Living thanksgiving

What if thanksgiving was a way of life instead of just another holiday? And what if gratitude wasn’t an incidental afterthought or an obligatory chore? What if the ability to be grateful was, in fact, an ingenious tool capable of transforming even the most powerfully negative states of consciousness? Just, “Thank you,” that ubiquitous sentiment, so easy to fake or forget altogether – what if it was actually a compass in the wilderness that pointed unfailingly in the direction of peace? And what if I actually trusted it? What if I followed it?

I met a woman when I was walking through New Mexico, Georgette Endicott, and she told me a little story about her mother that still echoes after all these years. It’s just an image, really, and the image is this: An old Italian matriarch is living out her final years alone in the rainy grey of Washington state. She wakes up every morning and first thing, goes to her kitchen window, parts the curtains, and looks outside. It’s Washington, so more often than not it’s a miserable, shitty mess. But every morning, no matter what, the old woman smiles at whatever she sees and says, “Oh, che bella giornata.” What a beautiful day.

Imagine the implications of living this kind of gratitude over the course of decades, of saying thank you to the miserable, shitty mess in all of its manifestations. To rejection: “Thank you.” To the ache of longing: “Thank you.” To despair, to humiliation, even to death: “Che bella giornata.”

What would it mean to cultivate an authentic gratitude for every experience? For me, when I can remember the practice real-time, it turns everything into a catalyst for growth or healing. Thanking fear in a moment of fear transforms that fear (and whatever triggered it) into an ally, a generous benefactor offering me the gift of itself. The fear also becomes an invitation this way, an invitation to experience its opposite: faith. It’s one thing to talk about something like faith. It’s another to live it, and I can only really live it if I’ve known its absence. It’s the same with anything. Take forgiveness. Without getting hurt, there’s no opportunity to forgive, no opportunity to embody the unique inner liberation of relinquishing my capacity for hatred. So, thank you, hurt. Thank you, fear. Thank you to anything that takes me down and tears me apart, because you are giving me the chance to rise, to be whole again, but this time, whole having experienced and integrated brokenness, which is an informed kind of wholeness, a “wholier” wholeness.

This gratitude is not naïve. It’s not a form of denial or avoidance, or a false cheeriness. Far from it. It is an old woman waking up from the sweet respite of her dreams, getting out of her comfortable bed, parting the curtains and looking right into it, the truth of that particular day, whatever it may be. The miserable, shitty mess might still hurt, but with gratitude, it’s no longer an enemy. It’s a teacher. An old friend. “Oh, my beloved shame, che bella, che bella. My sweet confusion, che bella. Enlighten me. Heal me. Show me what it means to feel you. Show me what it is to be human. Thank you, thank you, thank you.” The miserable, shitty mess becomes the ground for empathy and connection, because who hasn’t been in that mess? We humans who are all destined to die, who are all so vulnerable in body and sensitive in mind, who among us is exempt from pain? No one. So, thank you, pain. Thank you for initiating me into this vast human tribe.

So, what if thanksgiving had nothing to do with turkey and football and Black Friday shopping sprees? What if it was a way of life, the constant mantra in the background of all moments?

For many of us (especially those of us who are some combination of white, suburban-raised, and male), it’s easy to think of violence as a distant and alien phenomenon. It is shootings and muggings and bombings. It happens in bad neighborhoods far from our own, or in the hills of some foreign land, or in a city across the sea. We are connected to it only by the headlines, it seems. Or maybe we have experienced it firsthand, some obvious form of violence, but even then, we’d like to conceive of it as an anomalous blip in an otherwise violence-free existence. A freak accident. “Violence is not my story,” the thinking goes. “I am neither victim nor executioner. I’m just, you know, not a part of it.”

I thought this way for a long time. Still do, when I’m not paying attention. I’ve only recently begun to explore the startling truth: that not only am I capable of violence, I’m also the perpetrator of violence everyday. This has been one of the more horrifying fruits of my meditation practice – the realization that there is a madman inside my head wreaking havoc whenever he can. The madman is a conditioned thought-pattern, a way of thinking. Call it fear. Call it loathing. Call it the Devil himself. Sitting on a cushion for just a few minutes each day has become an invitation to consider the possibility that perhaps evil is not some entity outside myself. That it might be, instead, the inevitable effect of the belief in my own separateness, the conviction that I am fundamentally disconnected from you, that we are not manifestations of the same universe, that we are not, in fact, one.

