Autumn has always been my favorite season. And Thanksgiving my favorite holiday. How wonderful to have a day, each year, specifically set aside to simply give thanks.
Yet, possibly, an unintentional barrier.
As with many ideas, created with the best of intentions, they can unknowingly create unintended consequences, left invisible, amid busy lives. It may be fair to explore, how setting aside a day of thanks may be one of these.
There is no doubt, Thanksgiving can be a wonderful reminder of the importance of being grateful when all that fills one’s life can splinter into a state of taking so much for granted … or perhaps, no longer consciously recognizing gifts at all. For some, Thanksgiving may serve as a great reset each year to jolt one back into a focus of the importance of gratitude and a fresh assessment of what to be grateful for.
Yet, unknowingly, Thanksgiving can have the effect of isolating our gratitude into an event. Into an, albeit fun, expectation or compliant activity. Many families, ours included, make a practice of circling around the Thanksgiving dinner table with a tradition of expressing what each are thankful for each year. The truth be told, how many search their mind for an example as they are pulling their chair up to the table?
While I love every bit of the Thanksgiving celebration (and maybe you do too!), could it be undermining our coming to know a much deeper experience of gratitude as well as the systemic impact of gratitude when it is more deeply understood – and when it isn’t.
A couple of years ago, through a mutual friend, I was introduced to Chandra Shekhar Mayanil, a neuroscientist who grew-up in India before spending an 18-year career at Chicago’s Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital. Since then, we have connected and shared in many meaningful and insightful conversations.
Shekhar recently completed writing the manuscript of his first book on a topic you wouldn’t naturally expect from the mind of a neuroscientist – gratitude. The working title is Beyond Gratitude. And no doubt, Shekhar goes well beyond the candy-coated holiday nods to gratitude. While exploring the scientific elements of a grateful mind, he adventures deep into the emotional realms of having a heart pumping the essence of gratitude into each moment.
Each granular moment.
In an early chapter of his manuscript, Shekhar shares this beautiful and vulnerable story of his father unleashing the essence of gratitude in this granular degree. With his permission, I share it with you:
I was working as a Lecturer in the Department of Psychopharmacology at the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS), Bengaluru, India in the year 1984.
My mom and dad came to stay with me. My mother is a “deeply spiritual person” who always used to visit the Southern Indian temples. My dad used to accompany her but would never go inside the temples; instead stood outside. My mother had tried to coax him to enter the temple but failed in her attempts. Then she gave up, thinking that he is an atheist.
And even I thought he was an atheist.
One Sunday afternoon, I asked, “Dad, I always see you stand outside the temple, but never go inside to pay obeisance to the deity inside the temple. Why, may I ask you?”
“Your mother goes inside, isn’t it?
“Your mother has been coaxing me to go inside for as long as we are married, but today I will answer to both of you. Can you call your mom?”
I called my mom to come and join our conversation.
“You go inside the temple, isn’t it?”, my dad asked my mother.
“Yes”, my mother replied.
“Why and what do you do there?”
“Of course, to pray”.
“And what are your prayers like?”
My mother chanted a few shlokas (prayers in the praise of the Lord of the Universe) in Sanskrit, and few in Hindi, and a few in Marathi.
“And, what else”, my dad asked.
And after chanting all these shlokas, I ask for good health for the family, good education for the children, happiness at home and around, and sufficient money to run the household.
“But do you also say, ‘Thank You “God of the Universe” for what we already have?”
“Do you thank God for the good health we all enjoy?”
“Do you thank God for the good education our children have had and continue to have?”
“Do you thank God for the happiness we enjoy at home?”
“Do you thank God for the fact that there has never been a day that we did not have money or food on the table and a roof over our head and clothes to wear?”
And he went on counting a whole list of things that my mother did not do when she was in the temple.
“The reason for me not going inside the temple is that I am afraid that after seeing all the people inside the temple who may be praying like you, I may also start asking “your God of the Universe”, instead of Giving Thanks”.
“My difficulty is that I can only give thanks for each breath I take every moment. And by the time that I am done thanking for the breath I am taking, there is another one that I thank and that goes on all day.”
“I don’t even know how to thank for all the good health, happiness, the roof over the head, the clothes we wear, the food on the table, the job, the education for our children among many other things.
“I have no idea, nor do I find time to thank for these things that “your God of the Universe” has given us in plentiful especially when I only have this moment to thank for the breath that I am taking this very moment.”
I could see on my dad’s face an overwhelming feeling of gratitude and his helplessness (to the point of being in tears) in giving thanks for so many things he will have to do away without thanking.
Although he did not verbalize it, I could listen to him say, “Oh God, pl…es..se…, please hel..p, help me. I am helpless in thanking You for the blessings I have and the blessings I am receiving every moment”.
Imagine how much deeper our experience of gratitude would be; how expansive our awareness would become if it came with every breath – instead of once a year. As Shekhar shares, the opportunity for gratitude is as close as each breath – each moving us closer to a more granular experience of gratitude. And in so many ways, gratitude-given is a grace received. Practice makes perfect. And gratitude is no exception. Thanksgiving is a wonderful practice … year-to-year.
And so is breathing … moment-to-moment.
May you breathe just a little bit easier this Thanksgiving – with an ever-deepening gratitude. As you pull your chair up to the table, take a good deep breath – and then you will know exactly what to be thankful for when it comes your turn to share … even if it is simply to yourself. Have a wonderful Thanksgiving!
As always, I would LOVE for you to share your insights below – and/or perhaps something for which you are consistently thankful.