Week #14 – OPENNESS
Fifteen years ago, give or take, I took a series of Awareness classes. I’m not sure if I remember, or can even properly explain what they were about beyond the obvious title, but I’m guessing the objective was to learn how to live in the moment (rather than fixating on the past or future) in order to achieve true awareness of one’s feelings, patterns, and the endless looping stories that define and limit our lives. Each weekend our small group met in the instructor’s living room for three hours. I was post-partum with a colicky baby, sleep deprived, and seeping breast milk all over the place. But I went because it was a scheduled escape from the crying, and, quite honestly, I desperately needed something to help me figure out my new role as a mom.
At the end of each class, one of my dearest friends and I would painstakingly rehash what we’d learned that day, but in the back of my head, I was calling bullshit. I didn’t need to appreciate the soap bubbles on my sponge while washing the dishes in order to know that I was scared shitless becoming a parent; I didn’t want to analyze, again, how my perceived lack of success was somehow tied to my parents’ lack of support; and, most important, I had absolutely no desire in trying to tame my oversensitive and reactive ego that showed up every time it was my turn to share. It’s no wonder I have such a foggy recollection of those sessions; I really had no place being there.
Except that I did. It’s exactly where I was supposed to be. Not because I would achieve an Eckart Tolle level of presence in the world (I will need lifetimes for that), but because I would be introduced to the idea of openness and its relationship to giving. It happened during one of my share moments. I forget the prompt, but whatever question my teacher asked instigated a passionate rant on my part about the lack of appreciation shown to me for something I had done. I went on and on, clearly pent up with emotion and hurt for not being recognized. After finishing my monologue, convinced that I’d get an A+ for being so mindful of my feelings, I waited for her comments. But instead of praising my breakthrough, she simply asked, “Why do you give if your heart is so closed?” And right on cue, my ego exploded with… Excuse me? Did you just miss the whole part about me being a doormat? About me being unappreciated? About me, me, me, me, me? I couldn’t wait for the class to be over so I could wail at my friend about how the teacher was a fraud, how she didn’t like me, how over-my-dead-body would I ever return. But I did. The very next week. Because recognizing my closed heart and the quid pro quo of my giving was one of the most profound lessons I’ve ever learned.
Don’t get me wrong, my ah-ha moment didn’t suddenly turn me into a wildly open and selfless human being. Far from it. Fifteen years after learning that authentic giving means not expecting anything (yup, even a thank you) in return, I still struggle with resentment. I still love to climb onto my self-righteous platform and shake my gel manicured finger at the folks doing me wrong. I did it last night, complaining to no less than seven people about how horrible it was that I had to bring expensive food (I signed up for) to a meeting (I chose to attend) for a committee (I decided to join). But it was a rainy day, I was feeling stingy after the expensive holidays, and a closed heart seemed like a helluva lot more fun than examining the truth around why I chose to give in the first place.
I well know the concept of giving without attachment as it was taught to me in Sunday School. Our family tithed. My mother would go door-to-door collecting money for the Salvation Army. We were givers and we helped people. But altruistic? I don’t think so. Because dangling in front of our generosity was that brass ring of rewards –our own EZ pass through the pearly gates on our way to eternal life. Giving is always attached to something. If I am brutally honest, I can probably count on my fingers (and maybe a couple of toes) the number of times that I have given without needing something in return — to feel validated or loved, to tick off a box, add to a scorecard, to meet an obligation, or assuage my guilt, or, wait for it, to be better than someone else. But giving unconditionally? I’m pretty sure this action has something to do with loving unconditionally. And for that, you need one big-ass open heart.
The thing about those times, the ones I can count on my fingers and toes when an opportunity for generosity presented itself and I acted on it without needing anything in return . . . giant technicolor firecrackers went off inside me. Dopamine flooded my body, and I was filled with hope and optimism and courage and, yes, love. Insane love. In fact, my heart opened so wide it felt like it might burst. And suddenly the guy who cut me off in traffic wasn’t a douche-bag, but someone who might be late to pick up their kid; the contractor who wouldn’t call me back was actually sick in bed and not avoiding finishing the job; and the teacher who was tough on my kid wasn’t picking favorites, but pushing him to become more independent. Suddenly, the grimy, cynical world looked beautiful. And I could exhale, and unclench my grip, and climb down off my mountain of blame.