For most Thanksgivings, I am grateful for two things.
1. Time off from work. Four day weekends are amazing.
2. Turkey sandwiches made from leftover turkey (my delicious minimalist sandwich: white bread, turkey, and mayo)
I usually don’t spend too much time reflecting on other things I am grateful for, which is a shame. So this year, in the spirit of The Ancient Wisdom Project, I’ve decided to a share a few ideas from ancient wisdom that I learned this year and for which I am grateful.
Our ability to endure hardships and setbacks
The core principle of Stoicism is that we should understand what is within our control and what is not in our control. The only thing that is within our control is our mind, more specifically, the way we interpret the things that happen to us.
If we can truly embrace this idea, we’ll find that the unfortunate events or obstacles or setbacks will only disturb us to the extent we let them.
Whatever happens, assume that it was bound to happen, and do not be willing to rail at Nature. That which you cannot reform, it is best to endure, and to attend uncomplainingly upon the God under whose guidance everything progresses; for it is a bad soldier who grumbles when following his commander. For this reason we should welcome our orders with energy and vigour, nor should we cease to follow the natural course of this most beautiful universe, into which all our future sufferings are woven. – Seneca
Despite our faults and failings, we are worthy of love
The Christian doctrine of Original Sin says that because of Adam and Eve’s disobedience to God, man has inherited a sinful nature. Though your natural inclination may be to think “it’s not fair that I get blamed for someone else’s sins,” the more helpful interpretation is that we are all broken. We all must struggle against out lesser natures, and strive to be better.
But Christianity teaches that you don’t have to be perfect, or that you have to overcome all your weaknesses before you are worth of God’s love. It teaches that God loves you as you are.
This is an important idea to embrace, especially in a world that is always demanding that you become better at your job, be more giving in your relationships, or become better looking and more physically fit. While it’s good to strive to be better, you can’t do it if you despise or hate yourself for your weaknesses.
Be thankful that you are alive and that you are loved despite and even because of your imperfections, and learn to love and accept others despite their imperfections.
But now, thus says the Lord, who created you, O Jacob,
And He who formed you, O Israel:
“Fear not, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by your name;
You are Mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
And through the rivers, they shall not overflow you.
When you walk through the fire, you shall not be burned,
Nor shall the flame scorch you.
For I am the Lord your God,
The Holy One of Israel, your Savior;
I gave Egypt for your ransom,
Ethiopia and Seba in your place.
Since you were precious in My sight,
You have been honored,
And I have loved you;
Therefore I will give men for you,
And people for your life.
Fear not, for I am with you;
I will bring your descendants from the east,
And gather you from the west;
I will say to the north, ‘Give them up!’
And to the south, ‘Do not keep them back!’
Bring My sons from afar,
And My daughters from the ends of the earth—
Everyone who is called by My name,
Whom I have created for My glory;
I have formed him, yes, I have made him.” – Isaiah 43:1-7
Rest is a sacred act
It often feels like we work just to see the weekend. The weekends are supposed to be restful and rejuvenating. However, we often spend it running errands and trying to be productive or in a state of “fake rest” where we watch Netflix for hours on end and limiting our movements to walking between the fridge and the couch.
But sometimes we get a few extra days off, like Thanksgiving, when we can actually rest and think about the things that matter for us. These days, when experienced correctly, are truly restful.
In Judaism, Shabbat, or the Sabbath, is a sacred day that starts at sundown on Friday and ends at sundown on Saturday. During that time, you are not supposed to perform any work. To truly benefit from Shabbat, it requires you to put all your focus and effort into it. Paradoxically, it’s hard work to observe Shabbat.
But when you’re working hard to rest, you are reminded of what is truly important. These periods of rest are times to retreat from the worldly and the profane. They are times to replenish your spiritual energy. They are times to rekindle your connection to your fellow man and to reclaim your dignity.
The seventh day is the armistice in man’s cruel struggle for existence, a truce in all conflicts, personal and social, peace between man and man, man and nature, peace within man; a day on which handling money is considered a desecration, on which man avows his independence of that which is the world’s chief idol. The event day is the exodus from tension, the liberation of man from his own muddiness, the installation of man as a sovereign in the world of time.
In the tempestuous ocean of time and toil there are islands of stillness where man may enter a harbor and reclaim his dignity. The island is the seventh day, the Sabbath, a day of detachment from things, instruments and practical affairs as well as of attachment to the spirit. – Abraham Joshua Heschel
Humbling experiences are good for us
When I finished college, my plan was to become a Navy SEAL. After I quit, I had no idea what to do with my life, and I still don’t. My flawless life plan didn’t work out, and that was humbling. Though it was my fault that I quit, it still doesn’t feel good to realize you weren’t as strong or confident as you thought you were.
