receptivity

Love, grammar, and magic

I’ve just finished reading Lawrence Weinstein’s book, “Grammar for a Full Life,” which I intend to write a review of later this week. (Spoiler: I’ll be recommending the book highly.) “Grammar for a Full Life” is a book on a topic that you might consider unusual—essentially it’s on the spirituality of grammar.

You might wonder what grammar and spirituality might have to do with each other. A lot, as it happens, but I’ll say more about that in the actual review. Right now I’d like to give a flavor of that connection by providing you with an example based on the book. It’s an example that starts off in the normal territory of grammar (which we often think of, I believe, as worthy but dull). But then it leads us into the territory of magic, and to a way of thinking about what we’re doing in meditation that has the potential to make our practice more vibrant and meaningful.

(Bear in mind that I’m condensing and simplifying, although hopefully not too grossly distorting, what Weinstein says.)

First the ordinary grammar: You’re probably familiar with the distinction between the use of the “active voice” and the “passive voice” in writing. The active voice is represented in a sentence such as, “I drove the car.” The “I” in the sentence is the doer—the one that actively drives. The car is the thing that “I” drove.

A passive-voice version of the same sentence would be “The car was driven.” Here there’s no active agent. Or at least the one who’s doing the driving is left unnamed and unexplained.

Because it neglects to mention who the “doer” is, passive voice is a construction favored by those who want to avoid taking responsibility. A politician says “Mistakes were made” because that construction leaves who actually made the mistakes (often themselves) unnamed. They give the impression that “responsibility has been taken” (another passive construction) but they themselves don’t take any responsibility. Similarly, when I point to a broken vase and ask my children what happened, they’ll usually say “It broke.” Perhaps my children are destined for careers in politics.

Weinstein points out that switching from using the passive to the active voice can be empowering, reminding us that we have agency. To take one of his examples, if someone asks you why you’ve been holding a phone to your ear without saying anything for a long time, you might say, “I’m being kept on hold.” This way of speaking (and thinking) reveals and reinforces a sense of helpless passivity. If you were to say something like “I’m waiting to talk to my bank” you’re framing yourself as an active agent—someone who is choosing to wait. It’s more likely, Weinstein points out, that using more active language will give you more of a sense of freedom—the freedom to hang up and call back later, for example. Using the active voice encourages us to take responsibility and to remind ourselves that we “remain the makers of our fate,” as Weinstein puts it.

Yet the passive voice, Weinstein also says, can express a form of “creative passivity” as well. The active voice can lead to us being effortful to such an extent that we get in our own way. Weinstein gives the example of his early attempts to sing being marred by having too much tension in his vocal apparatus. A skilled teacher later helped him to let go, so that his voice could flow, effortlessly, from him.

The active voice can also feed into our ego, while the passive voice can be expressive of modesty and of an awareness of interdependence. The woman who says, “I won the Oscar for best actress,” is suggesting that her talent and hard work alone were responsible for her success, Weinstein points out. On the other hand the woman who says “I was awarded the Oscar for best actress” is admitting that other factors are involved in this success. Luck can certainly be one of those factors (some actors are discovered while waiting tables—how fortunate for the actor that the director sat in that particular restaurant or cafe and not in the one down the road!). Perhaps people on the judging panel happen to know and like them. Perhaps other, better, performances weren’t brought to the judges’ attention. She has also been trained, coached, and advised by many people, who also contributed to her performance. The passive voice—”I was awarded the Oscar…”—can help us to recognize this complexity and also help move the “self” from the center of the story.

Additionally, the passive voice very accurately expresses how creation happens. Fiction writers talk about how their characters behave in ways that are unexpected to them and experience themselves as the passive recipients of their characters’ dramas. Painters feel inspiration flowing through them, and so on. The passive voice expresses the reality of what takes place when we create. (And not just when we create: my article on non-self, The boys in the basement, the empty room, and the plagiarist, explains how the sense we have that we own our actions is in fact an illusion.)

But what of love and magic? The title of this little essay promises to say something about those topics as well.

