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This is a guest post by Lama Surya Das (that was supposed to be published before Thanksgiving.)
As the holydays start coming upon us, fast and furious, I like to turn back to spiritual readings and teachings to refresh and remind me what it's all about. Of course, having been called the 'Ocean of Questions,' I like to start with questions and then live mindfully into them. So first my HolyDay questions: What is this really all about? Why are we here? What are we doing? And what is important and really matters? Aren't these all part of life's big questions, anyway?
Let's start with Thanksgiving. It seems it's the perfect kick off for the HolyDays at the end of the calendar year. Thanks Giving, giving thanks. What are we celebrating actually? Our stomachs? Our big screen football game? The nap after the game? Thanksgiving may be turkey time in this country; but let's not be turkeys ourselves by forgetting to feel grateful--for the good in our lives, at the very least. Let's try to be mindful, gratefully noticing the good in our lives with gratitude. But let's not stop at that. Why not take it to the next step -- to a deeper level, by practicing gratitude. Mindfulness in action. Share in some way. Think about what you have with deep appreciation and rather than just giving in to greed, wanting more of this or that, or the next this or that-- Just Give. With so much need in the world -- all around, in each of us, and in all of us, just give. Thereis justness and righteousness in is.
Thanks Giving - isn't this a time of gratitude for family and further for extending the circle of our loving beyond the borders of mere flesh and blood? So many day moments present us with a chance to share gratitude if we pay attention, sharing gratitude beyond the obvious. Try that on. What does it mean to "share gratitude beyond the obvious"? Reflect upon this. Personally, I have come to deeply appreciate the compassionate actions of strangers. Those who stop to open the door when my arms are full of shopping bags, or those who unhesitatingly offer a nod and a smile—smiles are free, and easy to give-- and those who clean the office after work, those who make sure the lights are working in the building, deliver the mail and the newspaper, drive the bus and on and on, day in, day out. I like to remember the story in the newspaper about the sudden, mysterious appearance of hundreds of flowers along the freeway. Beautiful compassionate action of strangers.
Practicing the mindfulness of Thanks-giving we can appreciate the great pageant that surrounds us -- appreciating not just in terms of words and material goods, but through spontaneous compassionate being. This is Thanks Giving, not just for our little rolodex of approved friends, those in our club, our clan, our suburb or intellectual circle, but Thanks Giving for the Big Rolodex of our entire community, humanity itself -- any and all who cross our path. Let's try that on, let's gobble that up for Thanksgiving and see what that does for our innards.
The late Mother Teresa of Calcutta, who long served the most destitute, has pointed out that we ourselves draw our circle of loving inclusion too small, and then feel lonely, separate and isolated. Are we unaware even now, in this great Information Age, that one-third of the world's people are malnourished, almost one billion starving at this very moment, and an estimated 25,000 people -- 16,000 of them children -- are dying each day from hunger-related causes? Although there is enough
food in the world to feed every single human being, poverty and the distribution of wealth continue to aid and abet this iniquity.
USA Today quotes charts of the number of children who go hungry or are at risk, state-by state. I feel profoundly ashamed that one out of every four children in New Mexico and Texas, and one out of every five in a dozen other states, live in households that struggle to provide enough food for them. America's Second Harvest (the nation's largest hunger-relief group) used US census data 2003-05 in finding found that 13 million American children (or 18%) were hungry or at risk of hunger.
9 million kids are uninsured in our country, ranking the United States near the bottom for infant survival rates among modernized nations. Roughly five U.S. babies for every 1,000 born will die before reaching their first birthday. Only Latvia has a higher infant mortality rate than the U.S. It has been said that “You can judge a nation's soul and greatness by examining its compassion for its most vulnerable citizens -- infants and children.”
Some of us may be aware of these statistics but don't know what to do. This is not about taking a trip along the river of Guilt; that's the easy route. It's about realizing that every single act can be an expression of awareness, of caring, a step toward truly being in this life together. What could that mean? What affects one, affects all.
Further, it's about realizing that our leaders at all levels do what it is they do because somehow we help enable to do so. So let's think at all levels, starting in our very own shoes and moving to all levels beyond. What directive can we give? Let's think about how to ask for and even expect what is done at all levels to reflect hearts of thanksgiving and feet of compassionate action.
Then there's Christmas -- in some ways another matter, and in other ways not. I like to think of it as offering us a time for intentionally conscious and compassionate action. Of course we all know it's become the most materialistic holiday of them all. But what to do? How to turn the tide? I personally like to read the Gospels each year and reflect upon Jesus the Teacher, who exemplifies the birth of a new, unselfish and beautiful way of living and loving, through forgiveness, empathic
compassion, peacemaking and unconditional love. I like to remember Jesus as a spiritual leader, teacher and peaceful warrior, whose principal charge to those in his midst was about compassionate action. He exhorts us to feed and care for the sick, the poor, and the hungry and the disenfranchised. Who can look away from that? Mostly, I wonder: how can I myself better try to emulate him in applying his values? What can we do in these times to include the most poor, downtrodden and marginalized among us in good fortune of our times, to make our lives more meaningful? At least I know it begins with cultivating awareness and gratitude in my own heart and soul, and further takes shape through loving action.
One wintery day, I was walking along Harvard Square in the sharp cold, with chilling, high winds and humidity. Warmly wrapped up in my scarf, gloves, hat and heavy coat, I came upon a man striding briskly along without hat, gloves, coat or scarf. I wondered: Should I offer him my gloves? Hat? Coat? Approaching him I asked: Would you like my gloves or hat? And as he turned and looked at me, I found the loving and compassionate eyes of this so-called stranger. "Oh, no thanks!" he said. "It's like this where I come from, I'm used to it!" He smiled warmly and carried on. He gave me the gift of love and warm
compassion. I won't forget the light in his eyes. So as we think about who needs what and who 'helps' whom, or who is really marginalized, let's find a way to share our gifts of spontaneous love and compassion moment by sacred moment, seeing all the while the Great Gift of interconnectedness and heart.
For many of us—the fortunate ones—this holyday season is a rich time of good will and meaningful connection. They remind us of goodness, ours and others', and our deep interconnectedness. Let us be remindful of that and rejoice in the light of the season and the many opportunities to heal the gap between us and others.
- Lama Surya Das