For many people Thanksgiving has ceased to be a celebration of thankfulness. Too often it is dominated by the pressures of family reconnecting, the worries over the meal, the seduction of football games and overindulgence in an excess of food. Even if it is an enjoyable occasion, it may still do little to help us reflect on the good fortune of our lives and express our gratitude for those blessings.
So how do we reclaim a Thanksgiving spirit in our celebration of Thanksgiving? Here are a few ideas for changing how the day is designed. Not everybody will wish to participate in these activities, but you can suggest them and make sure you create enough opportunities for yourself to not only enjoy the holiday, but use it as a rekindling of gratitude as we launch the holiday season.
1. Invite those who are joining you for the holiday to bring a reading or quote that represents the spirit of Thanksgiving. In order to bring a quote, you have to find a quote. That means spending some time reviewing a collection of quotes on the theme of gratitude. Even if we never showed up for the Thanksgiving feast, we would benefit from taking the time to read wise words that remind us of our good fortune.
If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you, it will be enough.
2. Spend 30-40 min. of quiet time in the morning reflecting and making a list of all the ways your life has been blessed this past year. Invite other members of your family to join you, even children. We started doing this before my daughters could write. So we would draw boxes for them and ask them to draw things they were thankful for. We make this a “quiet time” for the family – no talking, music or digital devices. After we complete our reflections, we get together and share some of what we wrote. If we have company coming for dinner, and they are interested in participating, we might wait until after the meal to share our reflections.
3. While you are cooking, reflect on all the efforts and lives that have been given to make your meal possible. Consider all the objects and types of energy that give you the opportunity to cook. Keep your attention focused on what you are doing and what makes it possible for you to do those things. You can reflect on the appliances you are using, the utensils, the electricity, the food itself, and even the people who taught you how to cook. Cooking can be a contemplative experience if you bring your attention to it.
4. At the beginning of the meal say a grace. I like to find a special grace for Thanksgiving. Sometimes I’ll write one myself. If you have people joining you with different religious beliefs, be sensitive to them when selecting a grace to read. At the end of the meal, say grace as well.
5. Have a bell available on the table (or suggest that people clink a glass) that allows dinner guests to signal when they have something they would like to read or share with the group. This is where people get to read the quote/reading they brought with them to the meal. When one person reads, everyone else should pause from eating and listen. The readings should be short, a paragraph or less. It’s good to have a few readings typed and available as “extras” in case someone didn’t bring one and still wants to participate. This allows the spirit of Thanksgiving to continually arise while everyone eats.
6. After the meal, invite people to get together and share some of their own reflections on what they are grateful for and who has been a supportive and helpful presence in their lives this past year. This is a great time for storytelling. If people have done the morning reflection, they already have some ideas. If there hasn’t been a formal time for reflection earlier in the day, this is a great time to allow people to speak spontaneously about what they are grateful for.
7. Make phone contact with a family member or friend that could not attend the meal and express some kind of appreciation to them for what they’ve done for you in the past. This is where technology can really enhance your long distance contact. You can use Skype or Google talk to make video contact. Or use a website like Mailvu.com to make a short video email that is personalized for the person you are contacting.
8. Do something for others — individually or as a group. Deliver a pie to a neighbor or homeless shelter, make a contribution to a good cause, feed the birds or other animals. Our family is vegetarian and we actually Adopt-a-Turkey as part of our Thanksgiving Holiday through a program sponsored by the Farm Sanctuary. They turkey doesn’t actually come and live with you – you simply provide money ($30) to help support the turkey during the coming year. Do something to actively pass on your thanks for your good fortune to others.
9. If there are people joining you for the holiday who you find irritating, make a special effort to gravitate towards them (rather than avoid them) and be kind to them. Say something nice and be willing to listen to their troubles with a compassionate heart. Find some quality in them that you can appreciate and which may have been hidden in the past by your attention to other more irritating characteristics. In other words, leave some good karma behind where it is most needed.
“Be kind for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.”
-Ian MacLaren (not Plato)
Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday of the year. It’s a holiday dedicated to gratitude, and gratitude is cultivated through reflection. For more ideas on using the holidays for self-reflection and gratitude, I encourage you to read my book:
Naikan: Gratitude, Grace and the Japanese Art of Self-Reflection (Stone Bridge Press)
If you would like to share your own ideas for a Thankful Thanksgiving, I invite you to post them in the comments section below.
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Beautiful, Gregg — thank you for sharing this!
I thought you would like this story: When I was growing up (born in 1959), my dad would always initiate creative expressions of gratitude at our big extended family gatherings. His brothers and sister would often tease him about it, or even criticize him for “dominating the holiday meal with his rituals.” But I always loved it, and everybody else did, too, once they began — it was the best and most memorable part of the meal. It brought everybody to a deeper level of connection and sincerity than I ever heard them reach in the noisy stretches where lots of side conversations would be going on at once, often about trivial nothings. It also gave all of us (as many as 20-something family members) a chance to hear people who might not often raise their voices in the whole group, especially the women and the children, both of whom were less likely to speak up like that beyond their own smaller circles of most familiar family members. For instance, at Thanksgiving, Dad might set it up to give every man, woman and child at the table a turn to have the full group’s attention while they expressed something they were especially grateful for this year… People were allowed to eat while we talked, just like you would in an ordinary dinner conversation. But what people said had so much more care in it, and everybody listened respectfully, so it was a more rewarding exchange all around. Great family memories for all of us! And a whole range of valuable “muscles” developed in the process — gratitude, self-expression, listening well, respect for differences, an expectation of intimacy, truthfulness and mutual respect in interactions, etc. And I always appreciated my dad’s guts in sticking up for what was important to him, and finding ways to make that meaningful for everybody else, too.
Thanks for stirring this pot, Gregg!
Gregg, thanks to you and Linda for showing the way with your work and example. I am sorry I did not make the most of your hard work in the mental health month of reflection. I’m sure I’ll try again. Your friend Peter.