Ethics 9: Generosity
Michael: Aparigraha is often translated as non-greed. I often translate it as either non –acquisitiveness or just generosity or non-possessiveness. One of the things that’s been interesting translating these terms is whether you take the negative side, non-greed, or flip it and name the other side as generosity. The thing I liked about translating it as non-possessiveness is it seems to land between both. There’s something powerful about looking at your life, at your inner world and your attachment to the outer world, in terms of not being possessive. So I thought we could just start with this term “non-possessiveness.” The reason why I wanted to interview you in particular is because you have a yoga practice, a long time Buddhist practice, and also you’re a psychotherapist and a friend and you’re one of the smartest people I know. So I thought it might be nice to look at this particular precept from a more psychological perspective. What does it mean in a psychological sense? How can we recognize it?
Simone: When I think about what being possessive looks like in people is grasping for control. Tightening around any particular situation with the idea that there is a result that can come out of it. And one of the places I see this in particular is grief. When there is some kind of loss, grasping and possessiveness and trying to control the situation are usual responses.
Michael: Do you mean loss in the sense that they’re losing an object or a person? Or do you mean also that there can be a basic underlying feeling that something is missing?
Simone: When there’s loss, it can create a place where someone gets particularly stuck or tight or controlled in their life. I would also say that finding this quality of underlying missingness would contribute to it too. I see that a lot in our relationship to time, and to events, and wanting to see events unfold in a particular way. How often do we enjoy holding onto fixed attitude around outcomes?
Michael: So if I can act in a certain way now that’s controlled, then I might be able to control the outcome. For example, if I really work on a certain kind of persona, then I could control how people perceive me. And that way the possessiveness would be trying to control people’s perception of me. What would the loss be, what would the grief be? What would I be covering up?
Simone: The grief is that we’re not in charge, and we’ve all had the experience over and over again of things that run through our fingers. It’s hard not to hoard the comforts and consolations we should have had. It’s hard not to keep a big library of all the things we imagine (through the story we tell about ourselves, or by watching what others receive) what we ought to have experienced or been given. As these moments slip away, as the regrets accumulate, as our hoped-for anticipations don’t pan out, we have grief, and then we work hard to cover over that lack.
Michael: It’s interesting in the Yoga and Buddhist traditions how much focus there is on impermanence. If we really want to look at finding some ground, we really need to embrace impermanence. It seems like possessiveness is an enemy of impermanence, or some kind of response to impermanence that makes us feel like it’s OK.
Simone: The main thing that’s coming up for me is that I’m thinking about the body, and tightening. Sometimes we try to create a life that’s within a particular kind of track, and when you’re living in that way everything is a threat to your particular way of holding yourself and building towards a particular outcome. There’s a lot of pain which then perpetuates the need to hold on. This is the samskaric experience, the sense that the grooves are deepening. Our tightness makes us tighter. When I am holding so tightly to an experience that must have a particular outcome, and it doesn’t, that makes me want to grip tighter. Instead, the experience is inviting us to loosen and let go.
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.
Michael: I like that way of thinking of the end of the exhale – not so much as surrender which sometimes just seems too big for people – but more a sense of you’re held in something much bigger than what the narrow ego is trying to package.
Simone: Being held means opening the door to allow a new experience to come through. It’s while we’re being held or letting go, that a freshness arises that can permit something outside of the single track of possessiveness.
Michael: It seems like addiction is just one more step in that path of possessiveness. When you talk about tightening up, contracting, defending against change and impermanence, when you talk about grief or loss, could you talk a little bit about addiction and its relation to possessiveness? It seems like if you keep going down the road of describing degrees of possessiveness, you get addiction or obsessiveness.
