I love the Thanksgiving Holiday. I find it’s no wonder that various polls report that I am not alone–here in the US and elsewhere where the Holiday is celebrated, it ranks right up a the top of holiday favorites.
That being said, I think that the flash of gratitude moments we experience sell the full meaning of the Holiday short. So much “perfect” family and friends imagery of feasting and bounty. It’s a very sweet vision, certainly one in which I’ve engaged and enjoyed and over the years. As I sit with this manifestation in meditation practice, I find there is a lot that is left out, that goes so much deeper than a bow for receiving picture postcard good fortune. Note the name itself: “Thanksgiving”. It is not just about offering thanks for the warmth of friends and family coupled with bounty. It is also about giving; how gratitude could not exist without generosity. It’s about noting interconnection. It’s about maintaining awareness of some of the less happy aspects that are also a part of this holiday time–ignoring injustices, denying the reality that good fortune is not an equal opportunity player. Do these aspects seem like a downer? Or can their acknowledgement lead to a broader and more fulfilling relationship with generosity, abundance and gratitude?
When asked how to begin practicing meditation, the Buddha offered a teaching on generosity. He pointed to it as the first act of opening to awareness of our conditioned lives and, in turn, the possibility of releasing our grip on this conditioning. It’s a generous act we offer to ourselves. We offer ourselves freedom from that which we had previously been mindless. Something unexpected can happen at this point. We might expect (I know I did and sometimes still do) that I am giving something up when I let my conditioned perceptions, expectations and pleasures go. What will happen with all that empty space once dominated by conditioned mind? Taking a breath, it can unfold as abundance–very spacious and very peaceful. The very act of letting go is itself the cause of great abundance, for knowing all the things that did not fit within the knot of our grasping.
Gratitude finds it place, then, as the outcome of our generosity. This is a very different gratitude than the pretty card version of gratitude for food, friends and family. It grows to become gratitude for awareness of our boundless capacity for lovingkindness for all that shows up in our lives: our insights that grow as awareness grows, our compassion for all that reveals itself to us as our conditioning fades, fearlessness as we confront injustices done to us and others as we have done injustices, in mindless deed or thought. This newfound space is ripe for us to cultivate mindful, compassionate attention to ourselves and to all those around us.
The cycle begins as the previous cycle ends. Gratitude found not just for the pleasant—but for the whole magilla of life. I offered a teaching on this cycle a few weeks ago at our Sunday sangha. I closed on how gratitude is possible, in even the most difficult and painful of life experiences. I reflected on a young man with whom I sat as a young emotional support volunteer as he neared death. Not only was his health shattered by HIV, his beloved mother had abandoned him as a teenager and refused to see him in his final days, even as she knew he was calling out for her. Friends were either themselves dead or unwilling to transcend their fear of seeing him in death. So, it was just the 2 of us. The dying person and me just sitting, me listening to what he needed to say, holding a hand, frightened myself for what seemed the dark enormity of these moments. The night came when I knew it would be the last time I would see him. The young man was in and out of consciousness; I sought a few moments of his lucidity to say goodbye. The lucid moments came, and his last words to me were those of gratitude. He had finally found courage to release all the past, the pain, the abandonment–allowing the time we had spent together to be, as he told me, the only time he felt open enough to feel being loved. In that moment, he taught me what gratitude is really about: it’s not the flash of pleasant, impermanent moments and experiences, it’s as big and enduring as our lovingkindness allows us to go, it’s unconditional and it allows us to bathe in the lovingkindness that is our true, if often obscured, nature—no matter what.
May all beings have happiness, and the causes of happiness;
May all be free from sorrow, and the causes of sorrow;
May all never be separated from the sacred happiness which is sorrowless;
And may all live in equanimity, without too much attachment and too much aversion,
And live believing in the equality of all that lives.