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Giving Thanks

by Kevin B. Burk, author of The Relationship Handbook: How to Understand and Improve Every Relationship in Your Life.

In our busy, modern lives, it’s often quite easy to lose sight of the underlying, spiritual context of many of our rituals and observances. We celebrate the holidays, but we’re only rarely aware that underneath every holiday is a holy day.

“Holy” is one of those words that can make many of us rather uncomfortable. We’d far prefer to put the “holly” in our holidays than we would to explore what happened to the “holy.”

According to the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th Edition), “holy” belongs to, is derived from, or is otherwise associated with a divine power; “holy” is a synonym for “sacred.” “Holy” also means being worthy of respect, reverence or awe.

Leaving all religious associations aside, I personally feel that respect, reverence and awe are experiences that truly make our lives worth living. These experiences take us out of our tiny, limited perspective and blast open our hearts, our minds and our spirits, offering us a glimpse of the bigger picture, and assuring us that however small we may appear by comparison, that we play an integral and essential part in the Universal plan.

With some holidays, it’s more challenging to get to the truly holy than with others. The rituals and trappings of religion have a tendency to distance us from the primal experiences that are at the foundation of any culture’s holy days. Ironically, it’s a secular, North American holiday that offers one of the easiest and most powerful paths to experiencing each day as holy, worthy of respect, reverence and awe. I am, of course, referring to Thanksgiving.

I’d venture to say that for most people, while Thanksgiving may rank high on the list of holidays, it doesn’t appear anywhere on a list of holy days. We almost never struggle to connect with the “true meaning” of Thanksgiving. The “true meaning” of Thanksgiving is right in front of us. Thanksgiving is a day of giving thanks. It’s a national day of gratitude. Or at least that’s what we get once we peel away all of the accumulated rituals, traditions and commercial trappings.

The story of the original Thanksgiving is familiar to every second-grader in the United States. And whether you interpret it as a celebration commemorating the first successful harvest of the Pilgrims, and their gratitude for the assistance of the Indians so that they had a chance at surviving the harsh winter to come, or as a glorification of the systematic destruction of an indigenous, peace-loving culture by foreign invaders, everyone can agree that Thanksgiving has always revolved around food, and lots of it whenever possible. Presumably, being thankful for the presence of said food is also an important component of the celebration.

It may come as a shock to many that the official start of the holiday shopping season was not, in fact, a part of the first Thanksgiving celebration. That didn’t come until at least twenty or thirty years later.

In Judaism, the holiest of holy days is Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. On Yom Kippur, Jews fast from sunset to sunset, and spend the waking hours in between in constant prayer, asking to be forgiven for their sins. Yom Kippur is also about the experience of compassion and forgiveness, and this is the reason that it is a fast day. When we are full and sated, we only think of ourselves; however, when we are hungry, we are able to think compassionately of others.

It’s interesting to note that Jewish traditions governing feast days involve blessing the food before eating it, and then giving thanks for the food at the end of the meal with joyous singing around the table. The post-meal gratitude is significantly longer than the pre-meal blessings. It is a practice that ensures that we consciously express gratitude in the moments when we are the least likely to be thankful.

In The Relationship Workshops, I talk about developing our spiritual muscles. How it takes practice and continuous use to become skilled at using awareness, ownership and choice, for example, to become conscious of our thoughts and how they create our reality. Gratitude and Compassion are also sets of spiritual muscles, and they also require regular use to develop. I believe this is why the grace after the meal is so much more extensive than the blessings before the meal: it’s a practice that is specifically designed to develop our gratitude muscles.

As any trainer or gym coach will tell you, what matters is consistency. Going to the gym once won’t do you much good in the long run. You have to go on a regular schedule. And in order to go on a regular schedule, it’s important that you don’t overdo it the first few times you go. There’s nothing like massive muscle strain to keep us from the gym. If we push our muscles too hard one day, we’ll avoid using them for far too long.

