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Planning a Heart-Centered Thanksgiving

Three Ideas for Heart-Centered Gatherings and a Compassionate Thanksgiving

Adopt a turkey for a more compassionate thanksgiving

Getty/Robert Winkler

Animal chaplain Sarah Bowen shares how she has re-crafted her Thanksgiving to be more compassionate and rejuvenating.

I stalled our holiday plans for months, navigating the tension between wanting to see my extended family and concerns about safety. Stretched out across the U.S., our family cannot gather without planes. Unless you consider Zoom, which I’m growing weary of. On the flip side, jettisoning our usual full family gathering also brings some relief, as it means no questions about why our table does not feature a traditionally dressed turkey.

These unprecedented times created an opportunity to take another look at our holiday habits in the hopes of maximizing compassion to all: from our over-Zoomed eyeballs to the Earth’s feathered flocks to the humans around us struggling with food insecurity.

Rethink the Meaning of Thanksgiving

As a child, I had difficulty understanding why I should paint pictures honoring a turkey—and then go home and eat one. I would beg my father to at least keep the main course in the kitchen, so I didn’t have to look at it. “Why do 46 million birds need to be slaughtered for our country to be grateful?” I implored, “How can one species give thanks based on violence to other beings?”

Even after leaving my childhood home, I felt pressure to provide turkey to my family. To reconcile my discomfort with my spiritual lifestyle, I endeavored to find the best organic, cruelty-free, free-range, good-life-living turkey. Then one year, I snapped. Placing his little body into the oven, I declared, “This is the last time.” Then I collapsed with relief.

I had to ask myself, why was I doing something that collided with my values to make other people happy? Is that what Thanksgiving means to me? This collision can happen over myriad issues beyond the menu. Often we perpetuate activities long beyond when they are useful or we fail to adapt our traditions as our values mature and deepen.

Ask yourself: What are my core values? What are my boundaries? What type of gathering would honor both and be most nurturing for me in this difficult year?

Give Thanks by Giving the Gift of Life

The year after I declared our house turkey-free, instead of shopping for a turkey, I found Declan. A stunning black-feathered, slightly blue-ish headed bird, Declan lives in New York’s Hudson Valley at the Catskill Animal Sanctuary. His human caretakers refer to him as a “handsome, lovable tough guy.” They tell me turkeys are incredibly smart and social and love to be stroked like you might pet a dog or cat.

Over the last seven years, the folks at CAS have kept me informed of Declan’s journeys: “He’s very protective and loyal to his friends and will follow visitors up and down the fence line to guard his yard.” Apparently, I am sponsoring an unwavering, bad-ass turkey. And, in return, I stay loyal to him through monthly sponsor donations.

When I tell people that I won’t be cooking a turkey, they often respond, “What do you serve instead?” They suggest that my table is lacking something essential to Thanksgiving. To which I reply, with a chuckle, “Yes, it lacks antibiotics, cruelty, and my guilty feelings.” Then I quickly move on to describe the yummy meal I will be serving: Tuscan Kale and Apple Salad, Sweet Potato Fig Stuffing, Thick ‘n’ Creamy Mac-and-Cheeze (all of the comfort and none of the dairy), Cinnamon Apple Oat Treats, and Chocolate Pumpkin Truffles. (Click here for vegan Thanksgiving recipes.)

Admittedly, another exciting bonus of a compassionate menu is I don’t have to get up at the crack of dawn to start the oven. Plus, our feast is much cheaper. So we buy extra cruelty-free, plant-based food to donate to our local food bank so that people around us can also have nutritious, life-sustaining menus.

Ask yourself: Do my Thanksgiving activities help promote life and the thriving of the Earth? Could I go plastic-free or animal-free for the holiday? How can I support the lives of the people in need around me?

Build Rejuvenation Time Into Your Holiday

It can be easy to feel wiped-out at any holiday—from the increase in noise, energy levels, and perhaps clashing personalities to seemingly endless dishes and constant phone calls. Yet, Thanksgiving is, at its essence, a time for celebrating the harvest and moving from busy time to more sedentary time.

Our family took this to heart this year, deciding not to gather in person but to use the time to rest. We’ll gather for an hour after our meals to share our gratitude for our lives. We’ll pray for the health and wellbeing of humanity and the more-than-human world. And we’ll acknowledge our sadness for the loss of time spent together.

Yet, in that loss is a silver lining. I’ve set aside a stack of books I want to read, unpacked a fluffy winter blanket, and picked up an assortment of robust, fragrant teas. It’s been a long, challenging year, and what I need most is time for respite.

Ask yourself: How can I create a space for rest? How can I show compassion to myself? What does my heart need?

You might also enjoy “Feel Nourished Instead of Stuffed.”


About the Author

Sarah Bowen

Find spiritual practices with animals in Sarah Bowen’s book Spiritual Rebel: A Positively Addictive Guide to Finding Deeper Perspective & Higher Purpose. And listen to her recent podcast with Rabbi Rami. 

Bowen is a multifaith spiritual educator, animal chaplain, and award-winning author. As a member of One Spirit Interfaith Seminary’s faculty, Spiritual Directors International, and several recovery communities, Bowen seeks to help others connect with the higher power of their own understanding. She’s passionate about the study of the world’s great spiritual traditions; animal welfare; and travel to quirky, spiritually charged locations. When she grows up, Bowen hopes to be a Jedi. Connect at thisissarahbowen.com or follow her on Instagram @modernreverend.

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