’Tis the Season of Generosity
One of my clearest, most nostalgic memories from growing up is that of the excitement of Christmas morning. Our parents would round up my two sisters and me so that we could all converge on the living room simultaneously, run to our piles of presents, and ooooh and ahhhh in unison. The excitement of seeing my wishes granted, and the surprise of gifts I hadn’t asked for was just so much fun. That excitement sustained me through the day as we visited relatives and friends.
But the next day was always a different story. I can remember the hollow feeling that arose from knowing that the orgy of getting stuff was over. Life was back to its unexciting normal. I had a few more things, but inevitably, some of them would have already lost their sparkle. It wasn’t until much later that I began to understand that the joy my parents felt in giving was a far more sustaining feeling than the excitement of getting what I’d yearned for.
The Difference Between Heaven and Hell
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.”
How to Practice Generosity
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.
Here are some more ideas: Buy a gift or share a meal. Donate some of your possessions to a friend or to 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.
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 huge difference between the expansive feelings that accompany an act of giving and the constricted ones that accompany the habit of wanting or hoarding. Letting yourself feel the blessings of giving can be a great motivator for future 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.