Category Archives: Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving, a look at the tradition

t-day

Illustration by Elroy Freem, Scholastic Books

I don’t know about you, but I am feeling especially thankful this year, especially for the rain yesterday and the fresh air that is pouring in every window and door after two weeks of stale air as we holed up from the smoke in so much of California. May the rain fall gently on fire-scarred hills to put out flames and not cause debris flows. I am also especially personally grateful that our daughter and her home in the area of the Camp Fire are safe. And so much more.

I am sure you also have much to be grateful for, no matter what difficulties you may be facing. Over the years I have written quite a number of posts on gratitude, but this year I’d like to look at the American tradition of Thanksgiving.

Yesterday in poetry class at College of Marin, the assignment was to write about Thanksgiving memories, but, the teacher requested, ‘not the ‘Brady Bunch’ ones’. Few were able to comply and the poems were full of memories of the traditional table laid with the best china and polished silverware, white napkins and all the typical fare of a feast made by mothers in the pre-potluck days of singular devotional exhaustion and no doubt dysfunction, because Thanksgiving was only the beginning of the most grueling season of laborious maternal love, and living up to expectations that could never be met because sugar plums are not prone to dancing.

One poet in class did say what the rest of us had not but might have: That most everyone at the table described has since passed into the great beyond. That’s true in my case as well. But still, what great good fortune to have memories to cherish and an opportunity to share them. If sweet memories don’t make good poetry, they might be treasured by descendants, as traditions change a bit with each generation. Yet with no less love or gratitude.

The way we think about the first thanksgiving also changes. On PBS Newshour, there was a piece on how that historical event is being taught in many schools. Teachers are trying to be honest and inclusive of all perspectives of the peoples who were there. Doing so might rattle some Eurocentric Americans who prefer their hand-me-down version, even if it is myopic. Tradition for tradition’s sake is an empty tradition for those who carry it on, and a painful tradition for those who were central to the original story but whose perspective is excluded in its telling.

Why should Euro-Americans of today feel threatened by an honest exploration of our ancestors actions? Does personal identity rely on one’s ancestors being perfect? If so, good luck with that! Those early immigrants were fleeing from persecution and struggled to stay alive in a wilderness very unlike what they had left behind. Many didn’t make it. And many were helped by the inhabitants of the land that was not ‘new’, yet a new experience for the immigrants. The history of the devolution of that relationship has been and will be researched and wondered about, and enriched by looking at it from all perspectives.

In our personal meditative practice, we make room for the possibility that things we have held to be true are not necessarily so. If there is a sense of feeling threatened, then we notice that. But in time we might notice that there is freedom in accepting that we don’t know, that we don’t have everything locked down and figured out. There is joy in letting go of reliance on our ‘story’ to be who we are.

That is just as true in this case. It is our shared story, but we are expanding the narrow idea of who the ‘we’ is, making sure all voices are heard, and collectively recognizing that history does not necessarily define who we are. There is room for investigation and joy in discovering that we are not personally responsible for the deeds of our forebears or for defending or condemning them. But we are responsible for shining a light in the darkness of our own lives, our own unquestioned beliefs and our own fears. And when we do that wholeheartedly, we make room for everyone at the table.

Happy Thanksgiving – today and in every moment of your life. I am most thankful for you!

Gratitude in the midst of it all

kwan yin

Kwan Yin, goddess of mercy and compassion

In the US every year on the last Thursday in November we get together with family and close friends to…engorge, imbibe and put on our game face. We call it Thanksgiving, but it’s the rare gathering that actually takes time to express gratitude in the midst of the turkey, gravy and stuffing. It takes a certain bravery to be the one to break up the busy conversation for a moment of silence, prayer, poetry or, even braver, a request that everyone tell what they are grateful for. (Can you hear the collective groan?)

Throughout much of the country the weather turns cold and we just want to be cozy. We may want to hide away from the news of the world, as it takes on a fierce quality, harsh as the winds that shake the house. It feels like the newscasters are just making this stuff up to scare us. And in some ways that is true because of where they focus, how they frame it, and the need to lead with what bleeds, knowing our negativity bias.

