The Generosity of Opening to Experience

Mindfulness is the awareness that remembers to be with our experience. Generosity, then, is the open heartedness that is willing to be with experience and feel what we feel without making it wrong. This opens up a space.

An annotated transcript of the talk follows.

Laura Bridgman

The Generosity of Opening to Experience

In the first unit, we looked at this quality of mindfulness as an awareness of what's happening as we relate. We're noticing how we show up in relationships: the parts of us that we're happy to reveal; and the parts of us we avoid showing: how we reserve certain experiences for certain relationships and not others. We've been bringing curiosity and interest to those patterns, those habits of relating.

Open minded and open hearted

Mindfulness is like the practice—it's how we remember to notice—and generosity is more like the attitude we bring to relating. Because as we begin to see our habits of relating, we also allow the potential to see new possibilities in our relationships. The attitude of generosity is one of being open minded. We become open minded towards assumptions about ourselves and others. We also become open hearted, and curious about how we protect ourselves: how we close down, or hold back to stay safe or protect certain parts of ourselves. Generosity in relating means opening to the possibility of experiencing different states in ourselves and others. In a way, it's the gift of presence.

Paramis and their functions

Parami Function
Mindfulness Remembering to notice what's here, what's happening for us.

The attitude we bring to relating. "What am I aware of right now? Can I let this feeling be here just as it is, as a gesture of generosity towards myself?"

Generosity allows the heart to experience the effect of what's arising. "This is how it feels."

Generosity means not trying to fix

As I was saying in the introduction, these practices are not about replacing one quality of mind with another. It's not about bringing in generosity to correct or fix where we feel closed or where we feel defensive. The quality of generosity involves being open to that place which feels vulnerable or feels like it needs defending. It may be a particular emotion or a particular way we hold back, but there's an openness of presence to that feeling, or that emotion, and the interest to find out more about it.

For example, the experience of feeling vulnerable. Perhaps we're in a situation where someone says something, or we feel unsure, scared, or vulnerable. Trying to fix that feeling would first be judging, "That is not OK. This is not an OK way to be. I need to change myself." We can't show our vulnerability in that moment. We don't trust that this is OK or safe. And so we might posture, feeling more confident than we really are. We might override that feeling and push ourselves to perform or show up in a way that doesn't reflect the underlying insecurity or vulnerability. And that may be what's right and what's needed in that situation. But a different possibility could be noticing the feeling. An attitude of generosity is about not judging, not making wrong, not following the belief that, "This is something I need to change about myself." And that in itself gives space for that feeling just to be as it is. There's no pressure for it to change, yet simply by making space for it, being aware of it, there's a kind of ground there. There's the insecurity and there's the presence of awareness, a ground, something that's holding the feeling and letting it be. So instead of rejection and judgment, there's an openness and receptivity.

Generosity as open heartedness towards others

I'd like to give an example of remembering this generosity of open mindedness and open heartedness. A few years ago, when I was living as a nun in a monastic community, a Buddhist nun, both the monks and the nuns participated in contemplative group work. We had an external facilitator, and over a period of time each group went through a contemplative therapeutic process to support living in community together. And before we embarked on this work, I'd been living together with these people for many years, and I'd accrued ideas about different individuals: things like, "If only they could see that. If only they would stop persisting with that attitude towards the system, or towards the hierarchy, or towards that other person," or, "If only they could be a bit more patient... then things would be so much better in the community."

I had these ideas that were simple fixes. "These things are so obvious." Other people would agree with me. "This is what this person's like. If only they could change in this way." And then when we did this work with the facilitator, I saw two things things that were really helpful to see. And one of them is paradoxical...

The patterns that are most obvious to others about me are also my strongest blindspots, and vice versa.

The things that are most obvious to others about where I'm stuck are the areas or behaviors or attitudes that I'm most unconscious of. And that doesn't really make sense unless you think about it in a certain way. As we see things about ourselves, they tend to lose their hold. So the things we're not seeing tend to still have a strong driving force in the way we behave and act. So we assume about each other that, "It's so obvious. Why can't you see this?" And there's an implicit judgment: "You could see this if you really wanted to. You could change this." It was really helpful to understand this about blind spots.

The second thing I saw as this facilitator worked with the group, was that the things I assumed—about why people wouldn't change, what they needed to change, and how they could change—were very superficial. As she worked with people, her compassion and care in getting to the root of patterns had no sense of, "You've got to change," or "You've got to see it this way." And it was often things I hadn't discerned or thought of, and insights almost always arose out of allowing space and compassion.

Generosity as open heartedness towards oneself

One example I'd like to give of this experience of opening to different states in myself in relationship, is opening to criticism, opening to the sense of disapproval. This is something I would automatically avoid and would drive me into accommodating others, trying to please others, to avoid that experience. I realized those activities—trying to please and accommodate—would actually take me away from being present and sensitive to what I needed, what's needed in the situation, and needed in the relationship. So I turned my attention towards opening to that reaction—that fear of disapproval—and just being curious, "Can I tolerate it? Can I tolerate it when others don't agree with me, don't affirm me, don't mirror what I'm saying, or actively disapprove or are critical?" This is a really valuable and important contemplation as a teacher. And I found it very liberating: that it is possible to still feel OK with myself even if I perceive, imagine, or sense that others don't approve of me. Just being able to allow that doesn't mean that I don't care what other people think... but it does mean I'm not compulsively driven by avoiding criticism or needing approval. It also means I can be more present to discern what's true. "What do I need to learn here? What do I just need to leave with the other and stay with myself, where I am?"

