Live from TEDGlobal

Quoted: David Steindl-Rast on the gentle power of gratefulness

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By Susan Zimmerman

David Steindl-Rast has the honor of closing this year’s TEDGlobal. Louie Schwartzberg: Nature. Beauty. Gratitude. Louie Schwartzberg: Nature. Beauty. Gratitude. The Benedictine monk, whose words made an appearance in Louie Schwartzberg’s classic talk “Nature. Beauty. Gratitude,” is known for bridging Catholicism and Buddhism. In the book The Ground We Share, he reveals that the key to both faiths, when you boil it down, is gratefulness.

We sat down with Steindl-Rast before his talk to ask him a few questions.

What is your definition of gratefulness?

Two things have to come together for someone to be grateful: First, we have to experience something we really like, and the second is that it has to be a gift. In other words, it must be a free gift — we haven’t bought it, we haven’t traded it in, we haven’t earned it. It is really a gift to us. When these two things come together — something that we really like is given to us — then spontaneously, in every human being, that joy rises up. It is something that happens once in a while – that gratefulness triggers joy. But we can live in such a way where we are constantly triggering joy. That is, if we realize that every moment is a given moment. Every moment is a gift. We have not bought it, we have not earned it. It is simply given to us. And with this moment is given to us opportunity. That is the key word. Every moment gives us another opportunity. And to respond to that opportunity, moment by moment by moment as a free gift, releases that joy that we are really looking forward to as human beings.

In your work you say that faith is deep trust, and that the opposite of faith is not doubt, but fear.  With many areas of the world in conflict, how do we as individuals and society keep the faith?

This is really our basic choice: to trust in life or not to trust in life. And it is a choice — we can simply refuse to trust in life. We can try it out. If somebody isn’t sure, if somebody doesn’t do that spontaneously, they can try it out and see that by doing so, one lives against the grain and everything goes wrong. If one trusts in life, life will not disappoint us. It may seem at the moment disappointing, but we all know, looking back through the rearview mirror of our lives, that something happened in the past, to practically every one of us, that at the time we thought was absolute disaster and turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to us. And since we know it in our past, we can trust as we go forward that it will also happen to us in the future.  But it is made very difficult for some people to trust in life. One has to have profound compassion for them, because they may have been so often disappointed. If people are injured and have scar tissue with regard to trust in life, then it is mine and your responsibility to be particularly trustworthy towards them — and particularly loving and kind — so that they regain their trust in life.

For almost five decades, you have been one of the leaders of the Christian-Buddhist dialogue as both a Benedictine Monk and a Zen Buddhist practitioner. How do we encourage a more positive inter-religious dialogue?

For most people this inter-religious dialogue will be something that they only read about, because they have no opportunity to engage in it. But openness towards life through gratefulness is one way in which one is at least prepared when the opportunity comes to engage in it. If you are interested in promoting the inter-religious dialogue — which I think we should be interested in the world today because it’s a very important thing — then we should expose ourselves. Exposure is the key word.  All the people who have been exposed to other traditions — really exposed and not just told about them and not just made fearful about them — meet somebody who is from a different religion. So make a special effort to meet other people from other religions.