Suddenly, looking through the lens of this separateness, we are in competition. We are at war. If there is you and me, then which one of us is better? Which one of us is right? There now have to be winners and losers, the ones who get to heaven and the ones who go to hell. And, of course, who wouldn’t fight to get to heaven, if there’s the threat of hell? And so we fight for heaven, and in so doing, create hell.These are the implications of a belief in separateness, of living by exclusion and division. It is, intrinsically, a violent form of perception, necessitating the suffering of someone out there.

This way of thinking becomes a way of living, and violence is the inevitable result. Most of us are living it out in our own subtle ways each day. Just watch it: the loathing or self-loathing, the competitive social posturing, the endless inner dialogue of critical comparison, how “me and you” becomes “me versus you,” over and over again. While it does not compare to the suffering created by the violence of a suicide bomber, it does grow from the same soil: the belief in separateness, the failure to recognize the truth of our unavoidable interdependence, our oneness in both spirit and matter.

By investigating our own inner violence, through meditation or other forms of contemplation, the path to healing is a bit easier to see. Coming at it from the outside in – using the wounds of the world as surrogates for our own, or projecting our inner devil onto some external bad guy – it’s much more confusing this way, seeking a solution. Turning inward, the solution becomes intuitively clear and simple.

The core question arises: What do I do with this devil inside me, this violence?

The insight follows: I can either reject it or accept it. Hate it or meet it with love. Eviscerate it, berate it, and crucify it, or instead, hold it in a gentle embrace, rocking this slimy, hissing creature like I’d rock a child shivering in fear.

This is where the solution becomes obvious, if a bit paradoxical: If I hate that thing inside me which hates, then I’m just adding more hate to my system. If I’m violent against that which is violent, it’s simply more violence. There is only one way out of the cycle: I must love it, all of it, fiercely, tenderly, and completely. A broken-open, broken-hearted, irrational, all-or-nothing love. Saying, “Thank you,” and, “I forgive you,” and, “You belong here, too,” over and over again until the pained, thrashing creature trusts you enough to melt into your embrace, to become the wild, insane love that you, too, have chosen to become.

I can see this quite clearly in my own inner experience. I can feel it, how futile it is to meet the violence inside me with violence. It just hurts more.

So what do we do with those humans among us who are so deeply lost in their delusions of separateness that they would commit mass murder in a tragic attempt to realize their flawed understanding of heaven? How do we respond to this wound, in our own minds and hearts?

The medicine is bitter, but powerful: So long as we meet violence with violence, we are just perpetuating the shitshow. If we kill they who have killed, or even hate they who hate, we have transcended nothing. Heaven does not exist until we’ve learned to love the Devil, too.

I spent a month alone in a cottage on Lake Erie last autumn. It was perched atop these cliffs that hung over the water, next to a stream where big, dark trout spent their lives facing the flow. They were like sluggish phantoms at night, their backs glistening from the floodlight by the bridge. Some nights, I’d stand in the middle of that bridge, above the trout, and I’d watch: their slow and subtle adjustments to the flow, to each other. Their silence. Sometimes, if one of them drifted awry, it would heave itself into a more suitable position with a splash, but such wild movements were rare. They swam slowly, the trout, slower than anything Time could catch. Time seemed to miss them somehow, rush over their backs like the water, and so they just hung there, almost motionless, floating in eternity. I wondered what it would be like to float that way, subtle and slow, eternal. I wondered if maybe I already was, and I just couldn’t see it, like the trout couldn’t see themselves.

I’d leave the bridge under a kind of hypnotic spell, and start walking back up the trail through the woods to the cottage. I’d turn off the floodlight for these walks, forcing myself to encounter the dark, and my fear of being alone in it. I’d move slowly, like the trout; the dark wasn’t so scary this way.

