3) Various Perspectives on Gratitude through the Ages

Gratitude in Religion

Religions have long recognised the importance of gratitude. Pagan gods were largely givers of particular gifts, or of categories of gift. Dionysos/Bacchus gave the grape, and the art of its cultivation, and wine, and the method by which it was made. Athena/Minerva gave the olive, and by extension its oil, with all the uses and benefits that brought. Demeter/Ceres gave agriculture and its fruits and products, plowing, sowing, reaping, the grain, bread etc. And so it goes on.

An inclusive paganism worked for a while as the Roman empire expanded, but eventually there were so any foreign gods to include that it all got a bit confusing. So they rationalised. They whittled it down to just one, for the sake of convenience, by adopting a recently updated version of the Jewish model. There was only one god you needed to thank now, even if that did rather dilute the special qualities of the particular gifts. But the importance of gratitude was still recognised, as we can see from the practice of saying Grace. Personally, I find the wording a bit odd though:

For what we’re about the receive, may the Lord make us truly thankful.

When I was a child, and actually had to say this at school, the meaning of the first half of that wasn’t as clear as it could have been. Those two phrases are kind of the wrong way round aren’t they? Why not:

May the Lord make us truly thankful for what we’re about the receive.

Much clearer. Still a bit odd though. Why are we asking the Lord to make us grateful? Surely that’s the one bit we have to do ourselves, if it’s going to be a true, meaningful expression of gratitude. Why not:

May we be truly thankful to the Lord for what we’re about the receive.

But it’s still a bit odd. Why state your intention to be thankful for something that’s about to happen? Why not just express gratitude that the food is already there waiting to be eaten? Why not just a simple thank you:

Thank you Lord for the food we’re about to eat.

There we are. That wasn’t so hard, was it? Personally, I’m not so keen on this ‘Lord’ business though. I’d prefer just a general thank you to the Universe. But already, phrased as a thank you rather than a request to be made thankful at a future time, it feels better. When we express thanks, the heart naturally opens and mood improves.

Even so, just saying the same stock phrase as a matter of ritualised habit before every meal seems to me to lack sincerity. Shouldn’t it be a bit more of a gushing ode to the specific gifts that await? Remember the power of the placebo effect. Give it some good positive spin and you enhance the health benefits.

What fantastic peas! How green they are! Thank you Universe for such nutritious looking peas! What wonderful vitamins and antioxidants there must be in peas such as that!

That’s a bit better. Already we’re getting closer to the creativity and passion of an ode. It’s starting to mean something.

But perhaps I’m being too critical. The point I was making is that religions have long recognised the importance of expressions of gratitude. Scientific studies have shown that there are certain benefits to having some kind of spiritual belief. People who have these beliefs tend to be more cosmically at ease and, as a result, healthier, if you look at statistics.

But what if you’re a rational type, a scientist perhaps, who has to stay rational to keep their job, apart form anything else? Does this mean you can never be as cosmically relaxed as someone who’s thinking is a bit more fuzzy? Well actually, if we’re honest, we have to admit that there are ways of expanding our ways of thinking to more open minded levels without sacrificing the valuable tool of scientific method. For example, I like to think of Evolution as being a bit like a publisher. Let’s say you were inspired to write a book, to communicate an idea for some altruistic purpose. Your publisher was interested in the business aspects of the matter. If it wasn’t going to sell, then it wouldn’t want to touch it. So a compromise needed to be made, but you managed to find ways to tick the publisher’s list of boxes while still retaining a good amount of your original vision.

Darwin pointed out that flowers are probably brightly coloured to attract pollinating insects. But that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the full story at a more holistic, multidimensional level. What if the universe at large had this desire for Beauty to manifest, and then the whole flower-bee combo gradually evolved into being out of that desire, complete with a strategy for successful self-replication. The process by which this came into being was just the standard genetic mutation leading to advantage, but the randomness of the mutations was just slightly affected by the desire of the Universe, by synchronicity, mind over matter, so that over Deep Time, Beauty came into being, while still ticking Necessity’s boxes. This can’t be proved, but neither can it be disproved, and the question in this case is not actually whether or not it can be proved, but rather whether it is possible to entertain this idea while still operating as an effective, rational scientist, and the answer, clearly, is yes.

