Awakin Calls » Kristi Nelson » Transcript
Kristi Nelson: Grateful Living As A Foundational Practice for Every Moment
Nov 26, 2016
Birju: I'm much appreciative being able to join in. I'm very excited to be in conversation today with Kristi. I had a little bit of experience of touching into gratefulness in the period of hardship. I'm very excited to learn from the conversation today, especially because this has been a topic that has been stronger on my mind recently.
Earlier this year, my wife went through an emergency surgery that, for a little time, there was quite uncertain in terms of what the outcome would be. At that moment, I was very intrigued by my own inner relationship with what was happening. At some sense, having a feeling that I'm not going to be fighting what is happening and I'm not going to fight with other people, not with doctors, not with myself, not with this sense of pain or grief that was coming up. Finding a sense of gratefulness that came up for the not-fighting may be the tip of the iceberg in what gratefulness can be over time but part of why I feel so excited to be on this call.
I would love to introduce our guest for today who, to me, has been embodying and living this principle of gratefulness for some time now.
Kristi Nelson is the Executive Director for A Network for Grateful Living, which is behind the popular website Gratefulness.org. She's also spent, to me, a life time focusing on social movement through both inner and outer work. This includes senior leadership roles with Soul of Money Institute, Kripalu, which is a retreat center, and Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society. Thanks so much for joining us during Thanksgiving weekend, Kristi!
Kristi: I'm so honored and delighted to be here. I'm absolutely thrilled and thank you so much. I'm humbled, just truly deeply humbled by this opportunity. I want to just be of service because I feel to be in your company, Birju, and Aryae, and all of the incredible people at ServiceSpace who do your extraordinary work in the world.,I just feel very blessed to get to have this time and I hope to serve. That's my prayer. So, I’m just thrilled to be here for this conversation, every bit of it. Thanks so much for asking me.
Birju: Your presence feels like the deepest service and everything else is great. (laugh)
Kristi: (laugh) That's a good theme for Thanksgiving. It's all great.
Birju: How are you today?
Kristi: I'm excellent today. I'm just incredibly happy to be here. I took a beautiful walk this morning; I'm moving through the world; I have dear friends and family; I enjoy my life. I feel so blessed for that. So I'm doing very well today. Thank you so much. I'm in relatively good health, which is not always true; it's always impermanent state. I'm always aware of the fact that being able-bodied and being well is temporary for all of us. I cherish those moments when I'm able to say I am well. Thank you. I'm doing well. Thank you very much. In that spirit, thank you for asking. How are you today?
Birju: Also doing well. I find myself in tears a little bit more frequently now out of gratitude for, the word I use, "bitter sweetness." Everything is beautiful and changing quickly. Not necessarily for the worse or better. Just changing. There is beauty there.
Birju: I appreciate the realness of the response to the question which was what I was hoping for. Also I wanted to jump in the topic, if you will, that we are here today to talk about gratefulness. If there was such a thing as a root for that theme, why would you say that the topic is so alive for you?
Kristi: It's a great question. I do believe that it's especially alive and acute for me in my life particularly because there was something very profound about facing the absolute reality of impermanence at quite an early age. A lot of people suffer from very challenging illnesses and near death experiences at much younger ages than I did. But for me, it was in that moment in life when all my friends and peers were making big plans, investing money, thinking about being able to buy a house, or thinking about having children or getting married, when at 32 years old, I was diagnosed with stage IV lymphoma.
There is a saying that is quite profound for me, "keep death always before your eyes." [It] is a Benedictine saying that Brother David Steindl-Rast, who founded our organization years ago cites often. What that experience for me was it put death before my eyes in a way that I would tell you [that] you were crazy to ever think that a pain like that would be something that would enrich your life in a very profound way. I had no sense how that could make sense until I actually faced my own mortality so acutely. I think that has changed my whole life. I haven't really ever quite said this in this way, but it's been 24 years now. Every single moment of those 24 years has been impacted by facing the loss of my life so squarely, so soberly, so directly at that point of my life. There was some kind of internal pledge, I think, that happened, Birju, in me, which was to never thumb my nose, so to speak, to never take for granted, to never live my life in a way that flew in the face of the gift of continuing to live another day.
Birju: I have been interested in wanting to dive deeper into that experience, but also the seeds of that experience. I mean, stage IV cancer, that's a weighty statement. I'm curious even before then, your early 30s diagnosis. I look through your history prior to that. I'm not looking at a person, at least from my understanding, it doesn't scream a philosophy background. You got a business education, schools like Harvard in your background. I'm guessing in more communal approach, the conventional background behind that, I'm curious were there seeds planted for the depth that happened after that diagnosis?
Kristi: There have to be, don't they? Quite a garden grew quite quickly there. I was one of those people at 32. It was in 1992 when people said if Kristi Nelson can get diagnosed with cancer then it could happen to anyone because I was one of those people who people thought was extraordinarily healthy.