This year we are getting to know our future president, whomever he or she may be. That enforced and extended uncertainty can be stressful, particularly when the field is so large and the candidates so… well…

We may have issues we feel strongly about, and we may feel frustrated when fellow citizens don’t seem to care, or worse, see us as the problem. And even those who share our views can get distracted by things we may consider non-issues.

The world seems full of testosterone-crazed nihilists causing havoc and heartbreak both here and abroad. We feel compassion for those who are without a home and who may feel without hope. And we are inspired by those who rise above base fears to embrace shared humanity, as when Germans greeted beleaguered refugees with generosity and compassion, or when Parisians of all ethnicities and religions hugged each other in peace after an attack on their city. This too is the world we live in. For that triumph of the human spirit we are especially grateful.

On a Thanksgiving in turbulent times, we have the capacity to deepen in gratitude for being present, together, enjoying cherished traditions. For some of us, this is our first Thanksgiving without a loved one who was very much a part of our tradition, but gratitude is still possible. We are grateful to be alive to experience whatever life brings, regardless of current circumstances or conditions.

So if you feel inspired to be the one to tap your glass and bring the table to a brief moment of sharing in this deep way, know that just below the surface we all may be feeling a little vulnerable right now and perhaps more ready than usual to acknowledge our blessings.

Happy Thanksgiving to all!

May all beings be well. May all beings be at ease. May all beings be at peace. May all beings be happy.

– Stephanie

 

Please Don’t Call It ‘Turkey Day’!

In class this week, we discussed what deep gratitude means to us. I suggested that it is a ballast in our being. The way a sailboat has ballast that keeps it from turning over though it leans in the wind, when we are deeply grateful for this present moment, whatever is occurring, rather than being only grateful for the blessings we can list, then we stay afloat in the sea of life.

Here is a collection of past posts on gratitude to draw from if you are needing inspiration.

Meanwhile, let’s talk turkey. Or, let’s not! We are so fortunate that our national holiday is focused on something so deeply satisfying as contemplating gratitude, whether it is deep gratitude for being alive or for the wonderful blessings and people we have or have had in our lives.

When we switch the focus to the food we put on the table and think of it as just feast and football, it’s such a downgrade of the holiday. It also leaves out vegans and vegetarians, making them feel as if they are not experiencing the real deal. In fact, one of the most delicious Thanksgiving feasts I ever ate was while on retreat at Spirit Rock Meditation Center a few years back. It was a vegetarian’s delight of seasonal delicacies, and not a turkey in sight. (Really! Not even outdoors where wild turkeys abound except for that week before Thanksgiving where they suddenly just go into hiding. The day after Thanksgiving they return! Public opinion to the contrary, apparently turkeys aren’t all that stupid.) Being on retreat, we were all in silence. Teja Bell played music for us as we entered the dining hall, and the meal was served by Spirit Rock teachers and their families. How dear to be dished up squash by Jack Kornfield, and how especially touching it was to have Skye, the young son of teacher and author Anne Cushman, dole out a roll. I hadn’t seen him since he was an infant teaching our class how to do a proper up-dog pose in Friday AM meditation and yoga class.

Whether you eat turkey or not, why not give the meaning of the day its due? If you eat turkey, you might try to choose one that had the chance for a good life. If you don’t eat turkey, thanks, but try not to be too self-righteous. Plants are also sensate beings that we eat to survive. But in all cases, let’s take some time to acknowledge with gratitude the bounty before us, the beauty around us and the life-buddies beside us, no matter how flawed we may consider them to be.

Not feeling so grateful? That’s okay too. Just focus on the myriad of physical sensations of being here in this moment. Notice that mound of woes and worries as something that’s just a part of your experience, not the whole thing. Just for now. You are alive and life is full of options, even in this very moment. Gratitude for even the littlest thing can open a world of joy.

On Retreat

I am off to Spirit Rock for a ten night Thanksgiving retreat, so I posted the gratitude dharma talk early, and recorded it for my students to listen to when they gather together this Tuesday.

If reading that I am off on retreat makes you feel envy, it’s an invitation to yourself to make time in your life for, if not a ten night retreat, perhaps a seven, four or one day retreat. There’s a link to Spirit Rock right on this page. Check it out! Or if that doesn’t feel possible, just take ten minutes right now to close your eyes and listen in.