And the benefit is that when you come face to face with the meadow of flowers, you can expand to a deeper appreciation, feeling grateful to the Universe. Even if you can’t entertain this idea, you can still feel grateful for your ability to feel grateful for the flowers, or for the timing that brought you here in front of them in this unique moment within the infinite flow of time. And if you can’t manage that either…suit yourself then. I’m only trying to help.

OK great so most of us can still tap into the spiritual type of gratitude, at some level, without immediately turning into fuzzy headed weirdos. Next I want to look at various other perspectives on gratitude through the ages, starting with the classical conception of the Three Graces.

Seneca and the Three Graces

Seneca recorded a rather brilliant perspective on the symbolism of depictions of the Three Graces. There were three, he said, because they are representative of the three-fold process of giving good things, receiving them, and reciprocating.

According to Seneca, they dance in a circle holding hands to show how generosity flows from one person to the next, including returning to the original giver. As such he pre-empted those scientific studies on emotional contagion a mentioned in the first part.  

He says the reason they are shown with joyful expressions is because that’s the nature of people who give and receive good things. As such he pre-empted those scientific studies on how gratitude improves mood.

He says they wear loose, un-belted garments to show the freedom of true generosity, the lack of obligation or bind.

He even extends the analogy to the translucency of their robes; true generosity doesn’t have hidden agendas.

Seneca didn’t invent this stuff, but drew on earlier sources. Whether or not it is a correct interpretation of the original artistic intention, it does show genuine insight into the nature of giving, receiving and gratitude.

Neoplatonism and the Graces

The Neoplatonists of the Italian Renaissance, such as Marsilio Ficino, found a rather lovely way to extend this idea. This circular flow not only exists in social groups of people; it also occurs in our relationship with the divine. There is a flow of love, says Ficino, that moves out from the creative source, creates a state of rapture, and then flows back to the source. To quote Edgar WInd in Pagan Mysteries of the Renaissance, in Ficino’s philosophy the following role was assigned to the Graces: ‘the bounty bestowed by the gods upon lower beings was conceived by the Neoplatonists as a kind of overflowing (emantio), which produced a vivifying rapture…(raptio)…whereby the lower beings were drawn back to heaven and rejoined the gods (remeatio)’ and in these three stages they recognised ‘the divine model of what Seneca had defined as the circle of grace: giving, accepting and returning. ‘

Let’s return to those flowers and bees we spoke of a moment ago, above., which we were happy to entertain as an unproven possibility on the understanding that our rational faculty could stay functional. In light of the Neoplatonist ideas, we would say that the Universe held the desire for Beauty to become manifest; this desire flowed down in the form of a subtle influence over chance mutations so that across Deep Time it gradually came to bear and allowed the creation of flowers, while still ticking the tick boxes of Necessity. The creatures like ourselves came along, saw the beauty, felt joy, and this joy itself over-spilled in the form of gratitude flowing out as a wave back up to the creative source, thus completing the cycle and repaying the original investment, not by obligation, but freely, willingly.

It’s a wonderful conception and at the end of the day, it just harmonises so beautifully with how humans operate that there’s little point trying to come up with an alternative philosophy.

There are optional add-ons though. For example, there is the idea is that when you value something – appreciate it and are grateful for it – you actually imprint its morphic fields, which then have an nourishing, uplifting effect for those who can resonate with the fields. For example, treasure your home, and that sense of value will shine out from it as an aura of good feeling.

Then there is the New Age idea that gratitude not only nourishes benevolent intelligences in other realms that have showered us with good things, but it also serves as a message to the Universe about what we would like more of. By this understanding, it’s worth feeling gratitude because it helps the Universe give you more of what you like, yet another reason to practice gratitude.