And this was in the days of Bernie Siegel, Louise Hay, and a lot of people who had a lot of thinking that was almost like you could not “choose” illness - you had a choice around illness or death. So, that whole kind of popular movement was really alive when I got sick. There were seeds in me before that. I was a vegetarian; I did yoga; I took all the right vitamins; I have been a social activist, a political activist for a long time; my parents are both socially concerned people. I had an early life of a lot of very strong passionate social justice values and acted on those very deeply. I had a lot of love and community in my life. It really did teach something to me and everybody around me, which is about what do we get to be in charge of and what don't we, and that whole idea of that, you know, the concept at the time that terminal illness only happened to people who didn't want to live.
So there was a wrestling in myself and in my community around how that wasn't all true and how to live with that and live through that. But the seeds of love were huge in my life. So the seeds of love for life, the seeds of love for community, and people, and feeling loved and being actively loved. Those were the seeds, I think, and a commitment to health, that were very strong even before I got diagnosed.
Birju: You got these seeds. I have a friend who makes this comment that in some way, [what] one is learning to do is surfing on life's waves and most of the waves of life are two and three feet. They are light enough that you can take them for granted but what they are doing is to prepare you for the 20-foot wave.
Kristi: That's a very good way to put it.
Birju: So here comes the 20-foot wave and I'm curious how you evolved in your relationship to cancer through that wave.
Kristi: Well, very significantly, I would say. I had been a very extroverted person who rarely spent time alone. I lived in a communal household; I had close family, friends and community. So something about being alone, the solitude of a hospital, and the solitude of the number of weeks on end - that's beautiful work like the prison dharma project does. All these people who frame the prison as ashram…the hospital is also a reluctant ashram. It's like here we are. I was confined and tethered to every kind of IV thing and because I had fevers of unknown origin for many weeks and months before I was diagnosed - it was in the early days of HIV - I wasn't allowed to leave the hospital. So I was in the hospital for six weeks, and I was let out and I was still really sick, so I was again for two or three weeks. Then I was out and I had surgery that kept me for a week. I spent most of about a year and a half, almost two years of my life defined absolutely through hospitalization and medical procedures.
That was something that the reluctant experience of that became a “giving way to,” the riding the wave of, wow, OK, what opportunity do I have here if I can't leave my bed and I can't leave this room? And I had run five miles the morning before I ended up in the hospital, and I was totally well.
So, learning about aloneness, learning this depth of solitude and our relationship to that solitude - that has changed me forever. To deeply learn something about what I would call prayer even though I was not raised with a religion in anyway. I became, I would say, much more a person grounded in spiritual practice, and meditation became a much more active part of my life and the serenity prayer became a huge part of my life. “God grant me the serenity to accept things that I cannot change, courage to change things that I can, and wisdom to know the difference.” That felt like it was my medical treatment. It felt like that was the pathway for me to get through everything. It continues to be in many ways. But I would say that deeper relationship with self, a deeper relationship with not being in the driver's seat; that was the transformation, if I would kind of take in, what is the crux of it?
To distil it, it would be that I used to be in this way of thinking that I was in control of everything. That was the agency of youth, and the agency of goal-setting, and the agency of having dreams and aspirations and affirmations. In the early 90s, if you affirmed it, it would happen; if you want it, it's yours. So what do we and don't we get to be in control of and how to live like a leaf on the river, how to literally throw my arms up and out, (which I am doing right now) and close my eyes and say “are there places here that are really calling me to surrender?” And see that my will and the belief that I'm going to be able to be in control of my experience, might actually getting in the way of what's happening here. That's the transformation that mostly happened for me. The relishing of every moment that I got to be alive thinking that it might be otherwise.
Birju: I am simultaneously touched by that reflection and want to go deeper. Because I feel like, without the experience of it, without the rubber hits the road element, that could be received as a platitude. When I ask myself, why is it that I don't do that. I can certainly put my arms out and say, oh, you know, do with me what you will. But the thing that keeps me at deeper levels from being able to do that is fear of pain and suffering, and if I went to the root fear of death, Stage IV is not stage I. What did you do in that relationship to pain, suffering, death in a very real way that allowed for that surrender to blossom in a way. For me, it's just be on a glass. (Not sure what this last bit is supposed to say, but that is definitely not it)
Kristi: Right. You are right. I'm goose-bumps from head to toe with your question which is always a good sign. Without being overly personal, I think the personal is very important, and your whole focus is on story. You have a scale from 1 to 10 where you can place pain. They have that smiley face on the wall of the doctor's office and you can kind of say, I am here and there. I've never known what pain was until I had cancer metastasized to my spine and my bones. I had no idea in the world that amount of pain was actually humanly possible or it was humanly possible to endure and survive.
