Why is it so hard to count your blessings at Thanksgiving?
This is the time of year, they tell us, to truly appreciate what you have around you, and think about how grateful you are for everything you have. Count your blessings- your family, your friends, your home, your health, the fact that unemployment is still in the single digits. It’s nice to picture that Norman Rockwell holiday, life’s troubles suspended for just one day as everyone gathers lovingly around the turkey.
I have been to enough Thanksgiving dinners, mine and others’, to know that this does not happen. Most people I know consider themselves lucky if they escape from their family gathering kids in tow, casserole dishes unbroken, relationships fully intact.
If you don’t get along with your family, it is especially hard to set aside feelings of isolation and be thankful at the peak of holiday stress. If your health is poor, it is difficult to watch everyone around you enjoy themselves, free from pain or disease, and be happy for them instead of envious. If you have little (or no) income, watching your friends and family exchange expensive presents can make you feel guilty, or worse, jealous.
Nobody’s life is immune to ups and downs, and our brains are wired to respond to those. It’s hard to avoid being yanked along on that emotional roller coaster. You’re riding high on praise from your boss one day, the next you’re rear-ended by some schlub with no insurance.
You can’t control your family, your boss, or idiot teenage drivers. The only thing in your life you can control is you. That’s the mantra of my mission. Your mind probably has some pretty bad habits. You’re never going to get into the holiday spirit one day of the year when you don’t have the holiday spirit the other 364.
Mindfulness, a secular practice with roots in and connections to almost every major religion, can change that.
Are you serious?
Close friends of mine know how obsessed I am with situational awareness. The zombie apocalypse will spare no one, and I aim to be sure my nearest and dearest are ready for when life attacks. Many people think I am insane because of this, and they are probably right.
But I believe I’m even more right when it looks like everyone around me is walking around blind. In January 2005, the University of Illinois published this terrifying study where most commercial airline pilots landed directly on top of another plane during a simulation… simply because they were not expecting it to be there.
You may have previously seen this famous selective attention test from 1999. If not, I encourage you to watch it, as silly and dated as it may be, just so you know where I’m going with this.
If situational awareness is noticing the gorilla on the basketball court while counting shots, then mindfulness is noticing the gorilla, the basketball,the players, the jerseys, the shots, the court, right down to the players’ shoes.
But what does a gorilla have to do with Thanksgiving?
I’m not going to tell you that meditation was the solution to all my problems. I still have traffic jams, fights with my parents, and even occasional Paper Chase moments that make me want to curl up and die right there in class.
But ever since I began practicing mindfulness, I have found my quality of life has improved so dramatically, I want to share the practice with anyone who might benefit from it. (Full disclosure: I truly believe that everyone could benefit from it.) Because, and allow me to repeat, the only thing you can control is you.
You know that saying that life is 10% what happens to you and 90% how you react to it? I believe it’s more like 100% how you react. I know some people who don’t even notice the 10% of life that is happening to them because they are so hung up on something that happened years ago, or something that will happen in the distant future.
Mindfulness pulls us out of the stress and worry and confusion of our minds, and into the present. If you want to get serious about counting your blessings on Thanksgiving, then you have to notice your blessings first.
Most of us walk around on autopilot, doing the things we need to do (or the things we think we need to do) to be successful: studying for class, going to work, getting the oil changed, eating lunch, grocery shopping, going to the bank. The whole time, we think about the next thing on the to-do list. What we need to do tomorrow.
Ugly or beautiful, when is the last time you really looked at your bank? The walls, the molding, the windows?
When is the last time you really enjoyed your food? Savored it, chewed it? Without reading, texting, or spending the whole time chatting with the person next to you?
To wrap up….
Next week, I’ll be posting a primer on meditation and some mindfulness exercises to try. Until then, do me a favor.
Attempt to eat at least one meal a day mindfully. Chew your food completely and savor it. Enjoy the textures, smell the aromas, ponder each ingredient- how it got to your table, how it works in harmony with the others to create a pleasurable eating experience. While you’re at it, say a prayer of thanks for your taste buds and that you can eat with a knife and fork instead of through a tube. If you truly feel that you have nothing else to give thanks for this year, you will at least enjoy your turkey and dressing.