First, grammar and magic are related. There’s an old Scots word for a magical spell: a glammer. Glammer made its way into English as “glamour,” which is the spell cast on us by beauty. Glammer was originally an alteration of “grammar,” which is from the Greek grammatikē tekhnē, meaning “the art of letters.” Magic used signs, symbols, and letters to conjure up desired results. Grammar is from the same Greek root, and it does the same thing: letters and symbols are used in certain ways to transmit a desired meaning (a pattern of thought, an understanding) from one mind to another, in a form of telepathy. Although Weinstein doesn’t say this in his book, grammar is magic.

Next, Weinstein also talks about a form of sentence that is neither passive nor active (or is both), and which brings us into the realm of the magical. And that grammatical form is one that’s commonly used in meditation.

In a chapter subtitled “Blessing,” Weinstein calls this the “active-passive hybrid.” The formula for this hybrid, which is rare in English, is the one that “begins with the auxiliary subjunctive verb may.” For example, “May your spirits lift.”

Who is the one who takes action here? The speaker is not saying “I raise your spirits” or even “I hope your spirits lift.” It is some unnamed force that will do the lifting. So this may seem like a passive construction. But at the same time the speaker is making an invocation. The form of words suggests that they have the power to invoke and direct the forces that can affect how another person feels. And so it also seems active. Perhaps it’s both, or neither.

As Weinstein says,

Insofar as I can tell, the blessing formula using may does several things at once.

  • it associates the speaker with a certain wish or vision, which she names;
  • it implicitly acknowledges that she, all by herself, doesn’t have sufficient power to bring the wished-for outcome to pass; and
  • it invites the people, forces, or divinities whose help is required for that outcome to come into play.

Now this “blessing formula,” although I’ve never called it that, and so I thank Weinstein for the term, is common in lovingkindness and compassion meditation. We might use any of the following phrases in this type of practice:

  • May I be well
  • May you be at peace
  • May we be free from suffering
  • May you be kind to yourselves and others

Those of us who do this kind of meditation are so used to that particular form of words that we don’t even think about it. But perhaps thinking about it would enrich our practice?

So I’d like you to imagine, as you’re reciting phrases of that sort—phrases of blessing—that you are becoming a channel for unknown forces that are indeed capable of bringing about wellness, peace, freedom from suffering, and an all-pervasive attitude of kindness. These unknown forces may reside in the entire universe, or in the earth beneath you, the heavens above you, or deep inside you. But consider that in saying “May you be at peace” you are inviting them to flow through you.

In passive voice terms, love is flowing through you. But there is also an active component. You are willing or inviting the forces of love to arise. You are willingly becoming a conduit. But you are not a passive conduit. You are bestowing these blessings upon the world, or upon particular individuals.

I say “imagine this,” but really I mean, “feel this.” Really I mean, “experience this.” Really I mean, “Let this happen.”

How enriching this is, not to limply and half-heartedly be reciting phrases, but to open ourselves up to love, to be a conduit for it, allowing it to affect our entire world. You have receptivity but also agency. You have power but also the humility to know that the power isn’t really yours.

The practices of lovingkindness and compassion are included in a set called the “brahma-viharas,” or the “divine abidings.” The name suggests our dwelling in a beautiful but potent, almost god-like, state of love. But it could also suggest a beautiful but potent state of love dwelling in (or flowing through) us.

So I recommend that you let yourself (another passive-active construction we often use in meditation instruction) adopt this perspective: that in lovingkindness and compassion practice you are inviting blessings to well up inside of you, and that those blessings are then, through you, bestowing themselves upon the world.

Once you’re aware of grammar as magic, of grammar as glammer, your meditation can become magic rather than a mere formal exercise in training the mind.

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Try gentler, not harder

black and white image of a samurai warrior lunging with a sword

There’s an old story that goes something like this. A young man wants to learn to be an expert swordsman. So he travels far to seek out a famous teacher who lives in a remote place in the mountains. After much difficulty he tracks down the sword master and begs to be accepted as a student. To his joy, the master agrees to take him on.

“How long will it take for me to become as good a swordsman as you?” the student asks.

“Perhaps fifteen years,” replies the master.

The student is dismayed at this prospect. “How long if I try really hard?” he asks.

The master scratches his chin as he ponders, and then finally says, “I suppose, if you try really hard, it might take you … twenty years.”

The point of the story is that for some things, the harder you try, the more you get in your own way. Meditation is very much like that.