Simone: I think they share some qualities. What comes to mind for me with an addiction is that there’s a misunderstanding of needs. A misunderstanding of abundance and generosity. There’s a confusion about generosity. In addiction when we grasp, we go for something that looks appealing, but there’s no observation of limits. And so rather than having the experience of satisfaction which demands digestion of whatever we take in, we have the experience of a mini-relief. This form of relief usually has a quickness to it, whatever bottoming out experience I’m having, or emotional experience or lack I’m experiencing, I get out of it really quickly in the act of my addiction, whether that is the internet or a drug of some kind. The addiction tends to work at the beginning, it provides some sense of relief from this perpetual impermanence that we’re experiencing, but more and more it feeds that gap, that emptiness. Longing. I think people can’t actually taste their experience, absorb whatever it is they’re taking in, it’s like overeating,
Michael: Eating a food and not tasting it, eating without knowing your limits. Or the opposite is again true, controlling what you eat. The opposite of excessive eating – not eating enough – is also a kind of possessiveness.
Simone: We might see more of the aggressiveness there, where on the other side we see giving in (I withhold). But in both cases there is confusion about appetite and need. A limit is being breached. Obviously there has to be some kind of feedback in our selves, and if it isn’t dealt with then it comes up in our environment, our relationship to others, our basic resources running out or becoming scarce. Maybe that’s when we find out we don’t have a sensate awareness of limits.
Michael: There’s a child psychologist you might be familiar with named Adam Phillips. He wrote a paper called Enough is Enough which is about excess and possessiveness. I came across this one… “When young people are being excessive, they are unconsciously, without realizing it, trying to find strong containing parents. Unruly adolescents for example, can be thought as trying to find out just how reliable, just how robust the authorities really are. Children are only as powerful as their parents let them be, and there’s nothing a child is more frightened of than being too powerful.”
He seems to be saying that when we’re excessive, deep down in our heart of hearts, or unconsciously, we’re trying to find a boundary, a limit, something to contain us. That’s a really interesting way of thinking of excess. When we go too far, when we overreach, we are wanting/craving a limit that for some reason hasn’t been internalized, that isn’t in our own structure.
Simone: Am I alone here? What is this world? Is their anyone responsive to me? Is there a world there? What is this world and how do I come into relation with it? This brings me back again to the idea that we want to be in relationship. When there’s a feeling of a gap or non-responsiveness, perhaps we don’t know our boundaries. When I think about kids, especially teenagers and binge drinking you know, there’s that idea of “I need to know what my power is.” “I need to know what I can do. Just because I heard my friend say this is what it is, what is actually true?”
Michael: There’s a new person that’s been practicing at Centre of Gravity lately, he’s so wonderful but he really broke down at the end of sitting one day. He said to me, “You know, I came to sit because I wanted some peace but I didn’t realize how wounded I was.” I thought it was so courageous for him to acknowledge that. He’s only known me for one month. This notion that “I didn’t know how wounded I was.” So many are drawn to meditation practice because it promises a kind of transcendence. But at the same time when a lot of us start meditating we realize that there are a lot of old wounds and we don’t know how to give them space. You talked earlier about breathing space. There are places – as Pema Chodron says – that scare us. Usually these are the places where it’s hard to breath. So we respond by contracting, quitting, getting an idea about practice – whether we like or not. I wonder if you could talk about possessiveness and what it looks like in people. They come and see you as a teacher, or as a therapist. What do you see, what does it feel like to be in the room? What are the signs? How do you see possessiveness taking place in your relationship with them?
Simone: The way that I frame it has to do with the person’s ability to receive support. A person’s ability to receive. Do we look at the question from the negative or the positive side? As grasping or generosity? What is someone’s ability to receive support? Often what that means is the way a person is working. They’re working on the problem, they’re working on themselves, they’re working in such a way that they may be desperately wanting help, but they’re not available to receive it. Sometimes that might be because of their desperation, which can create a kind of busyness. Often when we’re facing difficulties we rely heavily on ourselves to figure it out, and in that figuring out we create even more…
Michael: I can do this alone. I don’t need you.
