The Ancient Way of Gratitude.

The Ancient Way of Gratitude.

Looking at gratitude in tribal living, our natural way of life. It’s better to receive gratitude than to give it, so it’s better to give than to receive.

Gratitude is a unique feeling. It seems to be the only emotion that can’t have ulterior motives, and can never be self-serving. If someone does something nice for you, and you feel honest gratitude, you probably won’t feel entitled to their kindness, or ask them for more. Genuine gratitude will usually leave you wanting to do something for the person who did something nice for you.

Let’s think about gratitude among the first generations of human beings.

Thankfulness fosters respect, and feeling respected raises self-respect, as well as a person’s place in their tribe. We naturally, authentically, and instinctively respect the people we’re grateful to.


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Over the last 10 or 20 years, gratitude has become a major theme in spirituality in the Western world. It’s often treated as an ideal state of mind, almost like enlightenment. Many teachers encourage us to be grateful for whatever happens to us, even when it includes suffering and trouble. They do their best to help others to find a positive interpretation for the bad things that happen to them. One common theme is that today’s troubles prepare us for tomorrow’s success. Everyone who is successful was at least partly prepared by their previous struggles. There’s nothing wrong with this attitude, but not everyone who struggles today will be successful tomorrow, and being thankful for whatever comes to us isn’t enough to bring out gratitude’s full potential for improving our lives and our minds.


Gratitude has two opposites. One is being an ingrate. The other is a spirit of generosity; being willing to help others. It’s a straight road to respect and admiration. In our earliest history, when our species was still young, it probably led to a higher social rank. It may seem crude to talk about gratitude in the context of sociology and anthropology, and to look at it in terms of social rank, as though the only goal for human beings at that time was power in one’s tribe, but it helps us to see another spiritual facet of gratitude.

Magnanimity towards one’s family, friends, and neighbors was very likely a sign of maturity and wisdom in our first generations. When someone had these traits, their voice would be heard, and others would remember what they said far longer than the words of self-centered fools. Of course, this is different today, especially in 21st-century politics. Today, the cruelty we sometimes see in our politicians is shocking. Their destructive words are often broadcast all over the news, social media, and untold numbers of political blogs. The absence of generosity has become a standard feature of politics in some countries, and hard-heartedness attracts media attention.

In Christianity, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’ (Acts 20:35), and “God loves a cheerful giver.” (2 Corinthians 9:7). In Buddhism, generosity offers a way to purify the mind (1).  In Islam, a Hadith (one of the sayings of the prophet, Blessings Be Upon Him) says: “… the upper hand (of the donor) is better than the lower hand (of the beggar) (2).” In Judaism, “Tzedakah (generosity) … is a form of social justice in which donors benefit from giving as much or more than the recipients (3)”. Some believe that feeling grateful is a spiritual path almost by itself. We’ll look at this the other way around, where receiving the gratitude of others is equally elevating. Perhaps even more so.

In most of the world’s great traditional religions, the giver is more glorified than the receiver (the one who feels grateful), implying that gratitude actually benefits the person who receives it more than the person who feels it.

For us to feel simple, un-alloyed admiration for someone who has been good to us, they need to have done something that actually helped us; that met our needs, or gave us something we actually wanted. Not something that they thought would be good for us, but something feel we felt we needed. They had to be able to see our needs as we see them. There is no “higher wisdom” here. If someone says they’re hungry, give them food. If they’re cold, you offer them a place by the fire. If they’re lonely, spend time talking with them. Don’t tell them to embrace solitude, no matter how great its blessings might be.

A good way to see the spiritual face of gratitude is to imagine (a “thought experiment”) what happened when one of our earliest ancestors, in the first generations of human beings, earned the gratitude of others. Our early evolutionary ancestors, like the indigenous people of today, lived in tribes. In most tribal cultures, people talked about  the good and bad actions of others routinely, just as we do today.

If somebody went out of their way to help another, everyone heard about it. Anything that helped one person helped the tribe as a whole. Everyone wanted to know who was generous and who was stingy. Everyone wanted to see who had some humility (or was just a bit shy), and who was arrogant, self-important, or exaggerated their own achievements. Over time, people would recognize someone who was consistently helpful towards others, compassionate and know that they were a good person; an asset to their people. When such a person spoke in Tribal Council meetings, others would listen. The shaman had to see more than just what they wanted or needed. They also had to see the needs of their whole tribe, including their own extended family. Someone who lacked that ability (or personality trait) would not be trusted as much, especially if they were prone to take more than their fair share of food, clothing, or the people’s attention.

These guys know who they respect, and who they don’t.

The more a person helped others, the more gratitude they would get, and those who received their help or generosity would be more likely to show them respect and appreciation, and encourage others to do the same. Over time, they would slowly rise through the social ranks, and become a respected speaker in tribal councils, and perhaps eventually become a chief or the tribe’s shaman. Thankfulness fosters respect, and this also raises their self-respect, as well as a person’s place in their tribe. We naturally, authentically, and instinctively respect the people we’re grateful to.