“Trying hard” inevitably involves an element of grasping. But meditation is about letting go of grasping. It’s about being, accepting, and opening up. Yes, within that context there can be a sense that we’re working in our meditation practice. But it’s important to establish a sense of openness, receptivity, and acceptance before we begin working, so that that work is not imbued with grasping but is instead more of matter of paying attention gently and kindly.

For me this all starts with the eyes.

The striving, grasping mind leads to a tight, narrow gaze. I imagine this is because striving requires us to focus narrowly on a single thing that we either want to have or want to avoid. When we narrowly focus our gaze we become physically tense, and the mind goes into overdrive. It’s not a pleasant way to exist.

Letting the eyes soften — letting the focus within the eyes be gentler and letting the muscles around the eyes relax — triggers a state of relaxation. This relaxed gaze is familiar to us from when we stare into space. That’s something we do when we feel safe and relaxed, and there’s no need to be hyper-aware of danger.

As soon as the eyes soften in this way the mind calms, our thoughts slow down, and the body begins to relax. The breathing slows and deepens.

This is what I always do when I start meditating.

One thing that happens when the eyes soften is that our gaze is no longer narrowly focused, and we’re able to take in the whole of our visual field. This happens quite naturally and effortlessly.

And this immediately translates to our inner field of attention being open and receptive, and able to take in the whole of the body (and other inner sensations) at once. This too happens naturally and effortlessly.

Now we can sense the movements of the breathing in the whole body, offering us a rich sensory experience that helps us remain in mindfulness.

So while we might start off thinking that we need to do a lot of work in order to calm the mind , we discover that all we have to do is let the eyes soften. And then it’s a question of letting our inner field of awareness connect with the body. And then with gentleness, kindness, and curiosity, we remain mindful of the whole body breathing. Often at this point our thoughts are few and far between. Mostly they arise and pass away without distracting us. And when our thoughts do draw us in, it’s easier to let go of them; we just let the eyes soften again.

If we tried through “trying harder” to achieve this depth of mindfulness it might take many hours, and probably even then only on a retreat. Making a lot of effort in meditation creates mental turbulence, distraction, and resistance. Think about what it’s like to try to grab a slippery bar of soap you’ve dropped in the bath. If you lunge after it you push it away. It’s very similar in meditation. If we want to achieve something, we need to let it happen, not make it happen.

By doing the opposite of trying hard, we can get much further.

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“It seems that perfection is attained not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing more to remove.” Antoine de Saint Exupéry

“It seems that perfection is attained not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing more to remove.”
Antoine de Saint Exupéry

When he wrote these words the legendary aviator and author of the children’s classic, The Little Prince, was talking about the evolution of flying machines, but they apply equally to meditation.

One of the traditional terms for meditation is “bhāvanā” which means “cultivation,” “producing,” or “developing.” We use that term when we talk about lovingkindness meditation, for example: mettā bhāvanā. And this can give us the impression that meditation is something we do. But essentially meditation is about not doing. It’s about letting go of all effort that interferes with our well-being and that hinders our being in harmony with ourselves and others.

Where we’re headed in meditation — our “goal” if you want to use that language — is a state of natural ease and awareness. Resting in natural ease and awareness is not something you can “do.” It’s something that emerges as we let go of unnecessary effort. By way of an everyday analogy, sometimes when we’re tense we unconsciously make a fist. The muscles in our hands tighten, and so our hands ball up. Tightening your muscles is doing something. It’s an example of unnecessary effort. What we call “relaxing” isn’t doing something. It happens when we cease to do something that isn’t necessary and isn’t helpful. When our hand is not doing anything it is naturally open and relaxed.

Meditation involves ceasing to do things that aren’t necessary or helpful. It’s about becoming naturally open and relaxed.

Every time we let go of distracted thinking and let our awareness settle down into the body, we’re letting go of unnecessary activity that makes us unhappy. That’s what distracted thinking is: unnecessary activity that makes us unhappy.

When we let go of unnecessary thinking, we start to become happier. Happiness isn’t something we do. It’s something that starts to happen naturally when we stop pummeling the nervous system with thoughts of worrying, wanting, disliking, and doubting. When the nervous system is at rest — when we’re at peace with ourselves — we feel happy and balanced.

