrative ways ought to be equally stunning to me – and considered with tremendous gratitude.

Last year, the Washington Post conducted an experiment by hiring Joshua Bell, one of the world’s foremost violinists, to stand on a Washington subway platform at morning rush hour and play some of the most difficult but profound musical pieces ever written.  He played a Stradivarius violin valued at over 3 million dollars.  Thousands of people hustled by while barely noticing him or his music.  He played for over two hours and in that time, only six people stopped to listen and even they did so for only a few moments.  In the midst of a crowded, drab, concrete space devoid of any natural beauty stood one of the world’s great musicians playing music that will be appreciated centuries from now – and yet nobody really listened, nobody stopped to value, appreciate and bask in that moment of pure life.

Unfortunately, the experiment showed how we fail to have gratitude for much of what is awesome and beautiful around us; how we fail to use the gifts of our bodies to listen and feel inspiring moments of life; how we fail to simply be – and open ourselves to how our bodies integrate into, and are not separate from, the wider universe.  Too many moments pass by us without thought, notice or appreciation.  We take them for granted, ignore them and focus instead on mundane tasks, fears, or pains.  Our bodies are largely forgotten unless they shout at us in brief moments of pleasure or in more prolonged times of hurt.  All too often we simply ignore and fail to have gratitude for the world around us, for our bodies that are our real homes and for our essential health that gives us the opportunity to live.

As I contrasted last Sunday the differences in outlook that western and eastern cultures have for families, it is interesting that there are similar differences between the two cultures in how life, the body and overall health are viewed.  Sadly, our western way of thinking – once again caused by centuries old Judeo-Christian ideas – too often sees humans and the human body as separate from the natural world.  Such a notion began with early Christian thinking that the body and its flesh are temporary, dirty, decaying, and unworthy of respect.  It’s our spirits and our souls that have value and that are eternal.  In this respect, our bodies are to be rigidly controlled so we don’t jeopardize our souls.

As modern society has evolved, this perspective has not changed.  Our bodies and lives are still manipulated in ways that seek to control the natural world that threatens us – to conquer bacteria, disease, dysfunction and ultimately nature.  In western thinking, our health and our bodies are separate from and not a part of the universe.

This thinking can lead us to take our bodies and lives for granted.  It’s simply a machine that pumps and breathes and functions almost as an afterthought – unless and until something does not work.  We then react to the disfunction and seek to correct the environmental problems that caused it – a disease, a cancer, a chemical deficiency.

Eastern cultures see the body from an entirely different perspective.  The body is fully a part of, and not separate from, nature and the universe.  The very essence of who and what we are is no different from the wind that blows, the rocks that form a canyon wall, or other creatures that populate the earth.  Much like the universe itself, our bodies thrive when in balance both with itself and with nature.  Instead of seeing illness or disease as a part of nature that attacks and threatens us, easterners see illness as a state of imbalance.

The goal, therefore, in eastern philosophy is to live in deep connection with the world and for our bodies to draw on the peace, energy flow, and powerful natural forces that keep us healthy and in balance.  In other words, instead of making nature adapt to our bodies, which is the western approach, easterners adapt the body to nature.  Our bodies – along with air, water and other life forms – exist in a natural and connected equilibrium.

This eastern view of the body therefore translates into how they value health and life.  They are not to be taken for granted.  A healthy body must be daily maintained in balance with itself and with all nature.  Chinese ideas of integrating a yin and yang state of mind, of using acupuncture points to stimulate health, of meditation, of slow movement in Tai Chi are all examples of this thinking.  So too is Buddhist meditation and it’s emphasis on the energy flow between chakra points on the body.  In that regard, the body and its health are valued as a matter of daily life.  The Buddha encouraged this mindset when he said that every person is the author of his or her own health and well being.

While diseases happen, eastern thinking about them is to adapt our bodies and our minds to the natural forces that use illness to purify and balance life.  If balance cannot be restored so that our bodies can function in health, then we must submit to that fact.  Terminal illness and death are a part of nature.  They are to be respected and valued in their own way – as truths to be accepted and integrated into an overall sense of being.

This eastern approach of continual gratitude and maintenance of one’s health was exemplified in Ancient Greek and Roman mythology.  There were numerous gods and goddesses responsible for personal health.  The two most prominent were Asclepius and Hygea.  Temples were built for these gods, people venerated small home statues of them, and frequent offerings and prayers were made to them.  Much like visiting a modern shrine like Lourdes, people visited the Temples seeking a god’s assistance in maintaining or restoring health.  One would sleep overnight in a dormitory adjacent to the Temple during which time the god would supposedly visit the person in his or her dreams.  Priests would then interpret the dreams as a way to prescribe a treatment that the god suggested.

In those pre-scientific cultures, one’s personal health was of major concern.  Even so, one was encouraged to be in tune with the body and offer daily prayers or thanks for its good health.  Faith, devotion and regular religious practice were essential for one’s health.  And the same attitude is clear in the Bible.  Jesus was a master healer whose most frequent miracles involved healing the lame and sick.  But NOT everyone was cured.  He repeatedly told those whom he did cure that it was their faith that had made them well.   Those who sincerely sought God’s healing power were the ones cured.

