The Generosity of Attention

“Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.” -- Simone Weil

Every January for the past few years I have chosen three words or ideas to guide me through the year. For 2019 my three words are Perseverence, Play, and Generosity. These are important aspects of mindful living that I wish to understand more deeply and cultivate in the professional and personal realms. I try to remember to hold them in mind and heart as I move through the day, often as questions, such as “where is the play in this?’ or “how can generosity help here?”

Generosity is a wonderful thing to keep in mind, because it instantly transforms the attitude and energy of any given situation. Although we typically think of financial giving when we hear this word, there are many ways to be generous: one can give time, information, assistance, space, and attention. Generous giving in Buddhism is called dana, and it is not just the act of giving freely but also the practice of cultivating a generous spirit. It’s the very first practice the Buddha taught, the first step he said was necessary to attain liberation.

I have been keenly aware of what’s known as “scarcity mentality” these days, in both my own mind and in the culture at large. This is the persistent belief that there is not enough time, money, talent, intelligence, etc. Not enough. Less than. This kind of thinking is typically so ubiquitous that we aren’t aware of it, even as it colors our day-to-day experiences. Scarcity mentality creates a barrier to abundance and the free flow of material and emotional energy in our lives. Becoming more generous and acting in generous ways counteracts the fearful attitude of the tightwad, who says, “I got mine” and “if you get some, I get less.”  In truth, this is a completely unnatural way to be. Nature is nothing if not abundant, and as I have chosen to look for ways to become more generous, I notice that the urge to give freely comes easily almost all of the time. Humans are plagued by greed, it's true. But it turns out we also have a natural capacity to be generous.

One of the most powerful ways to be generous is to give full attention to something or someone. Everything and everyone I love the most flourishes when I give it/them my heartfelt, clear-minded attention. Teaching and practicing the Alexander Technique invites this kind of attention, and in fact I can only give a good lesson when I’m attending in a spacious, generous way. Practicing and guiding Insight meditation also can only happen when the intention is to be attentive to whatever arises moment to moment. Likewise, Qigong moves can either be done with presence or just going through the motions, but only one of those ways will be empowering and healing because, as my teacher says, ”where the mind is, that’s where the qi will be.”

How many times have you become frustrated in a conversation because you can sense the other person is not fully there? Maybe they’re hearing your words but their mind is elsewhere, waiting for their turn to speak or for the conversation to be over. Conversely, how does it feel when you are being fully received by another person? Especially when we are troubled or confused, it’s often enough just to know we have another’s full attention. I’ve been deepening my understanding of this dynamic lately, as I’m taking a wonderful online course with Oren Jay Sofer, based on his new book Say What You Mean: A Mindful Approach to Nonviolent Communication. In practicing the weekly assignments with myself and my buddy, I’ve discovered an unrecognized source of generosity in myself, and my ability to “hold space” for another person in conversation is growing.

Two hands forming a heart.

Two hands forming a heart.

Perhaps the most important way to be generously attentive – and the least developed or understood, in my experience – is to extend it to ourselves. In each of the modalities mentioned above (AT, meditation, and Qigong), bringing full, open-ended attention is essential. You’re not really strengthening presence or moving mindfully if you’re not attending to yourself and your experience. This is not self-indulgent fantasizing or repeating affirmations or strategizing about how to be a better person.  It’s a matter of opening the heart-mind and feeling into the natural capacity for care and interest. It’s a way of saying, “the life which has been entrusted to me matters, and deserves my willing connection to it, as often and as completely as possible.”

There’s a well-known story about an old man who was dying and as he prepared for the inevitable, he looked back on how he had lived his life. He considered all the ways in which he had been loving and helpful to his dear ones and colleagues. He saw that he really hadn’t done such a bad job, that in fact he had been pretty generous with his possessions, had openly shared his knowledge and expertise, and had been supportive of the goals and needs of others. He reported this to his family as they sat at his bedside, and then he began to cry. “Why are you crying?” they asked. “You were a good and generous man, we all agree.” But he shook his head, and said, “No. You know who I was really stingy with, the one person I constantly ignored? Me. I didn’t open up to hear what I honestly wanted or needed, didn’t trust my own authentic voice, pushed away the things that could have brought me joy and happiness, put myself last. And now it’s too late.”

Developing the skill to be spaciously present with yourself is an act of generosity. It’s not selfish obsession with getting or having, but just the opposite. The generosity of attention activates our natural field of awareness, where abundance thrives and it is possible to simply Let It Be.  

BodyMind Experiment

Sensing Inner and Outer Space (5-10 mins)

Here’s a way to develop and experience spacious awareness. Sit comfortably, in a relaxed, alert, upright posture. Take a few moments to sense the seat beneath you, the ground under your feet or legs, the support of your spine as it rises up through the center of your torso to support your head. Scan through your body and notice any places that are tight, tense, or held, and invite them to soften. You might like to take a deep breath or two, allowing the jaw to release as you exhale.

With your eyes open or closed, recognize that there is a body. You are embodied. Begin to feel into this body as a whole, just sitting here. Sense the inner movements, like the rise and fall of the abdomen or chest with each breath, the heart beating, perhaps digestion or hunger pangs in the belly. Maybe there is pulsing or tingling, pressure or temperature. Whatever arises, simply acknowledge it. Feel the space inside this body, as well as the space this body takes up in its entirety.

Now, if your eyes are closed, open them. Notice how it is to include the visual field in your awareness. Do you still have a sense of this body? As you sit, begin to include a sense of the space in front of you. You may be in a small or a large room, there may be other people in the space before you, there might be a lot of light or the room might be dim. Close your eyes again for a moment and see if you can still sense the space in front of you. Open your eyes and observe any difference in what you sense.

Next, bring your attention to the space above you. Notice that you don’t have to look up in order to sense what’s above the crown of your head. (You can look up if you want to.) Staying connected to your bodily sense, can you also include this overhead space?

Continue shifting your attention in the other directions around you, sensing what is to the right, to the left, below you, and behind. Take your time with this, explore how it feels to extend a generous attention into space right now. Notice how seeing with the eyes is only one way of knowing and locating ourselves in space. Play with shifting attention between inner and outer space.

End this exploration by opening to hold the whole body and all the surrounding space in unity of awareness. What would it be like to move through the day with this generous attention? Form an intention to return to your own innate field of awareness as often as you like.