Yesterday, I met a new friend of Parabola for tea at the Rubin Museum. We talked about life and about the way it can take on a miraculous quality in those moments when we remember to stay open–when we observe and listen deeply to the person before us, granting them sovereignty. My friend liked a story in the current “Beauty” issue that retells the way King Arthur’s noble knight Sir Gawain married fearsome Lady Ragnell, granting her full sovereignty to be herself, no conditions imposed. How amazing, to think of this act of radical acceptance attributed to an Arthurian knight known for of his courage and purity of heart! What a cool kind of heroism! Yet in those moments when we are mindfully present to another,open and receptive instead of simply waiting to speak, it can feel like recognizing their sovereignty, as if there is a pre-existent wholeness and complex, imperfect perfection to them that we are allowing to emerge. We can grant life itself sovereignty, practising being open to what arises instead of seeing everything through the haze of our own needs and fears, our own narrative of who we are and how life should go.
As we spoke of this, a mutual friend at the Rubin surprised us by sending a plate of vegetable momos and a plate of cake to the table where we sat drinking tea! It doesn’t always go this way, of course. Life serves up more than momos. Yet there can be magic in this mindful openness or allowing even in the most painful circumstances. It can bring insight and compassion. This mindfulness, this capacity for openness, can grow only through patient acceptance, by gently bringing the attention again and again to what is arising, allowing it to unfold without interferring or wishing it were different.
We have to find an attention that is generous enough to embrace our inner experience as well as the being before us. We must patiently accept ourselves as we sit there stewing in the juice of our impatience, selfishness and fear. Including ourselves in the sphere of our open attention can seem strange and selfish at first, but it is only when we can allow ourselves to be present that we can fully perceive, receive and engage authentically with another. We must be like noble Sir Gawain and whole-heartedly embrace the whole of our experience, even when we judge it to be hideous. Over time, we may find that we are far more than we thought we were–we may touch our own pre-existing sovereignty, our capacity to see and receive others and the whole of life, before we became subject to the cruel rule of our habitual thoughts and fears. We begin to realize thatthis mindful awareness is not separate from our innate capacity for wisdom and compassion. It is not separate from generosity.
As I walked to the subway through the dark, cold streets, past the village of market stalls set up in Union Square for Christamas, past the twinkling with Christmas lights and people rushing past in boots and hats (knit animal face hats on big burly guys), I reflected on the generous nature of mindful awareness and the power it has to transform our lives. On the train home, I remembered another train ride on another cold December day, now over a decade ago. My then 11-year-old daughter Alex and Iwere going to the Met to look at the vast Christmas tree decorated with Florentine ornaments. We were going to look at medieval armor–and finally we would sit on a bench in a vast nearly empty hall and take in some majestic Buddhas. This was my secret agenda. I want to nudge Alex towards an experience of something deeper and finer than all the voices and drumbeats of war and terror we were all hearing in those days. It was sad, fearful time in New York, and in our own lives. The attacks of 9/11 had happened just a few months before. A sense of impermanence–the sense that something terrible might happen at any moment–permeated the city. I remember we sat facing a brand new poster with a picture of a bag sitting alone on a train platform that read: “If you see something, say something.” These signs are part of our ordinary life now, but then they–and National Guard troops and bomb sniffing dogs in Grand Central Station–were signs that the world we knew had come to an end. On top of that, we had recently moved from Brooklyn to Northern Westchester, and Alex mourned the loss of what she considered to be her true home, the home of her childhood happiness. I desparately wanted to steer her towards what I took to be enduring truths.
“I wish I had been born in the Age of Middle-earth!” Alex said, after the conductor took our tickets. He wore a black arm band with a tiny American flag stitched on it and didn’t kid around like he used to. “I don’t belong in this time and place! I really hate it!”
As much as I wanted to be the kind of mother who gives a kid the space to be, I just couldn’t do it! I knew that Alex had developed a passion The Lord of the Rings, and Peter Jackson’s gorgeous film adaptations of Tolkein’s trilogy. I knew that she also loved Harry Potter and the Narnia Chronicles. I knew these works were her refuge and her source of wisdom and inspiration. But my own fears–that the times were really scary and unpredictable, that she might be overtaken by that hatred and her desire to live in a fantasy–caused me to lean into her space so to speak, to “be the voice of reason.” I reminded her that life in Middle-earth was no picnic, that there was war and plague and few hot baths or changes of outfit.
“But I might have been a gentile!” Alex said.
“Good news, honey,” I said. “You are a gentile, and in a time and place of indoor plumbing and hot running water.”
Her face fell for just a second, and I felt a little lurch in my own true heart–was that me, being so sarastic? But Alex took a stand for herself, for her own sovereignty.
“You don’t know what I mean,” she said.
I told her that I really did know, that she meant gentry, nobles like King Aaragorn and the other members of the Fellowship who were courageous even in the face impenetrable darkness. She granted me a cautious nod that indicated that she wasn’t at all convinced that I knew.
“This is hard to say because you’re my mother, but I don’t mind hardship. I don’t think I mind pain even.” Alex was generously letting me in a little bit on her inner life, on the secret sense she had that she may be capable of more than our daily life offered–that she may even be capable of participating in something great and magical. In the years to come, I would learn about Sir Gawain and his courageous openess and acceptance. I would learn that what saved Frodo from the power of the Ring was his capacity for compassion for Gollum–as though that compassion connected him to the force of the Whole. I learned that the Truth cannot be thought, as Madame de Salzmann once taught. Many of the great ideas we cherish are actually meant to be lived. They point towards inner attitudes or postures–of openness, of willingness to be present and receive–that we can practice any time and anywhere. And Alex was right about Middle-earth. When we practice this posture of opening and accepting what is rather than fussing with everything with our thoughts, it can feel like remembering something ancient–like recalling our true role in a lost world. It also resides in the middle place in us, that point of full presence where the body, the heart, and the mind all come together, each part alive and aware.
I know now that she was also remembering or intuiting her way towards something important when she was groping for a word along the lines of gentile or gentry. The modern English word “generosity” derives from the Latin word generōsus, which means “of noble birth,” which itself was passed down to English through the Old French word generous. The Latin stem gener– is the declensional stem of genus, meaning “kin,” “clan,” “race,” or “stock,” with the root Indo–European meaning of gen being “to beget.” The same root gives us the words genesis, gentry, gender, genital, gentile, genealogy, and genius, among others.
Most recorded English uses of the word “generous” up to and during the Sixteenth Century reflect an aristocratic sense of being of noble lineage or high birth. To be generous was literally a way of complying to nobility.” During the 17th Century, however, the meaning and use of the word began to change. Generosity came increasingly to identify not literal family heritage but a nobility of spirit and actions associated with the ideals of actual nobility: gallantry, courage, strength, richness, gentleness, and fairness. When Alex said she might really be a gentile, she was expressing the sense that she might really deep down have a noble nature. She sensed that she had the capacity to be what I thought I had to impose on her from outside, what I had wanted her to glimpse in those Buddha statues. When the Buddha referred to the Noble Truths and addressed his listeners as “Nobly Born,” he was pointing them to their own true natures, reminding them that we all have it in us to be much greater than we think we are. We can be heroes like Sir Gawain. We can grant each other sovereignty. There exist in us ancient inner postures of peaceful abiding, of receptivity, of generosity. Remember that. Be generous.