I spent months in that pain and it was pain that morphine could not touch, percocet, and all these different things that just wouldn't touch it. It took literally every cell in my body to become so attuned to the moment, Birju, there was absolutely nothing else to do but occupy that moment so fully and so surrendered just to get through. Okay, there is the next moment. Okay, there is the next moment. So it's not abstract at all in my experience. Very difficult to describe, but to learn to experience my thoughts as thoughts, my feelings as feelings, and what happened in my body as sensations, all of which were huge, but did not by themselves each one alone or even together, define my whole experience. It was not enough; I learned what was bigger than me in those moments.
In that surrender, in that total release of that abandonment of that idea of control ,became the most tremendous empowerment in this way of how I should go through and navigate life, through things that I never knew before were humanly possible, to navigate the idea of dying. I don't say this lightly. It's not something that I talk about a lot, and it's very emotional in some ways because I'm right back in it. I can feel it in very cell of my body. It's physical; it's emotional; it's everything. And it's an honor to be able to tell that story and be able to tell it in the past tense. It's just unbelievable to me, actually.
Birju: I want to thank you for your willingness to go into that place with us. I just want you to know that there is tenderness with which we all receive that story.
Kristi: Thank you.
Birju: I'd also love to invite the part of your life that came after that, if that feels okay with you.
Birju: But not like a pivot, but rather the continuation of the same theme. I have heard stories even in my own family of people who have had such experience where the inner evolution is in some ways quickened by such a journey. And yet, there is a period when the cancer is in remission. I am curious when we get to that stage, how does that relationship with pain, with death, with surrender... Did you find that it stayed? Did you find that you can hold to it?
Kristi: Well. That's a great question because it's not just a really neat formula where, okay now, you are pronounced in remission and then life goes okay, back to where I was before. None of that was possible. None of that was possible on any level for me. I had a friend who had cancer the same time that I did. She had an early stage cancer and I said, I'm never going to be the same. And she said, just you wait, you will. And I told myself, I don't want to be the same again. I never want to live as if I do not know what I now know, and as if I did not go through everything I went through. That was not my longing at all.
And yet, it was extremely disorienting because I remember asking a couple of oncologists, one said, there is no hope for you. Literally there is no hope for you. You will not be cured. And another one, who looked at me, I asked, when would I be out of the woods. It's a great question, right? And he said that you will never be out of the woods. So I have never, literally, I don't know that I even said this aloud ever in my life, but I decided to live my life in the woods. All of that knowing, right? I was thinking, can I be out of the woods yet, am I out of the woods yet, am I out of the woods yet? And someone says that you would never be out of the woods. I was so angry with him at first. And then I thought maybe there is a way to befriend the woods of the human experience.
But those first few years I felt like I was someone who had been diagnosed with HIV, even though I wasn't, because every sneeze, every ache, every pain, very fever that I got, everything for those first three years, it was like, oh, God, it's the cancer back again. And I was in the hospital every 3 months for full body CT scans and all that stuff. So there were a couple of years when I didn't know what to do. I literally did not quite know how to live. And I hope it's okay to be that honest. If it's not here, where is it; if it's not with you, with whom? Right?
But there was that sense of dis-orientation. I was entirely disoriented and I needed a period of time to get my body back in a way, to get my thinking back, to figure out: Would I be responsible to apply for a job inside this prognosis? Is it responsible to start a relationship? How do I do this? At the time Stephen Levine spoke about “if you had a year, pretend you have a year to live.” And a lot of people were doing that pretending. And I was like, geez, I wish I could do that pretending. There was a luxury to that. A kind of identity which was... It felt much different to try to go through it when your body...you know my body was kind of battered. I was trying to get to figure things out. And then I decided after a couple of years of living, literally two years, I moved to the woods, literally. I needed two years. And I remember saying, okay, I am going to live now as if I have another two years to go. I'm gonna just... experiment with what I would do if I had another year or two to go. And I decided to work for Hospice. That was an incredible experience because I had seen the difference for the people who had gone through cancer with me who had died with hospice and people who did not. That was my first foray back out of the cocoon and the womb of my family and my friends and my community, and the natural world where I was getting all of my sustenance, to begin to take baby steps back into the world of how I would go forward assuming that there is a future but not being attached to it. What would that look like?
Birju: Hmm. Thank you for sharing that.
Kristi: Thank you for letting me.
Birju: I want to keep on going into that evolution that happened afterwards. You mentioned that, “should I have a job?” And I smile to myself in realizing the kind of pioneering work for the world that you've done since that thought, should I have a job, came up. And the level of evolution of your inner worldview might have accompanied that. I am curious. So you do this hospice, and then all of a sudden, Soul of Money [Institute], and then Kripalu [Center for Yoga and Health]. So what is going on internally? What is your thesis evolving to that leads you to these ways of working and living?
Kristi: You know I started living my life, I think, differently in the first job I really applied for At hospice. I started as a volunteer and ended up being absorbed and getting paid to do some of the stuff I was doing. I applied for a job to be the Executive Director of the Women's Fund of Western Massachusetts, which was a brand new organization. I remember going to the interview. I was a few years out, maybe three and a half years out of treatment at that point. I remember banging my hands down on the table at one point. Quite passionately, I said I believe I was born for this job. What came out of my mouth in that clarity was amazing. And I believe this job was born for me. It was the place where I grew deeper roots into my life and into the world. And I was there most of five years. And it was after that everything was kind of evolved into other kind of positions that you talked about.