This realization happened through being open hearted and open minded to the feeling state: the reaction to defend, the reaction to avoid the unpleasant feeling of being disapproved of. It came through being open minded to the mind state, the reactivity, and the underlying vulnerability. And a space opened up beyond that pattern. It allowed me to step out of that pattern to find a different dance, to find a different way of being in those moments. In a way, to be more present. This practice is not about correcting ourselves or fixing ourselves. I was just allowing that impulse to please others, being more conscious of it, and then being curious about it, and feeling that possibility of not having to follow it—I wasn't trying to fix it—and mindfulness, the presence, and the discernment start to unlock the pattern.

In this way, interest in understanding becomes the key motivation for our relationships rather than trying to change them. And this in itself leads to more compassion; more feeling with what's happening for us; more generosity, more open heartedness.

Understanding self-centredness

The attitude of generosity is so important as we contemplate relationships. I'd like to look now at how we often engage in relationships in self-centered ways. When I use those words, "self-centered," it's easy to have a connotation of judgment: "Well, that's not OK." But we're all self-centered to a degree until we've completely transcended self-view. We're all operating through the lens of who we take ourselves to be, self images, and how those images relate to who we take others to be. So the attitude of generosity means not making that wrong, not making that something we have to change—because who would be changing that... another sense of self!—but instead bringing together these first two paramis: the parami of mindfulness; and the parami of generosity: open mindedness, open heartedness.

We can contemplate our self-centered patterns in relationships: the ways we perhaps seek affirmation from the other. This can be in all sorts of ways. It doesn't have to be just in intimate relationships, it can also show up in our work relationships, in our friendships, the way we seek to be reassured, mirrored; the way we seek affection. But just in that very word, seeking, there's a certain leaning, a certain dependency. It's like we lose our center to some degree. And because of that, in those habits of self-centeredness there's always a degree of insecurity because we're leaning and depending, and that's vulnerable. An attitude of generosity is also generous in care and compassion to these habits we've built up, because all of our habits have arisen for a reason. And what we meet in the present moment is these accumulated tendencies that have accrued from situations in the past. They arise in the present moment in our lives and how we relate. We find ourselves needing. We find ourselves wanting. We find ourselves seeking. And it's uncomfortable. It's vulnerable. Generosity just acknowledges that, and doesn't judge it. Generosity makes space for us to bring more awareness to what's happening here. What are we leaning for? What are we reaching for? What is it that we're wanting or believing that we need?

Generosity doesn't judge our self-centered patterns. This sense of self—this way we take ourselves to be—needs bolstering, it feels insecure. In a way, it never feels completely fulfilled. And we can find ourselves, in that restless seeking, making compromises in our relationships. We can find ourselves avoiding speaking up or voicing a different opinion to our partner's, for instance, because we don't want to rock the boat. We don't want to risk dissonance or rejection. We let others have their way instead of holding our ground, so that we can keep the connection. After a while, we see how this accrues and limits us—and also how difficult it can be to extricate ourselves from these patterns. This is where the quality of compassion is so important.

So with mindfulness practice, we back up and we ask...

What am I aware of right now? Can I let this feeling be here just as it is, as a gesture of generosity towards myself?

Generosity is not trying to change who we are, or who the other is. Because when we're trying to change—ourselves or another—we are essentially rejecting what's arising in the present moment: the feeling that's here, the mind state, the attitude that's here. We're trying to change something, saying it should be another way. And if we reject it, we can't really meet it. And if we can't meet it, we can't allow the space for understanding. "How come this has arisen? How come things seem this way?" When we try to change, we reject. So, for instance, we may reject the other person. This leads to hurt and defensiveness. If we remember this quality of open mindedness and open heartedness, we allow a meeting with what is. Mindfulness remembers to notice and it's almost like generosity lets the heart experience the effect of what's arising. "This is how it feels." So instead of leading to hurt and defensiveness through trying to fix ourselves or others, we can allow a less defended opening: an opening that makes space for other possibilities.

Contemplating change

One way I like to contemplate the Buddha's teaching on impermanence is contemplating how change happens: the dynamism of change. This means noticing how I operate: what leads to experience closing down and what leads to it opening up. If I harbor judgments and a fixed idea about how the other person is, how they should be, and what I want them to do in order to be the way I want them to be... it can often lead to pushback. This is also true, inwardly, if I have that attitude towards myself.

Here's an example of this. A few years ago, I shared a house with a woman and we fell out. I blamed her for this falling out. I felt she was aggressive, and didn't treat me fairly. It was her fault. I made her wrong. And I held this view of her for quite a long time. And one time on retreat I noticed how that view of her was in itself quite aggressive. I was framing her as a bad person. She was the one in the wrong. What I noticed was my own aggression towards her. In owning that and holding that—not making it wrong, but just meeting that feeling—I could see that beneath it was a fear. This aggression, this judgment was protecting a fear. And as I met that fear, and allowed it, and felt that fear, the aggression towards her dropped away. The view of her of being someone I need to keep out of my life, and keep away from, dropped away. My heart opened to her and I felt regret about the aggression I'd sent her way. So instead of my heart staying fixed and closed, "This is someone I keep out of my life," there was no need to protect my fear in that way. I could hold and take care of my fear, and my heart could open to her.

This is the dynamism of change. In a way, I could have remained not having anything to do with this woman. But even if she weren't someone I had contact with, the closed heartedness would have remained with me. There's a freeing and opening in bringing these paramis into play. It's like love is our natural state and it takes effort and contraction to keep us separate from it.

Generosity: questions to ask yourself
What am I aware of right now?
How does this feel?
Can I let this feeling be here just as it is, as a gesture of generosity towards myself?
What am I leaning towards? What am I reaching for? What is it that I want or believe that I need?
How come this has arisen? How come things seem this way?
What do I need to learn here? What do I just need to leave with the other and stay with myself, where I am?
What leads to my experience closing down and what leads to it opening up?
Complete and Continue