We often talk in terms of “bringing our awareness back” to the breathing or to the body, but actually our awareness has never left the breathing or the body. Our nervous system doesn’t stop functioning when we’re not paying attention to something. So even if we aren’t consciously aware of the body or the breathing, nerves are still carrying sensations up to the brain. This is happening in every moment. We’re never really bringing our attention back anywhere: we’re simply letting go of focusing unnecessarily on something else. As soon as you start to let go of unnecessarily and unhelpfully focusing on your thinking, sensations from the body (which are always there) are noticed. Your attention brings itself back to the body, by no longer excluding it from conscious awareness.

As we spend more time in the body, pleasant feelings of relaxation and aliveness begin to emerge. Again, this isn’t something that we do. It’s something that simply arises as the body responds to being noticed, and as we stop flooding it with stress hormones.

I’m not making the argument that we shouldn’t ever do anything in meditation. For a long time it’s inevitable that we’re going to have a feeling we’re doing something. There are times we might want to direct our thoughts — for example when we’re cultivating compassion and we direct the mind toward suffering, or when we’re cultivating appreciation and turn the mind toward things that are good.

But the more there’s a quality of allowing, the more alive and vital our meditation practice is likely to be. Allowing brings with it openness and receptivity, and those things enrich our experience; sensations and connections we hadn’t noticed before become evident, and there’s a sense of joyful discovery. The more we think in terms of “doing,” the narrower our focus becomes. And this kills joy.

So I suggest that you think less in terms of doing and more in terms of letting go and allowing. Think less in terms of “meditating” and more in terms of simply sitting and allowing what is unnecessary and unhelpful to fall away, revealing joy, beauty, and presence. And as we allow this to continue, day after day, moment after moment, we let go of everything that diminishes our wellbeing, until there is nothing more to remove.

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Let the breathing observe you

I’d like to suggest a very different way of meditating.

Normally in meditation we think about observing the breathing. Actually a lot of people think about and practice observing the breath — air flowing in and out of the body’s airways — but I point out that it’s far more useful to observe the breathing, which is a much richer experience. When we’re observing the breathing we’re potentially observing the entire body, and how it participates in and responds to the process of air flowing in and out of our passageways.

In taking this approach of observing the breathing it’s useful first of all to relax the muscles around the eyes. This brings about a change in the way we observe internally, so that we can be aware simultaneously of a wide range of sensation in different parts of the body. With the muscles around the eyes in their default, activated state, we can only observe one small part of the body. I’ve described this as being like switching from a flashlight, which can only illuminate a small area, to a lamp, which sheds light in all directions.

Once you’ve become aware of sensations from all over the body, it’s possible to simply rest there, with thoughts still arising but no longer capturing your attention. Less effort is required, and so there’s less of a sense that you’re doing anything in meditation. Your meditation practice is just there.

You can let go even further, though, by allowing yourself to sense that you are being observed by the breathing just as much as you are observing it. You can be aware of the body as a living, breathing, animal presence — a presence that has its own intelligence and awareness.

And just as you are aware of the body, the body is aware of you. Allow yourself to be seen.

Perhaps at first it may be a little uncomfortable to do this. After all, being observed can be uncomfortable. But think of this observation not so much as visual and more as felt, as sensory. And think of your body as a warm, loving presence that enfolds you intimately in its embrace.

This gives us an opportunity to surrender even further, and to sense our meditation practice from a place of deeper receptivity. There’s now nothing to do. We don’t even have to be present for the body, since the body is always present for us. When we come back to mindful awareness after a period of distraction we find that the body is still there, sensing us, and we can realize that it’s never stopped doing that.

This may sound fanciful, or even absurd. I just suggest that you give it a go, and see what happens. It may change your meditation practice, and perhaps even your life.

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A “mantra” for the out-breath: “Release, rest, reveal”

Person sitting in front of a huge waterfall

Here’s a meditation tip for you to try. It came to me when I was on retreat a couple of weeks ago. One morning, on the first meditation of the day, I found that my mind was all over the place.

I really needed to calm down my racing thoughts, but I had a hunch that the more I “tried” to do something about them, the more I was going to create more disturbance. In Buddhism we sometimes talk about this as being the task of “catching a feather on a fan,” because more effort equals more disturbance, while a gentle and sensitive effort will get the job done.

