Spiritual Mentor Says Gratitude Is About Perception
MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin, and you're listening to Tell Me More from NPR News. It's Thanksgiving Day. Happy Thanksgiving to you. Thanksgiving means many things to many people: turkey, stuffing, cranberry - smooth or chunky - family, friends, football. But by its very definition, the day is also meant to be dedicated to the act of giving thanks. So today, we want to talk about gratitude. What exactly is gratitude? What does it mean? Does it mean something different when we or others or the country are going through tough times? How do you show it or should you?
To talk about all these questions we've gathered three public figures to offer some advice and wisdom on this question. A man who witnessed up close the atrocities of the Nazis and has used that experience to build bridges between people; a man who tries to heal fractured families. To begin our conversations about gratitude, I'm pleased to welcome Iyanla Vanzant. She's an author, television personality, radio host, a spiritual mentor to many. Welcome, Iyanla.
Ms. IYANLA VANZANT (Author, Television Personality, Radio Host, Spiritual Mentor): Thank you.
MARTIN: Welcome back, I should say.
Ms. VANZANT: Grateful to be here...
Ms. VANZANT: On this Thanksgiving Day.
MARTIN: What is gratitude?
Ms. VANZANT: Well, it's a state of mind. It's a state of mind where we remain open and receptive and conscious of everything that comes forward in the moment. So for example, one might think, oh, my God. I just had a car accident. Gratitude is a state of mind that says, first, yes, and I'm OK, and everyone else is OK. Gratitude might lead you to say, OK, thank you for letting me know I need to pay more attention. I need to slow down. So it's an opening or an openness, if you will, to the greater possibilities that exist in everything, no matter how traumatic, chaotic, confusing, upsetting, painful it may be in the moment.
MARTIN: How important is gratitude as a state of mind?
Ms. VANZANT: Absolutely essential to the elimination of stress, to preventing wrinkles and gray hair.
(Soundbite of laughter)
MARTIN: Now you tell me!
Ms. VANZANT: And to just being open to the incredible blessings that are present in life at all times. And this is how I learned about gratitude. Christmas Day five years ago, I lost my daughter.
MARTIN: I'm so sorry.
Ms. VANZANT: She was 31 years old, and she was my best friend, my business partner. Everything that a mother would want in a daughter, she was. And she passed on Christmas Day. And of course, I lost my mind for six months. But once I found my brain again and began to function, I became so grateful for everything that she taught me, everything she demonstrated to me, everything that we ever did together. And more importantly, in her absence, there were things that I needed to learn that I didn't even know that I didn't know because she handled them. And I just became very, very grateful for the opportunity to grow myself in a new way. Of course, I would want my daughter to be here to do it. But even in the midst of the trauma and the tragedy of losing her, I found things to be grateful for.
MARTIN: A social activist, somebody who's worked for justice for a very long time - who both you and I know but I'm not going to call her name right now because she didn't give me permission to quote her - but she once told me that she thought that gratitude was overrated. She said she thought it made people focus on what they already have instead of focusing on what they should have. What do you think about that?
Ms. VANZANT: I think that it focuses on what we have in the moment, and it keeps us out of future fears and past regrets. If you just get grateful for everything - I'm so grateful that after 37 years my husband divorced me because it reminded me of how tenacious my spirit is and how much strength and courage it really takes to walk day by day. I'm grateful because it helped me understand the places and parts of him I took for granted, and it made me a much more compassionate person.
See, the thing about gratitude, very often, is it takes us into our broken places, and it's in our broken places that we get the opportunity to grow and heal and clear and complete. So without gratitude, sometimes we're kind of in this high place and we don't necessary look at, OK, let me look at this and get myself a little better aligned.
MARTIN: Is gratitude something that happens, do you think, most deeply in the midst of loss?
Ms. VANZANT: Well, because it's a state of mind, I think it's available to us at all times. I think probably in the state of loss we don't pull it out as often as we should. See, there's a difference for me between an experience, an expression and a consciousness of gratitude and just saying thank you, you know. Like everyone today is cooking turkey and gathering and we're happy and we're joyful, and that's one level of gratitude. But for the healing level of gratitude, I think sometimes we need to be in those dark places. We need to be in those places where our stuff isn't working, and we have to go deeper. We have to look wider. We have to stretch more. And that brings forward a kind of openness to what's going on. Does that make sense?
MARTIN: Yeah. But today is a day - two things are happening today. Many people are celebrating abundance.
Ms. VANZANT: Yes.
MARTIN: Shouldn't they?
