This is my interpretation of the meaning of the Alanis Morissette song, Thank You (also known as Thank U). I don’t claim any special knowledge about the song; this interpretation of the lyrics is just based on my understanding of Zen and Buddhism, and also my practicing of yoga, specifically Iyengar yoga. If you’ve read some of the personal entries on this website, you know a lot of what I know.
To get started, if you haven’t heard the song in a while — or have never heard it — here’s the song and the official video:
Thank U is featured in one of my favorite movies, The Way.Back to top
My short interpretation of the lyrics
My extremely short interpretation of the song lyrics is that they are about enlightenment, the “Big E.” Please read on for my detail interpretation of the lyrics.Back to top
My longer interpretation of the song lyrics
What follows is my interpretation of Ms. Morissette’s lyrics. The lyrics are shown in a bold, italicized font, followed by my discussion in a normal font following each line (or series of lines) from the song. As a quick note, the first two lines are hard for me to interpret, but it gets easier after that (or perhaps I get better after that).
How ’bout getting off all these antibiotics
I don’t know too much about Alanis Morissette’s background, so this first line is a tough one to start with. All I know about this song is that she wrote it after traveling to India with her mother. In regards to this first line, it may be that she needed to take shots during her travels, or, it may mean that in her life prior to traveling to India she was constantly sick due, maybe as a result of the way she dealt with stress. (As you may know, or will soon see, Ms. Morissette uses the word “frailty” just a few lines down from this line.)
How ’bout stopping eating when I’m full up
Not knowing anything about Ms. Morissette’s personal life, I’ll take this line literally. This may refer to stress-related eating, or it may be about not paying attention while eating, of not being aware that her stomach is already full. For instance, a lot of people eat while watching television, and as a result of not paying attention to their eating, they keep eating past the point where their stomach is actually full.
When you live in most Zen communities you eat in complete silence, paying strict attention to your own eating, and nothing else. I can’t speak for all communities, but at the Providence Zen Center you’re only allowed to fill your plate (bowls, actually) one time, so you have to be careful not to take too much, or too little. In either case, you are required to eat everything you have taken.
August, 2015 Update: See the link at the end of this article, where Ms. Morissette discusses her eating disorder (her battles with binging and purging). I found that story long after I wrote this article.
How ’bout them transparent dangling carrots
I’ve already written in depth about transparent dangling carrots, so here I’ll just offer my summary of that discussion: a transparent dangling carrot is something that motivates you to do something, even though you can’t see the motivational device. That is, you’re not consciously aware of seeing or being led by this motivational carrot, but it’s still there, pointing its way down the path. “Does a dog have Buddha nature?”, someone once asked a Zen Master; “Mu,” was his only reply. “What is Zen?”, another person asked a Zen Master; “Three pounds of flax,” replied the Master.
How ’bout that ever elusive kudo
A kudo is someone saying to you, “Good job”; it’s a form of praise or compliment for something you’ve done. Some people — maybe everyone — craves hearing compliments about what they’ve done. I can’t say that I completely understand this line, but my guess is that it leads well into the next stanza where she uses the word “disillusionment”; by doing what she thought was good work and only rarely getting the compliments she wanted/craved, she felt disillusionment, or dissatisfaction.
Thank you India
Thank you terror
Thank you disillusionment
Thank you frailty
Thank you consequence
Thank you, thank you silence
As I mentioned earlier, all I know about Ms. Morissette is that she traveled to India before writing this song. In this stanza she’s thanking everything that led to her own enlightenment, whatever that enlightenment may be. She thanks India for being there; it’s a country where people have always gone to seek gurus and enlightenment. She thanks terror, disillusionment (known in the Buddhist world as “suffering,” or more accurately, dissatisfaction), frailty (perhaps her own ill health or what she considered to be mental weakness), consequence (karma), and of course “silence” as all being sign posts that led her down this path.
Silence can be interpreted as the silence of meditation, which is used as a tool to help find oneself, to pay attention to the present moment and then see where that attention leads. Silence can also refer to the fear of silence many people have. Many people I’ve met are afraid of silence, so they turn on the radio or television or talk non-stop, anything to avoid silence. I know several people who are so afraid of silence that they’ll talk about topics we’ve already discussed — and even repeat their old statements almost verbatim — just to have something fill the void of silence.