I remember being very clear and it was part of the interview then, that I was a cancer survivor. When that came up in the interview and everything, it was really powerful to be able to say, you know, I'm going to go year by year in my life. And you risk nothing because everybody goes day by day, really. There is no promise that anybody is going to make that you can hang your hat on. “Oh, I'm going to be here [for] 10 years.” But I can tell you really honestly [that] I'm going to be here as long as I'm going to be here with my full self. So that's how I lived a lot of that life.
In your question, I think, what came was I had done what I got called social change work before I got ill. It was more kind of political social change work, working for the freeze movement, working for civil rights organizations and environmental organizations. It was interesting, what evolved for me out of this was what I started to call “spiritual social change work.” That was a big difference and something that I never would've seen myself doing before. And I don't even exactly quite know what it means. I hope you won't test me on that. (Birju’s laugh) But it's that way that I think inner transformation and outer transformation are equally-weighted commitments and ways of working in the world. Like the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, might ask “how do we go about changing the world?” It became a different model I was attracted to at that point; the belief that we could change systems through changing consciousness.
Birju: I deeply resonated with what you just said. And I am curious about it because when you combine that perspective of what you are doing with the kinds of jobs you are talking about sounds really sexy for me outside. Then there is a component that is less sexy. It's the day-to-day. It's the theme that looks a lot like Corporate America, as you continue to come off this experience. Now you are here with the day-to-day of whether it's fundraising or getting your name out there. How do you reconcile that? Where is the sacred in that mundane-ness?
Kristi: Ah. Everywhere. Everywhere. If it's not there, where? That makes me cry - the gift of being able to show up for all those small moments, small things, and small gestures, which add up to something significant. The gift of being inside those moment to moment “have to’s” at work, the responsibility of work, the pressure of work, and to hold them as sacred, is, to me, a huge chunk of my life. To remember the privilege of, “it could be otherwise.” Here I am, signing things and pushing papers around, building a new website, and doing things that don’t fit in how you would look at them, if from the outside. How could one find this to be the most beneficent kind of thing to be doing with a life that maybe wasn't supposed to be, all those “tasks?”
But it's the same as the tasks of loving. It's the actions of loving; loving life, loving other people, loving what we get to love, the privilege of that. It could look on the outside, if you would put a little camera, that what I do to love the people I love in my life, it would look pretty un-sexy a lot of the times. It looks like doing a lot of dishes, a lot of cutting vegetables, a lot of... the stuff of raising a family. And loving the people that I love, you know, getting in my car driving soup across to my sister yesterday, because she was so sick. It's in each of those tasks of making things happen and rising to the occasion of the “Yes” of all of it. That is what makes it sacred, knowing it is all those little tiny things that matter [like] the planting of a garden. How hard they work, the farmers around here to make this extraordinary harvest come to us in the late summer and early fall! And the work of it, and the day-to-day of it is small tasks.
There is a poem that I think of a lot. I am jJust gonna see if I can find a line or two from it because it moves me and it's really meaningful to me. I'm just grabbing this book. It's called Otherwise by someone named Jane Kenyon. She died, not long after she wrote this poem, of cancer. She says, "I got out of bed on two strong legs. It might have been otherwise. I ate cereal, sweet milk, ripe, flawless peach. It might have been otherwise. I took the dog uphill to the birch wood. All morning I did the work I love... But one day, I know, it will be otherwise."
I think "keep death always before your eyes," keep impermanence always before your eyes makes everything sacred because it always could be otherwise. (pause) Did that answer what you were asking? (laugh)
Birju: (laugh) Yeah. I was just wanting two more deep breaths on that one!
Kristi: It's a good time. Please.
Birju: So Kristi, you mentioned Brother David a little bit in this conversation. I am curious if you can share a little more about what your work today feels like.
Kristi: I was thinking earlier, this job... I just think it's so funny to say that. To have the privilege to be the Executive Director of A Network for Grateful Living. it's truly extraordinary. In the interview that I had, there might have been eight people on the line interviewing me. And Brother David wasn't on the line yet - I did interview with him after that,- but one of the questions was "Tell us about a time when you've been through the fire of life." They didn't know anything about me at this point. I just sent them a cover letter and resume. Tell us about a time when you've been through the fire of life and what you learned and what it taught you about being grateful. So that's quite a job interview. When I put myself in there... Now I know I am home - when our experience of going through difficult times can be considered assets that we can bring to our work!
I met Brother David when I was working with Lynne Twist about 13 years ago, and I fell in love with him immediately as most people do. He is an extraordinary being of light. He is a phenomenal teacher. At the time, he was just beginning to start A Network for Grateful Living. We had great conversations. He and Lynne were conspiring about how to raise the money to make the whole thing happen. I was at the time working with Lynne, so I had no idea that 10 years later I would have the job. But Brother David was amazing... As most people know, he is over 90 years old now. His energy, his joyfulness, his sense of humor, his generosity of spirit are grateful living embodied.
