Celebrating Thanks-Giving Mindfully
By Steven M. Cohen
Thanksgiving has been a special holiday, a day where both sides of our family and some friends gathered together for a feast. The more the merrier, and without the entanglement of religious significance. In 2020, COVID-19 changes everything. What once brought only joy now brings fear, particularly with respect to our elderly parents. Likely, it will be too cold to gather and eat outside, and likely too dangerous to bring everyone together to eat inside. What do we do?
I set an intention for my daily morning meditation to contemplate the meaning of Thanksgiving. I started with a pretty blank slate. An old-fashioned scale arose in my mind, with two sides that go up and down based on how much weight is on each side. I then saw the word THANKS settling on one side in all capitalized letters, and the word GIVING settling in on the other side, with the weight of the scales becoming balanced.
I observed that the words THANKS and GIVING each have six letters. Hmm.
My strategy for my morning meditations is to observe with full attention in the present moment and without judgment. I try not to “think” with my day-to-day consciousness but to calm that thought pattern and witness what fills the void. I try to remember that there is time for interpretation later.
This time, I did want to come back to my THANKS GIVING observation. Initially, I was confused. I always thought of Thanksgiving as a time of giving thanks. In fact, last year, I wrote gratitude cards delivered the day before Thanksgiving break for each person who works in our office in recognition of each person’s contribution to our successful working group.
I have noticed that most effective leaders make it a habit to say “thank you” and find ways to express appreciation to their employees and to others who provide value to their organization. Sometimes, this appreciation is in the form of a personal thank you, while at other times the appreciation is publicly expressed, such as during a meeting or in a group email. Expressing gratitude is a simple concept and requires little time and effort, yet too often it’s forgotten in the chaos of the day. It is important to remain attentive to situations that warrant gratitude and to become comfortable expressing it. The bottom line is this: we all respond to praise and appreciation; when we receive it, we are highly motivated to do our best. The simplicity of gratitude belies its power.
While frequent expressions of gratitude are important, the sincerity of each expression is critical. For that reason, each of the 50 cards that I wrote was different and personal to that recipient. The effect takes time but ensures authenticity. Gratitude as part of organizational culture builds community and organizational loyalty and motivates more of the positive behavior that gave rise to the expression of gratitude.
Giving can include giving of time, giving of material things such as money or donations of goods or simple acts of loving kindness. Giving can be deciding to spend time with someone or just taking the time to listen. Giving can be fun and doesn’t have to involve sacrifice. There is nothing more satisfying than helping someone else and knowing that you have made a positive difference in the life of another.
Effective management includes a component of giving – putting in place the opportunities, tools, and guidance to facilitate the success of those you are managing. At our annual partner meeting last year, the rising partners were encouraged to invite a mentor who assisted them in their success. Pride in the success of others on our team can be one of the greatest sources of professional satisfaction.
Some people seem to be wired so that giving just comes naturally. My wife is like that. But the more natural perspective for many of us is focusing on our own self-interest - what might be called “taking.” Ironically, balancing giving with taking can lead to more success than either just giving or just taking. I have found that with better balance I actually receive more and, as a result, have the ability to give more. This is circular, with expressions of gratitude elevating the level of balanced future receipt and giving.
My pondering then returned to my family and how grateful I am that all are healthy. This is more important than a feast; however, we still want to connect. I think we are going to get together with masks (and if possible, either outside or in a “makeshift” living room area we just set up in our garage for semi-outdoor visitation). We are going to skip the meal together – maybe eating separately in groups corresponding to our household units. I will try not to be resentful of what we have lost but grateful for what we are able to still do, enjoying everyone’s company in that present moment.
Consider your own "What Does This Thanksgiving Mean to Me?" meditation.
Find a quiet spot and sit, either straight up in a chair with your feet firmly on the ground or seated comfortably cross-legged on the ground. Start by focusing on your breath for a few minutes. Inhale, Pause, Exhale, Pause. Just observe your breath with full attention in the present moment and without judgment. No need to change your breath, just notice. When you are ready, bring the concept of Thanksgiving into your consciousness – however that might appear. Just sit and observe. Without judgment. In that present moment with your full attention. When you are ready, return.
Maybe you can manifest a different but meaningful Thanksgiving celebration for you and your family this year, and find your own balance. We each have so much to be thankful for and so much we can give. Maybe you can then carry that message into your life and your workplace and live what you practice during meditation.
Happy Thanksgiving (whatever that means to you).
Steven M. Cohen is the author of Leading from Within: A Guide To Maximizing Your Effectiveness Through Meditation, the co-founder and Chair of the Board of Meditation4Leadership, which brings the benefits of mindfulness and meditation practices to the workplace, and a partner in an AmLaw 50 law firm.