By Kenn Duncan
From a Dharma talk given in December, 2019
“To give is nonattachment, just not to attach to anything is to give.”
— Suzuki Roshi
The essence of generosity is letting go. Feeling greedy or stingy is always a sign that we are holding on to something, usually ourselves. When we feel unhappy, when we feel inadequate, we get "stingy” we hold on tighter. Generosity is an activity that loosens us up. By offering whatever we can, no matter what it is, we are training in letting go. Giving has the characteristic of relinquishing: its function is to dispel greed for things that can be given away; its manifestation is non-attachment.
By holding onto or being with greed, we can talk ourselves out of being generous. The thought of sending a card or flowers to someone, and then thinking, Oh they'll get lots of cards. A friend who admires a jacket we don’t wear, and we think to ourselves, Well someday I might want to wear that jacket. Sharon Salzberg suggests that we become mindful of this tendency and as soon as the thought to be generous arises, we resolve to follow through.
“You cannot do a kindness too soon because you never know how soon it will be too late.” —Ralph Waldo Emerson
Nothing to hold onto can be liberating. We can relax with impermanence. What can we really possess, after all? Our realization that there is nothing we can hold onto can actually cultivate our generosity, which becomes a circle that constantly feeds itself. The Buddha tells us, “The greatest gift is the act of giving itself.”
There are so many ways to practice generosity. The practice isn’t so much what we give but that we unlock our habit of clinging. So this could be things, or money, food, a place in line, your time, a smile. It can start with being mindful of what you are holding onto and looking for a generous way to let it go.
True generosity is difficult. The Buddha pointed out the many ways we can give with mixed motives: giving out of fear or based on tradition (obligation); giving with the expectation of some sort of return; in hope of gain, or a better reputation or rebirth.
While we are giving, what are our thoughts and feelings? Our motives for giving may not all be pure. We may give with selfish motives. If we only pay attention to the deeds themselves we may not know whether or not we are being sincerely generous. The practice is to know more about what motivates us, if we are giving with mixed motivations we should take that opportunity to explore why.
The Buddha is said to have said:
“...before giving, the mind of the giver is happy; while giving, the mind of the giver is made peaceful; and having given, the mind of the giver is uplifted.”
“We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.”
— Winston Churchill
Toni Bernhard, former professor and author, provides these questions to explore whether we are giving with mindfulness:
• What is happening in my body when I give?
• What is happening in my mind?
• Is there a sense of ease, openness, and compassion in my heart, body, and mind?
• Is there a feeling of depletion, weakness, fear, anger, or confusion—a contraction of my heart, body, and mind?
• Can I go beneath my stories, ideals, and beliefs about how I want the exchange to be or not to be, or how I believe it is “supposed to be” or “not supposed to be”?
• Can I mindfully recognize when I am caught in stories, beliefs, or wishful or aversive thoughts in relation to generosity?
Mindful attention can also help us to know more clearly how much to give in particular situations—or whether or not it’s appropriate to give at all. Here are some questions to consider:
• Am I giving beyond what is appropriate, or giving beyond what may be healthy for myself emotionally and/or physically?
• Are my heart, body, and mind relaxed, open, and joyful when I feel I’ve given “just enough,” or do I experience anguish and contraction of the heart, body, and mind in giving “too much”?
• Am I aware of when the most generous act might be to step back and simply let people take care of themselves, to let go and allow a particular situation to “just be” and work itself out?
Using these questions as guidelines, we can begin to understand the “middle way” of the Buddha’s teaching of dana. Mindfulness is what allows insight to arise in a perfectly natural way and what allows us, in turn, to let go—to recognize ourselves as aspects of the natural flow of life, and in this recognition to give and receive effortlessly in healthy and wise ways.
“If you can’t feed a hundred people, then just feed one.” —Mother Teresa
...to this resource for our community. Much gratitude goes out to our Dharma Leadership, our entire Sangha – and the numberless causes and conditions – for making this website possible, and for the joy I have experienced in creating it.
Detail of the Great Hall Mural
Courtesy Spirit Rock Meditation Center
Used with permission