Kristi Nelson, Executive Director of A Network for Grateful Living, is also the author of Wake Up Grateful: The Transformative Practice of Taking Nothing for Granted. Her life’s work in the non-profit sector has focused on leading, inspiring, and strengthening organizations committed to progressive social and spiritual change. Being a long-time stage IV cancer survivor moves her every day to support others in living and loving with great fullness of heart.
She addresses the question of “What Could Possibly Go Right?” with thoughts including:
- The place of gratefulness in intersectionality and finding a way through polarization
- That “living gratefully opens us to that granularity”, that makes space for more to be understood, seen, heard, and reckoned with
- That “staying connected to what brings me joy and what brings me into love and what I am grateful for, is not a betrayal to my concerns for the world. It actually nourishes me to be able to sustain my relationship to those concerns. It invigorates my concern. It makes my concern more creative.”
- The value of “recognizing and owning the susceptibility to the retraumatization” possible in our current times
- The relationship between grief and gratefulness, which “honors and recognizes the beauty and truth of what is being shifted”
Connect with Kristi Nelson
Hi, Vicki Robin here, host of What Could Possibly Go Right?, a project of the Post Carbon Institute, in which we interview people we call cultural scouts, people who see far and serve the common good, asking each one of them our one question: In all that seems to be going awry, what could possibly go right?
Today’s guest is Kristi Nelson. Kristi is the Executive Director of A Network for Grateful Living and is also the author of Wake Up Grateful, the Transformative Practice of Taking Nothing for Granted. Her life’s work in the nonprofit sector has focused on leading inspiring and strengthening organizations committed to progressive social and spiritual change. Kristi worked with organizations such as the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, Spirit and Action, the Institute for Jewish Spirituality, Wisdom 2.0, the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society, among many others.
She has been the founding director of the Soul of Money Institute with Lynne Twist, Director of Development at Kripalu Centre for Yoga and Health, and Director of Development and Community Relations for the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care and Society. Kristi received her BA from UMass/Amherst, and a Graduate Certificate in Business and Sociology from Boston College, and her Master’s in Public Administration with a concentration in Leadership Studies from Harvard University. Now here’s Kristi.
Welcome, Kristi Nelson, to What Could Possibly Go Right? I think you know what we’re looking for. It’s not an analysis of went wrong, nor prescription of what we should do to wriggle out of what went wrong, but rather to scan the landscape of what’s ahead for us and tell us what possibilities you see emerging.
Now, that landscape is littered with landmines. The climate threat, the drumbeat of war, political polarization, competing claims on truth. Oh, and a pandemic. And in accepting that COVID is with us for the long haul. Not to be a downer, but I wanted to present that because you lead an organization dedicated to walking in this world with a grateful heart. And I am sponsored by an organization that is deep into the complex unraveling, the focus on energy and equity and environment and the economy. I just told them like, there’s another E called empathy.
There’s got to be a way that the heart is involved in what’s unfolding. So help us see how we can wake up grateful and wake up daily to what Zorba the Greek called the full catastrophe. So over to you, Kristi, in the midst of all that seems to be going awry, what could possibly go right.
What a great question. It’s a big one, isn’t it? I mean, I think that the question is not whether or not the heart makes sense in this, but how can we possibly live without coming from the heart, I think is, it’s not that the first four E’s are not so incredibly significant and critical. It’s that we have a choice about how we walk through these fires, and what we’re, what our presence is going to be and what we’re going to contribute to the conversation.
I’ve been around long enough and been a political activist long enough to be able to say that I think the conversations that are sustainable are the ones that are really interesting to me how we can stick in there for these important drives to solutions and drives towards ways of being together that are really nourishing, and uplifting. And we need that in the face of the fires. I don’t think we need to burn as our own individual fire. Like we’re not going to torch ourselves and and stand in the middle and say, “This is my concern” and then burn to ashes.
I think that there’s something here about saying, how do we embolden the heart? How do we live from that place as much as we can, and that that’s not a passive way of being it’s actually an active engaged way of being in the world. It’s not about apathy, it is about empathy, I would say. Empathy, not apathy. And I think there’s a lot right now, where people are in a conversation that’s either about the dire fire over here, or the positive possibility. And I’m not really in either of those.