What’s certainly true is that this principle operates at the human level – the giver will be more inclined to give more if the receiver expresses gratitude. Could that be one of the reasons why our ability to feel gratitude upregulates so powerfully when we have properly entered the fasting state? For most of the evolution of our species, there were certain food acquiring activities that were carried out by a few for the whole tribe. An example is hunting. But hunting meant going off, sometimes for days at a time, into dangerous environments. How can such a social structure be supported? Well one thing’s for sure, if the successful hunt is celebrated gratefully by the tribe as a whole, this will have a strongly reinforcing effect. The hunters will be imprinted with positive feelings about the process, which will encourage them to go off and do it again next time. Given that this process itself was key to tribal success and even survival, it’s not hard to see how the upregulation of gratitude in response to a period of scarcity would give be a strong evolutionary advantage. So just to be clear, sets of genes actually switch on and others switch off so that we genuinely enter a different mode.

And what it means for us is that one of the things you can do if you want to experience more gratitude, and remind yourself what gratitude feels like – in addition to keeping a gratitude journal or the glorified version – the Ode Journal – is to do a bit of fasting from time to time.

I do this myself, and as a result I have noticed a phenomenon I call The Celebration Response. Our hunter gatherer ancestors celebrated the successful hunt with joyful dances, and I believe this is actually hardwired into us, and that we can still activate it. First you fast, then once you’ve decided to end the fast, and just before you do so, you listen to dance music, and dance to it. It can be jaw-droppingly euphoric. I find it works particularly well if following this formula:

Black coffee-fueled Trancercising to Uplifting Trance music before breakfast in a grateful state of mind having fasted (600 kcals) the day before and ideally having had a full night’s sleep.

I call this Hungry Dawn Raving, and I’m so keen on it, I’ve written a gratitude ode about it. Actually, it’s a medley of poems in a logical sequence. Here it is:

The Rhyme of the Hungry Dawn Raver

(a poem in four parts) 

PART I : Ode to Emotional Trance

Sometimes the Gate Elysian swings wide
At lightest touch, and easily we glide
Straight to the centre of the happy throng
No sooner than we hear the happy song
When comes the beat, we leap to dance
Repeat, repeat: we enter trance
And freely flows the kundalini fire
The happy strains sound honey sweet
Their joys not hard to rise and meet
We quickly gain the heights that we desire

But sometimes joy is weak till tears release
We cannot smile till we our smiling cease
And cannot reach the Fields of Asphodel
Until we plumb the Styx’s swirling swell
Then in the moment we surrender
Feel the frisson, wild yet tender
In a flash intensity’s regained
Intensity provides the wings
We rise and fly on soaring strings
And now the happy meadow is attained

So if Uplifting Trance won’t hit the mark
Another genre may ignite the spark
The type that’s styled Emotional. But then
One sparked, the former style rings true again
When comes the beat, we leap to dance
Repeat, repeat: we enter trance
And freely flows the kundalini fire
The happy strains sound honey sweet
Their joys not hard to rise and meet
We quickly gain the heights that we desire.

PART II : Ode to Uplifting Trance

So oft, like-a little, softly floating, feather wingéd seed
 Aloft on-the thrill of-the sound-strobe* has my happy Soul been freed
 And soothed by-the shock of-the shaking, quaking, stutt’ring drone-strobe haze
 Staccato, as a flutt’ring slatted shutter stripes bright rays

 While-the fat of-my fast in-a smokeless fire on-the Dawn’s stone altar plinth
 Sweet-sublimates in sacred flames in-the blaze of-the saw-tooth* synth
 And, spiralling in eddies, fumes of fragrant vapour rise
 A gift of thanks sent upward to the bright’ning morning skies

 Such life as if I’d leapt up in a state of dread alarm
 Yet joyous, free from care nor plagued by nagging thoughts of harm
 With centred mind upon the sound, why, I will even state:
 For neither fight nor flight I’m apt; just now: I meditate!

 And dance and step and dance and step and dance with sprightly ease
 So, does the slatted drone imprison? Heavens no! It frees.
 As-I dance and step and dance and step and dance and step and bound
 To-the pounding, pounding, pounding, pounding, pounding, side-chain* sound

 As-I dance and step and dance and step and dance and move my feet
 To-the pounding, pounding, pounding, pounding, pounding, pounding beat
 As-I dance and step and dance and step and dance and step and bound
 To-the sound
 To-the sound
 To-the sound
 To-the wooshhhhhhhhhhhhh….……

