A traditional Chinese parable tells the story of an old man who knows he will die soon. Worried about the afterlife, he seeks out the village wise man and asks him to tell him about heaven and hell. The wise man says, “Come, follow me.”
They walk down a long path until they come to a large dwelling. When they walk inside they find a huge dining room. In the center of the room is a long wooden table bearing a sumptuous buffet of unimaginable proportions—all the culinary delights anyone could possibly desire. Many frustrated and unhappy people ring the table. They have been given chopsticks that are twelve feet long and therefore are unable to feed themselves. The food remains untouched, the people hungry and dissatisfied. The old man says, “This must be hell.”
They walk down the path a bit further until they reach a similar large house. Inside they find the same beautiful buffet, same ring of people, same twelve-foot chopsticks. However, in this scenario there is much laughter and conviviality. The people here have learned to use the impossible utensils. “In heaven,” says the teacher, “people feed each other.”
Generosity Benefits the Giver and the Receiver
It is said that the Buddha told his monks, “If you knew, as I do, the power of generosity, you would never let a meal pass without sharing some of it.” In Asian spiritual traditions, the practice of dana, or generosity, is the foundation of spiritual life. Rather than beginning with rigorous meditation practices, seekers initially learn to practice more worldly disciplines, the first being the cultivation of generosity.
The Buddha spoke of the freedom of letting go. Our attachments to our material goods, relationships and beliefs keep us from seeing our own boundless nature. When we practice giving, we learn the happiness of letting go. It does not matter how great or small an act of generosity might be; in each instance we cultivate the habit of letting go. Each time we give we can appreciate the benefits to ourselves and others, which brings motivation to share again.
In her book, Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness, Sharon Salzberg says that “giving brings happiness at every stage of its expression. We experience joy in forming the intention to be generous; we experience joy in the actual act of giving something; and we experience joy in remembering the fact that we have given.”
“A single act of giving has a value beyond what we can imagine,” says Salzberg. “So much of the spiritual path is expressed and realized in giving: love, compassion, sympathetic joy, equanimity.”
We live in a culture that prizes acquisition. Our landscape is overloaded with billboards, television and radio ads, magazine and print ads, all offering the singular object or service that will make our lives complete. There are, in fact, material necessities that help us to live more easily in the world. It is a positive practice to appreciate the everyday gifts we enjoy in our lives. Recognizing our own good fortune and reflecting on contentment can be a springboard for acting generously.
Generosity is a Practice
There are many creative ways to cultivate generosity in our lives. One way is to resolve to follow through every time we feel the impulse to give. In practicing this resolve I’ve found that I often hear almost instantly from the voices of my own lack. These voices remind me that I might someday need the object to be given, or that I can’t possibly afford to share. While it is wise to consider the magnitude of my generosity according to the resources available to me, when the impulse arises I always follow it in some way. I have never found myself lacking because I have given.
There are many ways to develop generosity. Buy a gift or share a meal. Donate some of your possessions to a friend or to people you don’t know through a charitable organization. Offer some of your time and energy, perhaps volunteering for a non-profit group or serving at a shelter. Be available to the people in your life. Make a phone call to a distant friend. Write an old-fashioned longhand letter. Next time a friend wants to tell you a story or ask your advice, really listen. An act of generosity does not have to be grandiose to bring happiness.
Then be generous with yourself. Allow yourself to celebrate the joy you have created in another’s life and in your own. There is a palpable difference between the expansive feelings that accompany an act of giving and the constricted ones that accompany the habit of wanting or hoarding. It is not an act of narcissism to reflect on the kindnesses you have committed. Letting yourself feel the blessings of giving can be a great motivator for further acts of kindness.
Cultivating generosity is a practice. There are times when it will be easy and times when it will not be so easy. There are times when we give freely, and times when we give with reservation. But with practice, like any other quality we choose to develop, generosity can flow freely and naturally. It can be not just a quality we have, but who we are.
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