I feel like gratefulness lives in this intersectionality, the intersection place where they come together that says, we have to embrace, we have to look squarely at all the realities that are happening, and choose to be grateful and to live gratefully into what we can. Anyway, in the midst of all of that, knowing that that is what can propel us forward. That is what creates meaningful long term change in so many ways that can activate us…
There’s a cat in the room.
Yeah, there’s a cat in the room… And it can activate us towards solutions, I think, in different ways, which is, we look so much at what’s missing, we look so much at what’s wrong.
What if we really focused on what is working in a way that’s granular in a way that’s robust, not in a way that’s pop psychology, positive psychology, spiritual bypassing, that toxic positivity stuff. It’s not what we’re about, because how do you face squarely what’s happening in the world, and know it and name it, and move forward full of heart anyway, in a way that is part of the solution in a way that is an embodied expression of what the hell we might make out of what our world is right now, and to make a commitment to being that embodiment, to being that embodiment, knowing that the ripple effects of that are powerful, and plentiful, and that they can shift this reality that we’re living inside of.
I think grateful living is really worthwhile; living gratefully into all the things that we can live gratefully into knowing that it inspires us and catalyses us to be part of a solution that’s really needed.
Wow. There’s so much in this saying. One of the things that I’ve been thinking a lot about is polarization in this country. And how, if you exit your tribe and agree with one thing that the other tribe believes, that you sort of enter a no man’s land, or no woman’s land or no person’s land or whatever. And so, we have to be able, nobody has to do anything, first of all, but the opportunity is to develop the capacity for complexity, and it seems that a grateful gaze surfaces what is going right as a celebration, and what is going awry with compassion, not anger. I personally have been working on my own anger that I was inducted into for four years of the former president in like every day, in every way I was pissed. And so I’ve been working on that and what I realized is that in a state of anger and rejection of what is I cannot see what is going on. I only see my anger.
So the fact that I can quiet that reactivity for me has become like, I will be a better solutionary, I will be a better activist because I can then see what’s going on in complexity. So I’m feeling like what you’re describing is a way of being in the presence of what I called the full catastrophe and to will take care of yourself too and it’s not defensive, it’s like your heart wants to love. Our hearts want to love and by not allowing ourselves to love because the world out there is frightening, it hurts our own hearts. And also this other thing about standing in the tween space.
You’re saying so many things that I want to respond to. I want to just say yay, you know? Yes. And it’s so exciting to me. Because when you say like the grateful gaze, the grateful gaze allows the emergence of granularity in this way. So that was so beautifully set up for me to say there’s that beautiful saying. Love is a long close scrutiny. John Hawkes: Love is a long close scrutiny. And we’ve stopped paying attention.
I think we’ve started restricting our attention. We’ve become myopic, we look for what we agree with, we look for what agrees with us. We don’t look to this greater universe, like the great fullness of life. Gratefulness is a place that makes room for the great fullness of life for it all recognizing that inside there, as you say, is the non binary is the non duality there.
There’s this place where paradox lives, where poignancy lives where this kind of tender inquiry can live. And I think that the shared vulnerability, the admitting of kind of our own susceptibilities and how linked they are. And in that, to be able to say, “My commitment is to embrace complexity, please challenge my thinking, please take the myopic blinders off, help me make more space to understand in some ways, knowing that, right now for me to be cut off from the heart is a great source of suffering that’s unacceptable in the end.”
And yet, I think we’ve taken our hearts and shrunk them down like in The Wizard of Oz, it’s like a little encrusted hard heart. And so for me, I want to be part of that long close scrutiny of the world, I want to pay attention, I want to notice, because also what happens, the filter filters everything. We don’t notice the wonder and the beauty and the solutions.
To be a solutionist; that’s a great term I’ve never heard of before, and I love that. To be a possiblist, right? We don’t notice all of what’s possible, and what’s awe inspiring. When we’ve shut the heart down, we’ve shut our gaze down, we’re in our myopic little narrow pathway, and we’re just seeking agreement, we’re seeking that which agrees with us in which we agree with. So I am compelled by this notion, and I know that living gratefully opens us to that granularity, that makes space for more to be understood, more to be seen, more to be heard, and more to be reckoned with.
