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Katannu and Dana, Holiday Style

When I sat down for Thanksgiving dinner last week I asked everybody to eat mindfully. As the words passed over my lips, a little voice inside my head asked, “Say, why do we only designate one day a year to give thanks? And while we’re at it, even a half-blind cat can see that this supposed day of gratitude is really about gorging and excess. And gladiatorial sport.”

Leaping ahead now to the next holiday on the calendar, my little voice continued, “And why do we only have one time in the year that extols the virtues of generosity?” The supposed “season of giving” is soon upon us, but that same handicapped cat can see that it’s really a season of taking. So... what the fuck are we doing with these holidays?

Have we become so convinced that gratitude and generosity are the province of the gullible and the downtrodden that we can’t even bother to celebrate them with any sincerity? Think how often we pay lip service to our ideals, giving idle chatter to those who “do good” while fawning over those who wow us with “success” no matter how much harm was involved in its gain. Fuck this shit.
And there it is. Now I’m revved up and pissed off, tracing a thousand well-worn lines of thought as I stomp in my head about how miserably we’ve trampled on our nobler intentions. Fan-tastic.
In the blink of an eye I’ve fallen prey to everything I’m lamenting. Just as I bemoan the days of thanks and gift-giving being corrupted, so too have my thoughts. What started with, “Let’s all be mindful of the food on our plate” turned to “I could name five people whose asses I’d like to kick right now” without a moment’s hesitation.
The little voice and I are now engaged in a heavy dialogue. Between mouthfuls of potato and polite asides to my hosts about how wonderful the food is, I can sense that this is going to be a battle royal, a Homeric epic waiting to be sung. Or... perhaps not.
Somewhere during a particularly lengthy story being told at the other end of the table, I checked out for a minute. Or rather, I checked in. This was an opportunity for my practice, and I wasn’t going to let it pass. Too often our practice turns to theoretical mush, buckling under the pressure of real-time events, and we convince ourselves that while we’re good meditators and read all the right books, well, right now, in this moment, it’s easier just to give up.
But what was happening was actually no different than any other moment. The circumstances aside, this was just dukkha. The fact that I’m wearing a nice shirt and there’s something ceremonial about the day has nothing to do with it. My mind has simply wandered towards the magnet of suffering, as it’s wont to do, and it’s up to me to bring it back.
I breathed. I smelled the tart cranberries and felt the weight of the fork in my hand. A sip of water was cool and refreshing.
Somebody asked me if I wanted another plate of food. Before reflexively saying yes, I stopped and felt my belly. It was full, so I declined.
Somehow, almost inadvertently, I had come full circle. I had started the meal by asking everybody to eat mindfully, then wandered off into a wilderness of frustration before finally coming back to my original suggestion. The little voice faded away.
The next morning I set off to get back to New York. Alone in the car, I snapped on the radio for company. Elvis was singing about Christmas.
Ah, right, so I guess that’s next...
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