As I paid attention to the sense of my body letting go on each out-breath, I heard three words accompanying the exhalations. Breathing out, I’d hear “Release.” Breathing out, I’d hear “Rest.” Breathing out, I’d hear “Reveal.”

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Each of the words had a different effect. “Release” would direct my mind to the sense of natural relaxation that takes place every time we breathe out. Focusing like this on the physical release that takes place when we exhale helps the body to relax more deeply.

The word “rest” encouraged my mind to let go. As I breathed out, my mind settled into a natural sense of ease, non-striving, kindness, and acceptance.

As I hears the word “reveal,” I experienced a sense of openness to whatever was arising in that moment, whether in the mind or the body. There was a gentle sense of attentiveness and mindfulness — a balance of receptivity and active observation.

These three words, cycling though my mind, gave me a series of little reminders, each as long as an out-breath: let go in the body; let go in the mind; notice and accept whatever’s arising.

Very quickly, my thoughts slowed down. That process started almost the moment that I started saying these three words.

After a little while I found I didn’t need to “hear” the words as thoughts. I could let the mind be silent. My thoughts had substantially died away, and yet even without the verbal reminder, on successive out-breaths I was still relaxing, resting the mind, and allowing my experience to reveal itself to me. And whenever my thoughts started to reappear, I was free to reintroduce the thoughts once more.

Do feel free to try this, and even to adapt it to your own needs. See what doesn’t work, and what does. Meditation is “open source,” and you can adapt it in the light of your own experience.

These are the three things the out-breath teaches us: Releasing all that’s unhelpful. Resting in calmness. Revealing the rich simplicity of our experience.

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How to appreciate and receive life’s gifts

Life gives to each one of us in so many ways.

For starters, there’s the bounty of the senses – including chocolate chip cookies, jasmine, sunsets, wind singing through pine trees, and just getting your back scratched.

What does life give you?

Consider the kindness of friends and family, made more tangible during a holiday season, but of course continuing throughout the year.

Or the giving of the people whose hard work is bound up in a single cup of coffee. Or all those people in days past who figured out how to make a stone ax – or a fire, edible grain, loom, vaccine, or computer. Or wrote plays and novels, made art or music. Developed mathematics and science, paths of psychological growth, and profound spiritual practices. A few people whose names you know, and tens of thousands – millions, really – whom you will never know: each day their contributions feed, clothe, transport, entertain, inspire, and heal us.

Consider the giving of the natural world, the sound of rain, sweep of sky and stars, and majesty of mountains. How does nature feed you?

How about your DNA? The moment of your conception presented you with the build-out instructions for becoming a human being, the hard-won fruits of 3.5 billion years of evolution.

You don’t earn these things. You can’t. They are just given.

The best you can do is to receive them. That helps fill your own cup, which is good for both you and others. It keeps the circle of giving going; when someone deflects or resists one of your own gifts, how inclined are you to give again? It draws you into deep sense of connection with life.

And if nothing else, it’s simply polite!

How can we learn to be receptive to life’s bounty?

  • Start with something a friend has recently given to you, such as a smile, an encouraging word, or simply some attention. Then open to feeling given to. Notice any reluctance here, such as thoughts of unworthiness, or a background fear of dependence, or the idea that if you receive then you will owe the other person something. Try to open past that reluctance to accepting what’s offered, to taking it in – and enjoy the pleasures of this. Let it sink in that receiving generosity is good.
  • Next pick something from nature. For example, open to the giving folded into an ordinary apple, including the cleverness and persistence it took, across hundreds of generations, to gradually breed something delicious from its sour and bitter wild precursors. See if you can taste their work in its rich sweetness. Open even more broadly to the nurturing benevolence in the whole web of life.
  • Then try something unliving, perhaps something with no apparent value, like a bit of sand. Yet in that single grain are echoes of the Big Bang – the gift that there is something at all rather than nothing. Who knows what deeper, perhaps transcendental gifts underlie the blazing bubbling emergence of our universe?
  • Take a breath, and enjoy receiving trillions of atoms of oxygen – most of them the gifts of an exploding star.
  • Consider some of the intangibles flowing toward you from others, including good will, fondness, respect, and love. See if you can drink deeply from the stream coming from one person; as you recognize something positive being offered to you, try to experience it in a felt way in your body and emotions. Then see if you can do the same with other people. If you can, include your parents and other family members, friends, and key acquaintances.
  • Try to stretch yourself further. Recall a recent interaction that was a mixed bag for you, some good in it but also some bad. Focus on whatever was accurate or useful in what the other person communicated, and try to receive that as a valuable offering. Open your mind to the good that is implicit or down deep in the other person, even if you don’t like the way it has come out.
  • Keep listening, touching, tasting, smelling, and looking for other overflowing generosity coming your way.