Ms. VANZANT: Absolutely. But are they really grateful or is it perfunctory? Are we just doing - I mean, you know, I got a bird sitting here looking at me, and I name my turkey every Thanksgiving...
MARTIN: Oh, my.
Ms. VANZANT: So that I have an intimate, personal relationship with it. You know, but you know, really, I'm grateful to be alive. I'm grateful that kids are coming. I'm grateful that, you know, I have something to give. But for me - and this doesn't have to be for everybody - it's almost perfunctory. It's not really the kind of conscious gratitude that I think if we had every single day would really change the way we live in the world.
MARTIN: What makes you take it beyond the perfunctory, surface level?
Ms. VANZANT: It keeps me open. It keeps me open as long as I'm grateful for everything. I get to see the good in everything and everyone - everyone. You know, ugly, mean, vicious people, I'm grateful for them because they help me build my patience muscle. They help me build my tolerance muscle. They help me build my vision to see beyond people's behavior to the core of who they are, and I'm grateful for that training.
MARTIN: The other thing that's happening today is lack of abundance.
Ms. VANZANT: Yes.
MARTIN: There are many people today who will do without, who will have had and no longer have. There are those who will never have had enough. What do you say to those people? You say, you should be grateful, too?
Ms. VANZANT: Not you should be, but shift into. Not you should be, but shift into an energy, an atmosphere of gratitude, first of all, because it lifts your spirit. While you may not have a home, you may not have a bird, you may not have family there, you have an opportunity. Let's be grateful for the opportunity. For those who don't have, take today and vision what it will look like, what it can be, and be grateful for just the mere operation of your mind because if you can see it, ultimately you will attract it.
This is how it was taught to me. If you can't walk, be grateful you can crawl. If you can't crawl, be grateful you can lay there and wave a hand. If you can't wave a hand, be grateful you can blink your eye. If you can't blink your eye, be grateful that at least the mind is working. And you know, you can't walk, crawl, raise a hand or blink an eye - that it's an opportunity that in every moment, as long as you're breathing, to take in life at a much more intimate level.
MARTIN: Can you learn gratitude?
Ms. VANZANT: Let me see. Can you learn to be grateful? I don't know. I really don't know if you can learn to be grateful. I spoke to a young man last week who was on the verge of attempting suicide, and at the last moment he called a radio station, and the radio station called me and asked me to speak to him. His wife had left him. He had no job. He couldn't seem to get any help. He had no money. He was on his way to a shelter, and he was just through. And I said to him, my love, but you had someone to call. You had a number to call, and you had a cell phone. That's something. Can we just stay there? Can we just sit in that for a moment? Forget about suicide. You have a cell phone, so that tells me something is working for you. Who else can you call on that cell phone that can lift you in this moment?
You know, because my consciousness is always about let's go to the break and let's see what's bigger, great, grander here. I'm not going to say to you - you know, I'm grateful that he had a cell phone. You know, because - and I don't know this young man, but he has children and so I'm grateful that he thought to call. I'm grateful I was home. I'm grateful I answered the phone, and I'm grateful he's still alive. And I talk to him every morning at 7:15, and we pray together. And he still doesn't have a job and he's still not with his wife, but he ends every call by saying thank you.
MARTIN: Wow. Well, I want to ask because you've already told so many (unintelligible). What are you thankful for this year? Right now? Today?
Ms. VANZANT: Well, again, the thankful and the grateful, for me, are two very different things, and it's sometimes so hard to put intellectual language to a spiritual experience. So I'm grateful that we have a new president. I'm grateful that people are excited about change. I'm - cancel that. I'm thankful that we have a new president. I'm grateful that so many people came out to vote because it says that they're ready and willing to participate in the process. I'm thankful that I have a home to live in today and food to eat. But I'm grateful that my diet has so shifted that I'm going to cook in a way that at the end of the night I won't be laying on the floor like a beach whale.
(Soundbite of laughter)
There's a distinction. And I'm grateful that I know that distinction. I see a distinction between thankfulness and gratefulness, thankfulness being the acts that we perform and the things that happen externally, but gratitude being the mind and the consciousness that we bring to it that nourishes us beyond the act. Wow, that was good. I probably should have wrote that down.
(Soundbite of laughter)
MARTIN: Well, you have, as far as we're concerned. Iyanla Vanzant is a best-selling author, radio host, television personality. She was kind enough to join us in our Washington, D.C. studio. Iyanla, I am thankful and grateful for you. Thank you so much for taking the time.
Ms. VANZANT: Yes. Thank you.
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