Ethics 9b. Generosity

(Talk given at Gravity Nov. 29, 2016)

Usually this hour, after meditation, before having the vital chitchat that is the heart of what actually happens in this room, in this in-between hour, there is a talk. Sometimes. Or a practice. Tonight I’m hoping we might come together and make an approach. We’ve been looking at the precepts, the questions of ethics, of how we get along, how are we doing in relationships – there have been some deep inquiries made in these directions. Yeah, everything feels so clear and beautiful when I’m on my cushion, I have a container, I’m contained, even my crappy and unwanted thoughts are contained, I’m back to the breath, I’m trying hard, it’s good. But as soon as my evil co-worker (not that I believe in you know evil, except for this one exceptional exception), yes as soon as that devil with horns starts to talk I get all these sensations, these feelings, do you get those sometimes? Oh, it doesn’t feel good. And all those hours on the cushion, they feel like dandelion fluff, the whole practice blows away.

What I like to do is to take my anger, my unwanted anger, my most unwanted emotion, my most difficult emotion, and I do a 180 – I learned to do this when I was just a teenager making donuts in the parking lot, you know you’d hit the break and turn the wheel, whoa. Yes, I like to take that anger and drive it as hard as I can right back into this thing I call myself. I mean, it’s energy right, and the energy has to go somewhere. I don’t blow up, well sometimes I blow up, but usually I blow in.

Could we turn to the precepts to find a way to interrupt, to de-rail, this response? Could there be another, perhaps more creative way, to manage the bad feelings?

So tonight perhaps we could make an approach to aparigraha. Can we all say that together: aparigraha. That’s a mouthful alright. What does it mean? Aparigraha can be translated as something like: being stingy, or being greedy. We live in a culture that promotes this, right? It’s there when you want something to buy, but the crazy thing is, the satisfaction of the need, the process you go through, the selection of the right colour, the right kind of temporary relief, the clicking of the paypal button, the store line-up, the process of buying is a way of underlining some kind of lack. If I felt complete I wouldn’t need anything. But this culture is designed to make me feel lack, so I gorge on news of the American election, I stuff my face with Facebook, I fill my eyes with Instagram, with headlines, with conversations, don’t let me be bored for one second, I need more.


I don’t just have a hole in my life, I am the hole in my life. I am the donut, sometimes I can be sugar coated for a while but once you get through the chewy dough oh yes, I knew he’s totally empty. There’s nothing there. And this is not of course the much heralded and hoped for emptiness of awakening, but the sad and miserable emptiness of not being enough. I’m not enough. My new shirt says: I’m not enough. My new house, my new car, my new bike: they all tell me I’m not enough. So no sooner do I satisfy my longing, then I need to get more stuff. The culture has been designed to create greed, it’s a greed machine, and we are all parts of that machine. We’re not outside it, we’re not separate from it, we’re not immune to it, we’re part of it. The culture lives inside each of us in a special and unique way, refracted through our personality. So I think it’s not a question of whether you’re greedy or not, it’s how you are greedy.

So greed or stinginess you could say is one side of aparigraha, and the other side is generosity. What would it be like to live in a world of abundance? I can shower you with my love, because I have an infinite amount, there’s no end to the love I have to share. What would it be like to live in that freakish science fiction world? I’ve never met you, but I want to do this kind thing for you, I want to help you. How do you express generosity? How does it show up in your life?

go round the room

OK, I’d like to offer you two pictures. I’d like to offer you a kind of long-winded haiku. Haikus are very commonly made out of two pictures. Here is the first one.

I went out with a pal last week because one of her excellent movies was showing. It was on a program of shorts, eight in all, that had been selected by a smartypants person from the prairies. I think the theme was about dying, which is very popular this year. So the movies play and they are fine, and sometimes funny, or strange – how did they do that? – and sometimes boring, and then my friend’s movie comes on and it isn’t quite like anything else around it, because it’s about being 35 and single and a loser, and why I’m unlovable. Oh, it’s so raw and intense and she says out loud all the things that you only confide to your best friend, the one who can keep all of your shameful secrets, the self loathing that you mutter away to yourself in the dark hours by yourself, all of this is on display, in fact, the point of the movie, at least in part, is to provide a vehicle to turn the private into the public. You can feel the air change in the room as soon as this movie comes on. There’s no more strategies or cleverness or arty angles and techniques, instead there is a raw sincerity, these are missives straight from the heart.

