When I lived in San Francisco’s Haight Ashbury District in the fall of 1966 and spring of 1967, I remember how the spirit of generosity was at the core of the community of young people who lived and flocked there. The Diggers, a totally volunteer group, supplied free meals in the Panhandle. The Haight Ashbury Free Clinic provided health care. And, although it is hard to imagine now — but I was there and remember it well — all up and down Haight Street people were continually handing each other flowers. In fact it felt selfish to receive a flower and hold onto it. I was not alone in feeling compelled to give it to the next person I saw, so that the flowers became like hot potatoes. Giving felt joyful and in the flow. Possessing was an encumbrance.
Where did that celebration of generosity come from? For the most part, it rose out of the potentially liberating experiences of getting high on marijuana and LSD that were free flowing. In that intensely elevated state it was so easy to see the unity of all being. There was no ‘other’. For a brief period in the history of humankind there seemed to be a great leap in consciousness. But because it came from drugs, it faltered and fell into ruin with all the damaging and deadly effects plain to see. I remember that every time I was high on acid, I would turn to my friend and say, ‘Remind me not to do this again.’ Not that it wasn’t amazing and trippy. It was. But I could feel the toll it was taking on my body and mind.
I was fortunate to have an experience that was a turning point for me in my spirituality. While high I had a vision of a mountain in the distance and earnest people making their way up the mountain on a variety of paths, some steep and rocky, some leisurely through meadows, but all going up the mountain. I noticed I was already at the same altitude as the top of the mountain, so I laughed at all their earnest efforts, quite self-satisfied with my so easily-achieved elevated state. But then I realized I was in a hot air balloon and it was starting to descend. Hmmm. It was that experience that showed me I needed to find my own non-drug-induced path up the mountain. And I did. My individual path eventually led me to the well-trodden path of Theravada Buddhism. Walking in the Buddha’s footsteps has proven to be a ‘sustainable high.’
A regular practice of meditation and especially giving oneself the gift of going on silent retreats provides a deepened understanding of the nature of being, with the added bonus of being able to stay in that state– fully present and fully aware of the oneness of all being in its ever-changing and permeable nature — for longer and longer periods. This is awakening.
It is not surprising that generosity is first on the list of Paramitas that we discussed in the last blog post. Generosity is a natural aspect of awakening. If we struggle with generosity, it is out of a sense of isolation, separation and fear. It is difficult to be generous when we are afraid. Whatever we have doesn’t feel like enough, so how can we even consider sharing it? We are tight and contracted in our being. We may feel we have nothing to offer. We may not value what we have and be too ashamed to offer it.
Small children are often naturally generous. Other animals can be generous too, like the cat who sets the dead bird or lizard on its beloved human’s doorstep or pillow. There is a generous impulse in us all. Do we nurture that impulse and follow through on it? Or do we feel the impulse and then talk ourselves out of it?
This has certainly been an ongoing inner conversation for me. I set and reset the intention to act on my initial impulse to generosity with varying degrees of success. I can observe how the follow up inner talk is based in fear and lethargy. There’s the fear of not having enough and depleting finite resources. There’s the risk of the recipient having future expectations. Am I setting up a pattern of dependency here? Or just a slew of further solicitations from organizations who take my donation as an invitation to ask for more and more? Am I committing to more time than I have to spare? Then there is the inertia that sets in as I get busy with something else. The initial impulse has become just another chore on my to do list, and I may begin to resent it.
I find I can be very generous with my time but have a bigger challenge with money. I know this is based in scarcity issues stemming from when I went hungry for a few weeks, camping in Bois de Boulogne in Paris at the age of twenty, waiting for a wire of funds from my parents that kept not coming. Now if you are going to starve, that’s a really lovely place to do it, but… The experience shook me up and has infused my view of material well being throughout my adult life. Just ask my husband. He had to witness me having a panic attack when we were in a town in northwestern Italy that looked very French in its architecture, and the ATM kept rejecting our card. Uh oh! Deja vu for me. A new rather alarming view of his usually calm and competent wife for him.
Does some past experience shape your relationship with generosity?
