Last week I played six performances in the orchestra for the classic one-act holiday opera Amahl & the Night Visitors. (Amahl was originally commissioned by NBC to be premiered on TV in 1951. The composer, Giancarlo Menotti, penned the story, lyrics and music. It runs less than an hour.) While it’s normal for most of us to ponder the quality of generosity during the holidays, playing Amahl that many times over a span of five days inspired me to think more deeply about the importance of mindful generosity as a practice.
Amahl and Mindful Generosity
If you don’t know the story of Amahl and would like to see the opera (link above), you might want to skip this section. It contains a spoiler. The story is of a boy of about 11 (Amahl) and his widowed mother on one magical night. They live in a small, spare hut somewhere in the Middle East. Amahl is a spirited boy who walks with a crutch. One night, the three wise men come to their door and ask if they can rest a while by the fireplace. They tell Amahl and his mother of the child for whom they are bearing gifts. Lots happens during their visit, but long story short, Amahl offers to give the child his crutch. When he tries to give it to the kings to take to the child, he suddenly finds that he can walk without it.
There are, of course, lots of ways to interpret this, from a classic Christian point of view or as a metaphor. As a longtime mindfulness practitioner, I see it through a Buddhist filter. In letting go of his most prized possession—one of the few possessions he and his mother own—Amahl is set free.
The Freedom of Letting Go
Years ago, Chogyal Rinpoche (author of The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying) spoke here in Salt Lake. My main takeaway from his talk was this: “Freedom doesn’t come from acquisition. It comes from letting go.” In Buddhist thought, clinging is considered to be the root of suffering. We can cling to any manner of things—possessions, beliefs, relationships, situations, etc.
The fact that we own things, harbor beliefs and form relationships is not a problem. In fact, these things are part of being human. The problem comes when we cling to them, thinking they will somehow make us whole. All these things are impermanent, after all. Depending on things that will, by their nature, eventually go away is a recipe for suffering. So we can and should enjoy what we love in our lives, maybe even all the more because they will not always be with us. But they will never be a reliable source of lasting happiness.
Mindful Generosity as the Root of Practice
In the West, we often think of meditation as the core of mindfulness practice. It is, of course, an essential part. But in the Buddhist tradition, novice practitioners actually practice generosity first, before they learn meditation. After practicing generosity, they practice the precepts—non-harming, truthfulness, non-stealing, wise use of sexual energy and refraining from substances that cloud the mind. (The yoga tradition is similar. Would-be yogis first practice the yamas and niyamas before embarking on the rest of the Eight Limbs. In the West, we start with the physical practice and might someday learn about the yamas and niyamas.)
Mindful generosity is important in Buddhist practice because it teaches us about letting go. The more we give, the easier it is to let go. When we give, we benefit from thinking or planning to give. We benefit in the act of giving, and we benefit from reflecting on the act of giving. So not only does the beneficiary of our generosity benefit, but we do also. Each act of giving makes it easier to give again.
What Can We Give?
Acts of generosity do not have to be grandiose. We can, of course, give material resources to those who need that kind of help. But we can also give of our time or our attention. If there’s a cause you want to support, there are always volunteer opportunities. You can share a meal. The Buddha said, “If you knew, as I do, the power of generosity, you would never let a meal go by without sharing.” Truly listening, without an agenda, to a friend who’s facing challenges can be a noble act of generosity. Any act of kindness, no matter how small we might believe it to be, makes a difference.
How to Practice Mindful Generosity
In her book, Creating a Life of Integrity: In Conversation with Joseph Goldstein, Gail Andersen Stark lists meditation teacher Joseph Goldstein’s instructions for practicing mindful generosity. I will not reprint them in full here in order to honor the copyright. But Stark’s book, which outlines the 10 paramis (beneficial qualities) and what she learned from practicing them, is well worth reading. In summary, Goldstein advises using acts of generosity as a way of exploring the subtle shades of giving.
My teacher, Pujari, has long suggested that whenever we feel the motivation to give, to always act on it in some way. Goldstein echoes this. But he takes it a step further in advising that we reflect on the mental/emotional states that arise while we’re thinking about giving, in the act of giving and afterward. He also advises that we reflect on our mental/emotional states when we choose not to give in a particular instance. Do you feel a sense of satisfaction or happiness? Do you sometimes second guess your decision to give, or not to give? Simply notice. This is a practice, not a performance, and an opportunity for inquiry.
One of Goldstein’s most important instructions is to have fun with these inquiries. It’s not helpful to judge ourselves when we feel we’ve fallen short in some way. Instead, enjoy the process. Giving is a joyful act, not yet another burden we have to put on ourselves. Approach your practice of mindful generosity with curiosity and joy.