Thanksgiving has always been “our” holiday—the day when sixteen to twenty members of my extended family schlep over the bridge to New Jersey, pile into our home, and a feast for hours on food my mother started preparing days earlier, all washed down with our big laughs and bigger personalities. When I was younger, I watched the spectacle of the holiday unfold in awe, my mother wielding an invisible magic wand that made the dozen-plus dishes all arrive at the table in perfect synchronicity and then clean it all up before my sister, dad, and I collapsed on the couch in our food comas.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become more aware of the fact that Thanksgiving—and any other holiday, or big life project—does not happen with the wave of a magic wand. Or at least, not the kind of magic I thought I saw happening when I was a child. Getting my hands dirty in the mechanics of Thanksgiving was a sobering reality check about the hard work that goes into this day of gratitude and abundance. The gilded gleam of the perfectly set table overflowing with rich, piping hot food looked a little duller after I’d joined the now two-woman team behind shopping for, prepping, and timing the day’s festivities. And by the end of the night, my hands were raw and wrinkled from washing all the now-empty dishes, and it wasn’t so easy to surrender to food-coma sleep; foot massages and herbal tea needed to buffer the space between hostess mode and regular-person mode, the latter only really returning after a few more days of concentrated rest.
The picture I painted above of “doing” Thanksgiving may sound dramatic and stressful, but it’s not meant to be a complaint. I recognize that all this fanfare is a direct result of the abundance my family is blessed to enjoy—and yet the physical depletion on the other side of giving is all too real. After a few years of feeling beaten down by the holidays (a period that lasted well into January, since Thanksgiving marks the beginning of the shopping frenzy of Christmas and other December holidays), I started to sense something was off about this dynamic.
Rather than looking forward to the holidays with twinkling, innocent eyes like I did as a little girl, I started dreading them, looking for ways to simplify or “cut back” on what I had to give materially and energetically. Assuming that others were just as depleted as I was, I stopped asking for gifts. Soon, I’d convinced myself that Thanksgiving was just another Thursday dinner, and Christmas a day where I had to just wake up earlier to sneak in my yoga practice before going through the obligatory motions of cheer. I felt my own sense of vitality more stable, but there was no spark, no magic, to look forward to.
Nature’s Rhythm of Abundance
That’s when another kind of magic started to reveal itself. I saw that nature, like me, was also going through a depletion, a decaying, at the end of the year, having borne such abundant fruit and life all spring and summer. But although the plants and animals looked dormant, even dead, that superficial barrenness belied a deep replenishment happening inside. By not expending energy outwardly, they build themselves back up so they’re strong and vital when the snow melts. They are wired to have a whole season of quiet, rest-filled, nourishing self-love—the same season that we spend throwing ourselves into extravagance and giving.
There are many reasons why we’ve fallen out of sync with this natural rhythm of abundant rest. Consumerism is one of them, applying a “more is better” attitude even in ostensible selflessness. Our move toward isolation in the past several decades, which has worsened since the pandemic, also makes it harder to connect with literal nature and recognize when we need time for ourselves. If we’re alone most of the time, or even starved of human companionship, we might be overly eager to say “yes” to socializing even if our bodies want to hibernate.
Thankfully, there are ways around these obstacles that don’t require moving to another planet. What we can do instead is practice a little magic of our own, a magic that’s so ordinary we often overlook it: the magic of digestion.
The Science of Receiving
What’s happening in nature during the winter break is nothing more than an extended, intentional, and whole-body digestive process. It’s a time when the body can receive energy and nourishment—from the soil or from the tons of food they spent all summer consuming—uninterrupted and at a slow, steady pace. Our human culture gives us very few opportunities to do this, and it may not be possible to take months off from our lives to hibernate like bears (though, maybe we sort of have?). What we can do instead is support the magic of digestion, of receiving love in the form of edible, energetic, and sensory food, with more intention during the holiday season—and, as Ayurveda teaches, all year long. When we do so, showing up to give doesn’t seem like so much of a burden because we have enough for ourselves and a little extra.