And there are not many people that we get to meet in our lives who are big teachers, who take up a big space in the social transformation, inspiration realm in the way that some of the teachers do, who really walk what they talk and really live what they speak. Brother David Steindl-Rast is one of those. The gift that he has given to the world, through the portal of Gratefulness.org, through this organization and what we do is astounding, and what differences it makes to people. He lives in Austria now most of the time. He does travel extensively for somebody over 90. It puts all of us to shame! When I am loathe to pack my bag to get on the plane, I just think, Brother David does it all the time. It's amazing.
He is a true teacher. He is one of those people who I think makes religion and spirituality really embracing, safe and intriguing terrain for a lot of people to occupy, who have either left the church or who have never defined themselves that way because he occupies that place that he would say, gratefulness, that's where he lives, is at the heart of all prayers and all spirituality and all religions. [It] is that sense of being grateful that foundational practice of every day getting up and seeing what the gifts are of the day. Life itself is a gift. He makes that place safe and appealing for a lot of people to hang out, to practice, and to come to greater life, to find comfort, inspiration, and so we serve a lot of people who are trying to find a different way, a different path, where all these different practices, whether it's Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, agnosticism, Hinduism, all these things come together and find a common string. Brother David has done that interfaith work for so many years. He is so ahead of his time in terms of practicing with Zen Buddhist, Jewish leaders and... He is an extraordinary man.
Birju: Thank you for sharing that as context in. I'd love to bring more of my cognitive mind online, if you will.
Birju: In a sense, you mentioned earlier your work is connecting this inner side to things like systems. Here you are working on gratefulness, so to speak. I'm curious why you would say that this sort of stuff, this work matters, in a world that's perceived to have this major crises whether you look from your lens, you see economic crisis, or ecological [crisis]... Of course, we can go on. How does this kind of work fit into that?
Kristi: It seems counter-intuitive, doesn't it in a way? Which is what often makes it so much more powerful. It's like when we let go of things, we actually can occupy them more fully. So gratefulness... we believe is to come from a place of gratitude for what is available to be grateful for. There is obviously a clear understanding that we can't be grateful for everything. We are not meant to be grateful for everything. But to come from that place of gratitude for what we are capable of being grateful for in the moment is really a powerful way to approach what it is that needs to be impacted in our lives. When we are grateful for something then we love that same thing. If you feel gratefulness for the Earth, or feel gratefulness for other people, or for your diverse neighborhood, and you really live inside that diversity, that love for that diversity, you are much more likely to want to protect it, to do what it is called for. You are called to do, to uphold it, to preserve it in the world. To take a stand on behalf of something. I think we are afraid that gratitude is like a platitude, that. gratitude is like, if we get grateful, we are going to get complacent. And it's actually the opposite. When we are grateful for things, we are much more likely, I think, to have energy that is active on behalf of the things that we love and treasure.
I'll just say [that in] our culture, I know it from my personal experience, if we are afraid and anticipating things not being there and we live inside scarcity and “there is not enough,” and what if there isn't enough, and what might happen, we are projecting into the future. We are doing all these things. We are so loathe to occupy that gratitude for fear of complacency, but we think this other energy of complaint and scarcity and of anger and fear - that it's a higher level motivator for making the world reflect our longings than gratitude. That's a very powerful invitation for us to consider.
Does it make sense?
Birju: Oh, I've been reflecting on this recently how I've used anger, sense of unworthiness, etc. as fuel for doing my work in the world for so long without knowing it.
Kristi: Great insight. For me, fear, fear has been a huge motivator to get me out of the house, literally, what would happen if I don't do it, versus, is there a way to come from the celebration of what is sacred to us, that makes us, that brings our... selves to those difficult things in life that we have to deal with, outside ourselves, to system, to relationship. There are core values and principles around gratefulness and grateful living which we believe really point us toward much more curious relationships with one another, more inquisitive relationships with one another, much more engaged, generous and respectful relationships with one another.
And in that sense, if we can be grateful then from ourselves, and then going into larger concentric circles of how do we show up with that gratefulness, for community, for what is possible, and what's our opportunity that we can be grateful for in that moment, to make a difference to this universe to which we belong and how can we treat one another gratefully in a way that inspires us to really stand up and know what is unjust. From that place of gratitude for what is just, from that place of gratitude for what is sacred. And when it's called out, not that we have to be anticipating all the time, when it is, we trust ourselves to know in that moment what we are called to do. We don't have to live ungratefully, live fearfully, live out of anger, and live out of scarcity as if that's going to protect us so we will know the second... oh yeah, I've been anticipating that, now I'm ready. Living with gratitude and gratefulness actually is readying the terrain to really stand up in our most powerful ways to what we need to do, what we are called to do in our lives, to live our values, to move forward the things that we care most about... that are not as they need to be.
