By Brent Purple Oliver
When I was kid, Thanksgiving was mostly about tracing hand turkeys at school and then going home and shoveling mashed potatoes into my face.
I didn’t like the dry white bird, roasted within an inch of combustion and then drowned in gravy to mask its aridity. The fact that chunks of soggy bread were jammed up its mysterious crack didn’t help much. They called it stuffing, which seemed far too on the nose for me. It had a lot of onions, which was gross, and celery, which was stringy. And all of that had been soaking in a turkey’s asshole? Chesthole? Whatever, I didn’t want it.
Canned cranberry sauce was obviously a gelatinous joke. I wasn’t going fall for that shit. It jiggled in a way that food shouldn’t. Broccoli casserole had broccoli in it, cheese notwithstanding. And, for some reason, there were always oysters for my dad and uncle. They were oiled sea snot. Thanks, but barf.
My mom’s mashed potatoes were perfect, though.
They were meticulously whipped to a smooth, creamy consistency any angel would’ve been proud to put a sandaled foot upon. They were savory cotton candy, buttered atmosphere from the heaven realms, fluffy piles of oozing white manna. They were the finest poetry plain old potatoes could ever hope to have condensed from their peasant prose.
And now here we are. Nothing has ever come close to my mom’s mashed potatoes, and the activities of our daily lives don’t come very close to the gratitude and compassion we’re capable of expressing. Regardless of how we may feel about the complicated origins of Thanksgiving the American holiday, I think we could all marinate in a little more gratitude.
Seems like the world could use a little more kindness and empathy and softness. But where do we start?
We can’t force these things upon others. There’s no way to mandate compassion for the general populace. We’re always looking out there for the solution, for chances to demand that others care, but the best way to begin is to check yourself.
Why aren’t you more thankful? What’s stopping you from being more loving? Why aren’t you as airy and silky as my mom’s mashed potatoes, with butter sliding down you? How could you possibly expect the rest of the world to be nice when you struggle with it yourself?
Out there is folly. The only way to make the world better is to make yourself better. If you want more kindness out there, be kind. If you want to see more compassion out there, be compassionate. And if you want others to be thankful, you have to be thankful yourself.
That’s what this practice is all about. It’s my own variation of a standard lovingkindness exercise. Modern scientific research is validating the concept that this type of meditation actually helps grow the portions of the brain responsible for emotion sharing and empathy.
Here’s what you do:
Take your seat and settle in. Pull in a deep breath and lengthen your spine upwards. On the exhale, try to release any tension you feel in your body. Do this three times, getting your posture where it needs to be in order to sit comfortably for a while.
Now that you’re in position, take a few more deep breaths to settle in. Let your attention follow those breaths and just chill out.
Bring to your mind a visual image of someone you consider to be sort of neutral. You neither love them nor hate them—just a person you see frequently but don’t have much of an opinion of. Maybe the barista at Starbucks who gives you your morning coffee, or your mail carrier, or the bartender at your favorite restaurant. Hold their image in your mind. Think about what they do for you, no matter how small, and why you’re grateful they’re in your life. Silently, in your head, tell them why you’re grateful.
“I appreciate what you do. Thank you.”
It doesn’t have to be that, exactly—just something short and to the point. Use your own words. What makes sense to you? Whatever you decide on, repeat that every five or six seconds for several minutes. Keep the image of that person in your head while you say whatever you say.
Next, bring up an image of someone who means a lot to you. A spouse, or a pet, a close friend, or a family member. Someone very close to you. Hold their image in your mind and come up with a short phrase that conveys why you’re thankful for them. “I love how you support me.” Maybe you might say, “You’re always there for me,” or “This couldn’t happen without you.” Even something simple like, “Thanks for paying the rent,” or “I have a car because of you.” Again, use your own words if you like. Just find a way to express to that mental image how grateful you are.
Finally, let your mind generate a vision of you. It can be a mental snapshot of you right now, sitting down and meditating, or it can be the memory of your favorite picture of yourself, anything that gives you a visual pic of you. Hold that image in your mind and tell it something that you’re grateful for.
What are you good at? What do you like about yourself? It can be something as simple as “I appreciate your humor,” or “Thanks for being smart,” or “I love that you can draw.” Once more, use your own words. See yourself in your mind and keep telling that image why you’re grateful.
All this can feel very disingenuous, like you’re trying to trick yourself into caring. That’s fine. It doesn’t matter if you don’t feel the gratitude and compassion right off the bat. That will come. What’s important is that you do the exercise.
This is the classic “fake it till you make it.”
The very fact that you’re practicing this act of gratitude will eventually lead to you feeling more gratitude. We don’t practice because we’re already there; we practice to get there. And, if we never get there, the practice itself is of utmost importance.
Good luck on this holiday weekend. I hope at least one thing you eat is as perfect as my mom’s mashed potatoes.
Editor: Dana Gornall
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Brent is a coach in Shinzen Young’s Unified Mindfulness system because it’s just such an approach. He works with individuals interested in everything from alleviating stress to pursuing classical enlightenment. He also coaches groups, and offers presentations to companies, schools, and organizations curious about the benefits of mindfulness. In addition to being a columnist at The Tattooed Buddha, Brent’s writing has also appeared in Tricycle: The Buddhist Review, and Morpheus. He lives in Lexington, KY with his wife, two cats, and a crippling addiction to horror. Swing by his website brentpurpleoliver.com for more information.
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