Thanksgiving in October . . . and Everyday

Photo credit: Bella Appel

Every morning we have 24 brand new hours to live. What a precious gift!” Thich Nhat Hanh

When my heart is heavy, my mind is cluttered, or I’m feeling too reactive, I find it helpful to step back and embrace a moment of gratitude.  Without fail, this brief practice results in feelings of more spaciousness, lightness and clarity.  Something inside me shifts.  So, in preparing for this Monday’s sangha, I wanted to share, for the second time, a reflection on gratitude from Brother Phap Hai (Dharma Ocean), a senior monastic Dharma teacher at Deer Park Monastery and board member of the Thich Nhat Hanh Foundation.  Although written on Thanksgiving Day 2016, it is relevant to all of our days!

Gratitude is a Necessity

December 5, 2016

By Br. Phap Hai

“We have our own Thanksgiving traditions here in Deer Park Monastery. As we’ve done for the past 15 years, we, friends from all walks of life, gathered under the ancient oak trees, in a place where the native owners of this land ground acorns. We thanked the ancestors of this land and this land itself for its abundance. We also asked for forgiveness from this land for any mistakes we may have made. 

We Walk Among Tall Oaks

As the sweet sage smoke encircled us and rose slowly through the canopy, I was filled with gratitude – gratitude for the many gifts, surprises, and yes, practice opportunities this year has brought. Standing dwarfed under ancient oaks with so many friends as the wind rustled the canopy, I felt that we, in this time of seeming darkness, will be okay. These oaks were here long before us, and they will remain long after. We will be as oaks even as we walk amongst them. And we do walk among them. 

Van Jones, in a video that he shared on November 9th, invited everyone to stop, breathe, and build circles of support. Heart advice for these times indeed. What I took away from that comment was not only the necessity of gathering groups to share and look deeply on a regular basis, but also to reach out and build life-giving connections with those around us on a moment-by-moment basis. 

I recently flew to Mississippi. On the way there, I sat next to an amazing woman – a hero – who was one of the children who bravely desegregated her school in the 1960s. A tall oak. 

Then I sat next to an Arabic professor from Amman, Jordan, who was on a two-week visit – his first ever – to the United States, the fulfillment of a long-cherished dream. He shared just how surprised he was to be treated warmly and as family wherever he went. We spoke of the beautiful Arabic custom of hospitality and warmth, and he told me that this was what he wanted to offer to people here. It seemed to work. He showed me dozens of photos of him with smiling people in New York, in Boston, in New Orleans. Another tall oak. 

At the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, I spent time with a young man from South Chicago who gave up his home and all his belongings to move to the Deep South because he felt a call to be an instrument of healing, although he didn’t know what that meant. Another tall oak. 

I spent a week with a twelve-year old boy who has been blind from birth and told me that for a long time he felt sad that he “couldn’t see” until he realized that he sees more clearly with his heart than most of us do with our eyes. A tall oak indeed. 

Community is No Longer a Luxury; It is a Necessity

These are the people that we walk by each and every day, in the boarding line at the airport, on the bus, on the sidewalk. We walk among ancient oaks. Our circles of support are there each and every moment. The seeds that these great beings, these absolutely ordinary beings – you and me – plant will continue on long into the future. 

Most of all today I am grateful for community, grateful for the seeds of peace, inclusion, solidarity that have been sown by so many. It seemed to me this morning that community is no longer a luxury; it is a necessity. 

Gratitude is an ‘Affirmation of Goodness’

We all know people who wear resentment like a shroud, tightly wound. I know I certainly do. But I have chosen not to live that way. Resentment is an insidiously ingenious poison. It starts so subtly – “that person took my parking space” – until it becomes a deeply rooted pattern in which we primarily notice what is going wrong in this moment, in each other, and in ourselves. 

Robert Emmons, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Davis, and the world’s leading scientific expert on gratitude writes that gratitude is “an affirmation of goodness.” Gratitude is an affirmation of the goodness that is available within and around us, and within each person we meet. It is the active decision to choose to experience life and other people as a gift, rather than with a sense, however subtle, of entitlement. 

Gratitude does not mean to ignore or deny the hard, the heavy, the challenging, but rather it is an anchor, a resource that can help to prevent us from becoming the very thing that we struggle against.

Gratitude is a Necessity

I’ll admit it, I am a bumper sticker nerd. I like bumper stickers. I noticed that one car in the parking lot today had a sticker that read, “Demand Peace.” Sometimes, even with the very best of intentions, we become the thing that we struggle against. 

In Buddhism we speak of the world of red dust, the Saha World. Coming from Australia, this conjures a very vivid image in my mind of the kind of dust that coats your skin, gets in your eyes and ears and mouth and makes you feel as if you are suffocating. 

These past few weeks have felt this way for many. There are those who have felt this way each and every day of their lives, and we must not forget this. There are those standing right now for right of access to their own lands, to clean water, to the inalienable rights that should belong to all. 

A day of thanksgiving may seem almost inappropriate at times like these, but I say it is a necessity. It is a day in which we look within and around and actively rest in the shade of the ancient oaks that surround us. And in that spirit, the spirit of unity, togetherness, we continue the long journey hand in hand – a journey that includes everyone.” 

Looking forward to sharing your experiences with gratitude (or anything else on your heart) this Monday.