Simone: Which is a way of staying away from the pain of disappointment. You may not help me if I ask you. If I ask you I have to be open to the possibility of refusal. I think meditation is similar. If we’re on the agenda of fixing our lives, meditation becomes tight. But during sitting practice there is always something showing up. How to feel that without fixing it – that’s harder to teach. It relates to how flexible a person is, or how flexible their mind is. How often have they had experience of losing without being a failure?
Michael: Maybe the last time I asked for help the person abandoned me or they failed. Or I was always told not to ask for help. If I ask for help, I’m not strong. That’s interesting. I think the kind of people who are called to meditation practice… One of the things I noticed just having spent time in Thailand is that there are no practices independent of community. Some people might practice for years just building or gardening before they’re ever introduced to meditation practice. Here meditation is much more solitary. I’m going to become a Buddhist practitioner not because I’m interested in community, but because I want to sit facing a wall and really go deep into solo meditation. I wonder if sometimes all that hard working on the self can also be a bit of a defense, a resistance to healing that might need to happen relationally. Which gets back to what you were saying that “I’m working hard on myself, I’m improving myself,” but maybe you’re completely missing this other side. Needing the love and support that can only come from another human.
Michael: Belonging, right.
Simone: I think a lot of people take up meditation with a sense of stamina. You hear a lot of people who say, “I couldn’t hack that, I can’t stand the pain.” While others are determined to get through everything. There has to be some kind of trust in the community in order to open up to what is being experienced. Otherwise it is about being in a teaching mode – most of our education system is based on having the right answer. Having the right answer in meditation is dangerous because it doesn’t lead us to what is actually going on for us. I think people have a tendency to suffer alone, rather than reaching out to others. We can recognize acquisitiveness in learning and techniques, but it’s also present in the realm of being studious and getting a grasp on things. Learning becomes a way to be right, a way to get through present experience. So many people come into yoga trying to fix their bodies, and in meditation the same kind of attitude is turned toward the mind (hence stamina becomes a virtue). Flexibility and compassion arise in community, they require relationship.
Michael: Otherwise the idea of generosity is a little too idealistic or philosophical. “How do I give” includes “How can I be given to?” How can I appreciate when someone is offering me something?
Simone: This brings up something that comes up a lot in psychotherapy, particularly in groups. People often want to be generous to others. Sometimes that’s an experience of wanting to be liked. But there’s also a genuine impetus towards wanting to make others comfortable, the way we would want to be made comfortable. Setting limits to what we can give and receive is an important way to ground ourselves. Trying to understand where we might take care of others beyond what they really need, or what I need. It is by taking care of others that we learn to care of ourselves. How can we be clear about this distinction: being helpful, or trying to get out of something that makes me uneasy?
Michael: It’s interesting that on retreats, on the first day, we have a list of rules we go through. One of them is to trust in the silence together relationally. So if you see someone who is your roommate who is crying a lot don’t go up to them and start hugging them and asking them what’s wrong. Trust in the practice and the silence enough that they need to go through what they need to go through, especially if you’re really feeling from them that they want you to hug them. Let the teacher or some of the other leaders on the retreat work with that student. For a lot of people – especially Jews and Italians – they have a hard time going through something without quickly wanting to go hug them or make them tea or a meal. It can be a powerful healing process for people whose tendency is to be a caregiver to see the limits of caregiving. They don’t know where to give somebody space. That’s a really powerful teaching for people.
Simone: Cultural grooves work with our personal grooves. The cultural grooves of how I pay respect and tend to others – those can definitely get in our way.
Michael: They need food or they wouldn’t be crying so much.
Simone: Right. I think that boundaries are something that ultimately help people sort out what is possessiveness and what am I carrying for myself. What is it I actually need support with? My experience in practice is that it’s easy to see meditation practice and yoga forms as boundaries that mark right from wrong. They can too easily become another way of being right, another set of cultures that we can apply. I’m always going to be a good boy, I’m always going to be a good girl, and I’m always going to fit into those rules.
