Breaking the tradition of feasting, with or without family, I attended my first contemplative Thanksgiving last week in Boulder, CO. Despite my excitement at the concept, the brainchild of a fellow on Meetup.com, anxiety hijacked my high spirits on Thursday as I loaded two pans of roasted vegetables and my folding meditation bench into my Subaru. In addition to garden variety worries about whether I’d enjoy the other people, none of whom I’d met before, I feared that the intention for a mindful gathering could evaporate amidst group pressure to have a more conventional social experience. Since I didn’t know the host, I wasn’t sure how he’d hold the space or handle mavericks. As I pulled up alongside the house and turned off the engine, I reminded myself that if I wasn’t enjoying the experience, I could leave.
By the time I arrived, several others had gathered in the living room, which offered a clear view of the foothills and the craggy, white capped Rocky Mountains beyond. A small pond in the back yard reflected the pale afternoon sky, inviting stillness. A wood stove nurtured a crackling fire, whose tangy smoke escaped through a cracked open window. A young couple sat on the couch and stroked the host’s gentle dog, who silently donated her black silken fur as a balm to being among strangers. A few of us introverts joked that, at parties, sometimes it’s easier to hang with the animals than the people. I laughed and poured myself some Pellegrino.
With the ten participants assembled, the food set out on a table, we formed a circle on the carpeted floor and meditated for five minutes. In the quiet, the snapping and popping of the fire sounded like its own, lively conversation. Kneeling next to the host, I heard his inhales and exhales, a mildly choppy rhythm I wouldn’t have attuned to otherwise. After he rang a bell to mark the end of the sit, we introduced ourselves and shared our experience. The host confided he had felt nervous opening his home to people, some of whom he had never met, to participate in something unfamiliar. His willingness to be authentic helped me open up. I commented that his breathing and the noises of the fire made me feel relaxed. And I mentioned my sadness about not being able to share these practices with many members of my family.
The host invited us to greater levels of presence with mindfulness exercises involving smell, touch, listening and taste. Everyone was game. He passed around spice jars, oils, a candle and soap and encouraged us to experience their aroma without looking at or labeling them. We spent maybe 30 seconds with each, then passed the item to a neighbor at the ring of the bell. Surrendering to some sensations (sesame oil) was delightful, while others (nostril piercing cinnamon) had me recoil. But knowing that I couldn’t keep my favorites made the experience more intense, an excellent practice in savoring and letting go, what life asks of us all the time. For the touch exercise, the host distributed objects with a variety of textures and shapes to explore with eyes closed or looking away. The point was not to figure out what the things were, but to experience them through palms and fingertips. To slowly caress a rough fossil or squeeze a lumpy silica packet is to bypass the mind and encounter these things as if for the first time.
For the listening, we chose partners. One person spoke for two minutes, sharing what was on their mind, while the other listened without interruption and then reflected upon what they heard, before switching roles. While not a new exercise for me, I’m still amazed at its power. It allows me to land more fully in the “now” having emptied my mind of distracting thoughts while making deeper connection possible. Finally, we explored taste and mouth feel. The host arranged small bowls filled with pieces of kiwi, mango, tangerine, blueberries, raspberries, walnuts, macadamias, pistachios, several varieties of cooked mushrooms, pomegranate seeds, and avocado. We took one of each, arranging them on plates. As I reached for a single macadamia nut, I remembered that at Thanksgivings past I would have taken a handful; ditto for the pistachios. But piling the plate was not the point. Becoming present was. At the sound of the bell, we chose one item to explore thoroughly. When he rang the bell again, we selected another tidbit to mindfully chew. Alternating between soft and crunchy, sweet and savory, gave my taste buds a workout and fulfilled my craving for variety. At the bell’s final tingle, I discovered I wasn’t very hungry despite having eaten only minute portions of a dozen things. The automatic urge to reload my plate? Vanished.
Now, it was time to eat. The host offered ware of various sizes for the meal (which did not include a turkey). Some people picked a dinner plate. The host selected a teacup-sized bowl. Growing up, I was taught to finish everything, and frequently I stuffed myself in the service of not wasting food. Being an à la carte spirit, I often gather some of everything and feel obligated to polish it off. I took the middle path, choosing a shallow soup bowl in which to spoon small bites of vegetables, rice stuffing, salad, and cheese. During a meandering discussion of spiritual practice, community, and belonging, I finished eating and refilled a third of my dish. Since I wasn’t using food as a crutch, I probably consumed half of my customary Thanksgiving intake. I knew I had bid farewell to gluttony when I didn’t need to unbutton my pants.
When the host asked everyone if they wanted dessert, my own indifference surprised me. Nourished by the mindfulness practices, authentic conversation, and the peaceful atmosphere, dessert didn’t have much to offer me emotionally as it once did. Sipping licorice tea, I sampled half of a small pumpkin chocolate chip muffin. That was enough. By then, a few people had packed up their leftovers and gathered coats. I realized I wasn’t eager for the evening to end, and I was thankful for that.
Ilona Fried blogs about spiritual practice at www.alacartespirit.com