Birju: So this leads me to thinking about where you are going and I'm curious where your edge with this inner work is right now. Holding the idea that gratefulness, you know, may not be the silver bullet, so to speak, but part of a broader root system. Where is gratefulness leading you to?
Kristi: To take a deep breath right this minute and consider your question. (pause) I would say, for me personally, kind of where we are organizationally, it's about right now I'm on an edge of having faith that I would be called to do something or to do many things that are outside my comfort zone in certain ways. To take a stand for things that I feel really passionate about. To practice not jumping the gun and jumping into actions, or doing things, or joining things because I feel I should. But to really trust that if I feel into where those callings are going to come in my own life.
From that place of gratefulness, and being full of gratitude for the opportunities, that I would know what those things are. I don't have to go right now spending all my energy seeking and scrounging for those in some way. I don't have to work that hard. I know when something comes as a calling to me and my heart is open and I'm available, I will do whatever I am called to do. To cultivate the stand, the kind of Aikido, the posture, the yoga posture, the way of being in the world, arms wide open, heart wide open, grateful for every moment, and everything that is available, and all of the freedom that we have to act. That's when I'm going to know what it is that makes sense to me to do next in any way in my life.
Birju: Thank you.
Kristi: Thank you. There is real humility. It's a humble prayer.
Aryae: Thank you Kristi. Thank you Birju. What a deep dialogue. I have a question that I'd like to ask Kristi. You have been talking about inner transformation, outer transformation, the relationship between the inner work and the social action. So my question is what if... I can speak from my experience. These days I've been fighting myself having conversations with various people about social action and what can we do to protect people who are vulnerable etc. these kinds of things. And in these kinds of dialogues I'm hearing a lot of energy around social justice that we have to fight, we have to resist, we have to do what is right. This kind of fighting energy in these conversations. So my question is, how can any of us do when we find ourselves in that situation to shift the energy toward gratefulness. If I say to somebody, why not be grateful for what we have. A lot of times it doesn't work. What's your experience of how we can do that?
Kristi: Well. There is the hard question right upfront in the half hour. (Aryae's laugh) Grateful living is an active, engaged way of being in the world. So it's really important that we don't mistake “why don't we just be grateful for what we have” as a passivity or as complacency. Or it's kind of a collusion. That could be a very easy collusion in the powers that be - nobody ever do anything and we all just sit around and be grateful what is going well. Meanwhile, there’s large forces at work that are directing our world right now. [For] those of us who have what I would call grateful living values, core values of respect and compassion, grateful living actually requires taking a stand because it's the “living” it part. Brother David says we need to stop, we need to look, and we need to go. It's not just stopping. So a lot of people can embrace gratitude would say, oh I'm just gonna stop and sit around and notice what I'm grateful for, counting on all my pretty things, taking inventory of all my stuff, and all my blessings, all my privileges. No. That's not it. It's really to say, look around and notice what it is that you are grateful for and can we act from what would it look like to act on behalf of what's right, from that place of what are you grateful for, that you want to protect. Right now, Standing Rock. Let's look at what are the things that people are taking a stand for that come from a place absolutely clear, righteous, we will not lose the thing that is the resource, the resource that we cherish, long for love the most. They are treasured things. That has a goal element to it, has a huge action to it. And for all of us, action is going to look different. But it's not when you are grateful that you sit around and do nothing about it. It's about seizing an opportunity available to you, to act boldly on behalf of those things that you are grateful for. And that should not be lost for anyone. It is really important as a distinction. I think gratitude doesn't have this distinction, but gratefulness does, and grateful living does. Those are really important distinctions.
Aryae: Have you found a way if you find yourself in the midst of a conversation to something to change the conversation. (I do not think this is what he asked, exactly)
Kristi: I worry about trying too much to change the conversations. Because what you can do is embody a different conversation, [which] sometimes is more easy than you can change the conversation. So what I would say is that there is something about modeling and embodying. What does it look like and to experiment with it? We're all experimenting with this right now. What does it look like to emanate from that place in yourself? A lot of people will differentiate between taking a stand and having a position. To take a stand is really proactively positively living toward a stand for something. And having a position is [that] you are much more digging your feet in. So I think there is a way to find the distinction here, but I would encourage us that right now we are all struggling so hard and mightily with what's changing in our world right now, and to figure out how to move forward that what we have to do is to act from the place that is ours to act from. Not acting is not making a difference.
Aryae: Got it. For me, the key word is modeling. That makes sense. Thank you. Here is the question submitted online from Mish in New York. She says feeling so blessed by Kristi's call, facing my third surgery in the past five years soon. So today's call is timely and Kristi's words so deeply resonate. Feeling blessed by the timing. Each surgery has grown my heart and enabled deeper gratitude for life and increased my compassion and empathy for others. And riding the waves and still standing. Grateful for being enabled in large part by belonging to the ServiceSpace and KindSpring family to have found my inner strength to handle the 20-foot waves and knowing the blessings are always part of our lives as a trial. In deep gratitude, Mish. That was her comment, Kristi.