How ’bout me not blaming you for everything
How ’bout me enjoying the moment for once
How ’bout how good it feels to finally forgive you
All of these lines are the result of meditation and coming to grip with yourself, of understanding who you are. They can be stated as:
1) Stop blaming your spouse or your parents or anyone else for all your problems! Take responsibility for your own actions or inactions. I used to think, “I’m not practicing yoga as much as I want because or work and relationships.” So then I got rid of work and relationships, and guess what, for a while I still didn’t practice yoga as much as I wanted because I was lazy. Once I took personal responsibility for that — and quit blaming others — I began practicing as desired. (Personal caveat: If you’re in high school or even younger, you may be stuck with your parents, I understand that.)
2) Enjoy this moment! Who knows if there will be a next moment; you may walk around a corner and be run over by a car, or have a heart attack, or something else. Enjoy this moment completely and thoroughly, as though it were your last. Quit regretting what you did or didn't do in the past, and quit planning or fearing what's going to happen in your future. As Ram Dass said way back in 1971, Be Here Now.
3) Forgiveness actually feels really good. Do you think your mom or dad suck? Or maybe they aren’t/weren't there? Maybe your spouse cheated on you? Hey, guess what, if I’m honest with myself I know that I’m not perfect either. You’re human, so I forgive you. I’m human, so I also forgive myself, and then I move on. As Tom Petty says, “It’s time to move on, time to get going, what lies ahead, I have no way of knowing.” The clock is ticking, I don't want to waste any more time thinking about you, so I take responsibility for myself and my feelings from here on out. (Beyond this, there comes a time in advanced practice where you can't make any more progress unless/until you sincerely practice forgiveness. In my own experience I’ve found that there are times when I get to deep places of meditation and then a thought comes up, “So and so really screwed me...”, and the only way to really get those thoughts out of your mind are to practice real forgiveness.)
How ’bout grieving it all one at a time
I won’t claim to understand this line completely. I may be way off on this, but what I will say is that as you meditate, things about your life will eventually bubble up to the surface, and you have to face those things to make progress. In my case, my father cheated on my mother, had a baby with another woman, my parents got divorced, and I hated him for putting me/us through all of that. That come up at some point, and I had to deal with it.
Pema Chodron gives an example of this where she was helping a young woman who had gone through some horrible things earlier in her life, I think she had been raped, and perhaps had other things done to her. So when she meditated these things kept coming back to her and she wake shake horribly, or start slipping away into some other mental place. So Ms. Chodron and others who were helping this woman would help her meditate, and when the bad things all came rushing back, they would be right there with her and say, “Stay ... stay ... stay,” meaning that she should stay with this experience and live through it, that they were all there to help her live through it and get past it.
I don’t know anything about anything that horrific, but I do know that some deep emotions and memories will come back to you at some point, and you need to deal with those situations, and maybe grieve about them.
Thank you India
Thank you terror
Thank you disillusionment
Thank you frailty
Thank you consequence
Thank you thank you silence
(These lines were already discussed.)
The moment I let go of it was the moment
I got more than I could handle
When you really let go of all this crap — your little ego — when you put it all down, that moment is incredibly liberating and freeing. You will be hit with a wellspring of joy, happiness, and energy, and all of that will be much more than you can handle.
Several times in my own practice I have cried long and hard; not from sadness, but from the incredible joy of letting it all go. You may go from feeling heavy, down, and depressed to feeling an incredible lightness and joy and gladness for just being alive in this moment, and when that happens it’s all so overwhelming that the tears come flying out of you faster than you can imagine.
The moment I jumped off of it
Was the moment I touched down
I'm not 100% certain about this interpretation, but my guess is that she's saying that she's jumped off the karmic carousel (or karmic wheel), she renounced all the terror, disillusionment, and frailty, and she has “touched down” and landed in the here and now, and she now lives (or at least attempts to live) in the present moment.
How ’bout no longer being masochistic
How ’bout remembering your divinity
I thought about separating these two lines, but they are related. Masochism is taking joy in your own pain, such as taking joy in someone humiliating you in some way, such as physical or mental abuse (like an abusive husband, for example).
I’m not an expert on this subject, but I know that I’ve seen several classes of people that I’ve seen that seem masochistic. The most obvious situation is in regards to women that stay with abusive husbands. Several times in my life I’ve seen beautiful, smart, funny women that stay with husbands that are verbally abusive (if not physically abusive), and I wonder, “Why in the world do you stay with that guy?!” To me, staying in an abusive situation like that is masochistic.
