(from A Year to Live: How to Live This Year as if it Were Your Last by Stephen Levine)
As it is cultivated, we experience an increase in our "sympathetic joy," our happiness at another's happiness. Just as in the cultivation of Compassion, we may feel the pain of others, so we may begin to feel their joy as well. And it doesn't stop there. We begin to feel a growing sense of gratitude for whatever happiness, great or small, that comes to those around us.
It brings balance to those parts of the self that have cultivated attachment to our suffering, causing us to feel victimized by life, making God's imagined dial tone all too appealing. Although we might suspect that gratitude would cause us to tarry, to grasp at more, it actually potentiates our letting go into life and death with an open heart.
Like patience it is one of the catalytic agents, one of the alchemist's secrets, for turning dross to gold, hell to heaven, death to life. Where there is gratitude we get the teaching. Where there is resistance we discover only that it keeps us painfully ignorant. Of course, if we had enough acceptance to explore our nonacceptance, if we learned nothing but that resistance amplifies suffering, we would be eternally grateful.
Gratitude is a way of seeing, of being. It is a response from our innate wisdom to our accumulated confusion. It is the luminous ground on which we plant our temporary feet.
As I reviewed my life with soft eyes, meeting moment after moment of the flickering past with a nonjudgmental awareness, I experienced healings in quite unexpected ways. I met myself with more kindness and a willingness not to suffer for the times I had "fallen."
This growth of compassion taught me a considerably more merciful level of what "detachment" really means. This is a much misunderstood term that careens through spiritual practice throughout the world. It is a word that sends the unintentionally suffering mind shuffling off to the madhouse. At least that is what it felt like to me when, at nineteen, I could not comprehend how to become "detached" from such deep feelings and still be alive, much less write a poem.
Our misinterpretation of that honorable teaching can stop us in our tracks. Until we discover that detachment does not mean an indifference to the pain in ourselves and the people around us, but rather a settling back to observe with clarity and perspective that which calls out for healing. Gradually it becomes clear that detachment means letting go and nonattachment means simply letting be.
As the life review began to produce a remarkably parental kindness toward my earlier miscreancies, a certain beneficent detachment began to arise. It was as if my life had occurred to my only child. It was both more and less than "my own" life, something I could approach wholeheartedly without need for a buffer. The gradual healing process of the forgiveness and gratitude practices expands our life. We become noticeably less concerned with praise or blame, fame or shame. We fear even less that if we get too close to certain parts of our life it might "burst our bubble" and we might discover ourselves unworthy of salvation.
In whatever condition and conditioning we find ourselves, whether we have just won the lottery or discovered we have only a year to live, there is a basic, even essential, gratitude contemplation that is always appropriate. It is an expansion of the process of sending gratitude to individuals.
from Stephen Levine, A Year to Live: How to Live This Year as if it Were Your Last (New York, NY: Random House, 1997), pp. 93-96.
Salon magazine provides an interview with Levine titled suicide isn't painless.