When the show is over several people come up to her and thank her and tell her how much they loved her movie, and even while it’s playing you can hear people laughing at the funny parts, and feeling sad in the sad parts. In short, it’s the hit of the night. So OK, she goes home, I go home, and then she writes me an email the next day, thanking me for coming, and for being the only supporter of her work. Excuse me? What do you mean the only supporter of your work? I was standing right beside you when the fans arrived and all of that light shone out of their mouths. It was wonderful, it was touching, it moved me. But you see, for my friend, who is so smart in many ways, these were words, these were sentences that couldn’t make it all the way from someone else’s face to her face. It’s as if the distance were too great. It’s as if as soon as someone wants to bring her the good news they are a thousand miles away, so no matter how loud they shout it out, it doesn’t quite reach her.


Love Glue
It made me wonder about: how do we let someone love us? How could I admit, even for a moment, that I am lovable, worthy of love? Instead of being an awful person, the worst possible person, a complete failure. If I can admit to myself that I am lovable it creates a sticky surface where the kind words can land and they can stay there, they can hang around. On the other hand, if someone were to come up to my friend, or to me for that matter, and say: you’re garbage I hate you. I would say: I know I know you’re absolutely right. And their words would stick like glue, they would never leave me, I would take them to my deathbed knowing that here at last was the truth. This holding, this tightly gripped holding, is the very opposite of aparigraha.

I wondered what kind of practice would help me connect with what they call in yoga the heart centre. How could I stay in this place of love, as if I deserved it. Buddhist psychology encourages us to go inside first, to work on this thing we call the self, and then extend outwards. To try and establish some kind of love glue in here, and then turn to someone else and say thanks for showing up here tonight, sitting with you is really great. How to cultivate the muscle of generosity?

To be stingy to yourself, to not allow yourself anything extra. Does that ring a bell for anyone here? OK OK, maybe it’s just me. Maybe the practice of aparigraha has something to do with negotiating, or making a new kind of dance, with our sense of not-enoughness. Well I’m not smart like her. Well I’ll never be as beautiful as him. If only I was tall my life would be perfect. If only I wasn’t so tall, I stick out, I hate it. The culture of greed, the environment, the ecosystem of greed that lives inside our bodies, and outside our bodies, encourages us moment after moment to throw our arms around our not-enoughness. You’ll never be strong enough, or flexible enough, or courageous enough. Courage, it’s an old fashioned kind of word. I wonder if the practice of aparigraha might have something to do with courage. With facing, with turning towards the place of not-enoughness, which is a place of fear.

Here is the always-wise Simone Moir talking about aparigraha: “One of the ways this comes up for me is when I think about yoga. I think people need the experience of being held, and being able to have space. When we tighten, we shorten our breath, and when we shorten our breath we get tighter in our structure and it’s easier to topple us. By expanding that base, if we had the experience of more breathing room, we could actually move through loss and impermanence, which is what I think the cycle of the breath ultimately is. It’s a constant modulating between something coming forward and becoming exciting and something we can relax and release with. I think that our breath is a perfect example of being with impermanence and that we fear the bottoming out and letting go and what I would call being held. Being able to exhale means allowing oneself to be held in the emptying space.”

Allowing oneself to be held, isn’t this another way of saying: I’m going to let you say something kind to me. I’m going to believe you. I’m going to let you show me how you love me. I think that means, as is so usual with questions of practice, I think that means dropping something, having less of something, doing less even.

Last Thursday I was at Beit Zatoun, the Palestinian cultural centre. We came together to watch Lia Tarachansky’s movie On the Side of the Road. It looks at the moment that the Israeli state began, in 1948, and how armed Israeli soldiers terrorized Palestinians, massacred Palestinians, chased them out of their homes, cleared entire villages. There are soldiers who participated in these war crimes and they testify to these events. These are facts, undeniable facts, and yet, in the state of Israel, most Jews do not believe these things happened. After the movie Lia was asked: how can we change this? Why doesn’t showing facts to people help to change their mind? Lia said: facts don’t matter. You can show someone a photograph, you can bring them an eyewitness survivor, you can show them a video, it doesn’t matter. We all wear blinders, we have certain ideas about the world we live in, and especially about this thing we call the self. If facts don’t fit our views, then we throw them away, we say they are non-facts or non-sense. And if total bullshit arrives, and it fits our worldview, we eat it up right away and say: that tastes good, that is the truth.

Wow, so facts don’t matter. So if facts don’t matter Lia, please tell us: how can people change their opinion? She said: people change because of their heart, and the head follows after. You have to feel what another person feels, you have to temporarily drop your views, because the feeling, the heart, slides through all of your ideas and views, and this feeling, this ability to jump into someone’s body, this jump happens from heart to heart. This is also the jump of Maurice Blanchot, who said, who insisted that the reader had to risk the jump, the leap of interpretation, to inhale the text, to bring the text into your body, and the exhale is not copying or mimicry, it comes out in how you live. It requires the risk of translation. We are machines of translation, someone says something to you and then you put it into the spin cycle of ideas, leanings, habit patterns and you translate that, it becomes your idea. We are busy as human animals doing this all the time. Everyone’s sitting practice is a translation, no one here is doing a sitting practice like anyone else here, we all may be coming back to the breath, but the alignment of organs, the posture, the flow of energy, the drifts of attention, these are all ways that the body is translating experience and so it becomes our own lived experience. Meditation, it’s not something you just read about in a book, or hear someone talk about in a lecture. It lives in your body, and if an experience lives in your body it means you’re translating it. With one notable exception of course. What is that exception? What experiences live inside our body, and are not translated?

