image courtesy of Michael Leunig
Jon Kabat Zinn in his formative book Full Catastrophe Living wrote about seven attitudinal foundations considered vital for a sustainable mindfulness practice. These attitudinal foundations are beginners mind, non-striving, non-judging, acceptance, patience, trust and letting go/be.
The secular definition of mindfulness, ‘Paying attention, on purpose, to unfolding moment-to-moment experience, while suspending judgement and with acceptance’, is made up of two aspects. The first, paying attention, the second, the cultivation of attitudinal/relational qualities. Paying attention allows us to perceive experience with greater clarity. This is literally revelatory. We perceive experience, previously below the threshold of consciousness. The beauty of the grain, in the wood of our breakfast table, the wild poppy growing from our gate post, the connection between our aching neck and ruminative mind. Both pleasant and un-pleasant become vivid. Being human, we want the pleasant, even cling to it. We don’t want the un-pleasant and spend a lot of time, energy and resources ‘trying’ to get rid of it. Our practice is one of learning how to bear the reality of our experience, as it is, neither clinging nor pushing away. The attitudinal foundations are key to being able to do this.
Jon – Kabat Zinn in a recent Youtube interview added two more attitudes to the list, gratitude (which Zoe wrote about in the last post) and generosity. The attitudinal foundations woven together form a relational orientation, that is fundamentally generous. Lets explore this further.
The word generous shares its Latin root with the word magnanimous. Magnanimous is defined in the Oxford dictionary as, great soul. The Mahatma, the appendage given to the non-violent peace activist Ghandi means, great soul. Generosity is non-violent. It is open-hearted, un-contracted, expansive, trusting and connected to others. Its opposite is selfish, tight-fisted, mean spirited, miserly, disconnected and fearful. The adverb ‘great’ points to largess, and soul? This may mean different things to different people. For me, it points to the essential qualities of a human being, their essence.
Mindfulness could be described as an alchemy of human essence. When we meditate, and cultivate awareness, we work with the raw material of our daily lives. We notice thoughts, speech and behaviours that are harmful, to ourselves or others, and we cultivate their opposites. We literally cultivate greatness of soul. Mostly this is not a given. We have to work at it. In the experience of impatience, we harness patience, in our miserliness, we harness generosity and so on. It is in, and through, these un-beneficial states that we strengthen beneficial ones.We do this in our inner, and outer world. This requires vision. A vision of a richer, fuller quality of life, and the energy, effort and persistence to bring it into being.
To do this most important work, we need to be mindful, to wake up. To live a conscious life. To fulfil our potential Homo sapiens sapiens – to be a wise human, conscious of being conscious. Able to direct and channel resources and energy in positive and beneficial directions, both for oneself and for others. Looked at this way, meditative practice, mindfulness is a fundamentally generous act.
Alternatively, we can live life on automatic. At best getting by. At worst driven and self absorbed. Tossed in the frenzied currents of busyness – doing more, having more, being more, becoming more. Clouded within a haze of distractedness. Numbed and dulled by a lack of attentiveness. Life lived in black and white. To live a richer and fuller life than this, we need to pay attention. French philosopher Simone Weil says:
‘Attention is the greatest form of generosity.’
Mindfulness meditation is the cultivation of the habit of attentiveness. It is a gift to others, and a gift to oneself. A gift that keeps on giving! An ordinary raisin, illuminated with attention, reveals its rich texture and sumptuous sweetness, our morning cup of tea becomes a ritual of taste, touch and smell, of vivid presence. When we offer our attention to things, we enter into relationship. The poet David Whyte:
‘Put down the weight of your aloneness and ease into
the conversation. The kettle is singing
even as it pours you a drink, the cooking pots
have left their arrogant aloofness and
seen the good in you at last. All the birds
and creatures of the world are unutterably
themselves. Everything is waiting for you.’
People are waiting for us too. We all long for connection. When we give our time, our presence to others, relationships deepen in understanding, intimacy and connectedness. The challenge is, to actually be present. It’s so easy to text, email or use social media to be in contact with others. It’s efficient, doesn’t take much time, and… can diminish our relationships. Loneliness is increasing within our communities. This afflicts both the elderly and the young. Pre ‘smart’ technology we contacted others through the medium of the voice, on the telephone, or with a personal visit. We made time, we made contact. Loneliness is not the experience of being alone. It is the lack of quality contact with others. It saddens me when I see, quite frequently, friends or couples gathered around a table, each on their mobile phones. Each in their own world. A whole tube carriage of people heads bent over their telephones, thumbs sweeping lethargically up and down. Contact-less!
What would a life lived generously look like? How might one cultivate the quality of magnanimity? Who do you know, right now, that might benefit from a telephone call or visit? Maybe it’s you that needs a visit, from you… Can you make the time? Can you be that generous?