But it wasn’t the dark that was scary at all, in fact. The fear came from the inside – the way my mind related to the dark – and my mind was vulnerable to the effects of my body’s velocity. After a few of these walks, I realized that the faster I went, the more terrifying everything seemed. There was a direct correlation. When I rushed, I’d stumble on loose rocks and trip over branches, and the whole world took on the color of malevolence, something out to get me, eat me, end me. But this perception actually had nothing to do with the night. The night was not intrinsically terrifying. It could just as easily be experienced as delightful, seen through a different lens. It was my own speed that was spawning the dis-ease. My body’s burning velocity created an inner environment of agitation perfectly suited for fear, and so it was only natural that fear would blossom there.

Realizing this, I’d slow down. My feet inching along. My arms waving like ribbons in a slow-motion wind. There’d be a little more space within me. Space to just float there, free of my own rapid-fire nightmares. Space for the questions: What am I afraid of, anyway? And who is it that’s afraid? And where is there to hide, if this fear is coming from the inside out? Space to be here. Space to breathe and keep watching.

Then I’d be back in the kitchen, lights on, the darkness forgotten again, bustling about at higher speeds. But the trout. They were still out there, slow and floating. I bet they still are, each one a living lesson in the serenity of slowness.

There is a primordial wizard living inside me. It is called Mind, and it’s capable of many great and terrible things. It can create an entire world in an instant, and then shatter that world, and make a new one in no time at all. It is always building, and destroying, and building again, ever-restless, unsettled. It casts spells to entertain. It whispers illusions of certainty. It rages at the very same beasts it summons. An exhausting sorcerer. Very needy, contradictory; it wants all the attention, but at the same time, refuses to show itself. I’ve never actually met the wizard of Mind, face to face. I’ve only ever seen its magic – the thoughts, the thinking. Who is the wizard, the one responsible for these hexes and spells? Where does it live? Where does it hide? Of course, trying to answer those questions would just be another wild goose chase of thinking. An endless game of hide and seek. Mind ensnares awareness with all kinds of enchanting tricks. It has had thousands of years to practice.

It’s a strange and wonderful thing to experience a moment of disenchantment with this wizard-in-residence. Just getting tired of it. Tired of its ceaseless scheming and dreaming. Tired of its beautiful bullshit. Enough already. What was once breathtaking becomes boring. Not worth the attention – no more hopeful parades, no more call to arms. There’s a moment of pause: “Do we really have to this time, just because the wizard wants to? Do we absolutely have to?” Maybe not.

After touching this kind of disenchantment, sometimes the fear comes. The question: “If all my thoughts are just so many magic tricks cast by an unseen wizard that may not even exist in the first place, then what am I? Who am I?” But that’s just another thought. That’s the wizard at work, thinking again.

This must be why they tell you to focus on the breath in some forms of meditation. Just follow the breath, that’s all, using it as a throne to hold the awareness. The breath is not an idea or a thought, not an interpretation or a concept. It is an innocent process without an agenda, a refuge. The wizard of Mind is breathtaking, takes the breath away, so take the breath back, and just breathe. The simple cycle of inhale and exhale invites the awareness out of the wizard’s ancient sorcery, back into something even more ancient: being. Focusing on the breath, I am just being…until I’m thinking again – interpreting, reinterpreting, misinterpreting, etc.

I don’t know what any of this means. I don’t know what it implies. I don’t know what I’m supposed to do with it. Oh look, that’s the wizard again! Awareness enchanted by thinking, wanting to know – textbook Mind magic. Very slippery, this stuff. Very magnetic. Just breathe, when the enchantment comes, whatever the spell or the curse. Maybe disenchantment – peace – is really that close, just a breath away.

In this infinite castle there are countless rooms to explore, each with its own secret and treasure. I have a few questions for the one who wanders through this castle every day.

I see you’ve found certain rooms that you can’t seem to leave. Add it all up and you’ve spent entire years in some of these rooms. You might venture out for a while, go down an unknown corridor or into a new wing, far and wide, high and low, but you always return to these particular rooms, as if you must. But must you? Why do you keep going back to them, over and over again? Nothing wrong with it. Just, why? Have you not heard the fullness of the secrets inside? Is there more treasure? Or is it something else? What keeps bringing you back? What is driving your movement?