As mystical and unscientific as that might seem, it nevertheless underscores the eastern mind / body / spirit integration for maintaining a healthy life.  That thinking translates into gratitude for life and health.  The body and its functions are not taken for granted in most eastern cultures.  Indeed, one daily maintains personal health by focusing on a mind / body / spirit balance.

Once again, we can learn from this balanced and integrative approach to health.  It leads directly to a continual appreciation for life.  Without rejecting modern medical science, we can nevertheless incorporate aspects of eastern thinking in our lives.  That means finding balance in what we eat, how we exercise, what we spend our time thinking about and how we spiritually enrich ourselves.

While I am not an expert on diet and nutrition, my personal approach is to find balance in what I eat.  I like fattening foods but I don’t overindulge in them.  If I eat a heavy meal, I limit myself the next day.  And the same holds true for what I believe about exercise.  I try to work out three times a week as well as doing some walking, biking, yard work and taking stairs instead of elevators.  But I don’t think I’m a fitness fanatic.  I spend my share of lazy days.  Experts assert that all people should be more active and they encourage simple ways to do so like walking or swimming.  Indeed, some experts encourage people to take at least 10,000 steps a day – and there are now free smartphone apps that will count them for you.  If mobility is an issue, then water exercises and swiming are suggested.  Such advice comes not just as a way to find better health, but as a means to show gratitude for the health and bodies we’ve been given.  Too often we focus on the care of our houses, cars or computers while ignoring – until something bad happens – the one machine most essential to us.

That lack of deep appreciation for my health symbolically hit me over the head last year when I suffered a knee injury.  Mentally, that relatively minor injury set me back a lot.  I was anxious and upset that the fallibility of my flesh was suddenly upon me.  My knee injury reminded me how much I took for granted my good health and the daily miracles of bodily functions and abilities.  I thought I had eaten and exercised well but I had not spiritually and mentally practiced a kind of gratitude for life and health.  I was indifferent about them.  I meditated only occasionally.  I rarely focused in prayer or in thought about the miracle of my body.

Even more, by failing to really value life and health, I failed to spiritually and mentally process, accept and even appreciate the few times in my l life when my body had suffered.  My mind, body and spirit were imbalanced.  And so when my knee injury struck me, I was not prepared.  I got angry, depressed and troubled about it, my surgery and the long healing process.

Gratitude for one’s health that includes a spiritually positive attitude when our bodies hurt is not only encouraged by eastern cultures, it is ironically now endorsed by western medicine.  Faith, prayer and a positive outlook have been scientifically shown to improve healing.  Experts therefore encourage people to use the powers of faith and a positive mindset as a proactive measure to maintain health as well as to improve it when we are sick.

They suggest, when we are sick, to take a reality check, gather as much information as possible about our individual case, and then avoid imagining worst case scenarios.  We should also manage how we think and find ways to focus not on our illness but on other thoughts, activities and events.  This involves becoming more socially connected with others – being willing to ask for help, for listening ears, and for social companionship.  As trivial as my injury was last year, Keith was a godsend to me in his support.

Overall, experts advise against isolation.  Staying as active and vital as possible when sick – visiting with others, going out, eating out, walking if possible, staying connected to friends and church – these are all important.

But of greatest importance is finding a mind and spirit balance.  Our bodies are likely being taken care of by health professionals.  But our spirits need healing too.  This involves undertaking regular times to reflect, pray or meditate.  In doing so, the goal is to find a kind of inner peace and awareness not only of our bodies but of life itself.  It is often those who are most sick who appreciate moments of great beauty like hearing a master violinist play, viewing a sunset, laughing at a funny show or book, or relishing a great meal.  Such gratitude for life and health, no matter how troubled or full of pain, is not easy, but it is essential.

If we find that we have already incorporated such attitudes of gratitude into our daily lives when we are healthy and happy, they will be much easier to practice when we are not.  Adopting an attitude of gratitude for life, body and health will lead to a positive outlook even in the darkest of times.

Josh Billings, a contemporary spiritual commentator, has said that our health is like money.  We never have a true idea of its value until we lose it.  He perfectly states the point of my message today.  Gratitude and appreciation for life, for our bodies and for our health is not to be taken for granted nor is it a one-time annaul expression at Thanksgiving.  It should be a common attitude.  That means re-oreintiing our minds to notice big and small moments of beauty – to really see the trees and the clouds; to listen intently to the birds, the wind and great music; to appreciate the stunning abilities we have to think, walk, speak and see.  It means doing all we can to live in balance – a mindset I encourage in all aspects of life – in our spirituality, politics, thinking, eating, working, exercising and entertaining.  I firmly embrace the idea that extremism in any form IS a vice.  Extremism upsets the universal order of things that all creation exists in perfect balance.  If we are a part of that universe, then we too must live in balance and shun the extremes.

Today, tomorrow, this Thanksgiving, let us each reflect deeply on what it means to value the mere fact of our existence.  Let us find gratitude for the glorious gifts of our bodies and the wonder of good health that allows us to enjoy transcendent moments of tears, laughter, wonder, peace and pure joy.

I wish all of those to each of you…