The Dance Of Compassion And Gratitude

Compassion and gratitude are well-known fruits of spiritual practice – arising spontaneously as a result of our increasing awareness of the nature of our existence, its fleetingness, and the mystery of life itself. But compassion and gratitude are also like partners in a dance – with awareness of the compassion that has been shown to us inspiring gratitude, and gratitude for the sufficiency that we are blessed with inspiring us to act with greater compassion in the world. At times this dance of compassion and gratitude is engaged in with such grace that it is difficult to determine where one ends and the other begins. At other times, however, toes are stepped on or one of the partners trips and falls.

For example, have you ever been in a situation in which someone wants to show their gratitude to the group by bringing in a box of donuts or something only to find that everyone is either counting their calories or watching their cholesterol or boycotting ABC Donuts for not serving fair trade coffee, or who knows what else? And while counting calories and watching cholesterol and boycotting ABC Donuts for not serving fair trade coffee are all very important concerns, so is showing compassion to a sincere giver by accepting his or her gift with gratitude – however “imperfect” it may be. Joyfully receiving a gift is a gift in and of itself.

But what if it’s the case that Jacques has brought ABC Donuts in to work knowing full well that Marissa has been wrestling with her weight, and Lavon has been struggling with losing his father to heart disease even as he himself has been diagnosed with high cholesterol, and Suze, long an advocate of fair trade principles, has made it known repeatedly that she has tried to get ABC to serve a fair trade blend of coffee to no avail. So that leaves Sven and Li courteously nibbling on donuts that they don’t really like and Jacques taking home the remainder to go stale, wishing all the while that his coworkers would have been more receptive to his offer. Yes, yes, yes, it’s the thought that counts. But maybe Jacques could have expressed his gratitude to the group with a little more thought, a little more awareness, a little more compassionate sensitivity to the issues that are important to them. So it seems that the dance of compassion and gratitude is one that can be engaged in nimbly, seemingly without a leader or follower, or one that can be engaged in clumsily, with many toes stepped on and the potential for hard feelings all around.       

Blind Man's Meal by Pablo Picasso

Would it be too mystical of me to wonder whether this dance of compassion and gratitude is, in fact, the dance of life itself? Could it be that the tree shows its gratitude to the sun and earth and rain by compassionately providing shelter and food to other living things? Could it be that the rabbit shows its gratitude to the lush grass by compassionately providing a meal to the fox? And might it be the case that the fox, in turn, shows it’s gratitude to the rabbit by compassionately keeping them from becoming so overpopulated that they begin to suffer from hunger and disease? Sound crazy? Yes, I suppose it does when viewed from our usual vantage point. When viewed through the lens of Native American spirituality, on the other hand, such ideas no longer sound so crazy after all. In Native American spirituality, for instance, the elk or the bear is considered to have shown compassion to the hunter by allowing itself to be taken. Kirwan (1999) describes this process nicely:

[T]he act of hunting, or more precisely the taking of the sacred game that offers itself up to the Native American, is a process of understanding and communication between the animal and the individual. In many ways the hunter must almost ‘be’ the game, an exchange of identity aided by the Native American perspective of the union between nature and culture. (p. 7)

Being shown such compassion by the natural world is not unconditional, however. There are certain requirements that the hunter must fulfill. Kirwan goes on:

These requirements are the respect and thanks that the Native American offers to the caribou for giving up his life in order for the hunter’s people to live. (p. 7)

Perhaps, then, thinking of life as a dance of compassion and gratitude is not so crazy after all. And, yes, it is a dance that Native Americans understand must be engaged in with great awareness.

There is a version of a story contained in the Jataka Tales – stories purportedly detailing the previous lives of the Buddha – in which a prince, while out on a hunting excursion, happens upon a starving tigress and her cubs. With a compassionate heart the prince concocts a story to get his hunting companions to go off and leave him alone, at which time he allows himself to be eaten by the tigress so that she and her cubs might live. The interested reader might want to check out another version of this story in which the compassionate actor is a guru wandering in the forest with his ascetic protégé. Regardless of the differences, each of these versions involves an individual with much to be grateful for, whether a prince with material abundance or a guru with abundant spiritual insight, compassionately offering his own body as food for the sake of the larger web of life. Schelling (1991) says of such stories:

I do believe… that the Jataka Tales register the first instance in written literature of what I'd call cross-species compassion, or jataka Mind, an immediate and unqualified empathy shown towards creatures not of one's own biological species. Perhaps the tales retain traces of a universal contract between living creatures, so long ago vanished that no one remembers its ancient imperatives. With a bow to the old stories, jataka Mind is that conscious human behavior which bears a whiff of that old way of thinking. Tales like the one just recounted were meant to waken a notion of kinship that sweeps across animal species.

Call it “a universal contract between living creatures” or call it “a dance of compassion and gratitude”; either way it is an expression of Life’s mutuality – mutuality that our very existence requires, but with which we modern Western consumers could be a little bit better acquainted. Oh, sure, we understand the concept of gratitude well enough. In America we even honor it with its own national holiday. But instead of merely expressing our gratitude, perhaps we could be a little bit more practiced at showing our gratitude. No, no, no let’s become adept at living our gratitude by engaging in a more compassionate relationship with all of life and this earth that we share.

Must we head out west and offer ourselves up as grizzly bear food in order to express such compassion? No, that would probably not be the most productive expression of our compassion, and it would likely just end up with the grizzly being killed. However, we might take action to ensure that grizzly habitat is preserved so that we may peacefully coexist. Generally speaking, the healthy maintenance of large predator habitat such as that which allows grizzlies to thrive is indicative of a healthy ecosystem in total. So if lions and tigers and bears remain healthy and happy, the entire world is probably healthy and happy. We might also strive to eat less meat in order to diminish our impact on the environment, or at least strive to increase our awareness of how those animals that we do eat have been treated throughout their lives and during the process of their lives being sacrificed for our sake. In case you are not yet aware, many factory farming practices are simply inhumane and abhorrent. We might also strive to live a less wasteful and materialist existence so that we use fewer resources, thereby allowing more and cleaner habitat to exist for the sake of others both human and non-human.

Give it a try – consciously and with intention. With both compassion and gratitude, try bringing the well-being of all of Life into your awareness. You might just realize how much you like to dance after all!

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!



Kirwan, P. (1999) The emergent land: Nature and ecology in Native American expressive forms. PaGes – Arts Postgraduate Research in Progress; Volume 6, 1999. Faculty of Arts, University College, Dublin.

Schelling, A. (1991) Jataka mind: Cross-species compassion from ancient India to Earth First! Tricycle; Fall, 1991.


Image Credits

Blind Man’s Meal by Picasso via:


Copyright 2013 by Mark Frank


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