As I say my troubles with generosity come from a sense of scarcity, it is interesting to note that often the people who have the least are the most generous. Why is that? Is it because if you have nothing, you have nothing to lose? Or does your own lack in material wealth make you see your potential recipient more compassionately? The best restaurant tippers are people who have themselves been waiters. Clearly that’s because they understand how much those tips mean. Their action of generosity is quite different than the generosity of the well-off person who pronounces himself a ‘big tipper’ and wants to be seen as successful and in a position to be magnanimous.
Giving is good, and the waiter is appreciative of every tip regardless of motivations. But it is valuable to explore our intention and motivation when we are being generous.
And you don’t have to be poor to be truly generous. In recent years over 75 billionaires have committed to giving away at least fifty percent of their wealth to worthy causes through the Warren Buffett and Gates Foundation Giving Pledge. Hopefully their example will impact others who live excessively while their employees make so little that they qualify for food stamps. Living our best intentions is a form of generosity because we offer those around us the inspiration to do the same.
Are you generous? If you say no, it’s possible your family, friends and community can produce evidence to the contrary. If you say yes, look closely to see if your generosity comes with strings attached. Those strings indicate that we are basically ‘buying’ control. So it is not generosity but seeking power. This is a worthwhile personal investigation, but do it with kindness.
As I have spent the past week or so letting ‘generosity’ be a focus for me, I have listened to dharma talks by other Buddhist teachers and read up on the dana paramita. But I have also just let myself notice what arises in my experience. What I have found is that allowing the word ‘generosity’ to sit in the center of my being makes me feel more spacious and creates a sense of ease. I have begun to recognize that beyond the social contract, the tit for tat nature of giving and receiving, is a much larger ongoing reciprocity that is not limited to one on one interactions. The trees are generous in providing oxygen and I am generous in providing them with carbon dioxide with every breath. My mother’s generosity in raising me and my father’s generosity in funding my whole childhood, make me the person I am. They and the rest of my family, friends and teachers fuel my own outpouring of love of and concern in a generous way towards my own children and grandchildren, as well as my husband, extended family and friends. My whole sense of the world becomes one of rich interaction: people on the street generously taking the time to explain how to get from here to wherever it is I want to go, and my own joy in being able to tell a stranger in town that the Wells Fargo is two blocks up on the other side of the street. These daily interactions that we barely think about are all expressions of our innate and developing sense of generosity. The wider our circle of perceived community, the more generosity we feel. We become radiant like the ever-generous sun. And we are filled with gratitude for the generosity we recognize in everyone we meet, in all of life burgeoning forth in infinite generosity.
The word infinite is key to breaking out of the confines of finite calculated generosity. It is especially important to notice if we are giving ourselves away. This happens quite a bit with women who as wives and mothers give all manner of nourishment, labor and support to husbands and children. If we are giving from a finite source, we can make ourselves ill. I know this from experience. But if we can learn to be generous first to ourselves by tapping into the infinite through the daily practice of meditation and caring for ourselves first, then we become conduits for infinite loving-kindness. Best job ever, whatever we are doing!
No discussion of generosity in Buddhism would be complete without mentioning karma (or kamma). Gil Fronsdal, a Bay Area Vipassana teacher, says that he spent the better part of a year in a monastery in Burma and was never expected to spend any money. Everything was given to him. He said that generosity is ingrained in the culture there because of the belief that generosity will bring good fortune in a future life. Young men and women often spend a few months as monks or nuns to develop good karma, for themselves and for their parents. This may seem a little calculated and self-serving, but I imagine it is so ingrained in the culture over generations that it has become a natural expression.
We practice generosity when we sit and meditate. People sometimes think meditation is a selfish thing, because we’re alone when we do it and it makes us feel good. But what happens when we meditate? We come into a sense of balance and ease that makes us a lot more pleasant to be around, doesn’t it? As long as we’re not proselytizing about meditation, people appreciate being around us more when we’ve been meditating than when we haven’t been. We become better listeners. We are less whiny and more appreciative of whatever is happening. We’re more alert and often more ready for fun, and if someone’s going through a difficult time, we are likely to be a more calming presence to have around. You might say meditators tend to be more tuned in, less reactive and more responsive. So our practice is a form of generosity, generating ease, lovingkindness and compassion.
What are the thoughts and emotions that this discussion bring up for you about generosity? I would love for you to comment below.