I wish you all a very happy fully present Thanksgiving where you fall in love with the very foibles that usually drive you crazy about your families! Just knowing that all of this is fleeting reminds us of how precious these times together are, even fraught with tension or disagreement about politics or anything else. Why not set the intention to simply be present, simply listen, let go of the need to take a stand, change a mind, prove anything, or be heard? You may be amazed at how it changes the family dynamic.

As we lose the ones we love, we begin to see it is those very foibles, the things that drove us crazy, that we chuckle about in the end. So chuckle now! And enjoy them in the flesh.

Many blessings,
Stephanie


Gratitude for Everything

We come together this time of year in a celebration of giving thanks. Many of us have cherished traditions. Probably just as many would be happy to skip the whole season. But whatever our feelings about the holiday of Thanksgiving, most of us enjoy feeling gratitude and the act of counting our blessings even if the rest of the year we are complaining about our lack of blessings. This one day is a day of accounting, checking in and doing a little tally. We tell ourselves that even though we lost a job, got ill, lost a loved one or any of a myriad of other situations that might befall us in any given year, still, at Thanksgiving we seek out those things that are going well, polish them up, list them and take comfort in them.

And there’s nothing wrong with a little comfort. But this kind of gratitude is finite and conditional. What if the balance sheet doesn’t come out? What if the awful things that have happened cannot be compensated by any small comfort we may have? What if we have tried and tried to look on the bright side of seeming disasters, and have just not been able to find it? Then where’s the gratitude? Gone!

To have nothing and then not to even have gratitude? That really sucks! It feels better not to even go there! Forget gratitude. It’s unreliable.

I’ve talked before about the value of noticing when we are operating from a finite source, how the results are shallow rooted, unsatisfying and unreliable. So then, let’s look to see if we can discover gratitude from a deeper source.

Gratitude from that deep source, that sense of connection to all of life becomes gratitude for everything. Everything. This is not just reflecting back and saying well, this bad thing happened, but now good has come of it, so now I am grateful for it. This is deep complete gratitude for everything. Everything!

Suddenly a resounding ‘No!’ is proclaimed across the land. We can’t be grateful for the horrors of the world, for the evil that is done, for the devastation that is wrought, for the injustices – the list is long of all the things we refuse in any way to acknowledge one iota of acceptance, let alone gratitude. Really, Stephanie, you’ve gone too far this time.

Maybe so. Let’s investigate. I’m sitting with it now and asking in deeply. You do the same. I am asking myself, ‘How can I be grateful for the horrors of the world?’ Well, I can be grateful they are not happening to me in this moment. But that is clearly a self-serving, blind, finite answer. So what is the infinite answer?

It begins, as always, with coming fully into this present moment, this spacious awareness. In this relaxed state we can sense in to our bodies and all sensory experiences become illuminated. We notice sounds and sense into the rhythms, the volume, the tones, the pitch, the pulsing, the beat, the variety, the layering. We look around and notice light and shadow, color, texture, distance, shapes and the interaction of all of these in space. Closing our eyes we sense in to the pressure where our body meets whatever is supporting it. We feel the texture of whatever clothing or furniture comes in contact with our skin. We feel the temperature of the air, and the stillness or movement of it. We feel whatever is going on inside our body — pain, tension, energy, pleasant sensations and numbness. We taste the inside of our mouths. We smell the air. Some of our senses in this particular moment may be subtle, but still present if we stay with them. We become aware of our breath, rising and falling.

When we are able to release fully into this moment, savoring each sensation with a beginner’s mind, really noticing how this moment, the very one we thought was so ordinary, is in fact extraordinary because of our attention.

In this open spacious moment where we experience all that arises with a freshness we didn’t even know we were capable of experiencing, we feel gratitude.

This isn’t a gratitude conditioned on whether what we are seeing and hearing and sensing is pleasant, ordered in the way we like things to be. We have access to a less critical noticing. The impulses we might normally have — to tidy up the mess of newspapers on the floor or to bang the broom on the ceiling to get the loud radio upstairs to stop, or any other fault-finding rescue mission we might think up — all that falls away. In this moment, everything is just fine, even the mess, the noise, and all the things that usually irritate us.

