Not feeling it this Thanksgiving season? I get that. Me neither. But stay with me here and together we’ll work through it, because gratitude is more than just being thankful for getting what we want or things being perfect. It’s a practice that brings us solace. So let’s give it a go.
The simplest most obvious form of gratitude is to list the people and conditions we are grateful for, and that’s a fine place to start. But, let’s face it, what all these have in common is not just that we appreciate them, but that they are temporal. In fact, most likely we have already experienced the loss of people we used to be able to put on our list of loved ones whose presence we value. We may also have lost other things: health, financial security, abilities, looks, energy, and the list goes on. Because we know all too well how fleeting what we are grateful for can be, we tend to hold them with fear. We cling to them. That alters the way we relate to them, and can have the effect of pushing them away.
In gratitude we need to learn how to hold all that we value lightly, in an open loving embrace. The fleeting nature can be the gift that makes us pay more attention to the present moment. Can we pause to notice and appreciate the antics of a small child who is growing up before our eyes? Or listen to an oft-told story of an elder with deeper attention knowing there will come a day we will want to remember it and that person will no longer be there to share it? Celebrating each moment in our lives knowing it is fleeting is one way of living our gratitude. There is a Zen saying to live as if you are already dead. Quite the opposite of becoming a zombie, this advice reminds us to be fully alive right now, full of gratitude for every moment, whatever it brings.
The American holiday of Thanksgiving where we are asked to express gratitude on demand may feel unreasonable. Many are finding the social demands challenging. One of the checkers at my grocery store announces every year that she will not be participating, that her family has done enough damage, thank you very much. As adults we have the freedom to do what’s right for us. But let’s make sure we are not establishing such hard and fast traditions of reactivity that we exclude the possibility of feeling differently from one year to the next. Can we nourish ourselves in the ways we need right now? And if we feel locked in, can we reach out?
I am grateful for all my many blessings, yet this year I am feeling particularly challenged to celebrate Thanksgiving wholeheartedly. Tears are very close to the surface from a combined set of losses and memories of other losses that come up in relationship to them. Practicing Buddhism and meditation does not make us immune to emotions. Instead it makes us more able to hold them, to allow them space and compassion, to not get angry at ourselves for feeling whatever we’re feeling.
So I am sitting with these feelings, allowing them to pass through my field of experience. When I find myself stuck to the point of dwelling on them, I focus on the physical sensations that accompany the emotions. I can soften these sensations by relaxing and releasing, and this helps to soften and loosen the emotions. Not rushing anything, but attending them. At the same time, to bring balance and equanimity, I purposely notice all else that is going on in this moment: the beauty of the world around me and the pleasure of being alive, even as pain is present. That is the practice. And it works. And then some little thing happens: I wake to find ants in my pillbox, for example, and my feeling of ‘doing well’ crumbles to pieces. Humor helps. Will and I wonder why the ants are attracted to my thyroid pills, and he speculates on how ‘bug-eyed’ they will become. Laughter helps. Always.
I had a lot of laughter over the past few decades with my beloved aunt, my mother’s baby sister, the last of her generation in our family. A few weeks ago she died after a brief illness. I will miss her so. She was the last person able to share stories with me about my mother and grandparents and about me as a child so I mourn not just her person but also that link to the past. How I enjoyed our lengthy bi-coastal phone discussions. She was such an inspiration to me: Blind for the last decade, her last years were also some of her happiest, as when, newly sightless, she met a man who had been blind since birth. He showed her the ropes of how to live well while blind…and a few other things! They lived together lovingly until she entered the hospital for the last time. Ah, my dear Frannie. In the midst of mourning, I recognize how grateful I am that I had her in my life. I’m grateful she lived fully and that her dying was easy. My cousin told me that in their last conversation, her mother said, ‘I know I’m supposed to ask forgiveness for my sins, but I can’t think what they are.’ Aw. Sounds like a woman at peace with herself. And for that I am very grateful.
And for so much else! My list is long as I’m sure yours is too when you take a moment to ponder it. But beyond the finite blessings in our lives there is gratitude that is infinite, for being present in this moment to savor what is, for the fluidity and interconnection of all life, and the consciousness to experience it to whatever degree we are able.
I have written about gratitude in numerous past posts, so if you feel so inspired, take the time to check out these links. I think you will find them more nourishing than the current news or social media postings!
I wish you every joy on Thanksgiving and every day. I am very grateful for all of you, (especially for those of you who take the time to comment here on this blog, as it adds so much more meaning and gives me needed feedback.) Blessings to all.
Dearest Stephanie, Thank you for this lovely writing. My gratitude seems to bring me grief, hooking them up together. When I feel open, good and connected, I can be sure that within 24 hours I will be subject to the emotional drama of one of my family members. I fear feeling grateful, fear feeling happy these days…….because the phone will ring and either my 94 yr old mom will be crying or my daughter will be in a crisis of some sort…….Samsara sucks.
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Thanks for your comment, Laurel. I am sure many of us can relate. Really good noticing of the mental patterns and entanglements!
May you be able to cultivate enough spaciousness to hold whatever arises with equanimity. And to be reminded that this too shall pass.
Dear Stephanie, Many thanks for another inspiring post that touched my heart and soul. Although I don’t often respond, I love reading your blog on a regular basis and I’m so grateful for the effort, wisdom, and encouragements you put into your entries. So often you break through my tough outer shell to reach, sooth, and uplift the vulnerable core of me. It happened again today, when you shared so much of your own history, emotions, and vulnerabilities surrounding the subjects of giving thanks, loss of loved ones, and the seemingly paradoxical notion that appreciation of beauty and the pleasure of being alive can coexist with pain and/or grief. Happy Thanksgiving Day to you and Will – I am very grateful that you are in my life. Marita.
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Marita, how lovely to hear from you! It means so much to me to read your words of kindness and encouragement. I miss your writing! Hope all is well with you and Jim. Xoxo
your thoughts, as always, are profound, and so timely in this time of national turmoil. I am so sorry for your loss of your beloved aunt Frannie who sounds like a truly remarkable woman. We are at an age when loss is becoming a frequent event. In the face of this I am even more grateful for the daily blessings that Curt and I enjoy. We hope your Thanksgiving day was delightful. We celebrated in Bucerias with a margerita and guacamole….not the traditional turkey and family gathering that I love, but a lovely experience in its own way. Hugs to you and Will. We so miss being able to see you more frequently.
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Such a beautifully written essay! I wish I had read this before Thanksgiving dinner. I should have asked you more about your aunt who meant so much to you. You are lucky to have had such a close connection with her and that she was able to share memories of your mother with you. The older I get, the more I appreciate such things.
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Thanks, Gwen! I am grateful for your friendship.
So sorry for your loss. This is a beautifully written piece with so much heart, reading it has helped me so much, thank you.
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Thank you! It means a lot to me that you follow my blog and are finding it helpful.