And why do you constantly revisit the rooms that scare the shit out of you? You don’t have to go in them, you know. If it scares the shit out of you, then it scares the shit out of you. Just leave it at that. There are countless other rooms to explore in this castle, remember? But your own fear is magnetic; it’s attracted to that which will help it proliferate. Why do you acquiesce? Perhaps you don’t like knowing there’s something out there that has that kind of power over you, the power to so unsettle you. So you keep going back to these rooms, to see if you’re stronger this time, to see if you finally might be more powerful than the boogeymen inside. See the problem with that? You’re acting as if there’s an enemy to be conquered, something to be defeated, destroyed. Put it another way: you’re expecting whatever’s inside that room to conquer you, defeat you, destroy you. Of course you feel afraid! Who wouldn’t, going into it like that? If you can’t see that this is your perspective, and if you can’t change that perspective before entering the room, then just don’t go in, okay? Move on. But it’s up to you, of course.

My next question: Why do you care so much about all the closed doors, the ones that won’t open for you? Why do you sit outside these doors, wailing to be let inside? Why do you rage, hammering at the unbreakable wood? Why, good wanderer, oh why, do you sit there in vain protest, refusing food and water, waiting for the door to open? “But I had a glimpse inside before the door shut,” you say to me, “and it was so beautiful.” It was, was it? “Yes,” you say. “I’ve never seen anything like it. It must be my home, the place where I belong.” It’s so sweet, to witness your tender longing, but don’t you see the obvious? The door is closed! Locked! This room is not meant for you right now, and it may never be. There are other rooms waiting for you in this infinite castle, open and ready, and yet you sit outside this one locked door, wailing and raging. Let me say it loud and clear, what the door would say if it could speak: you’re not invited. It’s not personal. You’re the one who’s making it personal. Just move on, wanderer. Say to yourself, “I’ll be goddamned if I’m going to give my life away to some locked room that doesn’t even want me inside it.” Say to yourself, “Oh hell no, I will not believe that the treasures and secrets meant for me don’t want me to receive them.” Pick yourself up off the ground and walk on, saying, “I’ll be goddamned,” and “Oh hell no,” until you don’t need to say it anymore, and you can just enjoy the exploration again.

Another question: Why do you follow your fellow castle wanderers? Why do you believe they know the way? Can’t you see there is no way? It’s an infinite castle. There’s no end to it, so of course there’s no way, no one way to some arbitrary, imagined finish line. There’s only the exploration, and you can do whatever you want with that. But still, you follow, assuming others know best. You hear a crowd in one room, and you think that that room must be the room, the place where it’s all going down, the ultimate secret and treasure. You don’t want to miss out, don’t want to get left behind. But you’re forgetting: it’s just another room! It’s got a big crowd inside. So what? In this infinite castle, you’ll find countless rooms with big crowds. The drive to find the best room with the biggest crowd, how exhausting that must be for you. How much it must hurt, too, because at the root of it is the belief that you are incomplete, unrealized, and that you will remain so until you find that ultimate room, elusive and exclusive…”But what if you never do?” whispers the fear. That’s pain, believing you are not enough exactly as you are, here and now.

Which brings me to my last question: How long will you wander this infinite castle until you no longer need to? How long will you insist upon entering this room and that room, seeking secrets and treasures, room after room after room? When will you stop, at last, and fully enter the room inside yourself? When will you start listening to the secrets there, and believe in them? When will you recognize the treasure-in-plain-sight that is you, and care for it accordingly? This castle is infinite, so it will indulge your wanderings forever. It’s up to you how long you’ll go, until you’ve had enough, until you realize that these rooms have nothing you don’t already have, that they cannot give you that which you have not first given yourself. How long, wanderer? How long?

Not needing to know

I was struck by the power of “I don’t know” the other day, “I don’t know” as the answer to all questions, even the ones with ostensibly obvious answers. Who am I? What is this? Where are we? How’s it all happening? “I don’t know.” And to really mean it. To pretend I have no idea, until the pretending becomes authentic unknowing. Until I truly do not know. Letting go of the assumption that it’s even possible for me to grasp the magnitude of the answers, and not needing to, for once. Befriending that floating feeling of cluelessness. Experiencing mystery rather than trying to define it or catch it. Just letting it be, wild and free.

To every question: I don’t know. To every thought: maybe, maybe not. 

