Dear Friends: I am resubmitting this blog posting from last year. Hard to believe a year has gone by! I am hoping you all find some peace and serenity during this season of giving thanks. -SL
Thanksgiving has always been my favorite holiday, and my affection for it grows as I age. Perhaps it’s the relative lack of commercialism associated with it, or the fond memories from childhood of an idyllic feast at my grandparents’ house, a day when for a few hours at least we could relax into the moment, watch the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade, a Charlie Brown TV special, and forget the stress and pain of life at home. My grandmother’s house was a sanctuary, and for that day, all was right with the world. I can still smell the turkey roasting, and the smell of the wool rugs in her house, and hear the crackle of a wood fire.
Today, though, it is not a holiday completely free from stress: I have to confess I am stressing a little about getting that perfect free range, hormone- free, guilt-free, heritage organic bird for the crowd of people coming over this Thanksgiving day! I italicized “perfect” because therein lies the source of my stress – this belief that my happiness and the success of the day depends on something external to me (and out of my control) being perfect. Remember when the only option was a Butterball and we were all really happy with that?
I have also noticed that my cooking has never come close to duplicating what my French-heritage grandmother, who we called “Mémère”, was able to turn out. The preparation of the turkey, dinde (pronounced “dahnd”) in French and the special French-Canadian pork stuffing that went with it, was a two day affair and a labor of love for my grandmother. She would attend to its preparation like a mother would attend to a new born. She was not rushed or hurried. She would slow roast a 20 or 25 lb. bird overnight, waking up every hour or so to baste it. It was melt-in-your mouth moist, and the drippings created the most flavorful gravy I have ever tasted. Being greeted at the door by her with a hug and kiss and a blast of hot air, fragrant with cooking smells, is something I can still relive if I close my eyes. My siblings and I have tried to replicate the meal, using my mémère’s recipes, but something is always, somehow, missing – not quite right. Did she leave out an essential ingredient in the recipe? If I had her 1950’s stove would the outcome improve? Was I just not showing enough devotion to the bird? Did I really need to get up every hour and baste? Was the food just more flavorful back then in rural Maine?
Or perhaps my mind is simply engaging in phenomena that the Buddha described many centuries ago. He described this feeling of pervasive unsatisfactoriness, or dukkha, of things being not quite right. My mind clings to wanting things to remain the same, as they were in my youth, with memories that become embellished with story and imbued with meaning and which are sweetened and romanticized over time. My mind tells me “You want that! You want to recapture that wonderful feeling!” -- a feeling which may never have been all that wonderful to begin with, and which may be entirely fabricated, a “story” I tell myself. It is the phenomenon of craving, that unavoidable feature of the human condition.
My inability to recreate that experience of childhood is not because of the quality of the turkey, or the stove, or my own lack of skill as a chef. It is because this is how the mind is – we want and are never quite satisfied, or, if our desires are met, the feeling of satisfaction is short lived and we are soon pursuing the next thing in an effort to fill the void inside, to satisfy the cycle or wheel of craving, known to Buddhists as samsāra. As Sogyal Rinpoche points out in his forward to The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, we live in a capitalistic society that understands this at a deep level, and enables our wanting with a never ending supply of the new, improved, must-have shiny objects.
It may also be that my grandmother’s “superior” turkey was the product of her being patient, and fully present during the process of cooking. I may be totally fabricating this too, but the pace of life felt slower back then, with fewer LCD screens demanding our attention, fewer distractions. My grandmother cooked mindfully, with a Zen-like focus and patience, knowing it took time to create a meal properly. She used no blender or Cuisinart chopper to cut the onions for the stuffing; she grated each one by hand on a special tool that led to much shedding of tears but also much shredding of onion with the correct consistency. Spices were measured out in her hand, not with a measuring spoon or cup. This process required careful attention – attention was needed to avoid grating one’s knuckles or overdoing the pepper. I know that when I cook (or do anything for that matter), I am frequently focused on getting through a task as quickly as possible so that I can move on to the next task. Am I really cooking (or doing anything) at my best if I’m already on to the next thing?
In addition to being propelled by wanting more, I have learned that I am also propelled by an inner disquiet, a nagging thought that I am not quite right or not quite enough. The inner dialogue and logic goes something like this: If I can be perfect, or make the perfect meal, or raise the perfect kids, then I will finally feel like I am enough, that I have arrived, and that others will appreciate me in the way that I desire to be appreciated. This faulty logic and way of viewing myself leads to perfectionism, narcissism -- and exhaustion! Perfection is an impossible goal and a merciless taskmaster. And experience has showed me that no matter how many flawless dinner parties I orchestrate, I will still be left with that nagging doubt about whether it (or I) had been good enough. Tara Brach, in her teachings on radical acceptance, calls this the “trance of unworthiness”. And many of us walk around in this trance, bearing the heavy yoke of samsāra, all our lives.
Sometimes we are lucky and wake up from the trance. Through my mindfulness meditation practice I have learned to recognize these moments of feeling not quite right or enough, and better yet, I have learned to chuckle and smile at myself when I catch myself feeling frazzled or stressed to produce something “perfectly”. I have come to a somewhat tentative understanding that I am enough just as I am, and worthy of love just as I am. The perfect turkey or spotless house or fashionable wardrobe cannot do that for me; only I can do that for me. Happiness and self-esteem are an inside job, and not dependent on external things. And practicing loving kindness (metta) with myself, helps me recognize and open my heart to others who are also suffering in our oh-so-human way.
And I do not practice self-acceptance, mindfulness, and loving kindness perfectly. Instead I have learned to see beauty in the imperfections around me, and to learn from my mistakes. Without my mistakes I do not grow and learn. I owe a lot to my mistakes, and so have come to love and accept them, too.
So as Thanksgiving approaches I give thanks for this practice of mindfulness and for my teachers’ wisdom. I feel gratitude for the ability to sometimes recognize when I am telling myself “stories” or engaging in wanting or craving. I feel gratitude for this new ability to be with myself in a loving, compassionate way. I feel grateful for the lessons in mindfulness that my grandmother taught me, that life is worth savoring like carefully weighed out handfuls of spices. I am grateful that I can celebrate my favorite holiday with friends and family and have food to eat, however imperfect it may be. Grateful that I am and have enough – actually, I am blessed with such incredible riches in my life, I just need to stop and take notice. Through mindfulness the act of stressing about the turkey seems so unimportant. That I HAVE a turkey and friends with which to share it is extraordinary, and for that I give thanks with a very, very full heart.
And with any luck I’ll remember this when I start planning that perfect Christmas tree.