In Ayurveda, we can look at the act of receiving via digestion in biological and physiological terms. First, receiving happens when the nervous system is in a parasympathetic phase, aptly nicknamed “rest and digest.” When our brains are in a relaxed state, our bodies are able to carry out daily “housekeeping” functions, which are put on the back burner when we are in a state of stress. Chief among these is digestion, wherein the body is receiving food and nourishment that will be transformed into our tissues and, at the end of that process, the immunity elixir known as ojas.
There are many reasons why stress would interfere with our ability to receive food. Tension and restriction in the GI tract can interfere with peristalsis, or the rhythmic movement of food through the tubes of the GI, including on the way out (I.e., constipation). Eating while multitasking may lead us to over-or under-eat, or choose foods that are less healthy; plus, that mental preoccupation will pull our digestive energy, known as agni, away from the core and out into the periphery to our emails, texts, or whatever else is consuming our attention while we’re consuming our food.
If our bodies don’t digest completely over long periods of time, metabolic waste called āma can build up and begin to circulate throughout the system. Symptoms of āma range from irregular appetite and elimination, to body aches and brain fog, and a telltale think, white coating on the tongue that will literally block your ability to taste—so you won’t know what foods will nourish you most, and may not even feel like eating much at all. In short, when we give too much of our energy to stress, we ultimately lose the ability to receive the biological nourishment we need to maintain our own baseline, let alone give to others.
In the mind, a similar feedback loop can take place, and can even be the instigator for the process described above. Ayurveda describes that the mind can fall into one of two states of imbalance that lead us away from being receptive. The first is called rajas, characterized by hyperactivity, restlessness, even aggression we typically think of as “anxiety.” The opposite of rajas is tamas, which feels more like “depression” in its dark, inert, sluggish, and unmotivated qualities. In the absence of rajas or tamas, the mind is in its natural state, called sattva. Clear, calm, and expansive, sattva allows us to see the world with equanimity—like a glassy surface of a lake that allows you to see through the seaweed and fishes to the bottom, muck and all.
Sattva is similar to the rest and digest mode of the nervous system, so practices that boost sattva also facilitate digestion and all the other necessary functions like immunity, cell repair, and reproduction. Beyond that, though, sattva helps us recognize our place in the natural world, as part of a bigger ecosystem that only thrives when we balance giving and receiving. Reminded of our humble place in the universal web, our egos that normally crave (or are marketed to think we want) more things, attention, stimulation, and resources get a reality check. We can see more clearly that what’s nice and pretty exists alongside what’s grimy and smelly, and that there’s enough for all of it. Acknowledging we are nature, not the masters of nature, we see that everything given and received flows from and to us in turn. Science now calls this biophilia, but ancient traditions like Ayurveda simply think of it as one of the facets of health.
The Art of Receiving
If science allows us to measure our experiences, art is a way to feel and express them. In this context, it means examining some of our habits and beliefs around giving and receiving in micro and macro ways. Many of us are conditioned to believe that we have to work for or earn anything we get in life, whether it’s a job promotion or meal or the love of a parent or partner. Receiving acknowledgment for something you’ve accomplished or are proud of us is important, but we can also be acknowledged just for being, for taking up the space we’ve been granted as a microcosm of the macrocosm in nature’s divine design. Unlearning the need to constantly justify your existence can take time, but like sattva, it is a very natural state that we can remember when we give intention and attention to it.
In the body, the art of receiving feels like ease, openness, and flow, the opposite of the gripping, tension, and pushing that many of us live our lives in. And indeed, “flow state” is a wonderful description of receptivity. “Flow” comes up most often in descriptions of artists who allow their minds to soften enough to tap into their intuition, to “receive” the inspiration they need to make their work.
In Ayurveda, flow is the job of the water element, connected to emotions (energy + motion) and the sense of taste—for food and for life’s needs and pleasures (think: saliva in your mouth allows you to taste your food, and signals your appetite). Babies are full of the water (and earth) elements and are the perfect examples of living in a non-artistic flow state. Everyone knows that babies have no hang-ups on receiving; in fact, they make their needs and desires known in no uncertain terms. And when they’re receiving those things, they not only grow and thrive but turn into the cute, giggly bundles of joy we love to be around—creatures we want to give our attention, energy, and resources to.
