Each Thanksgiving holiday, we are reminded to be thankful. When times are tough, finding reasons to be thankful may be challenging or even seem inappropriate or impossible. This year, before we sit around the dinner table, let’s think about the myriad benefits to saying thanks, and how to truly savor the opportunity, no matter what.
What do others give you?
What do you feel when someone thanks you for something? For a comment in a meeting, a task done at home, an extra step taken, an encouraging word.
You probably feel seen, appreciated, that you matter to the other person. Maybe a little startled, maybe wondering if you really deserve it, but also glad. Personally, this is how it is for me.
Turning it around, when you say “thank you” to someone, it’s a small moment with big ripples: a confirmation of a deep and wonderful truth, that we all depend on each other, that we are all joined – across dinner tables and across the world – in a web whose threads are innumerable acts of giving.
For example, often when I eat a meal I’ll take a moment to imagine the details of how that tomato or rice was grown and then transported onto my plate, including the people who walked the fields to plant and eventually pick it, and the man or woman who drove the truck that carried it to the store where I bought it. Those folks do not know me, but they’re real people, working hard, hoping for a good life, worrying about the people they love, extending themselves in their jobs, giving me something extra, all this woven into the food that’s entering my blood, my bones: thank you.
You can’t possibly say thank you to everything you’re given. No one can. So when you do say thanks, it’s a token of your appreciation for the larger whole, joining you with that whole. It will make you happy to open to the giving coming your way each day.
And in giving thanks to the people in your life, you open the door to receiving their thanks in turn. In your home or company, a nice circle, a step toward a culture of gratitude.
For starters, it’s hard to give thanks if you’re uncomfortable acknowledging that you have received something. Perhaps you don’t want to feel indebted, or don’t want to look needy. Maybe it’s simply embarrassing. These feelings are normal – but they can sure get in the way of being thankful.
To deal with them, begin by naming them to yourself: squirmy . . . embarrassed . . . resentful . . . awkward . . . don’t want to owe anyone anything . . . Hold them in a big open space of awareness, like dark clouds in a vast sky. Don’t fight them, but gently move your attention away from them, back to your breathing and to a basic sense of being alright as a body . . . bringing to mind a sense of being cared about by someone . . . recognizing some of your good intentions in life . . . knowing one or more benefits to you of saying thanks . . . knowing what the other person has given you . . . feeling a simple sense of appreciation . . . feeling that it’s alright to be thankful . . . making it OK in your mind to express thanks.
Many thank you’s involve little things in the flow of life, like thanking someone for passing the salt at dinner. Let these small moments matter to you. Feel your thanks in your chest and throat. When you say your thanks, try to let them show in your eyes. Life is made up of moments, beads on a golden chain; what are you stringing together? As they say in Tibet: “If you take care of the minutes, the years will take care of themselves.”
Also consider where you might have a backlog of thanks, perhaps for some big things. Like saying thanks to your parents or other relatives, to old friends and new ones, to teachers and coaches of all kinds. Thanks to lovers and mates, children, pets, neighbors – even people you’ve never met, even the whole natural world. A wonderful and powerful practice is to make a list of people you want to thank directly, and then gradually move through the list. You can also certainly offer thanks in your imagination, such as to people who are no longer living, to people far away, to groups of people, to specific animals or to nature in general, or to spiritual beings or forces if that is meaningful to you.
Throughout, it is very sweet to be thankful for the opportunity to give thanks.
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Rick Hanson, Ph.D., is a neuropsychologist and author of the bestselling Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom (in 21 languages) – and Just One Thing: Developing a Buddha Brain One Simple Practice at a Time. Founder of the Wellspring Institute for Neuroscience and Contemplative Wisdom and Affiliate of the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley, he’s taught at Oxford, Stanford, and Harvard, and in meditation centers worldwide. His work has been featured on the BBC, NPR, Consumer Reports Health, and U.S. News and World Report and he has several audio programs. His blog – Just One Thing – has nearly 30,000 subscribers and suggests a simple practice each week that will bring you more joy, more fulfilling relationships, and more peace of mind and heart. If you wish, you can subscribe to Just One Thing here.