Kristi: Thank you. It makes me really want to cry, Mish. Thank you.
Wendy (from Half Moon Bay): It was a little difficult to come up with a question because I'm feeling so overwhelmed and touched by so many aspects of this conversation that really resonate with me. So I'm really grateful so much for the conversation and Birju's moderating and Aryae's hosting. So my question is kind of a practical question along the social action question. These times are really difficult times to call for actions. But those of us who are dealing with illness may not have a lot of energy or in pain. How do you suggest responding to this call when we have limitations? I certainly feel guilty [because] I would like to do more. But I do have certain limitations. So how are we able to be part of making this [world] a better world; yet, we may not be able to be as physically active as others.
Kristi: Thank you, Wendy. What came up to me when you were asking your question is that it's interesting because everybody I know has limitations. And I have limitations. You have limitations. We all have different limitations. But everyone is wrestling with limitations in different ways. Sometimes those limitations are about what we see and don't see. They take very different forms. But we are all so limited. The first thing is we are on the call during the limitation. I just want to say that.
Secondly, I know some people who have found tremendous value in participating in group calls that are focused on very deep meditation and very deep “subtle activism.” There are different ways to be an activist. And there is money you can send, and there are things that you can do that support movement that you want to join or issues you want to address.
But I think it would be interesting to even tune into what are the different ways that a group of people, instead of all doing the same thing, what would it look like to create a holistic group of people who each are taking a different path and a different piece in a different way, really affirming that in the aggregate we are all contributing as long as we are contributing what we are called to contribute with our limitations. There is something for me that is extremely heart reassuring that when I can only do the one thing I can do that day, knowing that I am connected in some very deep way, through ServiceSpace, through other ways, but expressing that creating a group where you are sharing with each other what you did and knowing that other people's things they may have done with less limitation or different limitations, just complement yours. So it's never one action on its own. It's really engaging in community. What a beautiful way to create a community. They used to say [that] we each bring our own different action forward and we altogether... What is that beautiful [quote) that our purpose is where our greatest gift meets the world's greatest needs. That doesn't look the same on any single human being. In that moment all the time, [it] has subtlety to it. But if we can listen to that calling of what your purpose is, and what our purpose is right now in that moment, I love the idea of being one small piece of a very big whole, but being a very fine and integral piece of the whole!
Wendy: Thank you so much. A lot to ponder and to sit with, and also to act with. Thank you!
Kristi: Thanks, Wendy.
Aryea: Thanks Wendy. Birju, I'm wondering if you have any further thoughts or questions at this point.
Birju: Thank you, Aryae. Kristi, I would be curious for your reflection on the... I'll call the shadow side of these sorts of practices. For instance, I have seen, at least from my eyes, a few examples of what I would deem as gratefulness or mindfulness being used as a sort of a tranquilizer to accept the status quo in modern social systems. We should be happy with what we have. Or if you are finding yourself unhappy in a work place, your mindfulness will calm you down. I'm curious on your reflections on dissolving that potential edge.
Kristi: I remember - having been involved in mindfulness for a while and yoga kind of being similar - there is a self-indulgence that could be seen as myopic and it kind of justifies that tranquilizing. I think there is an edge to everything. I just think that there is a really important part about waking up. The ways mindfulness wakes us up; gratefulness can wake us up. It keeps us awake. It gives us an opportunity into all of those possibilities to learn and to act. Yoga can wake us up; meditation can wake us up. What we do once we are awake is very interesting because there is often not very much prescription for that. You just keep waking up. You can just stay on the cushion. You just keep meditating. But I know that there is an action component that people are increasingly looking toward - what is engaged mindfulness? Mindfulness kind of began its way where it really was just on the cushion, yoga was on the mat, gratefulness was kind of gratitude in your journal. There is a way that they're really coming out now. We hold social movements, we hold transformational ways to account when we ourselves practice our practices right against those edges. Almost anything [could] be tranquilizing. Love can be tranquilizing. Love can be activating. So I think there is something very important for me in this movement about grateful living. There is really a “go” component. There really is an action component to it. I think it's a critical edge to get people off the cushion of their own tranquility, and have us embrace gratefully those things are difficult and challenging, knowing that those are the edges we have to occupy. There are things that happen in the world that absolutely require us to take a stand. And I believe grateful living points our way there.
Aryae: I've got a question, Kristi. My question is for those of us who might have friends or family members who are going through difficult illnesses. Is there anything that we can do to encourage them and support them in shifting from complaining, feeling bad, to gratefulness? I know you spoke to my earlier question about modeling it. How might that work, say, if I'm talking to a friend and they are having a really hard time. How can I be helpful to them, shifting to gratefulness?