We feel gratitude for simply being alive in this moment. Because this moment is the only thing that is real. Everything that has passed, both our personal history and the collective history of the world is just memory turning to compost. Whatever is in the future is currently simply potential, trending toward possible directions, always subject to the unseen and unknown, thus beyond our ability to imagine with any useful accuracy.

But this moment, this is our one and only reality. On a finite level we can enjoy it and wish it would last, or dislike it and rush to get past it. When we pause and release the tension that has us so tightly wrapped, we tap into the infinite: This moment, fully relaxed, is the gateway to our sensing the infinite.

From this deep connected place, we bring forth an authentic response to whatever arises in our experience. This is the only place where we can interact with the world, to sow peaceful seeds that might nourish the world of our great grandchildren. We can’t do that from the past or the future. There’s no power there. We can only be effective right here and now, by staying present and connected in deeply rooted moment. From this singular point of power, the present moment, when all our preferences and judgments have fallen away, we can see the universal dance and our place in it.

Raging at the horrors of the world we are stuck in a finite limited powerless rant. We feel like helpless victims in a storm of intense chaos. Going deep and quiet, touching the infinite, that is what makes real change possible. It is where Gandhi went and where Martin Luther King Jr. went before taking powerful peaceful action that changed the world. It is where Nelson Mandela and Aung San Suu Kyi have gone time and again, both able to draw sustenance and even freedom in physical incarceration – turning inward to the silence, finding patience and compassion instead of bitterness – and then allowing that sense of connection to inspire wise action.

From this place we are able to spot leaders who are authentic and deeply rooted. Instead of ranting at these leaders as if they singularly hold all the power and we, who were powerful in our ability to work to elect them, are suddenly cranky demanding children angry at mommy. We encourage our leaders to remain unseduced by the shallow-rooted calls to finite power that surround them, and to stay deeply connected both to that deep wisdom and to the community that elected them in order to make wise decisions that affect us all. And we continue to stay connected, using that access to be the change we want to see in the world.

Whatever injustices we face in the world can be met from this deep place in a truly transformative way. So first on our Thanksgiving list of gratitude might be our own ability to access this font of quiet connected wisdom, grateful that it is possible in any moment to access this place.

But what if we are new to the practice and this access to the moment is just a pipe dream? Be with the pipe dream, see it for what it is. Let it inform your experience of this moment. Keep practicing being present with whatever is. Stay focused on the senses, noticing. Notice everything. Notice the judgments, notice the emotions, notice the thoughts. Just notice. Maybe it feels like a big tangle, a tight knot, inaccessible. Be with that! Notice and notice again.

When we begin to meditate it is like any new skill. At first paying attention to the present moment feels as if staying present is like trying to balance on the head of a pin. The moment we realize we’re on it, we fall off. But with patience, intention, compassion and consistent practice, we begin to notice the head of the pin getting larger until we feel present for longer and longer periods.

This sensing in to this moment is the practice that gives access to the infinite source within ourselves, the connected place that has gratitude for everything. There’s no hurry to get there. There’s just the practice. Wanting to be there, rushing to get ‘there’ only seals the door and locks us out of the possibility of accessing it. For there is no ‘there,’ only ‘here.’ Just this experience. Can you feel gratitude for the rise and fall of your breath?

We don’t have to feel grateful for the Holocaust, 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, or the sexual predator living near the neighborhood playground. But finding wise ways to respond to them includes recognizing that the world is now, has always been and always shall be full of what the Tao calls ‘the 10,000 joys and 10,000 sorrows.’ Without the sorrows, there are no joys. That is the nature of earthly existence.

Over and over again in our lives we see that good times can cause bad things. A booming economy is perceived as a good thing, but it also causes overworked people to feel they don’t have time for each other and then they fill their sense of lack with purchasing material things.

And we’ve all had the experience of bad times causing good things, bringing strangers together as one people to address the challenge or weather the storm together. The yin and the yang freely flow from black to white and back again, and that’s the nature of life.

