I am in California for the wedding of the son of my closest childhood friend. My friend and I met in first grade, and through high school, we were inseparable. We even went to the same summer camp for many of those years. Neither of us had a good experience in school. I remember one incident from just a short time after we met. In our first grade class, we all made faces out of different colors of clay pressed onto colored construction paper. The teacher tacked our faces on a bulletin board in the hallway outside our classroom. Sometime after that, when we were coming back into class after recess outside, we all had to line up against the wall with the blackboard before filing into class. My friend was standing in line behind me. As we started walking into class, some boys in front of us pointed to the face my friend had made and said something critical and mean about it. I remember being really struck by the harshness of their words and studying her clay face to try to see what was so awful about it, which I just couldn’t figure out. My friend then spoke up and explained why she had made the face in the particular way the boys had mocked. They just laughed derisively, and I saw her wince from the injustice and embarrassment. I don’t remember her suffering that kind of bullying all the time over the rest of our school years, though she didn’t have it easy, but I certainly did suffer like that throughout school. She was a lifeline for me. Knowing she was there, that she accepted me without question no matter what, and that she would listen to anything I ever needed to say and somehow make me feel better about it made it possible for me to survive school. And it felt good when I could play the same role for her.
But it wasn’t just that she provided moral support that makes her special to me. She is incredibly sharp, funny, goofy, irreverent, almost completely non-judgmental, and utterly uninhibited. Even in difficult situations, she makes me, and everyone, laugh. She sees the world through her own eyes, and in those years her eyes saw much more joy than mine did, even in the midst of her challenges growing up. It’s impossible to be with her and not come away feeling connected, valued, and somehow bigger. Her heart is so large it encompasses everything in its path, and it makes you want to be a kinder, gentler, more accepting person. So when I think back to childhood, I don’t think of her just as a refuge, but also as a primary source of happiness, good cheer, and of course love.
I’m writing all this today because the overwhelming feeling I have being in California seeing my friend and her family this weekend is gratitude, which aligns nicely with Thanksgiving this coming week. I feel the gratitude in my body. I’ve just written two paragraphs about me and my friend, and they’re true, at least to the extent memory is reliable. But they’re also just words and memories. What makes them meaningful is the feelings those words and memories generate in my body—the actual physical sensations of gratitude that arise when I see my friend or think of her. When I can be “in” those sensations—meaning just feeling them as they are, without labeling them or describing them or analyzing them or thinking about them in any other way, just feeling them—then I am truly honoring my friend and our relationship, I am living the gift of her presence in my life, and I am inviting in even more experiences that fill me with gratitude. Feeling thankful breeds thankfulness.
This is meditation—developing a relationship with our physical bodies that is distinct from our relationship with our minds. The more we practice being in the physical sensations in the body, the less we get caught up in the patterns and stories in our minds, and the more peaceful and contented our lives become. Like with thankfulness, the more we feel it, the more we get of it. When I meditate and when I teach meditation, I usually use the sensations of the breath as the anchor in the body that we keep coming back to when we realize we’ve been carried away by thoughts. But this weekend I am using the sensations of gratitude, and it feels really good.