So I’m going to push on this a little bit, just for the fun of it. I know for myself, one of the barriers to spaciousness, is the belief supported by a lot of fact, that if I give an inch, they’ll take a mile. If I, by shifting from pointedness to spaciousness, I am giving a whole way of thinking embodied in a lot of very scary people. I’m giving them space to take a further step towards who and what I love, that I have to be a sentinel. I cannot let my guard down. I used to feel this, during that four years, of I can’t, I have to stay. I was like, I felt like I was that Japanese soldier that we always hear about who 20 years after the end of the war is discovered on an island, maintaining his post
Vigilance, it’s called vigilance.
Exactly. Thank you for the right word for that. So is it just generally a liberal thought that we can be spacious and granular and grateful, even in the face of this Leviathan that we’re living in?
No, I think it’s, and again, I don’t want to buy into the polarities as much like even in looking at this in a certain way we fall prey, because we don’t even know it’s the they and us and I’m gonna say, my own politic my own where I land around issues and stuff it’s like, I’m gonna land in the same kinds of places as you, I really am. And this is so critical. Those four years, that we want to talk about how do we go through those four years and not just survive, because vigilance is also a really big cost on so many things. It’s like, Okay, I’m going to be the guardian at the gate and the sentinel, and looking out, and what have we afforded life and what have we cost life in that posture.
It’s not that there’s not a lot that needs to be protected, because I’m so invested in protecting the things that I care about most deeply. What I’m positing is the possibility that being grateful for what we value, like being really deeply connected to our values, and what we’re invested in protecting, staying true to that is sometimes a more sustainable or energized path of action or activism, then looking at the things that we’re against.
So I’m just saying that rootedness in what is worthy of our gratefulness, the staying rooted in that place, is it’s not a betrayal in any way of what it is that we are against, or what concerns us, because I can march with all different kinds of energy. And I can march from all kinds of energy towards all kinds of energy, it looks the same on the outside.
But what I’m saying is there’s something about, about being grounded in that place of appreciating what we value so deeply and staying connected to that as the source that what we value thrives in the face of all the threats to it, because we do not get disconnected from it.
So it’s just about a kind of different definition of what winning is, and I know vigilance has cost me a ton in my life, and hasn’t necessarily gotten me very far. It feels like it does. And there’s something more in aikido about greeting and about being able to be responsive. There’s something that I said at one point that I just have to remember. Staying connected to what brings me joy and what brings me into love, and what I am grateful for is not a betrayal to my concerns for the world. It actually nourishes me to be able to sustain my relationship to those concerns. It invigorates my concern. It makes my concern more creative.
I challenge you or anybody to counter that. It’s where we go home to the repositories of love in our lives. It’s where we get nourished, that kind of filling the well is not a betrayal to being concerned about the world that actually allows us to carry on. And yet I can feel like I’m cheating on my, my upset about the world, by indulging joy by noticing beauty by prioritizing love.
Does that make sense to you? It totally makes sense. I mean, I love that term cheating, like we’re cheating on yeah, our politics. We’re kind of going around the back of our politics, and I mean, I’ve been really het up, I can be angry at the destruction of the Douglas fir in my area because of climate ignorance and not go out and be with the Douglas fir.
If I’m too involved in the narrow focus of trying to right the wrongs and protect the trees that I love, I can lose the daily nourishment of being with the trees that I love. And when I go and talk to the trees just to be a little spacey, they’re not concerned. They trees have been through many ups and downs and many fires and they don’t have egos the way we have egos. They not concerned. That’s my experience of going out and talking to the trees, that they have a degree of acceptance.
Right? Well, I was just gonna say, I mean, you took us there. So I will just say to that sometimes if we listen, there may actually be a plea, there may be, we really may hear from the earth and from its beautiful population, springing up all over in various forms, we may hear that plea, how do we best respond to it?