As we observe this flux and flow in our own lives and in the world around us, we may find we have a more open ‘don’t know’ mind about things. When I was younger knowing seemed so important. Now that I’m older, not knowing feels even more delicious!

There’s that wonderful old story told in Buddhist and Taoist traditions, of the farmer whose neighbors told him he was so unlucky because his horse ran away. They were surprised when he replied, “Maybe yes, maybe no.” Then the horse returned with a lot of other horses to fill his corral, and his neighbors said, “Oh, what great fortune!” He still answered, “Maybe yes, maybe no.” When his son fell off one of the horses and broke his leg, the neighbors said, “What terrible luck!” And even then the farmer said, “Maybe yes, maybe no.” Well, the neighbors thought him very strange indeed. But then the military came to the village seeking young men for conscription into the army, and the farmer’s son was exempted because of his broken leg. The neighbors now saw that healing leg differently, as their sons marched off to war. “You are so lucky,” they told the farmer. And he said, of course, “Maybe yes, maybe no.” And so the story goes on throughout life.

While taking full responsibility for our own behavior and vowing to do no harm to ourselves or others, with a don’t know mind we can be less outraged at the poor choices of others, and certainly at the inconstancies of nature. Events we might perceive as good fortune, we can vest with less power to enslave us. (Enslave us? Yes, because we say, “Now that I have this great job, this great relationship, this great house, how can I keep it? How can I make this happiness last?” And suddenly we’re caught up in fear and suffering again.) It is said that the greatest suffering is caused by striving for a perfect world or by running away in fear from the imperfect world we see around us.

Here’s a thought! Let’s just stop striving for a moment! Let’s stop running away from what is! Instead, let’s simply focus on our breath and the various senses. Fully present in this moment, we feel gratitude for just this, whatever form it takes in this moment. We access the place deep within ourselves that is beyond the 10,000 joys and 10,000 sorrows. Each moment, with all its sensory offerings, offers access to this vantage point, from which we recognize the fleeting gift of the wild, the monstrous and the wondrous nature of earthly existence. And we have ringside seats!

On this fine fall day, we might enjoy looking at this idea as a multitude of leaves flying around in the wind, each leaf in some state we call beautiful autumn foliage or dried up, dead, and ugly.

And we see ourselves in this turbulent swirl, sometimes in our leaf nature being acted upon and sometimes in our wind nature, causing a stir. But only when we are able to stand in the middle of the whirl, in the quiet stillness of the eye of this ongoing storm of life, can we relax into a state of gratitude for everything.

In this centered stillness we can see with fresh eyes the multi-layered dimensions of all things. We can see into the fearful hurting heart of the being who hates and hurts others in turn, and we can see the strength and resilience of the being who has been hurt but is able to access connection and compassion for all beings, spreading joy. We see those who would divide to conquer, and we recognize their fear and how they are conquered by it. We see those who see the unity and act out of that sense of unity for the well being of all. We see the natural disasters and are awed by the power of nature, and the fragileness of our brief lives, and the strength of the human spirit when challenged.

This rich alive moment that until we relaxed into it seemed so ordinary fills us with a sense of abundance. From this perspective, everything that brought us to this point softens in its wake.

We see that all those events we would not have chosen are now just stories, stories that we have clung to as proof of the veracity of our tightly held beliefs, stories that have left us scarred but still standing, or perhaps lessons we are still trying to learn from. They exist, along with cherished memories, only in our minds. And we can hold them lightly, letting them go when they no longer serve us, feeling gratitude for whatever gifts they brought us. Or we can cling to them tightly, empowering them to define and confine us.

When we relax into simple awareness of this moment, we fully inhabit our bodies and minds in a way that enables us to live an authentic, heartfelt generous and meaningful life. Accessing the infinite wisdom of simple presence, simple awareness, brings clarity and gratitude for everything.

Meditation on Gratitude


Tomorrow we Americans celebrate Thanksgiving, and for many of us it’s a very busy day filled with the three F’s: food, family and football. So filled, in fact, there doesn’t seem to be room for the G’s: gratitude, grace and giving thanks.

So here’s a chance to focus on our sense of gratitude.

