03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

The Fire Of Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is one of those few times in a year when families, even ones with which there is discord, come together. For some this is a joyous event, for others it is greatly loathed.

Ram Dass used to say that if you ever thought you were enlightened, go spend a week with your parents and siblings. That would be the test. It is one thing to stay calm and clear with those who share our views and beliefs, quite another to do so with those who have very different world views, which families tend to have. Even in the best of families, siblings and parents can ignite strong negative emotional reactions in us, stirring like no one else what Eckhart Tolle refers to as our "pain body."

A person on the street or a co-worker can say that we do not look our best, and we are not likely to respond with much emotional charge. We hear the comment and easily let it pass. A sibling or parent can say the same thing, and instantly our shoulders rise, our jaw clinches, or belly tightens, and we are flooded with all the memories in the past when we felt poorly treated by him or her. Our response then is fueled less by the words spoken, and more by the emotional pain that we carry in relationship to that person. Depending on the person expressing the words, our mind and body can respond much differently.

Interactions with our families, in many ways, reveal how much we still have not let go of, how much we have not forgiven, how much we are still trying to prove to them and the world that we are "someone of worth"; they reveal how much we have not completely accepted ourselves. This takes the form of strong emotional outbursts, attempts at highlighting the flaws in parents and siblings, and "one-upping" them when given the chance. Essentially, it reveals all the ways that we believe ourselves separate.

However, in any moment, we can either decide to reinforce this separateness or no longer feed it. We can, for example, not take the bait when a family member comments on our appearance or job, expecting us to respond with a strong emotional charge as we have in the past. And when we do not respond in such a way, people often stop trying to bait us, since it is no longer as exciting as it once was. Doing this with family members, of course, can be challenging work, more than the fiercest Zen teacher, but if our work is to live our best in all situations, it is a great opportunity.

Rumi has a poem where he says that there is a fire on the left and a lovely stream on the right. Some people are tempted by the water, but on entering instantly their heads appear in the fire. Those who go into the fire show up in the water. He says, "Most people guard against going into the fire, and so end up in it." He continues, "If you are a friend of God, fire is your water."

While there are certainly some family situations that are abusive and best to avoid, Thanksgiving also gives the opportunity for us to enter the fire, to explore living with calm, patience, and wisdom when around those who know best how to push our buttons. It is also a time where we get to see that part of us that wants to cause pain and increase suffering in others. Time with family often reveals all that is not healed or resolved in us.

In fact, if there was a "suffering barometer" Thanksgiving would likely be the one day in the US where there is the greatest shift, the one day where suffering either increases or is diminished more than any other day in the year. Here's to a Thanksgiving where this barometer decreases, and where families see the opportunity to support rather than hinder one another's growth.


Soren Gordhamer works with individuals and groups on living with greater mindfulness and purpose in our technology-rich age. He is the author of Wisdom 2.0: Ancient Secrets for the Creative and Constantly Connected (HarperOne, 2009). Website: