This is the season of gratitude, the time of thanksgiving.
A good, general rule at this time of year is this: if you are thankful for someone, tell them! Even small gestures of gratefulness can brighten a person’s day and make this holiday season more joyful.
And here’s a secret: every expression of gratitude has the potential to be a little rebellion against a society that is wildly out of balance.
In addition to being a longtime meditation and yoga teacher, I am also a professor of communication and ethics. I’ve written a number of books about our everyday rituals of inclusion, exclusion, and community building, and I am committed to helping people build wiser and more mindful communities that can thrive in a world of fire and flood.
Much of my research, and teaching, focuses on gratitude, including my books The Art of Gratitude (2018), The Ethics of Oneness (2021), and I Bow To You: Namaste as a Practice of Democratic Mindfulness (forthcoming).
I keep coming back to this emotion for its personal benefits. A daily gratitude practice has been shown to enrich us mentally, physically, and spiritually. Also, I treasure gratitude for its potential to change our lives and the world.
I grew up in Kansas, out on the dusty plains. When I think about the world and the challenges we collectively face, I often find myself recalling the Kansas state motto: ad astra per aspera, “to the stars through difficulty.” Years after moving away from my childhood home, I hold these words close to heart as a personal mantra.
My adolescence was an education in individualism. I was taught to pull myself up by my bootstraps. The early bird gets the worm and all. My own awakening to life began the moment that I recognized just how wrongheaded and limiting this philosophy is.
From a young age, Americans are taught to be rugged individuals. Many of us grew up hearing about the fiction of the “self-made man,” but the reality is that no one makes anything alone, including our lives. We speak a language we did not invent, walk on paths we did not pave, write on devices we did not build, and connect over an internet we did not create. We are who we are because of our own efforts, for sure, and also the efforts of our ancestors, our families, our mentors, our teachers, our partners, our friends.
We can reach the stars only if we figure out how to work together with others. No one builds a better future alone. Life is a shared project.
The practice of gratitude is a spiritual rebellion against rugged individualism, one of the great delusions of our culture.
To me, a big part of spiritual practice is learning to recognize ourselves as more than individuals. We are interdependent beings. We build our lives together, in a world we all share. To acknowledge this is an act of complete and utter rebellion against a culture that encourages us to be self-reliant and to bear the burdens of life alone. All of us are members of various communities and also citizens of the world, and with this citizenship comes many responsibilities and obligations. Our lives are ours to live, it is true. It is also true that it is only by working together with others, hand in hand and arm in arm, that we build these lives.
There’s nothing weak about leaning into support and about acknowledging those who support us. There’s nothing less than about recognizing those who make our lives worth living. So let this time of thanksgiving also be a time of spiritual rebellion. Tell those people who you appreciate, who support you when times are tough, and even when they aren’t, that you are thankful for them. It’s good for you, it’s good for them, and it’s good for all of us.
We are co-creators of our future present moments. It was a great day when I realized that ad astra per aspera is a communal, rather than an individualistic, motto. We go to the stars together, or not at all. That also is how we get through difficulty. Together.
Who are the people you will go to the stars with? Who helps you get through difficulty? Let them know! And then you might also use this time of thanksgiving as a chance to reflect, to ponder, and to converse. If we transcend the illusion of rugged individualism and acknowledge our interdependence, who knows what type of world we might build—together.