Recently, we experienced the collective equivalent of national muscle strain. Hurricane Katrina opened the hearts of millions of people worldwide with its unprecedented devastation. People all over the world were moved by waves of compassion to give of themselves to help those whose lives were irrevocably changed by this storm. People gave generously to relief charities, held the homeless families in their thoughts and prayers, and often in their own homes, and as a result, also experienced an increase in gratitude for the blessings of their own lives.

Then Hurricane Rita hit Texas. Rita didn’t receive nearly as much attention as Katrina, even though it still affected millions of people, because (to over-extend the gym/weight-training metaphor) we were reaching our maximum level of compassion, finishing our last set of reps, and starting to get tired. Collectively, we were ready to hit the showers.

The next day, of course, we woke up with incredibly sore muscles. We’d done all we were able to do and more, and if that wasn’t enough, well, we had our own lives to think of again. The fact that gas was pushing $5 a gallon in many parts of the country didn’t help, of course. But as gas prices gradually began to fall again, most of our lives returned to what they were before.

When Hurricane Wilma hit Florida, it barely made the national news. Much of Florida—millions of homes, in fact—were without power for over a month. The damage from Hurricane Wilma is staggering (although, granted, when compared to the complete and utter destruction of one of the most unique and culturally-rich cities in the world, it rather pales by comparison). Even so, we barely heard about the effects of Hurricane Wilma. I only knew about it because, yet again, my family was directly affected by it. Two days after my parents left Ft. Lauderdale after living with my sister for six weeks because they had to evacuate New Orleans, my sister, brother-in-law and niece were huddling in a broom closet in their home, hoping that their roof wouldn’t blow off (it didn’t, and they’re fine).

Where was the public outcry over Hurricane Wilma? On a national (and metaphorical) level, we were simply too sore to make it back to the gym. We were so out of shape and pushed so hard when Katrina hit that we’re not in any hurry to do it all over again with Hurricane Wilma.

In the United States, Thanksgiving is the most significant because it marks the official start of the holiday shopping season. For weeks after Thanksgiving, stories on the news discuss how much we’re spending, how busy the shopping malls are, what gadgets and gizmos are the must-have badges of conspicuous consumption this year, and why spending money on gifts and toys is essential for a healthy economy. Those of us with enough money to spend on gifts and holiday events are full and sated after a huge meal: we are the most blessed and the least inclined to be thankful for our prosperity.

I’m starting to walk a very fine line here between gratitude and guilt. While feeling compassion for those less fortunate than we are will also help us to appreciate more fully the blessings in our own lives, it can also trigger our egos and cause us to feel guilty if we have so much more than others—especially when we have a nagging suspicion that we have so much more than we actually need ourselves. There is nothing wrong with being prosperous and abundant. In fact, this is one of our spiritual objectives in life: to be open to receive the flow of infinite abundance from the Universe. At the same time, it’s also worth remembering that after a certain point, the more we accumulate, the less happy we are.

When we give—be it thanks, charity, love, compassion, support, or simply of ourselves in any way—we step into the flow of Universal energy. The more grateful we are, the more things we find to be grateful for. The more we give, the more we have to give.

The secret is to start small, to create a daily spiritual practice of gratitude. The goal is to find at least 100 things each day to be thankful for, but start small and work up to it gradually. The things can be small and even seemingly insignificant; as long as we can experience a moment of true gratitude for them, they count. Over time, our spiritual muscles will begin to develop and become stronger. We will be able to stretch them further, taking on more challenges, and reaping greater rewards. Just as we feel different, we move differently, we experience life differently when our physical muscles are toned, strong and flexible, we experience these changes as well when our spiritual muscles are buffed up.

When we develop our spiritual muscles, we become capable of experiencing greater amounts of respect, reverence and awe in our lives. We begin to experience the truth that we are an integral part of something sacred. And we no longer need the holidays to remind us of the fact that every day is holy.

Kevin B. Burk is the author of The Relationship Handbook: How to Understand and Improve Every Relationship in Your Life. Visit for a FREE Report on creating Amazing Relationships.

©2006 Kevin B. Burk, all rights reserved. If you would like to reprint this article in your publication, web page, or eZine (which you may do for free!), click here for details.


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