The Alchemy of Giving Thanks

11/25/2010 11:16 am 11:16:02 | Updated May 25, 2011

The secular holiday of Thanksgiving is generally an expression of thanks celebrated with family, friends or chosen community. The act of giving thanks is important; it has an alchemical power and with practice can be profoundly transformative.

Many religious and spiritual traditions encourage giving thanks including Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Native American traditions, 12 step groups and more. Thanking can be part of individual prayer, communal religious practice, or a secular practice.

I learned from a three-time cancer survivor of her practice, inspired by her studies of Native American traditions, of giving when she felt low. She focused on what she had and on her power to give, even if she had to dig for something to appreciate or share. The act of giving brought her into the flow of life energy. In the process, she affirmed her active participation in life, in receiving and in giving in turn. She appreciated many gifts of caring from her community, and offered her wisdom and her experience freely. She gave to her immediate community, as well as a much larger community that included people she never met. She also cultivated the habit of daily writing about her gratitude, and this appreciation, this thanksgiving, became an important part of her healing.

Giving thanks had a pivotal role in an individual's healing from cancer, and led to some profound acts of generosity. So I extrapolate: giving thanks can shift a person out of a low place, (perhaps a victim stance) into a place of sharing profound gifts. Conversely, giving thanks can shift a person out of arrogance by recognizing gifts received.

How might this alchemy of thanksgiving be useful in other situations? How might it work on larger scales? What if we collectively cultivated the proverbial 'attitude of gratitude'? What kinds of transformation might be possible?

What if we explore giving thanks as a primary mode of being on the planet? (In some ways, religions are trying to do this.) Giving thanks, as a regular and profound practice, could play a pivotal role in healing our relationship with the Earth. Whether thanking the elements of earth, air, fire, water and spirit directly or thanking a creator of nature, or simply experiencing gratitude for natural beauty, a relationship of appreciation of nature, rather than exploitation, could help us find the collective will to change overly consumptive habits.

Lifting up public expressions of thanksgiving may be a start. On Thanksgiving Day, public words of appreciation may be called for around the table. For those daunted by creating their own, there are websites offering a range of quotes from the poetic to the historic to the religious. (The Huffington Post has a great selection.) Then let's consider taking the practice of giving thanks beyond the day, and into daily life. Whether with religious or secular intent, the act of appreciation can be transformative. It is said that problems cannot be solved on the level on which they are created; practices like giving thanks can be a way to access other perspectives and possible solutions, and our world sorely needs all the help we can muster.

Thanks for reading this.