My guess is that masochistic people take the abuse because, “Hey, at least someone is paying attention to me, right?” Regardless of why people are masochistic, these two lines are saying, “Screw that masochistic attitude, you are a living, breathing Buddha, a Bodhisattva, a divine being, a soul with a body here on Earth for some short period of time, and you sure as heck don’t need or deserve anyone’s abuse, even your own self-abuse.”
How ’bout unabashedly bawling your eyes out
I already wrote about the crying, so the only thing I’ll add about it here is to say that when your mind is ripe, the tears will come, they will come in abundance, they will come freely, and it’s a good thing.
How ’bout not equating death with stopping
Simply put, the physical death of your current body is not absolute death.
As just one example of this, the Buddhist book, Life in Relation to Death, by Chagdud Tulku Rinpoche, clearly states “In enlightenment, death has no relevance to one’s state of mind.” The book further states, “Buddhist masters see death not as an isolated event, but as one more change in a never-ending cycle of changes.” Other masters say, “The true you is without the six senses.” Zen Master Seung Sahn states, “If you can break the wall of your self, You will become infinite in time and space.”
Death as we think of it in the United States is just the physical death of this body. People in the United States, in particular, equate physical death with eternal death; Zen Masters, Buddhists, and people in India and other countries have a completely different outlook regarding “death.”
Thank you India
Thank you Providence,
Thank you disillusionment
Thank you nothingness
Thank you clarity
Thank you thank you silence
Google defines Providence as "the protective care of God or of nature as a spiritual power". Merriam-Webster says it is "divine guidance or care". This is an interesting one for me, because I tend to study in the Zen school of Buddhism, where there is no discussion of God or a creator being, so I can't comment on it too much. If Providence is interpreted as “the protective care of nature,” then yes, I can understand that, you’ll find statements like that in the Tao Te Ching.
Buddhists who believe in reincarnation also say that being a human being in this lifetime is a great gift, that you must have done something well in a past life to be here as a human in this life, and as a result, you should use your time in this lifetime to try to become enlightened and then live in Nirvana. I don’t know any specific details about previous lives, so, personally, I just try to focus on my mindfulness/meditation practice.
As mentioned earlier, disillusionment in Buddhism is talked about as emptiness or even worse, suffering. I think “suffering” is a poor translation of the Pali word “Dukkha,” and a much more accurate word is “dissatisfaction.” I don’t know much about suffering, but I have certainless felt dissatisfaction.
“Thank you nothingness” can be interpreted in a variety of ways. At this moment I’m reminded of someone asking a Zen Master what he gained by studying Zen, and he replied, “Nothing!” That’s because indeed, he didn’t “gain” anything by studying Zen; he just stripped off all the layers of crap and societal conditioning to get down to his true nature. (Nothingness has also been wrongly interpreted as nihilism, a topic for another day.)
Clarity is simple seeing things as they truly are. Most people look at the world and don't see things as they are; they see things through their own rose-colored glasses, through the conditioning of society and their desires. But clarity is seeing things just as they truly are. There's an enormous difference between seeing things as you normally see them, and seeing things with clarity.
It’s fitting that Ms. Morissette concludes the song with a tribute to silence. “Thank you, thank you silence. I could have never gotten to this point where I am without sitting in silence, without just sitting and breathing, without letting my thoughts and feelings rise and fall, without trying to see things as they truly are. When I started this journey I, like many other people, was afraid of silence, but now you are my constant companion, my best friend.”Back to top
Thank You, Ms. Morissette
I didn’t talk about the song’s title at the beginning, because it didn’t make sense to start with it. But now I think you can see that I see it as a song about enlightenment, and about Ms. Morissette’s gratitude for everything that led her down her own personal path. So, thank you.
I’ll also say “thank you” for taking the time to read my thoughts about this song. I’d like to conclude with two final thoughts. First, this article is just an interpretation of the song, and like any interpretation, it can certainly be wrong. Second, in a few cases I didn’t discuss a topic as long as I’d like to, mostly because I didn’t want to make this article any longer than it is.
Namaste.Back to top
Here’s a link to a story on womenshealth.com about Ms. Morissette’s meditation room and eating disorder. Also, please see the comments below for more information.Back to top