But without this major change to my life plans, I wouldn’t have experienced many of things for which I am now grateful. I certainly wouldn’t have ended up doing this project, which I have benefited from immensely.
The word “Islam” means “submission to God’s will.” I love this because it’s an acknowledgement that maybe your plans aren’t the best ones, that maybe, your plans for yourself are inferior to God’s will.
When you pray five times a day, you are reminded of this. It’s an act of humility that says you are the mercy of something greater than yourself.
For the non-religious, you don’t have to believe that you should serve God’s will. However, it’s wise to embrace that your plans won’t always work out, and that when they don’t, instead of being angry or resentful at fate, we should humbly accept whatever it throws at us.
I am a pen between Your two fingers.I won’t wobble this way and that.I will write whatever you want to say. – Rumi
The Self is not separate from the world
We go through our day-to-day routines in a state of perpetual of ego-centricity. Our thoughts mainly consist of “I want this” or “I don’t like that” or “I can’t believe that happened to me.”
Frankly, it’s exhausting to think about yourself all the time.
But Hinduism teaches that this conscious self, the one we equate with our identity, is not the true Self. The true Self transcends our sensory experiences and our consciousness and is connected to the Atman, the universal “soul” and ultimate Self. To say that you and I are distinct separate entities is false. We are all intimately connected.
Though the metaphysical concept is difficult to understand, it’s not hard to see the negative effects of overly identifying with the ego. When we identify with the ego, we succumb to petty rivalries, as people become obstacles to achieving what we want. We feel as though the universe conspires against us, as if the universe exists only to mess with you. We become insecure about our place in the world, and whether we have accomplished enough.
But if we can move past this ego-centricity, we can learn to see the divine and the sacred in others and treat them accordingly. We can see that we are not the center of the universe, and to act otherwise can only lead to misery.
Like two golden birds perched on the selfsame tree,
Intimate friends, the ego and the Self
Dwell in the same body. The former eats
The sweet and sour fruits of the tree of life
While the latter looks on in detachment.
As long as we think we are the ego,
We feel attached and fall into sorrow.
But realize that you are the Self, the Lord
Of life, and you will be freed from sorrow.
When you realize that you are the Self,
Supreme source of light, supreme source of love,
You transcend the duality of life
And enter into the unitive state. – The Mundaka Upanishad
If you pay attention, life is pretty good
I, like many others, am guilty of spending a good chunk of my time thinking about the next step. It could be the next career move, the next physical move (San Diego is very appealing), or even the next weekend.
This perpetual focus on the future has the effect of distracting me from the fact that life is pretty good right now.
Most of the time when I drive to work, my mind drifts off to various topics, mostly things I need to do that day. But occasionally, I pay attention to the fact that I’m driving and the weather is good and my job is comfortable and I have a nice apartment and I have people that love me and that I love in return.
Vipassana-meditation is a type of Buddhist mindfulness meditation that emphasizes paying attention to your breath and any thoughts and feelings that arise during meditation. When your mind wanders, you simply acknowledge that your mind wandered and bring it back to your breath or whatever it is you’re trying to focus on.
The goal of this meditation is to develop insight into the nature of reality. According to the Buddha, the Three Marks of Existence are impermanence, suffering, and non-self. Once you accept these truths, you can be free of suffering.
Though most of us will never achieve nirvana or enlightenment, we can improve our ability to pay attention to our circumstances and accept them as they are. Once we do that, we can experience some level of peace and joy.
According to the late Allan Watts, a famous popularizer of Eastern philosophy, it is only when we accept our lives as they are and learn to enjoy them can we hope to make any contribution to the world.
The startling truth is that our best efforts for civil rights, international peace, population control, conservation of natural resources, and assistance to the starving of the earth — urgent as they are — will destroy rather than help if made in the present spirit. For, as things stand, we have nothing to give. If our own riches our own way of life are not enjoyed here, they will not be enjoyed anywhere else. Certainly they will supply the immediate jolt of energy and hope that methedrine, and similar drugs, give in extreme fatigue. But peace can be made only by those who are peaceful, and love can be shown only by those who love. No work of love will flourish out of guilt, fear, or hollowness of heart, just as no valid plans for the future can be made by those who have no capacity for living now.- Allan Watts
For my American readers, have a wonderful Thanksgiving. For my foreign readers, I hope you can still take time to reflect on these ideas and on the things you are grateful for.