For me, one of the things that I’ve been fooled into thinking I think, which is why I cheat on it when I prioritize love and joy, is that anger is the way that I show my allegiance and the irony is for me and I do not mean this as spiritual bypassing and toxic positivity and we’re so susceptible to this stuff, but I mean it as when I get separated from my heart, when I get into that place, I am so much less effective than when I am able to bring my heart with me, bring my joy, my sense of wonder, what’s worth protecting, my awe, that parental kind of fierce protectiveness toward what it is that I love is a really big energy that’s sustainable. Protecting that fierce protection, versus I’m at you, I’m after you, I’m pissed at you, so that energy is more outward. So I’m interested in bringing all of it with me, for the sake of the good.
Yeah. Fierce protection, ferocity is one of my go to stances. Yeah, I have two other topics for you to riff on. Because what you’re saying is so valuable. And I know that everybody listening is going to be like taking notes on this. And there are two biggies.
Okay, so one is, that another thing I realized and just know that I’m not getting therapy here, I just use myself as the example for every dumb act with you guys. But I realized eventually that I was reacting to the former president because I had lived with narcissists in the past. And so there’s the thing about trauma, that there’s pain from other circumstances that we’re bringing, and that we’re trying to solve through, because we’re not resolved, we haven’t forgiven. We haven’t even forgiven ourselves for putting ourselves through that. I think that’s part of what makes you vigilant about not letting your heart be touched.
And then the other piece, which is not exactly related, but is, is that I also think you’re giving us some really good big sister advice about how to go through the unravelling of the what we love, of a way of life that is perishing under the weight of a belief system, a mindset that some practice. So there is another piece of this that of gratefulness and grief, that the gratefulness somehow may be a way that we can walk into a future in which what we want to protect, we can’t.
Yeah, okay, go deep. Don’t be shy. All right, those are two really big questions. So I’m gonna, the first one about retraumatization, so that as we go through our lives, and it’s like, being able to pick up that stitch so readily, that’s it’s like not far from the top of the what we’re knitting and it’s like it’s always right there ready to pick it up. And I find that with so much… like I watched an athlete the other day, this about abuse of these gymnasts, these young gymnasts by this right? So just how close to the surface that was right and so and how I can get activated by that.
I think four years under our former president was enough to keep a lot of us just the grandiosity, the all of what was exhibited, any of us who have had experiences in life, the more intimate the more likely to be the stitch is close to the surface, right? So I think, yes, there’s lots of opportunity to be retraumatized these days, there’s tons of it. It’s really close.
And that means we have to be doing our own work so much all the time, because when I’m in a retraumatized state, I can tell you I’m not a solutionist at all. I’m in a retraumatized state. And that from that place, there’s very little that gets activated in me that’s actually of service. So I will just say that.
And yet, I think the first thing is recognizing and owning the susceptibility to the retraumatization, to actually really just be right up front and say, I am really easily so retraumatized by stuff. So what I’m going to choose in the face of being already bulldozed, and bulldogged by political system that’s got us in the state, what am I going to expose my to self to further, right, as opposed to what am I going to bring in this countervailing force? What am I going to bring in that’s, that really helps balance that in my life, too, because we’re in this all the time, it’s insidious. It’s a amorphous, it’s so constant. So those are things I think worth exploring is what are those countervailing forces that help us be able to to be living in a traumatic time better?
And then your second question, which was so good, and I’m just kind of spacing out right now. Your second round?
How does gratefulness assist us in living into a time when the things that we are trying to protect may be perishing? So what’s the relationship between grief and gratefulness?
Grief and gratefulness? It’s such a great question, thank you. Thank you for asking that question. Because they’re so kin. They’re so kin. And I think what I experienced so much in both personal grief, and cultural grief, social grief, global grief, Earth grief, is that sense of, and Robin Wall Kimmerer talks about this all the time, which is we don’t grieve the loss of that which we’re not grateful for.
So to live, to be willing to live into that state, I think living in grief, is actually naming the most powerful current reality that a lot of us are living in, is to say, this is a time of global grieving, this is a time of, of loss and reckoning with loss. And for me, just owning that and holding that close and being in a tender relationship with that and recognizing it helps me to be more patient.
When I look around, and I see that there’s a lot of people who are easily activated, including myself, knowing that we’re maxed up, that kind of insidious, being filled up with stuff that that we are dealing with loss all the time. And yet we’re not consciously aware of it, we’re, all all of us who have suffered loss are in a reactivated retraumatized state around loss, the loss of so many things.
