There are a number of apps on my phone that I don’t have a clue how to use. You too? Well, that’s like the Paramitas, the perfections of the heart we have been discussing. These qualities or states come pre-installed in our being. We don’t have to go to the app store to get them. Some of them are familiar. Some we think we understand but could use a little reminder. Others we aren’t even aware we have. In this series on the Paramitas, we are opening each ‘app’ to discover how it functions in our lives.
Last week we were talking about the first Paramita: Generosity. Dana Paramita. Now let’s look at ways we obscure the generosity we are born with. If our basic needs are met, our hearts are naturally generous. As an example, my granddaughter spent her free time in kindergarten yesterday making a card for her little sister. She drew a picture of the two of them holding hands and dancing together. She told me she made it because her sister’s birthday is coming up ‘and also she’s still a little bit sick’, so she was thinking about her.
Her generosity rises up naturally. Later in the day the girls fought over some toy, as kids will do. Where was her natural generosity then? It was obscured by the desire to obtain a pleasure or the fear of losing a pleasure. She was the exact same generous-spirited girl, but she was going through some inner turbulence, wasn’t she?
We all go through inner turbulence from time to time. Things don’t go our way. We feel threatened. We get caught up in the desire for something or the fear of losing something, and it feels as if we are being tossed around in a storm of volatile emotions. Can we become more skillful in how we navigate these turbulences that pass through the field of our experience? Can we recognize and even embrace the temporary nature of all conditions?
We can do so more effectively if we come to know and rely on our true nature to help us through difficult conditions. The Paramitas, these perfections of the heart, are aspects of our true nature. When they are obscured by turbulence or simply lack of awareness, we can pause to cultivate clarity. This is much easier when we have a regular practice of meditation that helps to create ease and spaciousness in our body-mind. We can recognize that we are not our thoughts. We are not the turbulence. And we can more readily feel the presence of the Paramitas as joyful states of being.
These perfections of the heart are not gold stars for being good, doled out to some and not to others. They are not achievements to be admired. When we think of them in this way, we get caught up in striving, judgment, comparison and confusion. But if these qualities are inherent in our very being, what keeps them hidden?
We can apply the Buddha’s Five Hindrances from the Four Foundations of Mindfulness to find the answer to that question. If you remember, these are Sensory Desire, Aversion, Worry/Restlessness, Sloth/Torpor, and Doubt.
Let’s look at these Hindrances in relationship to Generosity:
- In our hunger to satisfy sensory desire we might not share our chocolate ice cream.
- In our aversion to ‘getting involved’, we may resist offering assistance to someone in need.
- When worried about our finances, we may put off donating to our favorite charities.
- When we are restless, we may have difficulty really listening to someone who needs our attention.
- If we are feeling sluggish and slothful we may not feel able to get off the couch and do any act of generosity, even to ourselves.
- If our minds are clouded and confused, in a state of torpor, we may not be able to think clearly enough to activate generosity.
- And if we are in a state of doubt, we may not be able to imagine that anything we could do would have an impact.
The Hindrances give us a useful framework for looking at any of the Paramitas, don’t they? If one of them resonates, we can bring wise intention and wise effort to bear. We can spark some generosity and apply it to the Hindrance that is troubling us. For example:
- We might find the sensory pleasure in generosity. Eating chocolate ice cream is even better when someone else is enjoying it too.
- We might discover that offering assistance and getting involved brings us great joy and a sense of meaning.
- We might calm our worries about finances by recognizing others in greater need, and sending metta, infinite loving-kindness to ourselves and them: May I be well. May you be well. May all beings be well.
- We might sooth that sense of restlessness by focusing attention on someone we care about and really listening to what they have to say.
- We might disrupt our slothful mode by recognizing that a brisk walk would be a generous gift to ourselves.
- We might clear the torpor by activating generosity in any form as it clarifies our intention in the world and sets other things in motion.
- And, if we are in a state of doubt, we can think about acts of generosity that have meant a lot to us, and recognize that it is the little things that make a world of difference.
In class we discussed the person on the curb holding a sign, asking for money. One student said that by the time she had mentally worked through her concerns that her dollar would contribute to the person’s death in the form of liquor or drugs, she was already a block away. In most communities there are services for those in need. If we contribute to those services, we may be doing a greater generosity in the long run. But what about in that moment? Maybe there is no harm in following through on an impulse to be generous. Who are we to judge how the money is spent? This is a deeply personal choice, and whatever decision we make, let it be one that doesn’t leave us feeling guilty. At the very least, and it is no small thing, we can be generous with respect, with kindness, with well-wishing. We can acknowledge that not just ‘there but for the grace of God, go I’ but ‘There go I’. This person is not different from me. He or she is part of my family, the family of all beings. And at a cellular level and a spiritual level there is no separate self. We are all the same expansive infinite being. We are all made of the same stardust. We all meet the same fate. Sending metta — ‘May you be well. May you be free from harm. May you be happy.’ — is not a cheap kiss-off platitude, but radiant and generous beyond measure.
As we explore the rest of the Paramitas, we will discover each in turn, see what obscures them and learn how to access these amazing ‘apps’ that are built-in to our being.