It is Thanksgiving time again. Time to gather with friends and family to celebrate and give thanks for all that we have. This time of year, however, is also full of stress and anxiety for many who are rushing around preparing for the holiday season. Time with family and friends, and holiday travel, also bring challenging situations, annoyance and for many a feeling of sadness. Although this is a time for giving thanks for all that we have, it is sometimes difficult to feel grateful in the midst of the stressful holiday season. So what does all of this have to do with the Dalai Lama's laugh, you may ask? I recently had the great pleasure of spending two days with the Dalai Lama in New York City. I sat in a crowded theater with hundreds of others listening to him speak. When I first arrived, I was surprised to hear protesters outside the theater chanting loudly that he was the "false Dalai Lama." As we were ushered into the crowded theater, we were searched for dangerous objects before being allowed into the room. This was all a strange and disturbing beginning to a day with the the winner of the Nobel Prize for Peace. When I finally arrived at my seat, excited to be in the presence of such an important historical figure, the Dalai Lama began his lesson in Tibetan. For the first 20 minutes, and throughout the two days, he spoke in a language I could not begin to understand. Then, when his interpreter began to speak in English to translate his words, it seemed that even English was not going to help me truly understand the complicated teachings of Dependent Origination and Intrinsic Existence. As I struggled to understand his existential teachings, I found myself captivated by one thing - the Dalai Lama's laughter.
Many of us shared the same experience that day. There was something about his deep, joyful belly laugh that seemed to exude happiness. This is a man who has lost his country, who bears the burden of continuing the Tibetan culture and its spiritual teachings, who, at 79 years old, lives in exile and travels the world sharing these teachings to hundreds of thousands of people, and who has the fate of an entire culture in his hands. And yet, despite the tremendous burden he carries, he manages to sit happily, with a radiating smile, filling the large theater with his laughter. This alone was worth the price of admission.
Back to our own Thanksgiving tables. The Dalai Lama's laugh is a great example of how our own happiness need not be defined by our circumstances. Despite our suffering, our challenges or our difficult circumstances, we too can choose to find happiness and laughter. As the Dalai Lama says, "Happiness is a choice." There are simple ways to find joy in each moment. For example, we can simply take a deep breath and enjoy the fact the we can take a breath. I often think back to when my mother was ill and I found tremendous joy on mornings when she could simply breathe with ease. This simple act of gratitude is easily forgotten when life gets busy. But the ability to take a slow, deep breath is something to be very thankful for.
Another way to bring gratitude to Thanksgiving is to look at the food on our table and think about everyone who has contributed in some way to our meal -- the famers in the field, the animals in the farm, the food company employees who produce and package our food, the truck drivers, the grocery store clerks, the cashiers, the caregivers and cooks who prepare it, and those who worked to make money so the food could be purchased. Each and every person played a part in getting this food on the table for us to enjoy. This brings a great sense of interconnectedness, interdependence and a feeling of appreciation and gratitude to our hearts. Try thinking about all the people who contributed in some way to your Thanksgiving meal, from its very beginning in a field somewhere in the world to your plate.
On to a more challenging gratitude practice - dealing with difficult people. Even the difficult people in our lives can help us find gratitude and happiness. Pay attention to the person in your life who causes you discomfort or unease, and try to find something that person has done for you, directly or indirectly, that brings you joy. They may have brought someone into your life who you love very much, or perhaps they make someone you love very happy. Whatever it is, recognize it and be thankful for it. It is also helpful to recognize that even the people who are most challenging for us are also just searching for their own happiness, and are often struggling in their own way to find it. Opening the door to compassion for them, will also help us find our own peace and happiness.
Bah Humbug! Why even try? All this effort to cultivate gratitude can actually pay off. Dr. Rick Hanson, a neuropsychologist and author of Hardwiring Happiness, has spent years studying the brain and has found that we can actually change our brains and create more happiness in our lives with practice. We can cause our neural machinery to cultivate positive states of mind. This is known as “self-directed neuroplasticity.” Neuroplasticity refers to the malleable nature of the brain. Dr. Hanson has found that we can change our brains to be happier by deliberately training the mind to appreciate the good that is all around us. What better time to start practicing happiness and hardwiring your brain for positivity than Thanksgiving.
So, this Thanksgiving, practice laughing out loud like the Dalai Lama and take the time to look around or inside yourself and notice a few things that you can be truly grateful for. Whether it is your breath, your health, your children, the food in front of you, the sun rising, or the person sitting next to you, simply take the time to notice how fortunate you are and give thanks for that good fortune.