So many gifts.

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Learning to receive

woman standing calmly in a field, with the sun behind her head like a halo

To think of generosity only in terms of giving can limit us. Sunada tells of her realization that being truly generous is as much about being open to receiving as it is about giving.

As a follower of the Buddha’s teachings, one of the ethical principles I try to live by is generosity. Most commonly, generosity is understood to be about giving freely, and putting others’ needs before one’s own. While this definition isn’t wrong, I think it’s a bit too simplistic. Over the years, I’ve come to realize that generosity is a two-way street. It’s an openness of heart that’s just as much about graciously receiving as it is about giving.

Generosity is a two-way street. It’s an openness of heart that’s just as much about graciously receiving as it is about giving.

I know that those of us who feel committed to living by our spiritual values want to reach out and give in any way we can. While this is a great ideal, there are times when it can become a blinder. Ironically, focusing too much on the outgoing act of giving can sometimes put up a wall between giver and receiver. There’s a danger of getting caught up in our own ideas of what it means to be generous – of being a selfless helper and doing good – and losing sight of what this principle is really about. It’s about experiencing our interconnectedness in a way that knows no boundaries or hierarchies. Where there is interconnectedness, abundance flows freely in all directions, including back to myself.

Let me tell you my story of when I first started to see things in this new way. For reasons that I still don’t entirely understand, I’ve always felt uncomfortable accepting spontaneous gifts, especially if it’s money. One time when I was at a restaurant with a friend, she picked up the check and offered to pay for me. My immediate impulse was to protest, not out of politeness, but because deep down inside it didn’t seem right. I can afford to pay for it, I heard myself think. It’s not necessary. And since I knew that this person didn’t have a lot of money, it seemed like an unnecessary sacrifice on her part. Out of concern for her, I felt it was better for her to keep that money to herself, and not spend it on me for something I didn’t really need. This was my way of being generous and caring toward her.

My friend didn’t insist, but gently said, “Would you please allow me to give this to you as a gift?” That’s when it suddenly hit me on the head. Her gesture had little to do with how much money either of us had, or whether her offer was necessary. She wanted to honor me with a gift, pure and simple. In my foolish concern over her financial situation, I had lost sight of what she was really trying to do. I had been rebuffing the gift and blocking off her act of generosity. That was pretty self-centered of me!

I then started noticing other ways that I seemed to close myself off from others. One was my reluctance to ask people for help, especially if I thought they would have to go out of their way for me. It’s because I don’t want to impose, I’d say to myself. If I can do it myself, isn’t it better if I just take care of it on my own?

It’s not about giving from a place of power and strength, but sharing our wholeness and humanity (flaws and all) and openly accepting whatever comes back.

Maybe this is a Western way of thinking, but I’ve heard many people say they don’t like asking for help. Somehow we feel we need to be independent, self-sufficient, strong, and capable of taking care of ourselves. Yes, of course, it’s good to be all those things. But when do we start to cross the boundary into isolating ourselves from the love and personal connection that others want to give to us?

I saw this very clearly the time I needed emergency surgery and was hospitalized for a week. There I was for days, lying in bed while doctors, nurses, family, and friends all hovered around for the sole purpose of taking care of me. I was the center of their universe. For the first couple of days, I felt pretty uncomfortable with the attention and hubbub. But given the circumstances, I really had no choice but to surrender to the situation!

Once I stopped fighting with the idea, I was amazed and humbled by how willingly people gave their time and energy to me. I had a steady stream of visitors, many of whom brought me books and music to entertain me while bedridden. Phone calls and flowers arrived from people who were too far away. My need for help continued well after I had returned home. Once I was home, I was surprised to find one friend, whom I hadn’t counted among my closest ones, called and offered to be my servant for an entire day – to run errands, shop, and cook for me.