When someone tells me something good, I let it slide off my windshield of not-enoughness. Oh yes, I look like I’m right here with you, but actually there’s a swoop of glass and all the good things you might ever say, whoosh, right down the drain. Of course there are big holes in the glass to admit anything negative you might say. Oh please come right on in and make yourself at home, we were expecting you. The practice of aparigraha encourages me to try something different. To take another approach. What could I try, what could we try together? How could we practice this together?


This year has been the longest of my life. Some years are over in a heartbeat, others never seem to end. I didn’t think I would still be sitting here, there have been many days of terrible darkness, which I have spent curled up on the floor, caught in a horizon of bleakness and self-hatred. I didn’t want anything new to happen. I can point to a number of objective conditions that might have led me to this place, though they seem flimsy and insubstantial now. Oh wait, do I detect a bit of not-enoughness there? Even the depressing conditions aren’t depressing enough. My brother is permanently sick, housebound, my father is losing his mind, he’s now in a home, some of my friends are depressed, in fact one of my best friends has been working for a few years on a movie about depression and suicide, naturally I’m in it, etc etc. What to say about depression, about the endless bad feeling? If yoga might be translated as connection, the interface, the join, the intimacy, then depression is the other side of that. You’re the last person left in the world. The loneliness is extreme. Nothing will reach you, though you’re smart enough to play out the codes so often you can pass for normal.

Sometimes when I would reach out to friends, the popular response was: you should take pills, or go see a doctor, or go see a better doctor. I came to understand that my feeling bad made them feel bad, and what do we want to do with our bad feelings? Let’s make them go away as quickly as possible. So even though I’m the one on the floor all day thinking about killing myself, all of a sudden I’m being asked to look after their discomfort. Note to self: don’t bother. Note to self: most people, even friends, do not want to hear about your depression. Their lives are full, they are over full, they too are at their limit and they can’t receive this unwanted gift, it’s too much.

What’s the best response? What’s the best possible response to my telling you that I’m depressed, that I don’t know if I can make it? I mean for me, what’s the best response for me? Nothing. Or as the Zen folks like to say: shikantaza – just sitting. Just sitting with it. Not having to change it, or make it different, or heal it, or push it around, or offer a remedy, just sit with it, with me, with the two of us.

Sometimes this would happen, wow, it was like seeing a moment of light from a vast distance. Oh look, there’s a second person on this planet. Do you know how relieving that is? Another great thing was talking to friends who were also depressed. It was like joining AA or something, we had this emotional body language in common, and I could say the darkest things, and it was ok, in fact it was normal, and usual, and that made it easier to bear. Oh, you mean, you have this too, or your translated version of this? I have a friend from London who wrote me every day about how awful she felt and I can’t tell you how much that cheered me up. You mean: you’re depressed too? Let’s have a party! It was like learning that you weren’t the last surviving speaker of a language, there were others who also knew the secret codes, a whole tribe in fact. And I began to feel that I was clinging, I was holding on to an attitude, there was a stinginess, a narrowing of possibilities. There were all the rational reasons – yes, I was incredibly poor, and how was I going to make the rent. But worrying wasn’t going to change that, and only took energy. It took a lot of energy to keep me this contained, to keep all that anger flowing inwards, to keep me separate. It takes a lot of energy to practice anti-yoga. To maintain the borders.

Recently this energy has shifted. I don’t know how long the shift will last. I can feel in my body the place where the depression lives. I experience it as a deep hole that I can tumble down into. It looks like it goes on forever, or the rest of your life which is the same thing. But beside that hole, or at least, in the neighbourhood, there is a fire, I feel it as a fire, and this fire creates energy, swirls of energy in this body-mind. I know that traditional Buddhist imagery insists that the act of awakening is about putting out the fire. But for me to practice aparigraha, to practice generosity, which is also curiosity – oh how are you doing? – means keeping the fire burning. Depression of course is a very isolating and selfish illness, depression is a monument of selfishness, the whole world is the self you can’t stand. But generosity arrives with a radiant warmth, and it doesn’t wipe out the hole, it doesn’t banish the darkness, but it offers something else, a possibility perhaps, another option, another door, a way out of the same repetitive cycle. If someone says something kind to me, this is the place where it might be received and held. For just a moment the fire burns a little brighter.