The shamans in our earliest evolutionary history were also leaders, partly because of their willingness to extend themselves to help other people. The healer removes diseases. The spiritual guide unravels psychological pain and suffering. Those who were nervous about courtship, war, hunting, or childbirth could go to them for magical help, like a ceremony, an amulet, or some other sacred tool.

A good shaman’s role in their culture depended on their service to others. Their influence was often very strong, not because their magic always worked, their psychic perceptions were always completely accurate, or they cured someone every time they performed a healing. Their position came from their dedication to helping others. Some even lived under vows to help whoever came, with whatever they needed, whenever they showed up. The shamans didn’t get their authority from the spirit beings they worked with, but because everyone knew that they could rely on them to do whatever they could to help anyone who needed it.

In the language of social science, the one who gives help is usually, even if only temporarily, “superior” to the one who gives it.

In the language of anthropology, humans are a hierarchical species, and in general, the person who bestows a favor is the social superior, and the one who receives it is in the socially subordinate position. In tribal cultures, someone who has extra food is wealthier than those who go hungry, and they cement their “social rank” when they give food to others. The one who needs to borrow money usually has a “lower” social status than the one they borrow it from, if only temporarily. The old man who cannot lift a piece of furniture looks for someone who is strong enough to do it, and asks them for their help. The one who is young and strong has an advantage over those who are old and weak, which puts them in a (sociologically) “superior” position. The old man who can’t move his furniture owes a small debt of gratitude to those who help him out.

The shaman’s role and power among their people was largely based on the gratitude they received from others. It’s easy to trust a person you feel grateful to. If someone is on the opposite end of that spectrum and takes too much food too often, for example, they will earn only resentment and distrust.

An overly-aggressive war chief who knowingly leads their warriors into unnecessary danger doesn’t earn anyone’s thanks, and over time, their tribe would trust him less and less. Eventually, another warrior would emerge as a better war chief. The war chief has to earn the respect of their warriors. If they don’t also earn their gratitude, for helping them to become better warriors and win their battles, as well as only putting them in harm’s way when there was a good reason for it, they won’t remain the war chief for very long. The kind of actions that inspired thankfulness even shaped and controlled violence itself. Respect alone isn’t enough.

That was in the early stages of human evolution. Nearly all our behaviors have changed since then. Today, the gratitude of their soldiers is no longer a condition for an officer to be in command. The doctor’s authority remains in place, so long as they don’t make too many mistakes. A doctor can be hired to work in a clinic even if no one is grateful to them, no one sings their praises, and no one respects them. They often only need the right credentials. The doctor doesn’t need the love of his patients the way a shaman is often loved by those in their tribe, or a good priest is loved in his parish village.

The “do-gooders” of our early generations have been replaced by qualified experts, and the desire to do good, which carries no college degree, is rarely one of the requirements of their jobs.

When we do good for others, we receive gratitude in return, or at least, we’re supposed to. In a tribal culture, most people knew who helped their tribe and who only thought of themselves. Naturally, the ones who served their tribe achieved a higher social rank, got more respect, and enjoyed many more of the social rewards (food, sex, prestige and attention) than people who only saw their own needs.

I have no doubt that in our first generations, those who were altruistic, empathetic, and helpful towards others had more mating opportunities than those who lacked these qualities, letting them pass on more of their DNA. In addition, women who looked out for the well-being of the people around them (earning their gratitude) probably found that they had an easier time getting food for their children than others. Hunters who respected them would, in many cases, give extra meat to such women, the matriarchs and “great mothers” of their tribe, to distribute as they see fit. Their children would have an easier time staying fed, and grow up to be a little stronger and a little more intelligent than the children of more self-centered women.

In our early evolutionary history, when everyone lived in tribes, rarely more than 100 people in one place, everyone knew everyone else’s personality; their strengths, weaknesses, character flaws, generosity or willingness to share.

These women know who has a good heart and who doesn’t.

The person who received the most gratitude (or received it most often) was very likely in a position to become a tribal leader, if they chose to. In some tribal cultures, no leader is ever actually “chosen”. The person who receives the most respect becomes the leader, simply because everyone listens to them, and few would try to override their opinions and recommendations for their village.

Gratitude was one of the most important social rewards. The person who earned it not only received reciprocal favors, but also the long-term respect and admiration of their people. When a young man went out on his first hunt, made his first kill, and brought the meat back to his village, it was usually his privilege to decide who got any of the extra food.

The people who received the meat would be grateful, and speak well of him, increasing his prestige within his tribe. For a day or two, he might hear his name mentioned in songs, and all the young women knew that he was no longer a boy, and that would contribute to his ability to find a mate, whether for one night, or a lifetime, depending on the traditions of his culture. The man who earned more gratitude than others had more opportunities to pass on his DNA. “Losers” aren’t usually so popular with the ladies.

Among women, the system of providing for one another was a bit different. The women were more concerned with finding starch and sugars (“gathering”) than protein (“hunting”) in most of our early cultures. There too, extra food would often be within the purview of the acknowledged matriarchal leader of the women, for her to parcel out as she saw fit.