But what is different in generosity practice, is that boundaries are drawn in order to support someone, to help them digest experience. And the act of giving (exhaling) is also the act of receiving (inhaling). What is my experience? What do I need? What are my limits? So that I can be genuine. There’s plenty of times when I am genuinely drawn into somebody else’s problem, and that has to do with my problem. I’m suffering as much as they are. And there’s other times when that’s not the case. I might feel pressure from cultural norms to act in a particular way, and it takes a lot of guts not to do that. I think the forms of practice can support people in being able to observe these tendencies, and to get clearer about what’s authentic, what’s genuine.
Michael: Each precept has three levels, the first is the literal level. An example of this is: don’t kill. The second is the compassionate level: how do you actually express the precept in your life? There are times when you need to kill, and that’s still upholding the precept. Then there’s the koan or mysterious level. When you really look at a precept like generosity it just opens you up to this moment and what’s happening in this moment. It has nothing to do with rules and vows, but actually it has everything to do with rules and vows or you wouldn’t see it that way. How do you move between these different levels, the literal level, the compassionate level and then the mystery level?
Many people ask: what’s the difference between western psychology and yoga, or western psychology and Buddhism? One thing that’s emerging for me is how in western psychology we don’t really talk about ethics, other than professional ethics. There’s no room in our work with clients to ask them about how greed is showing up in their life, or non-violence. There’s not a scaffolding or a form that we can use to check in with our clients about ethical principles.
Simone: It’s interesting because I think that this shows up more in the symptom, in what’s presenting. When a person comes into psychotherapy they usually have some kind of problem that they’re presenting. And especially nowadays, there’s a sense that therapies should address the problem, and in a similar vein, we imagine that meditation should address the problem. But the conditions these problems are arising in are also important – what kind of world, what kind of mind? As a therapist, as someone who is looking at problems that are being presented, I think we can inquire into conditions and ask what is going unchecked. One example that’s coming to mind comes from an addiction model and the stages of change. Stages of change is a theoretical model for how one goes from addiction to a place of greater health and balance. When somebody’s in the early stages, it’s often referred to as pre-contemplation. At that point I’m really thinking that I don’t have that much of a problem. I’m just doing what I’m doing. The next stage of contemplation is where one might examine the consequences of actions. The therapeutic treatment for the pre-contemplative stage is bringing to a client’s awareness what (if any) consequences are there – in your family, in your environment, in your dreams. I think that kind of outlook is already looking at something like ethics, without imposing a particular idea…
Michael: Without the literal level.
Simone: Yes. I think this is very important because therapies need to be responsive to an individual’s idea of health. If psychology is imposing the idea of what health is, what is healthy, then we have a lot of problems.
Michael: Heath too often means going back to work. Going back to your job on Monday. Some schools of psychology have an idea of what health is, and it’s the person’s ability to be working. And that limits what’s possible in the therapeutic relationship, the person may not even have time with the therapist to unpack what’s going on because the model for both of them is that we’re here because we’re trying to get me working again.
Simone: Yes, and ultimately it’s also maintaining a hierarchical power relationship between therapist and client. If I have an ethical standard by which I am treating you, then I have one up on you. I know what’s right. And that’s where I see the danger. I think that all therapists have a sense of their own ethics, and that’s important. For me as a therapist, I’m always using myself as a gauge for what is happening with the client. That’s one of the ways I can wonder, “Hmm. What is off here? What doesn’t fit?” I haven’t looked into something myself, chances are I’m not going to be able to spot it or even feel it in the client.
Michael: Do you ever have the feeling when you’re working with someone and they’re really contracted around an idea that you actually take on their body? Can you feel the intensity of their situation in your own body, where your body becomes like an instrument, a tool, so that you can gauge what’s going on with them?
Simone: I often work somatically, so taking on that person’s body gives lots of information for what is being experienced, that’s one of the ways I work through what’s happening with the client. Either: what am I doing? Or: how am I responding? Am I pulling back or pushing forward? What does it feel like to hold myself like that? So I can tune into what that feels like for them. Because what this feels like is very different than what it sends out to you. I think that it’s very useful to know that that’s happening. And there are times when I really need to leave whatever I’m feeling behind. Often I find lying on the floor is the best remedy for that.
