Giving Thanks on Thanksgiving

Jay Michaelson
November 21, 2018

Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays.

First of all, as a Jewish kid growing up in Florida in the 1980s, it was nice to have a holiday I could share with the other 99% of the population. Second, the food.

But most of all, Thanksgiving is something that everyone can appreciate. Who among us couldn’t use a little more gratitude in our lives? A little less taking for granted; a little more stopping and smelling the roses. It’s a great holiday.

And, of course, it’s intimately related to the art of waking up – to becoming more aware of what’s around us every day.

As Jeff Warren points out in the new “Nightly Gratitude” meditation, human brains have a built-in negativity bias. This is a good idea from the standpoint of natural selection: it’s better to see too many threats, too many saber-toothed tigers hiding in the scrub brush, than to see too few.

But from the point of view of happiness, negativity bias is a loser. It is just plain human nature to dwell too much on what’s wrong, not appreciating what’s right.

Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Buddhist teacher I’ve quoted before in Meditation Weekly, has a very relatable way of explaining this. After you’ve had a toothache, he writes, you’re really grateful when it goes away. But how many of us woke up this morning grateful for having a non-toothache?

More seriously, of course, are the big things: the love of people around us, the safety and privilege we enjoy, the ability to breathe and be alive for one more day. When any of these blessings are threatened – when we or a loved one are seriously ill, for example; or when we realize that we’re not as safe as we thought we were – then we pay attention to them. But again, it’s just human nature, conditioned by millions of years of evolution, not to pay attention to them most of the time.

Thanksgiving is a once-a-year gratitude practice. It’s a time to take stock of the good – not to be polly-annish and pretend that the bad stuff isn’t happening or isn’t real, but to get some balance, to correct for negativity bias. Here are three specific ways that could play out for you this year:

1. “Accounting of the Soul”

In the Jewish tradition, there’s a lovely Hebrew phrase “cheshbon ha’nefesh,” which translates into “accounting of the soul.” This means introspection into the blessings we’ve enjoyed, the good that we’ve done, and also the times that we’ve fallen short. You can do this every night: as Jeff recommends, just think of a single thing from the day just ended that was good. Maybe the taste of a favorite food, or a moment of kindness, or winning several million dollars in the lottery, if that happened to you today.

You can also do it on Thanksgiving. What are some of the highlights of the last few months? Jot them down. What are some blessings – health, for example – that you might not ordinarily notice? You could appreciate nature, or your work in the world – really, anything that shows up can be tabulated in your “accounting of the soul.”

2. Spread the Love

Thanksgiving is also a rare opportunity to open up. Maybe you’re part of a family (or friend-circle) that’s super touchy-feely and always talks about how grateful they are to be alive. Good for you! But if you’re not, Thanksgiving provides the perfect excuse to open up just a little bit. Don’t worry, you’re not being soupy – it’s the point of the holiday.

Consider inviting everyone at your table to say something they’re thankful for this year. If you want to apologize for being sappy, go ahead. What I’ve found, having done this at my own extended family tables, is that even the most reticent of family members can open up a little.

Normally, I don’t ever, ever, ever try to counsel or cajole my family members, or teach them meditation, or any of that stuff. I am definitely not “spiritual teacher Jay Michaelson” in family settings. But on Thanksgiving – give it a try. As long as you go in with low expectations, I think you’ll find the rewards are well worth the effort.

3. Consider the Present Moment

Finally – and this one is perhaps less shareable than others – give this “meditation superpower” a try. The spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle, famous as one of Oprah’s gurus, once said, “turn your entire attention to the Now, and tell me what your problem is.”

This is actually a very subtle teaching. What Tolle is saying is that when your attention is totally on “the present moment,” it just is how it is. I’m sitting, I’m breathing, I’m seeing the things around me, I like some of them, I don’t like others. In that moment, there really is no problem.

Of course, the “present moment” is not the whole story. There are indeed problems in the world. But in each individual moment, in what he calls the “Now,” things are really very simple. Use your mindfulness practice, let go of thoughts of the present or past, and just hang out. See what happens for you.

I can vouch for this practice because I’ve done it. I did at my mother’s bedside when she was in the dying process. What was happening “right now”? Sitting, breathing, sadness, fear, struggle, and also beauty, reflection, the sunlight coming through the window, love. Not all of it was lovely, but none of it was a “problem.” For a moment, there was peace – and I think that moment of peace enabled me to show up more for my Mom.

This, I think, is the ultimate gratitude: showing up as our full selves in each moment, just seeing it as it is. From that relinquishment of resistance, I find that gratitude arises naturally.

Pass the stuffing!

Dr. Jay Michaelson has been teaching meditation for fifteen years in secular, Buddhist, and Jewish communities. Jay is a journalist on CNN Tonight and at Rolling Stone, having been a weekly columnist for the Daily Beast for eight years. Jay was also an editor and podcast host for Ten Percent Happier for four years. He's an affiliated professor at Chicago Theological Seminary. Jay’s eight books include "The Gate of Tears: Sadness and the Spiritual Path" and the brand new "Enlightenment by Trial and Error".

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