Playing with this one, it made me think about all the harm spawned by the knowing mind, or the mind that thinks it knows, the mind that doesn’t know but feels it must. It’s such a defended state of being. It chooses its truth – one interpretation from a multitude of possibilities – and it tethers itself to this truth, identifies with it, as it. It needs this truth to be right, because if it’s wrong, then the mind’s perception of itself collapses, dies. Obviously it doesn’t want that, so the knowing mind fortifies itself, protects itself, does anything and everything to prove that no other truth is truer.

But what if it’s just “I don’t know” instead? Not a fearful “I don’t know,” or a doubtful one. Just an “I don’t know” that’s open to every possibility, excluding none. An unsticky state of mind. Unattached to the explanations that bubble up inside. Unimpressed by the fireworks. Uninterested in the seductive fantasies and the magnetic nightmares. “I don’t know. I don’t need to know. I don’t want to know.” With that, the thoughts become like junk mail. I don’t read my junk mail. I’m not sure how the junk mail people found my name and address, but they did, and they won’t stop sending me stuff. It keeps coming and coming, and I suppose it always will, but I never read any of it. I take a glance and I throw it out, every time. Unattached. Unimpressed. Uninterested.

My attempts at understanding infinity and my place within it: beautiful junk mail. Even just the little stuff – trying to understand why she did this, why he did that, and guessing at what they’ll do next – well-intentioned junk mail, just doing its best to protect me and make me happy.

The futility of trying to know. The freedom of not needing to.

I am here

This blog has been quite silent for the past two years, but I’d like to change that, use it as a space to start walking again, exploring the worlds inside and out. I’m going to post something every Sunday, just little thoughts or stories, little journeys. A way to hold myself accountable to the continued miracle of simply being here. A way to show up to the questions and complexities that float my way. So, a little discipline. We’ll try every Sunday and see how that goes.

For today, an inward trip:

It’s fascinating what comes up in silence and solitude, when all that’s left to distract you is your own mind. Nowhere else to go. Nothing else to do. Just being here and watching what comes up: the flash insights, the long shadows, the interpretations and the reinterpretations. Close the eyes and there is a roiling cosmos in this stillness, thoughts and opinions contradicting each other, inexplicable images of untraceable origin, a cacophony of memory and fantasy. Driving all of it, for me at least, is the longing to understand and belong, to love and be loved, and the occasional whisper that this longing might remain a longing forever, unanswered, unrealized. Sometimes, it’s better to just get lost in Youtube. Forget the roiling cosmos for a while.

But whenever I tune out like that, I miss the little one-liners, those diamonds from the deep. No other way to get them but to tune in. Turn in. Listen. I found one yesterday morning, or it found me, the curious experience of saying aloud to myself, “I will never abandon you.” Writing about it now, there’s an added layer of self-consciousness that colors the scene with some silliness, but in the moment I was alone, experiencing it, and it was nothing if not gravely serious, backed by the understanding that it is indeed possible for me to abandon myself. That I have abandoned myself before, many times. Every time I said “yes” even though I wanted to say “no.” Every time I said “no” even though I knew “yes” was the way. Every instance of shame and the resulting shut down. Every moment of judgment and comparison, of rejection in all its subtle forms, and the almost inevitable outcome of these inner movements: a rapid running away. Tuning out. Lost in the Youtube of mind, or the actual Youtube.

One of my mom’s greatest one-liners is this: “You are the love of your life.” Yesterday morning, I spoke to myself that way, as if I were speaking to the love of my life, with a fierce tenderness: “I will never abandon you.”

For a second, there arose a sense of great relief, as if I’d been waiting to hear this for years, anxious it might never come. I felt free, the kind of freedom born out of a complete (if momentary) needlessness. No need for anyone to promise me anything, or to concern myself with what they might think and why. No need to walk on existential eggshells. No need to edit or enhance whatever happens, or fix it or break it or change it in any way, because no matter what, “I will never abandon you.” Feeling, for a moment, the strength of someone willing to let in the fullness of every experience, someone who doesn’t run away when it gets painful or terrifying or even just awkward. The strength of an unconditional commitment to really being here.

How to remember that feeling? I guess that’s the idea of a mantra. You say it over and over again, countless times, until you become what you are saying:

“I am here.”

“I am here.”

“I am here.”


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