So then grief becomes just I think this, it’s like a cloak, thatI feel like we’re wearing a lot and I’m trying to have that open my heart to greater compassion for myself, for people, for what we’re all in together. And gratefulness is a beautiful countervailing force to that grief, because I think it honors and recognizes the beauty and truth of what is being shifted. And it connects us again to that, that fierceness of wanting to live inside that which nourishes that which is our inspiration, we can’t do without.
So I think there’s also something so powerful about being thrust into the present moment, in a way that is unapologetic about this is what we have now. We have no idea about the future. And the truth is if we don’t live into the opportunities, as you said, that life is granting us right this moment, and we think, okay, well, I’ll relax when the world is this way. I’ll go back to loving people more fully when the this gets resolved. When this atrocity stops happening. I’ll reconnect with my heart. I’ll be more vulnerable, I’ll be less fierce, I’ll be less pissed, I’ll be whatever it is. We’re completely cutting ourselves off from life. And this day, and this moment, and this opportunity, which is all we ever have, and anything else is total illusion in my mind.
Having faced stage four cancer, being an aggressive stage four cancer survivor, to be able to say, I’m aware of what that’s like to live under the mantle of impending impermanence. And how differently we can dance with that. We can dance with it, like, I am a pissed off sentinel, or and I think about sentinel nodes, interesting because I had lymphoma, so sentinel nodes in the body. So it’s interesting, like what do we do with our bodies, with our time, with our hearts, when we live in that place, versus I’ve got this day? This is the only day that I know that I have. Maybe this moment is the only moment I know that I have.
How do I want to live this day? And that’s a really important question. Because for me, living gratefully inspires me to live out loud, my heart, my passions, my concerns. When I live ungratefully, I completely lose this day, Vicki, I lose this moment, I lose all of what’s available to us to make a difference. So for me, mortality, the truth of impermanence, all of those things invigorate my aliveness today, and that’s all that we have really, in the end. So I hold it close. I hold my knowing and my remembering and awareness of that very close, because it is a life force for me to stay close to death. And that’s why grief and gratefulness go so close together as well.
It’s beautiful. I know that like when my partner died, I felt the grief that I had never felt. And it just felt I almost I almost didn’t want it to go away. Because he was so close to the bone. Exactly. And then I had another romance and I, as I opened my heart, it was like grief was right there. It was, like, as soon as as soon as I love you, I know I will lose you to death or to like, misunderstanding, whatever. And so it’s like they’re so close together. And so grief is the evidence of how much you love.
Hallelujah. Do we have an Amen? I think that when you open the channel to the heart, you commit yourself to both grief and gratefulness. You commit yourself to love. Love is the commitment to all of it. And there is that recognition. Of course, it’s like the tenuousness that’s what makes everything so exquisite, and also so exquisitely painful, right in the moment and when we’re fully alive? Isn’t that what we feel when we’re most fully alive? That’s the kind of vulnerability that I’m committed to living inside of knowing that it’s the place where I’m connected with the greatest truth, which is the vastness of the heart, and the vastness of the grief at the same time.
Well, that seems to be a beautiful summation, just like every other summation. There’s something that you’d like to wrap this up with, or do you feel it has been said?
I think it’s been said. I rarely feel that. But I think for what this is, in this moment, and for what is here, I think that I think it’s really worth no okay, so I’ll take it back. I think it’s worth the path of the exploration of what brings us most alive and what brings our hearts most to life. And letting ourselves get in the way of joy, putting joy in our way in other people’s way beauty wonder that which is enrapturing and awe-inspiring, because our souls, our hearts our cry outfor it, and it does not compromize our capacity for effective action. It might just fuel it.
Wow. This every single sentence has been a homily has been like an Instagram like, quote.
Bumper sticker baby
Bumper sticker, baby. This is so rich and I know how troubled so many people are. And I think that you have opened up a lot of ways to be in this world as it is. Yeah, and acceptance and acceptance and acceptance and acceptance and acceptance and joy. Enjoy. Enjoy, enjoy. So thank you so much, Kristi, for all of this.
It’s been a real pleasure. Thanks for having me on.