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On Gratitude

By Alex Stark
This article was first published in LifeSherpa, July 2003


I was born in Peru, of a middle class family, but even though we had enough of everything and more to spare, I still remember my mother admonishing us when we wasted food or left our meals uneaten. "Every seed", she used to say, "can grow into a full plant and feed a family for many generations". She had learnt this wisdom herself as a young child living in a rural village in the central Andes. She had seen hunger first hand and still remembered the faces of the needy who came to plead for grain from her father, a successful farmer. No caller, she used to say, ever left empty handed, even though that meant that her family would have to do without. Like agricultural communities around the world, sharing was at the heart of living.

Later, when I started studying pre-Columbian cosmology I discovered that the ancient Peruvians believed that all of reality is held together by one simple principle which is called ayni in Quechua, the native language of the Andes. This word translates into English as reciprocity, the principle of equal exchange of energy. Ayni affects everything, because the ancient Peruvians, like their modern counterparts, understood that energy cannot be created or destroyed, only exchanged. For every thing that is spent, a corresponding force must be created. For every gift we receive, a corresponding gesture must be made in return. "Today for you, tomorrow for me", was my mother's simple way of interpreting this wisdom.

But this was fine for those things which, like the newspaper at my door, can be exchanged for hard cash. Understanding ayni was much more difficult when it came to things like the earth, or the wind, or life itself. Yet ayni was necessary in order for the Cosmos to continue to exist. So where was this ayni to come from? The answer of the ancient Peruvians was that it came from human gratitude; that it was human emotion, in a sense, which kept reality in place. Although I understood this intellectually at first, it took a few years for this particular piece of information to truly come alive in my consciousness, and ironically it was the death of my mother which brought it to full force. Loosing her made me understand just how precious her life had been to me and how much of me was a product of what she had given to me. Sadly, I also realized just how little ayni I had shown to her while she was alive.

For the ancient Peruvians gratitude was not only something which we needed to feel in a sentimental way, it was the foundation for action and was related to another principle which categorized all of human activity into three areas: knowledge, labor, and love. In order for ayni to be manifest, I was taught, knowledge must be first cultivated in the self and then shared in order to be useful to the community. Labor, on the other hand, has no meaning if it is centered on the self. It must render a service to the community at all times. And love is at the center, binding our efforts to our selves and our loved ones. To be worthwhile, gratitude must take form, it must be part of the labor, love and wisdom of a society. It is not enough to feel gratitude, it must be made concrete, of value.

The ancient Peruvians also recognized one additional characteristic of ayni , and that had to do with the fact that energy is everywhere, and that for ayni to be effective, our gift had to be shared not with one or two people, but showered on all of creation. To miss this point, I was warned, was to miss the essence of life. To begin with, every action must recognize that all of reality is alive, interconnected, and responsive. There is no area of life that is not in one way or another part of who we are. This is obvious if we consider all of the people and resources which have come together to produce that same newspaper that appears miraculously at my door step every day. Not only did it require reporters, editors, and photographers, but its contributors include messengers, janitors, electricians, plumbers, cooks, postmen, wives, and husbands, not to mention trees, metals, minerals, rain, sunshine and all the other energetic components that go into simple paper. Ayni must be demonstrated to all of these, and this is but the morning newspaper!

The method my ancestors proposed to get around this seemingly insurmountable problem was simple: live all of your life in ayni , show gratitude at all times, and make every gesture of your life a labor of love and retribution for the gifts you receive, the gifts you are to receive, and for the miracle of life itself. Ayni is not about record keeping, it is about living constantly in reciprocity, giving and getting as part of a dance of life, a dance of energy. A life lived in gratitude is perforce a happy life because it recognizes the immeasurable bounty that surrounds us. It is a life that is never in want, no matter how little we may or may not have. It is a life lived fully.

I find it sad how little this principle is applied today. Our culture is the richest the planet has ever seen, yet we continuously act with greed and self-importance. The fact is that no matter how hard we try, we will be unable to pay back in ayni for everything we have received unless our society as a whole takes on the challenge of demonstrating gratitude for our gifts. We have been placed in a privileged position in relation to the whole planet, and by the principle of ayni , we are beholden to it. We are therefore beholden to construct, to improve what is, and to protect the web of life. Yet we continue to destroy, to take for ourselves, mindless not only of the suffering we inflict on others and on nature, but of the transgression we are committing to natural law.

I now understand that gratitude is not only desirable, it is imperative. Gratitude is not only a polite manner which adorns our upbringing; it is the very fabric of life itself. We are being showered continuously by life with gifts of immeasurable value: our breath alone is a creation which defies all of our understanding. By the laws of nature, we must give something of equal value in exchange. Yet we as humans are incapable of that order of creation. I, for example, am incapable, as a male, of matching the gift of life my mother has given me. Yet I am bound by those same laws to do so. And here is where I discovered the great beauty of ayni, which had been handed down the generations through my ancestry. Again, it was through my mother that this wisdom had been transmitted, and it had to do with my own power. Never once did she ask for herself. Instead she used to say, "Be the best you can be and remember to help those around you." It is only in each person that ayni can be made manifest; it is in our own creative genius that we can return the gift, through our labor, our knowledge and our love.

Today, I try to make every action, word, and thought an act of ayni, of gratitude and reciprocity. I cannot claim to succeed all of the time, but little by little I am whittling down the great debt I owe to life, and to that important person in my life, my mom. After all, it was she who taught me not to waste even a seed.