Two Meanings of Thanksgiving

The holiday of Thanksgiving has come and gone.

At this writing, the holiday is a week past, and, in the intervening time, an acquaintance of mine was killed by gunfire due to intimate partner violence.

Life is short and impermanent. Every moment must be cherished. Thanksgiving is one of the holidays in which we cherish our bounty and celebrate life.

Each of us has his or her own reasons for welcoming the coming of the holiday. When I was in school, or have a syllabus revision due for a future course, I welcomed the fall quarter break that came before the storm of exams. Others of us enjoy the preparation and consumption of food and leftovers. Still others of enjoy being with friends and family that we might not see as often as we like. Whatever our reasons, Thanksgiving is an important and much loved holiday.

So in a truly titualar moment of reflection, Thanksgiving, as a holiday, is primarily about giving thanks.

What does it mean to be thankful? In my experience, I have discerned that there are at least two meanings, equally important, that constitute the act of thanksgiving.

Thanksgiving through Gratitude as Abundance

The first meaning of thanksgiving is being thankful for the things you have, in part, by recognizing how much you have.  Gratitude is a state of mind, and is not dependent on the actual outer provisions or circumstances we have at any given moment.

Every one of us reached our place in life today because of the many people who were there for us when we needed it the most. They laughed with us, cried with us, got drunk with us, and most importantly, took time out of their days to spend with us, whatever the activity or cause may have been.

Thanksgiving is an opportune time to remember the happiness, joy, love, and support that we have received. Surrounding by friends and family, we can remember and celebrate all those good times, momentous occasions, beautiful moments and people that form a significant portion of our lived experiences.

But you might say: my life sucks and everything is hell.

Indeed that might be so.

There are many experiences, both good and bad, that compose our remembered lives. Friends have been false, loved ones have flaked out, teachers and mentors have let us down. Promises have been made and just as easily broken. We all have even experienced a sense of being lost, lacking both direction and purpose. I would be less than honest if I didn't acknowledge these bad things that happen. 

However, we would be less than honest if our preoccupation with the worst parts of our lives overshadowed all the quiet and oftentimes anonymous good that makes our lives possible. If I look at what I think I am lacking, then I will feel the need to grasp, claw, and cleave from the universe as much as I can take to fill the emptying fear of groundless-ness and destitution.

Yogic thought refers to this as parigraha--grasping-- and encourages us to practice aparigraha, or non-grasping to counter it.

Aparigraha is the tendency of the mind, under the sway of the ego, to simply snatch at things and claim them to be its own. The mind moves about [identifying with things]…in all spheres of activity—the political, economic, interpersonal, psychological realms, even in our private thoughts we can start to collect and accumulate things. 
— Richard Freeman, The Mirror of Yoga

We all want to feel secure, like we know what is going on. But I have found that we only have limited knowledge of the present, and it only through remembrance that we glimpse our own potential narratives. Yet, rather than confront terrifying freedom of having to actively choose, with wise self-compassion, because we do not know what the future holds, it is easy to give into the temptation to grasp at identification structures --labels about roles we have played in the past -- to shore up the ground underneath us, to prevent us from experiencing the terrifying impermanence of being human.

Being John (myself) each day is hard. It is my terrifying freedom to listen with compassion, to evaluate with wisdom, and to act with responsibility to do each day what is revealed to me as necessary for the cultivation of my best Self. 

It is easy to be John the eldest brother; the lover; the progressive; the intellectual; the romantic; the elusive; the entertainer; the yogi-scientist. In other ways to inhabit a role that was, at least once, part of who I was, and act as if it was the totality of my Being. The roles allow me to go on auto-pilot and stick to my script. An entertainer laughs off discomfort. The eldest brother provides, without regard to his own needs. 

Yet, we can all be happier and healthier if we let our gratitude express the ever-changing but ever-present abundance of our lives, irrespective of circumstances.

 For every teary night, broken promise, false friend, and callous remark there have been people who have been there. Some of those people became new friends and sources of strength; others of them remained anonymous but necessary avenues of encouragement for whatever we were going through at the time. Being thankful for the good doesn't mean forgetting the bad, but rather being honest about how making it through depended on those other people.

Acknowledging abundance (Aparigraha), we recognize the blessings in everything and gain insights into the purpose for our worldly existence. ~Sutra 2.39
— Nischala Joy Devi, The Secret Power of Yoga

Being thankful does mean letting go of the feeling of grasping and hording to fill up our senses of emptiness. Hording often comes in the form of believing that we don’t or won’t have “enough.” And this leads to mental restriction, lack of generosity, and availability to life. The energy of abundance requires the ebb and the flow, the receiving and the giving. Shifting focus to what we don't have, I've found, fills our mind with wasteful and destructive thought patterns. 

Thanksgiving as Gratitude in Contingent Blessing

The second meaning of thanksgiving I want to highlight is not taking anything for granted.

Everything good and bad in our lives could have been otherwise. To be thankful for the good times and beautiful people is to be ever ready with a word of encouragement, a helping hand, or some portion of your time for other people who may be going through a tough time. Our smile, our time, and our resources could be the difference between misery and joy for that person.

However, gratitude is not just the duties that we owe to others because of our success, it is also the way we can relate to the people closest to us. Gratitude is how we move from saying that we love or care for someone to loving or caring for that person. Gratitude is not flashy and fickle; in fact, it's just being there right when someone needs you the most. Ingratitude is just another form of contempt if we say we care about someone; grateful people recognize that their loved ones could be devoting their time and energy to others, and cherish every gift of care and love that comes their way.

As a daily practice, I attempt to show the people I know that I care by being there, and always being ready to be that anonymous support for someone whether I know them or not. I invite you to join me in this practice as well. 


I would like to conclude my remarks with a toast. I dedicate this toast to all of you who have been there for me. I have not forgotten your quiet, and sometimes not so quiet, labors on my behalf; your infectious smiles and wry humor; your wits and beauty; and most importantly, the fact that when it counted the most you were there.

Without your love, your dedication, and your concern, I would not have the joy that I possess today. For that, I thank you. Now you might say to yourself: wait a minute, we spent so little time together. It is true that this posting may advance far beyond people I know well. 


Some of you are very close friends; others of you I am rediscovering; some of you may truly only experience me digitally. But those things don't matter, you were there when I needed you, I have not forgotten you, and I still care. For those of you to whom I have not spoken in sometime, I look forward to getting to know you all over again.