Unless she “owed someone a favor” and needed to pay it with gifts of food, she would most likely first provide for the families and people who were most in need. She would help to take care of a tribe’s older people, orphans, the sick or injured, or anyone else who couldn’t provide for themselves. This would mark her as a leader, and one who is concerned with the well-being of the tribe as a whole. Though she may not be elected or informally chosen as the chief, she could exert a strong influence over the tribe’s decisions and priorities. Having provided for those in need, her actions would always speak louder than her words, and the people would listen.

The self-esteem and confidence that comes from having many people be thankful to you is a “social reward” that doesn’t appear in any other way.

There are two ways to use gratitude in a spiritual life. The first is to train yourself, slowly, over time, to be grateful for whatever you experience, and especially grateful when life offers you some of it’s all too rare really good moments. The second way is to be good to the people around you; to be generous, kind, empathetic, and willing to help them; to earn their gratitude. In this way you don’t “feed” on the gratitude you create in yourself. Rather, you nurture your dignity and the self-esteem through the gratitude others confer on you, by acting in ways that inspire their thankfulness.

The first way requires a lot of reinforcement, like prayers of thanksgiving, affirmations, and reminding yourself that there is always something to be grateful for. The second way, where others are grateful to you, you need only remember how it felt to be appreciated the last time you did something good for someone. And, although the idea may not be as popular today as it once was, in order for it to work, you have to care what other people think of you.

The phrase “I don’t care what people think of me” begins to look quite destructive. If you care what people think of you, how they talk about you, and whether or not you have their respect, you feel motivated to earn their good opinion of you and your actions. People who didn’t care what others thought wouldn’t get as much respect as those who did, and were less likely to be heard in tribal councils and in day-to-day conversations.

We are the product of our evolutionary history and adapted to a tribal environment, even in our spirituality.  It’s the way of life that fits us best. We’re adapted to be generous. Perhaps even more than we are to feel grateful when someone does something good for us.

The best way to fill our lives with gratefulness is to be generous, kind, empathetic, compassionate, and helpful.

If you want to use the power of gratitude in your spiritual life, be grateful for what you have, and for the people around you, but also act to earn their appreciation. Just think of a time when someone was very grateful to you, and then think of how many times you’ve recalled it since then. And look at how you feel when you remember it. In most cases, you probably feel pretty good about yourself as you remember how well they thought of you in that moment. The odds are good that the memory of your actions in that case will boost your self-esteem, if only a little bit.

There are many scientific studies on the effects of cultivating an attitude of gratitude (there are a few examples below), but very few studies on the psychology of receiving gratitude (with an exception on volunteerism [4]). It’s harder to pin down in a laboratory or psychological study. Today’s emphasis on feeling grateful has encouraged researchers to pursue that theme far more than the psychological effects of acting on the Christian teachings that “it’s more blessed to give than to receive”.

There are many aspects of tribal living that are more complicated than what we’ve talked about in this article, but let’s not allow that to distract us from our main point; that we evolved, either in our cultures or our brains (or both), to earn one another’s gratitude.

Cultivate gratitude in yourself, but also for  yourself, by earning it from the people around you.

End.

 

More technical reading:

When gratitude and cooperation between friends affect inter-brain connectivity for EEG.

“The results showed that after gift exchange there was an improvement in behavioral performance in terms of accuracy.”

The neuroendocrine system and stress, emotions, thoughts and feelings.

This paper will point out that the prosocial, “spiritual” positive emotions like hope, faith, forgiveness, joy, compassion and gratitude are extremely important in the relief of stress and in regulation of the neuroendocrine system, protecting us against stress.”

Neural correlates of gratitude.

“The results revealed that ratings of gratitude correlated with brain activity in the anterior cingulate cortex and medial prefrontal cortex, in support of our hypotheses. The results provide a window into the brain circuitry for moral cognition and positive emotion that accompanies the experience of benefiting from the goodwill of others.”

The effects of gratitude expression on neural activity.

“ …our between groups cross-sectional study found that a simple gratitude writing intervention was associated with significantly greater and lasting neural sensitivity to gratitude – subjects who participated in gratitude letter writing showed both behavioral increases in gratitude and significantly greater neural modulation by gratitude in the medial prefrontal cortex three months later.”

Effects of gratitude meditation on neural network functional connectivity and brain-heart coupling.

“… Our findings shed light on the effect of gratitude meditation on an individual’s mental well-being, and indicate that it may be a means of improving both emotion regulation and self-motivation … and (in) motivation-related brain regions.”

1) https://www.buddhistinquiry.org/article/theres-more-to-giving-than-we-think/

2)  https://abuaminaelias.com/dailyhadithonline/2012/01/19/surplus-charity-better-spending/

3) https://www.learningtogive.org/resources/jewish-philanthropy-concept-tzedakah

4) https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20201215-why-being-kind-to-others-is-good-for-your-health

 
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