Kristi: Well. The first thing is to let them complain as much as they need. That's my first thought. To really deeply listen and be present for all of what is terrifying. I think that's one of the things. The worst thing in the world is like we rush people through their suffering, and we want to rush people through grief, you know, "Are you done yet? Haven't you seen the light yet?" As I said, it took me years of disorientation before reorienting. I think I am constantly disoriented in certain ways by keeping awareness of death, and keeping my memory of illness so fresh in my life, and that disorientation is energizing for me. So I don't think we want to do away with what is difficult and what we are struggling with.
But I would say, again, modeling, how you could actually sit gratefully with someone who is just absolutely terrified, absolutely in pain, hurting, angry, whatever, about what's happening. Just being present with that person is embodiment of something that will be one of the greatest gifts you ever give in your whole life. And people find their way and people sometimes have a different life path than [what] you may have in mind for them.
There is always a question that I think is helpful which is what's the opportunity here? Is there an opportunity here for you and you are not seeing that? For me, that question is always relevant, as you start the opening every moment with "What is the opportunity to love? What is the opportunity to learn? What is the opportunity to act, to be grateful?" So I think being able to identify opportunities in the midst of pain, suffering, illness, loss, grief and depression, and fury, and everything that just constricts our entire universe down to that sensation, that sense of being right in that moment…if we can expand it by considering what the opportunities are, that's a gift in itself. Can we identify opportunities? It just kind of gives a little more breadth to the space.
Pavi: My name is Pavi. I'm calling from Belmont California. It's just beautiful to hear and listen. I had a question for you personally. This is a question we asked at our family Thanksgiving dinner. We went around, the youngest person was 9 and the oldest was in her 80s, just asked, "When you look back on this last year, for you, is there a particular moment or story that comes up, that shines with that quality of gratefulness?"
Kristi: Immediately to mind is, yeah, very personal, I was married. I got married last month.
Kristi: Yeah. It's tremendous. It was tremendous to marry someone, and this brings me to think of it. We've been together over 13 years and it was the most tremendous affirmation of love and possibility and the expansiveness of the heart and our commitment. Joy. It was a celebration of joy. There was not a dry eye in the place. There was so much crying, so much laughter. To have arrived at the moment to find a person in my life to marry, to commit to in this really deep journey of love that we are on. That is amazing to me. A gift that keeps on giving every single day.
I look back on that moment now I think it's really important. That moment emboldened me in the face of all that has happened in the past month. It gives me great courage. It makes me want to live my life more boldly on behalf of love. So that's one of those phases of being grateful, it makes me want to be active on behalf of other people, and to stand up for other people, and because I married a woman and that's an extraordinary thing and an extraordinary gift to be able to do and to do that in my life time. I never thought I would marry a woman. It was not in my plan to marry a woman! So one of the things about gratefulness is to be surprised. I was very surprised this happened in my life, in my adult years. It was never part of my earlier life. This is a privilege and this thing for which I can be grateful...
So when we ask ourselves those questions, it makes me really want to be clear that it’s just not individual privilege that I'm happy to just enjoy for myself. When I am grateful for something, I want to protect it. So that leaves me really clear about how important it is that love is love. I'll be standing for love in my life, big time, because of that. Thank you.
Aryae: Wow. What a beautiful way to end the call. Congratulations, Kristi.
Kristi: Thank you.
Aryae: Wonderful. For the last question, I'm going to ask you the traditional Awakin Call last question, which is "how can we, as ServiceSpace community, support your work?"
Kristi: Oh. That just moves me so deeply. Isn't that the most beautiful question to be asked. Wow. So moving. Thank you. Please be a part of our community as well, and let's keep figuring out ways to collaborate. Gratefulness.org is an extraordinary gift for the world. There is nothing I would rather have than just sharing that with all of you. If each of you, heart to heart, join us at Gratefulness.org. It's a wonderful space to hang out. We already are collaborating a lot with ServiceSpace. We intend to continue to do that even more. We are really deeply aligned. I would just be honored to share our gifts with all of you in any way we can as you do with us so freely in the world. A deep bow in gratitude to you for that question. Please come see us at www.gratefulness.org. Stay in touch with me. I am reachable where you can find me. So thank you so much for your time and attention and big heart today. I'm very humbled to be part of your day.
Aryae: That's beautiful. We will make sure that we have Gratefulness.org in our Thank You note to all the people who attended the call. Kristi, thank you again. You've touched my heart. I think you've touched all of our hearts with your story and your wisdom. That vision that you have more connection, greater bandwidth with the connection among our community you've moved forward. So thank you so much.
Kristi: Thank you so much. And Birju, thank you too.
Birju: Thank you.
About Awakin Calls
Awakin Call is a weekly global series of deep conversations with inspiring changemakers. It is an all-volunteer offering and is completely free, without any ads or solicitation. Read more ...
Subscribe To Newsletter
To stay updated about guest announcements, fresh content, and other inspiring tidbits, subscribe below and we'll send you a weekly email.
If you have any questions, feel free to drop us a note.