Generosity: The Joy of Giving with Mindfulness

Generosity: The Joy of Giving with Mindfulness

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Learn the value of generosity in one’s life, and we’ll also explain what we mean by the term “The joy of giving with mindfulness”. So, read the full article, to understand the true value of generosity and how to practice it.

Many people that live in an affluent society own a lot of stuff— generic, inessential, space-consuming stuff. When you first acquired the material items you possess, they probably brought you a bit of pleasure—or maybe a lot of pleasure.

Where is that pleasure now? Are you really happy with all that stuff? The Buddha said: “If you knew what I know about the power of generosity, you would not let a single meal go by without sharing it.” Think of generosity as a way of exchanging your impermanent material goods for more lasting spiritual benefits.

(Also Read: Imperfection: Embracing Our Flaws with Mindfulness)

I.      The Joy of Giving with Mindfulness #1: Greed and Materialism

Human beings seem to accumulate material items the way squirrels store up acorns for the winter. There was a time in our evolution as a species when collecting things conferred survival advantages: When resources were scarce, the more we had, the better we could protect ourselves against the onslaught of enemies, famine, or catastrophic weather.

Eating copious quantities of food rich in sugar and fat served the same purpose; it helped us survive when we were uncertain when our next meal would be. Amid affluence, however, the evolutionary benefits we once gained from hoarding and the unrestricted consumption of sugar and fat seem now to have passed—but the old habits have not.

Just as immoderately indulging our appetites for rich foods can be detrimental to our well-being, so too can be the acquisition of stuff. The mindfulness tradition regards our voracious appetite for wanting and accumulating inessential things to be a form of greed—one of the principal roots of dukkha.

Greed, or self-centered desire for unnecessary things, is considered a defilement, a poison of the mind. It distorts our view of reality and leaves us unhappy. Whether or not we get what we want, selfish craving causes us to suffer.

According to traditional Buddhist mythology, there is an entire realm of existence populated by beings that are consumed with greed. This is the realm of the hungry ghosts. The hungry ghosts are depicted as shadowy beings that are driven by their intense desire. They have enormous bellies but extremely narrow gullets and tiny mouths. No matter how much they try to eat, they can never consume enough to feel satisfied. When they drink, the liquid turns to fire, intensifying their thirst.

The torture of the hungry ghosts derives not so much from the frustration of not getting what they want; they suffer because they cling to the things they mistakenly believe will bring them satisfaction and relief.

Note: Many people that live in an affluent society own a lot of stuff that is inessential to their lives.

The plight of the hungry ghosts closely parallels the lives of those of us who are overtaken by the defilement of greed. Like the hungry ghosts, the real problem of greedy people is our attachment to the idea that stuff will make us happy. The problem is not that there’s something wrong with material things. Material things are fine and, to some extent, even necessary.

The mindfulness tradition affirms the value of good food, adequate shelter, and a healthy body. The real issue we greedy people must face is the tremendous expectations we place on having stuff.

Once we have provided for our basic needs, our craving continues unabated. Meeting our fundamental needs feels so good that we assume more of the same will make us feel even better.

Despite that belief, the majority of us think that material acquisition is not the avenue to happiness. Although many of us affirm this idea, we still surround ourselves with stuff and devote a vast quantity of our time and energy to the pursuit of things.

II.   The Joy of Giving with Mindfulness #2: Beliefs versus Practices

Although we claim to believe it, perhaps we haven’t fully accepted the idea that the best things in life aren’t material things. It sounds noble, and all the wisdom traditions tell us it’s true, but it’s very hard to embrace that claim wholeheartedly when the dominant message of our culture tells us just the opposite. It’s extremely difficult to be out of step with the prevailing ethos of society.

Perhaps we still harbor the idea that there is something out there that will make us happy. It may be a secret belief that we hide even from our conscious awareness. Maybe we haven’t truly grasped the fact that acquisition is unable to satisfy us. The roots of greed are very deep and require much effort to understand.

Perhaps we continue with our greedy habits simply because we don’t know of any alternatives. The acquisition is so ingrained into us that we may feel bored without it.

Whatever the reason, many of us often feel torn in opposite directions between our greedy behavior and our deeper aspirations—and we continue to suffer, partly from our selfish desires and partly from our guilt.

The mindfulness approach to this problem follows the twofold path of seeking wisdom and practicing compassion. In the case of greed, seeking wisdom means deep insight into the transient and unsatisfying nature of the world, and practicing compassion means cultivating generosity.

III. The Joy of Giving with Mindfulness #3: Mindfulness and Generosity

The mindfulness tradition does not endorse a life of poverty and deprivation. It doesn’t romanticize poverty, thinking that what the poor lack in material resources they make up in spiritual gains.

