A Dharma Punk's Thanksgiving Reflections

One of the most clever tricks of capitalism, in its current state of unchecked growth and influence, is how even the most wholesome and sturdy ideals can be subverted, turned into rituals that naturalize mindless, hedonistic consumerism.

Thanksgiving, which obviously jumps to mind this time of year, has been eviscerated by our cultural practices; consuming alcohol with abandon while gnawing away at needlessly extravagant meals. While we may like to believe we've advanced beyond the practices of ancient civilizations, what does it say that the primary day we've set aside to express gratitude and affirm friendship and community commonly involves passing the hours as lounge chair lifeforms, soaking in the glow of mammoth television screens that feature young men from underprivileged backgrounds risking long term brain damage in the name of football? So much for progress: we remain enthralled by bread and circuses.

Many people spend the few seconds to express thanks before the big meal noting the 'hard earned efforts' of the assembled, failing to recognize all the unseen labor that goes into harvesting, collecting, transporting and shelving the vegetables we eat. Unless we live on a farm and are consuming what we've grown ourselves, a lot of poorly paid people deserve credit for the food we prepare.

And let's not forget the myth that lies at the heart of our ritual: Soon after arriving in Plymouth, Massachusetts, Pilgrims went into Indians' lands and dwellings, taking whatever they saw fit; the visitors brought plague, decimating the Wampanoag tribe that numbered between 50,000 and 100,000, resulting in tens of thousands of deaths.

The mythical meal shared between the pilgrims and Wampanoag was actually a tense standoff in 1621, where 90 Wampanoag confronted the intruders about their intolerable behavior; if they ate a meal together it didn't involve turkey, but more likely venison. The meal didn't result in any peace, and wasn't repeated; rather, in 1636 many Wampanoag were massacred by the pilgrims. (Read all about the historical events in books like Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong by James Loewen or articles such as this.)

Yes, the above observations are fairly passé by now--we've heard many decry our consumer rituals before. Yet year in and out the avalanche of marketing messages urging us to prepare for 'black friday bargains' starts even earlier, along with the trashy 'holiday season' music of supermarkets and elevators. (How I wish someone would've stopped Paul McCartney before he recorded the putrid 'Wonderful Christmastime.")

It all comes with a price tag: As the Buddha continually noted, the ultimate toll of craving is suffering: focusing on acquiring and consuming "smothers the heart, or wraps around it like a tangled ball of string, so we cannot head anywhere but bad destinations." To promote accumulation is to enshrine the idea that we are missing something necessary to experience peace and joy, which is not the case. The rush of the shopping season has its roots in the brain's oldest fear centers: much of human history, before we became the dominant species, we were threatened by predators and had to constantly engage in survival first behaviors.

Competing against others to collect resources would've served our ancestors pretty well; over the last few thousand years such needs have passed.

Furthermore, as my visits to a close friend in hospice this year so amply demonstrated, to have the bare requisites--a roof over our heads, enough clothes to stay warm and food to survive, some degree of health, wise friends--is to have everything necessary for happiness. If you have those you're not missing any of the ingredients for peace of mind, you're simply working from the wrong recipe in life.

Beyond setting a commitment to purchase nothing on 'black friday' or participate in any of the marketing frenzies, the pure celebration of gratitude is, naturally, the best way to fight back against the wreckage of humane principles by mindless consumerism.

Gratitude, the celebration of what is reliably worthwhile in life is the antidote to our needless anxieties. It shifts our focus from the petty resentments and speculative worries that neurally hardwire fear into the mind. To practice giving thanks, its important to override what psychologists refer to as negativity bias--the tendency to fixate on negative experiences over signs of abundance--and keep in mind what is beneficial and available, staying with positive perceptions long enough (at least 30 seconds for each perception) for them to be stored in long term memory (negative experiences only require a half second to store in memory; positive ones far longer). If we practice long enough, feelings of well being will begin to arise, which we should also drink in.

The advantages of acknowledging the good in life--anything that is wholesome and isn't purchased--is vast: it promotes imagination, forcing us to stop distracting ourselves with smart phones and go deeper into our present experience; it demands that we pay attention to what is available, rather than what is missing; it trains us how to experience satisfaction, rather than indulging in our insatiable appetite for what is mass produced and ultimately hollow.