You may not call yourself an artist (though we are all creative beings; that’s the topic for another article), but you were a baby once, and your body remembers how to receive with relish and appreciation the way you did in those innocent early years of life. Ask yourself: What’s gotten in the way of you being able to know exactly what you want and how to ask for it? Why are your needs for food, water, love and affection, warmth and attention, any different from when you were a child?
The Practice of Receiving
The best way to revive the skills of receiving is practicing with yourself, where the unreliable factors of other people’s availability or resources are out of the question, and you don’t need to put yourself in a position to doubt your worth in an external relationship.
Self-love and its cousin self-care have gotten a bad rap over the years as practices of indulgence, privilege, and waste. This Ayurvedic approach to self-love, with digestion at its core, brings us back down to that ordinary, accessible, and totally free magic behind the art of receiving on a regular basis. Try these techniques to help your body be more open to the vital nourishment that the universe has set aside for you and you alone—and watch how your cup of abundance not only fills you to the brim but can’t help but overflow back into the web of love we’re all part of.
Under stress, the breath will get trapped high in the chest, a pattern that not only reinforces stress itself but prevents full oxygenation of the blood and impedes digestion. Each time you allow for a full breath in, your diaphragm pushes downward, giving your digestive organs a squeeze and burst of hydration that supports their overall health and the movement of food through the GI tract. A full breath requires releasing the tension many of us hold in our abdomen—a habit acquired from the impression of having to look a certain way or other stressors. But a relaxed belly is not indulgent, excessive, or shameful; a relaxed belly is strong enough to be supple, elastic, and receptive; to move with the flow of breath (and life) rather than get rigid and afraid.
To unlearn these holding patterns, practice full belly breathing for a few minutes each day. Sit comfortably upright with a long spine, or lay down on the floor face up or face down (I find the prone position, with a folded blanket under my torso and head, easiest to practice this in). Place your hands at the low belly between your navel and pubic bone, or bring your attention to that area if you’re prone. As you inhale, feel your belly expand into your hands or the ground softly, not pushing; then exhale, and let your belly move back toward your spine. Take up to ten full rounds before and after meals as part of a mindful eating ritual, or anytime you feel stressed. Like with food, depriving yourself of breath blocks you from participating in the universal flow of energy—because when you breathe fully, the plants and ocean (which ultimately become our food!) breathe fully, too, and on and on it goes.
Say thank you:
Gratitude is the emotion that opens our heart space energetically and physically, allowing for fuller breathing and a sense of connection beyond ourselves. There are many ways to practice gratitude, but the simplest one is to just say “thank you.” Most of us do this as a common courtesy, but we can also be intentional about how and when we use them. We thank someone for holding the door, but do we thank them when they compliment us or brush it aside? We thank a server at a restaurant for bringing us our meal, but do we thank ourselves for making dinner, or being able to chew, swallow, and transform our food in the miraculous daily magic of digestion?
Make a point to thank yourself for small things during your day. Maybe you do so whenever you take a sip of water, thanking yourself for taking time to feed your flow and for your access to clean water. Or, maybe you place your hands on your heart and say a silent or audible “thank you” when you wake up and go to bed—thank you for the day that’s ahead the day that passed, and your life flowing in between.
Love your child-self:
As we age, we acquire lots of stories about ourselves that alter our ability to recognize the child we once were—a being with a clear sense of their needs, desires, and voice. To remember what it’s like to receive unconditionally, place a photo of yourself as a baby somewhere in your home that you see regularly—your bathroom, near your desk (or your phone or computer wallpaper), or on your dresser where you get dressed. If there’s a mirror nearby, even better. Look at that baby and tell them you love them every day—then look at yourself and receive that love, because the face in the mirror and the face in the photo are one and the same.
Gratitude is a two-way street, so giving it is as nourishing as receiving it. Because when you acknowledge gratitude for something or someone else, you acknowledge that they have met a need of yours and that you received it, digested it, completely. The more you practice these acts of receiving, the more you’ll be able to trust that love is a renewable resource that’s self-generating and free to all.
If you’d like to learn more about gratitude practices for your sense-care, self-care, and others-care, join me on November 1 for my workshop (in-person and online), The Art of Feasting: Practicing Gratitude in the Season of Abundance.