Rather, the mindfulness tradition values simplicity. It recognizes that we must meet our basic material needs, but it also sees the danger of attachment to the world of things.

The mindfulness tradition calmly and dispassionately recognizes that the ephemeral nature of our lives rules out any effort to find security or permanence in a world in constant change. It means we must stay on our guard to relax the tendency to latch onto things in the hope they will somehow satisfy our desires.

As with other spiritual afflictions, the mindfulness tradition offers specific forms of practice to help neutralize the defilements of greed and attachment. The practice of generosity is the most potent antidote to greed. Generosity is fundamentally a state of mind that is manifested in particular acts of giving.

On the simplest level, generosity is the willingness to give to others, but on a deeper level, generosity is the eagerness to relinquish anything that we feel is “ours.” In this sense, generosity is a way to relax our tendency to become attached to things, including the principal cause of suffering: the illusion of the self.

In the Buddhist world, generosity is one of the basic practices of the tradition. Long before Buddhists take up the disciplines of meditation, they are taught the value of dana, the word for generosity. As a formal practice in traditional Buddhist societies, dana takes the form of providing monks and nuns with food, clothing, and the necessities of life.

Even beyond this, dana is understood as the custom of sharing with others. Dana’s practices in these cultures bring great joy to both the recipient and the giver. Families often spend days planning and preparing a single meal for the local monastics, and everyone works together to share the best of what they have with others.

Dana’s practices are regarded as so joyful that just observing a generous act is believed to bring great happiness to the witness. In Buddhist mythology, hungry ghosts can ease their torment not by eating, but by observing an act of generosity and experiencing the happiness it brings.

By the same token, those of us who live like hungry ghosts can relieve the suffering of our incessant wanting by being generous and taking delight in the generosity of others.

In the modern Western world, there are few opportunities for practicing dana in the traditional sense, but there are ample opportunities for observing it in other ways. The fundamental component in the practice of generosity is a reorientation of our thinking about wealth and giving.

The mindfulness practice of generosity invites us to think about giving to another as a form of enrichment rather than as self-impoverishment. Consider generosity as the gift you not only give to others but to yourself as well. This is hard to do, of course, if you believe that the material world is more real or more important than the spiritual. Part of practicing generosity means relaxing that pervasive assumption.

In addition, we don’t need to attain a certain level of wealth to be generous. Social research indicates that people toward the lower end of the economic scale tend to give away a greater proportion of what they have than those at the upper end.

IV.   The Joy of Giving with Mindfulness #4: Cultivating a Mind of Generosity

Cultivating a mind of generosity—modest as it may seem—is a vital step in the direction of meeting the greater challenges of ensuring that the basic needs of everyone are met.

These simple practices don’t directly address the grave issues of world hunger and the gross inequities between rich and poor, but they go a long way toward creating a mind sensitive to the needs of others and cautious about the seductions of greed.

First, find one of your cherished possessions, and give it to someone who would appreciate it. Take time with this exercise; give it deep consideration. It doesn’t have to be your most prized possession, but it should be an item you hold dear.

Then, think about someone who would value having it. Perhaps you have a friend who has seen it and expressed appreciation for it. Then, on no particular occasion, give it to your friend. Be keenly attentive to the effects this action has on you, your friend, and your relationship.

In addition, knowing what a sincere compliment does for us, we can imagine the goodwill it generates when we offer praise to another. Giving compliments is such an easy thing to do—if we can only remember to do it and do it with a sincere heart. Trying to make it a habit helps, but complimenting out of habit has potential pitfalls.

Simply praising someone out of custom is disingenuous and reinforces an unwholesome state of mind, but one can help shape a mind of generosity by sincerely seeking to discover the good qualities in someone else and reflecting them to the individual as a gift.

It’s essential, of course, that the gift of a compliment is offered with sincerity and without expectation of anything in return. A truly generous spirit gives freely—without strings attached.

As the practice of complimenting illustrates, simply giving to others is not sufficient for cultivating true generosity. As with other forms of compassion, generosity must be exercised with wisdom. We have to maintain mindful vigilance about our motivations and practice responsible stewardship over our resources.

V.      Things to Remember:

Dana: The Buddhist word for generosity.

Generosity: The willingness to give to others; on a deeper level, it is the eagerness to relinquish anything that one might feel is a possession.

Greed: The self-centered desire for unnecessary things; is considered to be a poison of the mind because it distorts one’s view of reality and leaves one unhappy.

VI.   Things to Consider:

  1. What drives the Western world’s obsession with acquiring and having material objects?
  2. How does practicing mindfulness help to foster a spirit of generosity? and have you ever felt the joy of giving with mindfulness?
  3. Consider the material object that would be most difficult for you to part with. Why would it be hard to let it go?

(Related: How to Practice Mindfulness?)

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