What are we grateful for? It is easy to launch into our list: Our family and friends, our homes, our health, our jobs, our financial security to whatever degree we have it, etc. If things are bad — and for many of us these are difficult times indeed — we are grateful that they aren’t any worse.

Watching the devastation of the recent firestorms in Southern California — how within 20 minutes hundreds of people’s homes just vanished into smoke — we know what the survivors will say. They say what all survivors say after losing their homes: That as difficult as the loss of cherished possessions is, they are grateful: Grateful to be alive, grateful that their families survived

It is only human to view these horrific news reports with a combination of feelings: compassion for those who are going through the experience, fear of anything like that ever happening to us, and renewed gratitude for our own homes and families, still safe and sound.

Looking more closely at this perfectly natural kind of gratitude, you might notice that it is rooted in fear, the fear of losing what we have. That’s why we feel it more strongly when we witness the losses of others. “There but for the grace of God go I.”

It is, therefore, a conditional gratitude, dependent on there being enough left on our list that we value. Dependent on this kind of gratitude, we may fall into patterns of clinging to the people and things on our list, terrified of losing them. Clinging, as you will recall, is the root cause of suffering identified by the Buddha in The Second Noble Truth. This clinging strains relationships and tightens us into knots. This kind of gratitude is, as I said, perfectly natural, but being so conditional, it is shallowly rooted in the hard cake soil of fear, and what grows out of it can be distorted and unnourishing.

From this shallow rooted place, we may find our gratitude list has many qualifiers. ‘I am grateful for this, but would be more grateful if it were different.’ These qualifiers may overwhelm our sense of gratitude, and we find ourselves with a shorter and shorter list. Then we ask ourselves how did we end up with such a puny little list?

The less we are able to write on our gratitude list, the more this gratitude is likely to be counter-weighted with a sense of deprivation, anger, failure, humiliation, envy or frustration. Other people have what we wanted for ourselves. We are exhausted from trying to acquire the things we want to be able to write on a gratitude list, the things that we believe will make us happy.

Frustrated, we may be compiling another list that grows longer: the list of our complaints, worries and gripes. Nothing is ever quite good enough. There seems very little, if anything, to be grateful for. In this case our gratitude is very conditional indeed.

So how do we get to unconditional gratitude?
There are many gateways. One of them, strangely, is grief. By a certain age, most of us have lost someone dear to us, some of us have lost quite a few. We have experienced our hearts imploding in grief, and the pain that rises and falls like waves, sometimes carrying us away into realms we didn’t know existed.

How does this create gratitude? Well, perhaps right away it doesn’t, but if we are able to stay present with our experience, eventually we will notice the way our hearts have been carved deeper by this loss, making room for a deeper form of gratitude, an unconditional gratitude, not dependent on our ability to hang on to everything in our lives that matters to us.

Other forms of loss can be gateways as well. Perhaps because they bring us up short, break us out of our habitual patterns, force us to really look at ourselves and the world around us with new eyes.

Fortunately, loss is not the only gateway to unconditional gratitude. Through regular meditation practice, we can access it as well. We feel gratitude for being conscious in each moment as it reveals itself. We learn the fine art of holding it lightly and savoring it. It is a gratitude for ‘the best seat in the house’ where the amazing gifts of the world, in a vast variety of forms, continually come onto the stage of our awareness. These gifts are probably not what we wrote on our wish list or our to do list, but our willingness to be present, to let go of having to dictate the outcome, allows us to be available to savor whatever arises.

This devout gratitude sheds light on the darkest despair, allowing us to discern the treasure buried deep within. It allows us to experience pain as a symphony of passing sensations. Deep unconditional gratitude can be a constant companion that opens our eyes and our hearts. And ultimately, at the moment when we breathe our last precious breath, we are grateful even for this.

Gratitude can be a practice unto itself, allowing us to savor every moment, to appreciate every being we meet. Because underneath the hard cake fear is the nourishing soil of unconditional love that supports us. We can toss the list because we would be writing forever if we tried to keep up with all that we are grateful for in this expansive unconditional way. We can simply let the gratitude breathe us, illuminating our lives.

Happy Thanksgiving – today and in every moment of your life!