      And when, as if a choir of angels sings
      The soft chords sound as drums dissolve away
      My gladness turns to slower types of things
      That drift and float, move fluidly, and sway
           To cloud-wisps moving in the air
           To gentle waves on golden sand
      A placid, tidal purl, by dawn-light glazed
           Such things surround me where I stand
           I see, and fascinated, stare
      Take stock, breathe slow, consider, feel amazed

      Exertion brings satiety; from this
      A slowness calms the step and heaving breast
      This calm, if nurtured, grows in waves of bliss
      A peaceful mood descends affording rest
           And Oh! To-be out in-the morning when
           As yet unspun is-the wordly wheel
      And Nature undefiled to us is shown
           We suddenly recall again
           That paradox: we sometimes feel
      Fine comp’ny on our own; in crowds, alone.

      A mystic chill at this creeps ‘cross my crown
      That causes me to open wide my eyes
      It finds the junction at the nape, then down
      The spine this scintillating frisson flies
           Thus quiet contemplation can
           Bring more than rest – it can inspire
      Emotions. Our resolve is galvanised
           So peaceful thought has power to fan,
           More than before, the passion’s fire
      Excitement grows, the limbs are energised     

 [< ( poco a poco cresc )]
 And the beat and the beat and the beat and the beat and the beat will surely come
 And the beat and the beat and the beat and the beat and the beat of the drum
 And the beat and the beat and the beat and the beat and the beat and the beat
 And the beat, beat, beat, beat, beat, beat, beat, beat, b- b- b- b- b- b- b- b- b- b- b- b- beat…

 And it DROPS! and I step and dance and step and dance and step and bound!
 To the pounding, pounding, pounding, pounding, pounding, side-chain sound!
 And I dance and step and dance and step and dance with sprightly ease
 So, does the slatted drone imprison? Heavens no! It frees!

My joy explodes on inner planes through which it flows to meet
 Co-celebrants, those now or then united by the beat
 There’s more to life than gloom and strife – this much we all agree
 So not in this crowd lonely, then, but joined in revelry! 

 Such life as if I’d leapt up in a state of dread alarm
 Yet joyous, free from care nor plagued by nagging thoughts of harm
 With joyous leaping to the beat, why, I will even state:
 For neither fight nor flight I’m apt; just now: I celebrate!

 And a pillar to the left stands tall, and a pillar to the right
 Bridged by a marble portico, we wonder at the sight*
 And carved there in the moon-white stone, the crowd sees writ this rhyme:
 “Enter here, in holy fear, the space of Elysian Time”

 We feel the thrill, the sacred thrill, of holy, joyful dread
 To see the entrance to the dance ground of the Happy Dead*
 Driv’n on by the din, all the crowd pours in, in wonderment sublime
 And we dance and step and dance and step in the space of Elysian Time.

 Here in this garden dancing ground, the dancers go in troupes
 And trains that intertwine around the marble statue groups
 And here you’ll hear no mundane, mortal clockwork timepiece chime
 Within these garden walls this is the space of Elysian Time.

 And as they go they trail and throw their wreaths of rosy flowers
 Which fly and spin amid the din and rain in petal showers
 And the flowers grow abundant in this ever summery clime
 For the Winter never enters in the space of Elysian Time.*

PART III : The Mystic Revel Fades

But Farewell sweet Terpsichore*
Our twilight hour has passed
And I must end my dancing now
And I must end my fast

For matters of the day now call me
Back across the sea
But I will not forget the hour
In which I danced with thee

For one full day we kept the fast
With fragrant herbal tea
Thin soup of vegetables with spice
Fresh, verdant greenery

Well-slept, we woke and rose in bright
Anticipating mood
And then the rich, dark roasted bean*
in boiling water brewed


And so in pure and foodless joy
We joined the maenads’ dance*
From out the eastern heaven came
Ecstatic, painless trance

maenad dance

As Rose-Dawn flushed the marbles*
Of the three-fold goddess Grace
(Giving, Getting, Giving Back 
united in embrace)*

three graces
The Three Graces

We wove our steps around them
On the flow’ry dancing floor
Giving back by sending out 
Our grateful, mystic awe

Dance around Graces
Maenads dancing around a statue of the Three Graces

So farewell Fields Elysian
How lightly we did tread
In circles round the dance-ground
Of the happy, blessed dead!

