Today, as I happily anticipate going to a dear friend’s house for a Thanksgiving feast, I find myself thinking of the classic Thanksgiving story: of pilgrims weathering a hard passage and being met by kindness—only to repay that kindness with staggering cruelty (to be historically accurate, the first pilgrims lived in peace, the cruelty came later). May the Earth and the Native people be healed from the ravages of the European infestation. Science is beginning to look at the way the brain is wired for story. In our dreams and fictions–and even in our earliest childhood play–we seek ways out of trouble, out of heartbreak, the possibility loss, the looming possibility of death. We seek meaning, healing. We seek to be part of a greater whole.
In sitting and walking meditating, we practice letting go of our thinking, of our stories. We practice sensing what is happening in the body below the thinking. Lately, I have especially loved practicing walking meditation around the lake where I live. When I realize I am thinking (which is most of the time), I redirect the attention to the endlessly changing flow of pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral sensations. I notice fresh air and sunshine and shadow pass over the skin. A feast of impressions, of glorious, mysterious life, is constantly being offered without beings asked. The first Thanksgiving gift givers were aware of this unending stream of gifts from the Creator. Our cup runneth over, and all the while most of us pilgrims don’t notice. We are too busy telling ourselves stories to ourselves, longing for better entertainment than Creation, longing for starring vehicles.
At moments, we understand that this bewildering business of embodiment is more than a simple practice of sense-feeling: it is soul-knowing. I am coming to suspect that having soul is the deep knowing of life in the body. We may have inklings about this when the road of life is smooth. We walk along noting pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral sensations, the sensation of cool, fresh air on the face, sunlight in the eyes—and all of a sudden a door opens inside and we go deeper into life.
The body has its own way of knowing—not in words but in resonance and a need to respond to what touches us. There are gestures that want to well up from the body. Some are almost imperceptible, including the wish to be still, to bear witness. Some gestures are sweeping, the wish to embrace, to serve. Sometimes I want to open my arms to take in the beauty of the lake, to reach out to the God behind it. Sometimes I want to offer thanks, to offer myself as another potentially useful human being, another pair of hands on the bucket brigade.
At such moments, we discover that a deeper capacity for story lives in the body. This is not a head story in which we play a starring role but a story in which we are part of a greater whole. Many people find this when there is no place to go but down. We may find the deeper story–the story that always includes opening to receive and respond to gifts we have done nothing to deserve–when we have no choice, when everything else has failed.
Often it is when we are bereft, when we cannot be satisfied by simpler stories, a feast appears before us. The loaves and fishes are not just sufficient but miraculous. It is when we think we have nothing to give that the most graceful gestures become possible. People with soul know this: there is really nothing that is ours but honesty, a resonance with life, a wish to be useful and kind. The feast appears when we know our true poverty. Soulful is the body receiving and responding to the gifts of life that come like grace. Ask and it shall be given. We are made to ask…and to give thanks.
with the night falling we are saying thank you
we are stopping on the bridges to bow from the railings
we are running out of the glass rooms
with our mouths full of food to look at the sky
and say thank you
we are standing by the water looking out
in different directions
back from a series of hospitals back from a mugging
after funerals we are saying thank you
after the news of the dead
whether or not we knew them we are saying thank you
in a culture up to its chin in shame
living in the stench it has chosen we are saying thank you
over telephones we are saying thank you
in doorways and in the backs of cars and in elevators
remembering wars and the police at the back door
and the beatings on stairs we are saying thank you
in the banks that use us we are saying thank you
with the crooks in office with the rich and fashionable
unchanged we go on saying thank you thank you
with the animals dying around us
our lost feelings we are saying thank you
with the forests falling faster than the minutes
of our lives we are saying thank you
with the words going out like cells of a brain
with the cities growing over us like the earth
we are saying thank you faster and faster
with nobody listening we are saying thank you
we are saying thank you and waving
dark though it is
–W.S. Merwin from “The Rain in the Trees,” 1988
4 thoughts on “Feast”
Yesterday is history. Tomorrow is a mystery. And today? Today is a gift. That’s why we call it the present. Babatunde Olatunji …
I always associated thanksgiving with giving thanks for things I’ve received. But if on a deeper level my gift is the present, why is it considered a gift?
Simone Weil believed “the moral sense was unnatural, not found in the real world of necessity, suffering, and death. Nature goes on its way, including us without listening to us, according to a divine order that science discovers for us. However, God does not disturb the natural order. Prayer will not stop a tsunami. We go on stumbling stupidly.”
It is the same in Luke 13:
Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. 2 Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? 3 I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. 4 Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? 5 I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.”
Falling towers will hit a person on the head regardless of how wonderful and compassionate they believe themselves to be.
Naturally, I’m happy to receive the gifts of the world including health and prosperity. However, at a deeper level my gift seems to be an “opportunity” to be free of earthly cycles that lead from dust to dust.
Escape could be considered becoming nothing and freedom from the wheel of samsara or becoming oneself at a level of being (the New Man) that is not a slave to earthly cycles. But either way the “present” for me provides the opportunity to escape from Plato’s cave.
So Thanksgiving for me refers both to a quality of life over time within Plato’s cave and the opportunity for freedom from the psychological restrictions creating the prison of cave life which can only occur in the present. I seem to be attracted to both.
I’m also attracted to both ways of living, lost and found, every day.
Today my world is a bit
slower, no rushing about
to get out the door, and
into the traffic or to the office.
With my morning coffee in hand, I walk
through our yard, standing on each
porch, taking in all the morning
sounds. The wind blows gently,
and when it does the leaves above
begin to whisper their soft prayers
to the morning. I wish I could teach you
the words they use, the voice of leaf and limb,
but as you may easily imagine
each tree speaks in its own language.
In my case, I hear our neighbor’s Pecan tree
praying for the squirrels racing up
and tickling its bark, happy in that thought.
And then our wise old Chinese Tallow
who meditates quietly in front of the
house, our tall Sycamores at the side, where
the Mockingbird’s sing their favorite songs,
and the Live Oaks from the park
close by, each one has its own prayer
to offer. I call them ours, even though
I know that they belong only to the
earth and to God, who made them
as he made every one of us.
Look up, and you will see
many leaves still fresh and green,
others just beginning to turn.
You know of course that as each
single leaf falls that too is a prayer,
a prayer of thanksgiving that echoes
in us each. Our thoughts colored
by the words spoken, whispered,
autumn comes you know to prepare
us for the stillness of winter.
Winter of course is another kind
of prayer spoken to the heart.