Michael: To drop their body out of your body. Because you’ve taken something on.
Simone: Any form of savasana seems the perfect remedy because that’s where I can come back into feeling contact with the floor, of gravity, and reconnect with what is going through me now, as opposed to holding onto a patterning that I’ve witnessed. But ultimately we are impacting each other and picking up what’s around us. It’s really important to know that we are putting our way of being into the room, but at the same time, so much of what we’re experiencing and feeling is from what’s going on around us, and not something that’s just our own creation.
Michael: We’re picking it up from our culture and environment.
Simone: We’re a sieve for something that’s going on. We act as a filter for a situation, and meditation and yoga practice can help us clarify that process. Both meditation and yoga are really about coming back to our sensate bodily experience as one of the places where we can start to see where we’re clinging and overdoing and begin to actually feel what a limit or a boundary is.
Michael: We’re living in a time where our society and the economic system we live in is really rooted in greed. Sometimes I even see what’s happening in the university system as something similar. This acquisition of knowledge, the kind of greed that requires more information. We don’t seem to be producing people who are wiser, instead we have experts and specialists. This seems related to how much greed we feel is acceptable. From the perspective of someone who is working with people’s psychological ills and symptoms in their body, what do you observe, what do you make of this? How do the symptoms of our time show up in people?
Simone: The main thing that comes to mind is anxiety. Non-resting. Non-being. Non-beingness. The busyness that expresses itself as greed in our culture. Greed seems to create busyness, and the busyness doesn’t allow people to feel or empty out or let go of whatever it is that’s just happened. We’re not as resilient because we’re so worked up, we’re speedy, we’re tight and fearful and anxious. I think ultimately a greedy society comes from a poverty mentality. It’s born from scarcity. In a scarce world we’re not safe. And when we’re not safe we can’t relax and we can’t actually enjoy what’s around us. We have a lot of resources, sometimes within reach even, but when we’re in this tighteness and scarcity mentality, we’re not even curious about what’s out there. We’re not even looking. We can’t relax and receive.
Michael: During the Occupy movement Naomi Klein said that the solutions to our economic problems are also the solutions to our social and ecological problems. When you were talking about this age of anxiety – an economic and psychological change – both need to happen together, they can’t happen without each other. You can’t just tell people to relax when everything around them is so driven.
Simone: We need to feel it, we don’t need to relax in that relaxing sense, we need to feel what’s happening and respond. A lot of that has to do with being in relation, and finding connection, and fessing up to what we’re experiencing.
Michael: It’s like atonement. What’s really going on?
Simone: (laughs) Right. We have this fake confessing in a way. We have a society where everyone can be depressed and anxious but I still don’t think we have a genuine curiosity to openly talk about these experiences. I think it’s more like: Oh yeah, of course you are. Chalk up another one. But to actually be able to share that experience, or reach out in that experience and feel what other people are feeling and be impacted by them. Because ultimately we are very impacted by those around us who are struggling. How can we turn to see that this is where we need to be? The places where we’re hurting from other people’s suffering needs to be included in our own healing. In a societal healing. Rather than this kind of do-good work. When our activities are engaged in something larger than healing ourselves, then we seem to be more uplifted and more available and able to heal.
Simone Moir is a Gestalt Therapist and Director of Parkdale Prana Room. She has been teaching Yoga and practicing meditation for the past 14 years. Simone offers a variety of body/mind programs informed by her experience in meditation, yoga and visual and performing art. She has worked in a clinical capacity in the fields of community mental health and substance abuse and has presented a variety of wellness workshops in universities and social service agencies. As a therapist and teacher, Simone balances playfulness and creativity with non-judgmental attentiveness to the here and now of the therapy or teaching moment. Her approach promotes greater spontaneity and creativity within the daily lives of her clients. www.pranaroom.org