While fed on beauty only 
How we circled hand in hand!
But I am called away by business
In the mortals’ land.


So farewell sweet Terpsichore
Until some other day
For I must loose my grip now
Pull my hand back, turn away

The echoes of the Revel fade
To soft and softer strain
‘Though I must sail away awhile
 I’ll soon be back again

So Farewell fair Persephone*
It won’t be long to wait
Until I walk the Sacred Way*
And pass the pillared gate*

Where opens up the holy view
As mental curtains part
And once again that deep
Soul-shocking Beauty floods the heart

The time between is short
Before this very week is past
I once again will burn away
Dull sloth with cleansing fast

And then, well-rested, rise and rave
Dream-healed, in Twilight’s space
By thy sweet lyre entranced
Terpsichore, in state of grace.

So farewell sweet Terpsichore
I cannot keep on stalling
The dance is sweet as honey
But the Ferry Man is calling


This dawn dance is a treasure
That’ll I cherish with the rest
But I must sail away now
From these Islands of the Bless’d.

So farewell to the meadows
Where our steps the wild thyme pressed
And farewell to the grasses
Which our shins gently caressed


And farewell to those shorelines
Kissed by Zephyr from the West
For I must leave these islands now
The islands of the Bless’d

So farewell sweet Terpsichore
Our twilight hour has passed
And I must end my dancing now
And I must end my fast


Matters of the day now call me
Back across the sea
But I will not forget the hour
In which I danced with thee


PART IV : The Bright, Re-Building Brain

I felt the tug of-the worldly wheel returning
When first I broke the fast and took of food
But as the day goes on there’s something happ’ning:
An intellectual tune inspires my mood

Not now the love of-the dancing beat a-pounding
Nor shivers of emotion down the spine
But yet arpeggios, fast, bright and sparkling
Now stimulate my newly growing mind

Melodic lines like Summer swallows darting
Now dive, now turn, now soar, and dive again
The playful notes call out to me, inviting
The eager muscle of my bright’ning brain

Had I from only meals sought compensation
For sailing from the Islands of the Bless’d
And equally if I’d thought restoration
Could only be achieved through slumb’rous rest

Too short a spell I’d have of satisfaction
Before the temp’r’y fix of food would fade
My brain, made deaf by sleep’s potent distraction
Would miss this wholesome musical upgrade

By all means, plates piled high to me keep bringing
And sure, let me recline on cushioned chairs
But also bring the lute and set to singing
And feed my brain with bright and dexterous airs.

  • sound strobe – the fast-staccato drone-pulse used in all Uplifting Trance
  • saw-tooth synth – the sawtooth waveform sound frequently used Trance music, especially in anthem riffs
  • side-chaining – a reference to the use of side-chaining pumping in Trance – a production technique where the level of one audio source is reduced by the presence of another audio source – to achieve a pumping effect where the volume swells offset from the side-chained source (i.e. the base kick) by a selected release time
  • marble portico – this refers to the entrance to the sacred precinct of Eleusis, site of the Great Mysteries, an initiation festival involving fasting and celebratory dancing. For info on the layout of the precinct, see here: https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/1911_Encyclop%C3%A6dia_Britannica/Eleusis
  • dance-ground of the happy dead – The initiates of Eleusis looked forward to having access to the Elysian Fields, a paradise region within the Greek afterlife, where they would dance much as they had done during the festival
  • Winter never enters in – Elysian Fields as paradise Isle of the Bless’d, free from death, Winter, pain etc.
  • Terpsichore – one of the nine Muses and goddess of dance and chorus.
  • dark-roasted bean – coffee
  • maenads – the female followers of Dionysus, the god of wine an pleasure. They were often pictured dancing ecstatically.
  • marbles – i.e. statues, as in the Elgin Marbles, in this case the common statue group of the Three Graces
  • Giving, getting, giving back – the identities of the Three Graces
  • Persephone – the return of the maiden goddess Persephone fro mthe Underworld was celebrated in the Eleusis festival and she as Queen of the dead she also had a strong connection to the Elysian Fields
  • Sacred Way – the route taken by initiates between Athens and Eleusis
  • pillared gate – the entrance to the Eleusis precinct, as above.