Have a Mindful Thanksgiving
By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.
“I am grateful for what I am and have. My thanksgiving is perpetual.” – Henry David Thoreau
“The greatest gift one can give is thanksgiving. In giving gifts, we give what we can spare, but in giving thanks we give ourselves.”
Br. David Steindl-Rast
Thanksgiving is a time for gratefulness. Most people, most of the time, rue what they want and don’t have. So Thanksgiving is particularly important as a reminder of how lucky we are for all the blessings we have. It is a time to recognize that despite all our negative thoughts we have everything that we really need and probably much, much, more.
At this time of year the fall harvest is in and almost universally there is a celebration of the abundance provided. These crops will sustain us through the cold winter and till new crops can be planted, grow, mature, and are harvested. Hence, thanksgiving is very much a celebration of nature and all that it provides. In a modern world we lose track of all that is entailed in bringing us this food. When we are grateful for the food we need to recognize that we should be also be grateful for the seeds, the sun, the rain, the soil, the insects and birds that pollinate the crops, and even the worms and grubs that prepare the soil. Without any of these the food would not grow. In a sense, if we look carefully, we understand that our gratefulness is not just for the particular food item. It is in fact for the entire universe to which we and the food are intimately connected.
These interconnections extend into society and technology. The steel to build the plow, the engines that move the plow, the trains and trucks that transport the food, the farmers, drivers, and engineers, the fuel for the engine, the oil wells and refineries that produce the fuel, the engineers who designed and built the machinery and factories, the men and women who educated the scientists, engineers, and farmers. I’m sure by now that you’ve got the picture. A little reflection soon reveals the vast network of interconnections, even stretching back in time.
Thanksgiving is also a time to celebrate the people we are closest to, our friends and especially our family. They are our origin and our support through development. They are our connections to the past and future. They are the emotional fuel that sustains us. They give us hope and purpose. Yes, there is dysfunction. That goes with all forms of human interactions. But, should we lose any of them we will quickly realize how important they are to our flourishing and happiness. Remember, that on the deathbed, one of the biggest regrets is not having spent more time with family and friends. Thanksgiving is a time to recognize these interconnections, to be grateful for these people and their importance to our existence.
Certainly one of the most taken for granted amazing blessings that we have is our own awareness. We’ve always been aware. We’ve never, not been aware. So, it is so easy for it to go unrecognized and unappreciated. But, reflect for a moment what a miracle it is. There is an essence to us that is forever present and unchanging. What we are aware of is constantly changing, but that which is aware is not. Without our awareness we are nothing but biological automatons, robots. With it we are suddenly human and spiritual. We would not be able to be grateful or enjoy Thanksgiving without it. So, do not forget on Thanksgiving to be grateful for this wonder that forms the essence of what we are.
There is a very subtle kind of gratefulness that we should also adopt. It’s what the great sage Thich Nhat Hahn calls our “non-toothache.” He points out that if we had a toothache we would be thinking how grateful we’d be if it ended. But once it does, we take it for granted. We need to be thankful not only for what we have but also for many things that we don’t. The health of our bodies is taken for granted, but we should be intensely grateful for our non-disease. We may not be happy in our job, but if we didn’t have one we’d think how grateful we’d be to find one. We may be unhappy for the police officer who gave us a speeding ticket. But, we don’t recognize that our safety on the roads depends upon enforcement of the laws. We should be thankful for our non-accident. We are so fortunate in so many ways that we take for granted like our “non-toothache”. But, at Thanksgiving it is good to reflect upon all of these unnoticed blessings.
Finally, it is illuminating to reflect on whether you’re a source of thanksgiving for others. Specifically, what have you done that would make someone grateful to you. In other words, what have you given. This is important as it is not always what we have or what we get that’s important but what we share, what we do for others, and what we give. This is often the source of genuine happiness. The things that we have are never satisfying in a lasting way, but the things that we give forever bring joy. So, ask yourself on Thanksgiving, have you truly and sincerely given to others without expecting something in return?
It is very useful to reflect upon all of these things at Thanksgiving. The modern world, with its emphasis on self-sufficiency and individuality, produces feelings of independence and isolation. But these thanksgiving reflections soon reveal that this is an illusion. We are inextricably connected to the entire fabric of the universe, the tapestry of our physical, social, and spiritual existence. There is so much to be grateful for that upon reflection we can see that our sufferings are silly and small by comparison. We should revel in the vast interconnected blessings that make up everything about our world and ourselves. We should celebrate the miracle of life and our awareness of it.
So, eat, drink, and be merry on Thanksgiving, enjoy the wonderful celebration, but also invest a few moments in reflecting upon all that we have to be thankful for.
He who thanks but with the lips
Thanks but in part;
The full, the true Thanksgiving
Comes from the heart.
CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies
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