In my opinion, Thanksgiving is the most spiritual of holidays in America. For those of you who bristle at the word “spiritual,” I hope you will see that the term doesn’t at all have to include God, church, or past-life regressions. Thanksgiving is pregnant with spirituality, and if we don’t allow it to be bastardized by televised American football games or monopolized by food, overeating, or our subsequent torpor, it can be a great opportunity to deepen our spiritual lives or perhaps begin to recognize that we actually have one.
The first prong (note the fork analogy) of a spiritual practice for Thanksgiving has to do with traveling. Most Thanksgiving dinners involve larger groups of people getting together for the day, which often necessitates travel for some. A very simple practice which I often use on longer drives is to practice a form of metta, which is a Buddhist or more accurately Pali term commonly translated as “unconditional loving kindness.” The practice is very simple. As each vehicles passes you moving in the opposite direction, simply repeat either out loud or to yourself, “May Peace travel with you.” I like the phrasing of that because there is an inherent hope in the statement that the Peace you wish upon the vehicle passengers will be carried with them to subsequently be shared with others. Since Thanksgiving is a more dangerous holiday for drivers too, the act of saying this phrase is also a subtle bestowing of safety and protection. If you are flying or taking some other form of public transportation, the same phrase can be invoked as people board an airplane, bus or train, or walk through the airport or station. If you are staying home, you can simply sit for 5 minutes (5 can actually feel like a long time for those not used to it) and imagine all the travelers you know (and those you don’t know as well) and repeat the same phrase for each of them. You can even do this same practice in the grocery store as you shop for your turkey and canned cranberry sauce, saying the same “May peace travel with you” to those you pass in the aisles or see at the checkout register. It is a powerful practice and is a very helpful tool in learning to love unconditionally, yes even in learning to love your brother-in-law who wipes his nose before cutting vegetables for the salad.
The second practice is the most obvious of practices around this holiday: Cultivating an awareness of being Thankful. At the table, it is helpful that someone says a blessing before the dinner, and if it feels incomplete, add your own blessing which truly recognizes the bounty of the meal and how deeply and truly thankful you are to be together with family and friends. It is always important to me to be certain to thank any animal that might be eaten during the meal, usually adding something like, “…and thank you to the turkey that gave it’s life that we might eat.”
On this day there is also an opportunity to reflect, or better yet turn off the TV and have a conversation about, whatever there is in your life for which you are truly thankful. You can do that at the dinner table, going around the table in turn naming things for which each of you are grateful. Perhaps, if not done before the meal, you could clink your glass and start the conversation before the pumpkin pie. Of course you could also do the same thing one-on-one with someone in your party. A great way to end the day would be to take a piece of paper, and by yourself or with your partner, list all the things in your life for which you are thankful.
For your final bite, a wonderful spiritual practice on this day is to truly say “goodbye” to people as you go your separate ways. I have learned in my life the obvious but important fact that people die, people we love die, and that after this day you may never see a particular person alive again. The teacher Ram Das was once asked by someone what one should do to live a spiritual life, and his suggestion was that all you need to do is to sit in a chair quietly for 20 minutes each day and contemplate the fact that everyone that you know and love, including yourself, is going to die, but that you don’t know when or the order in which that is going to happen. My suggestion to you is that as you say goodbye to people this Thanksgiving, hold in your mind and heart the potential finality of the goodbye. If you’ve never done this before, I think you’ll be surprised that it’s not a morbid experience at all but actually one which brings much greater depth, awareness, love and appreciation to the moment.
It doesn’t take much to make bring some simple depth and spirituality and your Thanksgiving holiday this year. If you are spending this holiday alone, I hope it is full of Thankfulness as well.
May peace travel with you.