Can you believe that it is already November? The fall seems to be going so quickly, and Thanksgiving is only a couple of weeks away. Thanksgiving has been one of my favorite holidays for many years, especially when we traveled to Michigan to enjoy Thanksgiving with family. I think that one of the reasons I liked it so much was that all we did was arrive and enjoy. We lived too far away to contribute any part of the meal, and we usually arrived on Wednesday evening, just in time for the Thursday festivities. It felt like we had no responsibilities. We didn’t have to worry if the turkey was purchased early enough, whether there would be enough food or enough places at the table, whether all the relatives would arrive on time, and so on. We just showed up.
This year we are staying at home, mostly because our college age kids want to come back to DC. So now my worrying mind starts to arise. What if we make turkey and the vegans are upset? What if we have Tofurky and the meat eaters are unhappy? Should we invite other people? What if the kids are disappointed because it’s not a “real” Thanksgiving? … and on and on. Instead of “just showing up,” now I have started constructing a Thanksgiving identity. It’s as if my mind starts to think that I can control the outcome by setting the situation up just right, and that if I succeed in controlling the outcome, then no one has to suffer, especially me. If I do things just right, my future happiness is guaranteed. Have you ever felt this way?
The Buddha taught that the root cause of all of our suffering was clinging to what we like, and pushing away what we don’t like. Essentially trying to control life. Trying to make it fit some imagined idea of how it is “supposed” to be. And all this effort to control something uncontrollable, like our lives, is exhausting and futile. The Buddha also taught that no matter what we do, we will all experience suffering, old age, and death. Unfortunately, we will also be separated from all that we love, regardless of how delicious our Thanksgiving meal is, or whether we invited the right people. It doesn’t mean that our actions aren’t important. On the contrary, because we aren’t in control of anything else, our actions are of utmost importance. What we do really does matter to the well being of ourselves, others, and the entire universe, we just can’t predict how. The last of the Buddha’s five remembrances states: “My actions are my only true belongings. I cannot escape the consequences of my actions. My actions are the ground upon which I stand.”
So the paradox is that our actions are the ground on which we stand, but at the same time we can’t expect our actions to save us from suffering. So how do we know what actions to choose, and why bother?
As Buddhist teacher Sharon Salzberg says: Doing metta [loving kindness], we plant the seeds of love, knowing that nature will take its course and in time those seeds will bear fruit. Some seeds will come to fruition quickly, some slowly, but our work is simply to plant the seeds. Every time we form the intention in the mind for our own happiness or for the happiness of others, we are doing our work; we are channeling the powerful energies of our own minds. Beyond that, we can trust the laws of nature to continually support the flowering of our love.
So I wonder if we can approach this year the same way that we approached Thanksgiving in Michigan. Instead of focusing attention on the outcome – a memorable and perfect holiday dinner, or week, or visit – what if we just show up? What if we simply keep showing up, moment by moment, planting the seeds of our loving kindness. Cooking turkey or Tofurky with loving kindness, or buying a pumpkin pie with loving kindness. Just showing up, without trying to control the situation. We don’t really have any responsibilities other than this simple act of showing up, relaxed and present to ourselves and our loved ones. And I wonder whether that might just be enough.
With much love and Tofurky,