I felt cared for, supported, and loved by many people from all different parts of my life. They didn’t want anything in return from me. The best thing I could do was to accept their gifts wholeheartedly and graciously. That’s really all they wanted. And actually, I was giving them something by doing this. By allowing myself to be open and vulnerable to them, I was giving them my trust.

I admit I still have a hard time with this idea of giving and receiving so freely and openly. It will be a lifetime learning process for me. Thomas Merton understood how challenging this is when he said, “it takes more courage than we imagine to be perfectly simple with other men.”

But at least I see more clearly now what that ultimate ideal I’m aiming for looks like. A true generous spirit is one that’s willing to give herself over completely to another person. It’s a willingness to share all of herself, especially her weaknesses, vulnerabilities, and flaws. It’s not about giving from a place of power and strength, but sharing our wholeness and humanity (flaws and all) and openly accepting whatever comes back. This, I think, is the real vision behind the lessons the Buddha gave us on generosity.

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Vajradaka: A fine balance

In a series of articles exploring the art of meditation, Vajradaka shines light on the fine art of balancing activity and receptivity within our practice.

While teaching meditation or when discussing it with friends, I always try to keep basic principles in mind. Sometimes I refer to them overtly, but they are mostly in the background, providing the context within which the details of practicing meditation are explored. One such principle is the relationship between receptivity and activity. These are pillars upon which much of what happens in meditation practice rests.

Receptivity consists in the ability to notice and be aware in a relaxed manner. It enables us to absorb and integrate the different impressions that arise as we meditate. It is like a fertile ground in which our positive mental states can grow and blossom. Receptivity can include strong aspirations — what we might call faith, and even insight. If we are receptive in the face of hindrances to meditation, we can sometimes gain access to a strong intuitive response, as if a well of deeper wisdom makes itself felt. And this guides us away from what is unhelpful.

Activity refers to our endeavor and application. It is what we do in our practice, including the application of particular meditation practices and methods for stimulating positive states of mind, and overcoming hindrances. When we strengthen our positive states of mind — by using a phrase, or bringing to mind an appropriate image — we, are being active. When we consciously check for hindrances and adjust accordingly, we are being active. With practice, our ability to be active becomes intuitive rather than considered or premeditated.

We need both receptivity and activity in our meditation practice and it is sometimes useful to assess the relationship between them to see how much of each is present. However, they are often intermingled, and they are always interrelated. Even so, most people have a bias towards either activity or receptivity. When the relationship between the two becomes attenuated, our meditation will suffer. Over-emphasis on activity can make our practice dry and shallow. A disproportionate emphasis on receptivity can lead to stagnation.

It is important to find ways to ensure that these two qualities operate together. One approach can be described in terms of “noticing” and “looking.” Noticing refers to what happens when we are receptive, and we notice the appearance and disappearance of mental states. Their arising evokes an immediate response within us, which we also notice. We may then choose to be active, in order to strengthen a positive quality or undermine a hindrance.

Looking involves watching for, or searching out, particular mental states that may have been incipient but of which we were not previously conscious. We may ask: what is happening in my experience? or what is missing? or is there a hindrance present? These questions direct our awareness to areas that we might have overlooked. Of course, as well as being active in asking the question, we also need receptivity and sensitivity to what emerges.

The Buddhist tradition suggests various antidotes to hindrances in meditation. Some of these are quite active – for example, the technique of cultivating the opposite quality to what is obstructing meditation. So if one experiences ill-will or hatred in meditation, a suggested remedy is to cultivate loving-kindness (metta). In applying such a remedy, however, we also need receptivity because when the positive quality of loving-kindness actually arises, we need sensitivity and openness in order to include it into the practice.

Another traditional antidote draws more on the qualities of receptivity. This is the “sky-like attitude.” Here we are aware of the hindrance, but neither act to remove it, nor add to what is there. We feel that the mind is like the sky — huge and boundless — and that the hindrance is like a cloud, which we allow to drift away in its own time.

Balancing these qualities is quite an art. As we consciously exercise our skills of receptivity and activity in meditation, they will gradually become second-nature, and will interact harmoniously.

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