Eyes that were made to see

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Rays of sunlight pierce through rainclouds over Kenyan farm country. Over Aberdares Mountain range, 2013.

“What is that you express in your eyes? It seems to me more than all the print I have read in my life.” Walt Whitman

Yesterday, someone proposed a beautiful idea to me that has changed the way I choose to view many of the actions of those around me and of my own.

I’m in a very interesting phase of my life– marked by transition, growth, and self inquiry. What have I learned in my life so far? What is important to me? What is my personal truth? And how does that crystalize into the life choices I make in the coming months and years?

At 21 there was perhaps only a single thing I knew for certain. A single truth in my existence: that I knew very little about life and the world at large. School had taught me a few things — and somehow looking back, I think the most valuable things I gained from 17 years in a classroom were not academic in nature but human, rather.

As a kid, I had caught a rare glimpse through the matrix– and I couldn’t ignore what I had seen. I had gazed long into what seemed murky, shifting waters, but once, I glimpsed the stillness underneath.

Let me explain.

As a child I had the feeling that we as humans have always searched for some truth to hold on and cling to. This truth might take any “form” — a person, an institution, a belief, a cause, an idea. The form is just a placeholder, a proxy for something far greater and more valuable– truth. Growing up I asked myself, ‘What can I put my full and complete trust in? What never changes its nature; is never subjective, situational, or conditional; never falters; never ends; never dies?‘ Because if there were such a truth, surely that would mark the end of this universal restlessness I was observing.

My personal attempt to understand what is true in this life is what led me to East Africa in 2010.

Another observation I had made growing up was that despite experiencing deep discomfort and a particular variety of torturous doubt — I perpetually felt like nothing was real and everything and everybody was an impostor, including me– facing adversity had helped me uncover some realities about myself, and about what my mind and body are capable of. I suppose that was the logic when I thought to myself, What is the hardest thing I could possibly do after graduating college? Could intentionally choosing to challenge myself show me truth, and hopefully in the process relieve my discomfort and doubt? Why do difficult things seem to open our eyes? And why can’t comfortable things do the same?

Again, I looked for evidence in the world around me. There seemed to be three sorts of people: those whose eyes were wide open, and those whose eyes were closed.

Those whose eyes were closed fell into two further categories– those who were attempting to open their eyes, an occasional fluttering of lashes, sincere, concerted attempts to wake; and those who chose to keep their eyes shut– resignation, numbness.

The lash flutterers, the restless, the truth seekers — the pursuit, the search– shallow or deep, depending on ones own capacity for courage; I knew them all too well.

And the resigned? I feared them deep down. Life’s breath and blood coursing through a corpse? I was young (and restless), I hadn’t given up yet.  I was terrified of becoming one of them.

But what of the ones with their eyes wide open? I couldn’t say I knew any, very well at least. But I knew of their existence. Are they real? Are they human? Are their eyes really wide open? And if so, how did they manage to open their eyes? What truth did they know that they rest of us didn’t?

The hardest thing I could imagine as a 21 year old was to move to a foreign country in a very far away part of the world where I was forced to challenge my every assumption, could take nothing for granted, and where I would have just my own self to rely upon– nothing more, nothing less. I hoped that if I walked outside with the courage to see reality as it is and try my hardest not to run, perhaps some truth might be revealed to me.

***

Yesterday, I had the great fortune of receiving some wisdom from a young teacher. Her name is Keri and twice a month at the Seattle Insight Meditation Society she offers groups of young people a chance to use creativity and curiosity to challenge their notions about what it means to be human. We do meditate together. But we also engage in insightful dialogue. A roomful of (mostly) strangers sharing some of their deepest and most treasured thoughts and emotions.

A young man in the group yesterday remarked how someone else can forcibly take anything from you, except your thoughts and emotions– those are two things which can only be offered willingly, and are therefore the most valuable things a person can offer to another. I could have hardly appreciated how rare and precious such a group is even just a couple of years ago.

The topic of the evening was generosity. Keri offered some provocative questions: ‘Could we try to look at generosity beyond the concept of the word or from a perspective outside of our respective cultural lenses? What is generosity actually? How do you receive generosity? And what prevents us from being generous?‘ She asked.

To offer something to another– be it a material object, a service, a favor, a hug or kiss, or to share a thought or emotion for that matter is an act of generosity. Even if that act is coming from a person who is fulfilling a role (for example, a mother feeding her child) or a person doing a job that she is paid to do. Keri explained that each and every thing that we offer to another is an act of generosity, regardless of whether we “feel” generous or giving in the process. We might feel mixed emotions or be unsure of our intentions while making an offering, this became apparent during the group discourse, but the action remains an act of generosity.

Generosity is something I have not understood and at times found uncomfortable in the past. I derive a great deal of joy in offering what I am able to those around me, especially my close friends and family– be it a gift, a homemade meal, a hug, a kiss, a joke, or a word of support or encouragement. What’s life if not to share these things? Simple acts of love. They make life worth living.

But I have also struggled with the idea of having the right intentions behind generosity– Do I sometimes give out of a sense of duty or obligation? Do I expect something in return deep down? What if my act of generosity is misunderstood or goes unappreciated? Will I make the recipient of my generosity feel obligated to reciprocate? When I am being paid, does my hard work count as generosity, or am I fool to do more than what is expected? Is there such a thing as being too giving?

I read a book a couple years ago called Give and Take by psychologist and professor Adam Grant, which brought me to tears. It’s the only piece of non fiction, aside from Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, that utterly moved me and created an irreversible change in my perspective. It did put to rest my fears about being too giving.

Keri however helped me see generosity itself in a completely new light– that we can be generous even when we don’t “feel” like it, that conflicting intentions can be separated from the act of giving. Like a painter or writer who sits down to create art even when inspiration has not yet struck, we can be generous even when we don’t feel it inside– the act of giving can inspire the emotion, the emotional connection can come second. This was truly a revelation.

Afterward I felt a tremendous amount of gratefulness towards Keri and the rest of the group. As I’ve grown older, I have also grown in my capacity to appreciate the things that, when I was younger, I only appreciated casually.

***

It’s shifts like these that cause our lashes to flutter. When we are ripe for understanding, the truth bursts forth, it’s unstoppable.

Today I know something else for certain–

That I have eyes that were made to see.

May we all grow in truth.

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