If you confront the art of giving with the question “Why?,” there are other questions you could ask as well: Is your approach to life transactional? Must you receive before you’re willing to offer? When overlapping justifications crowd your head, do they all favor pulling back? If you don’t know the answer to those questions, there is this one: as time goes by, is your world getting bigger or smaller?
It is human to offer and connect to others. If we are honest with ourselves, we admit that whatever it is we have now is because of what others have offered to us in the past. When we give, we relax our grip. Why not let yourself be expansive and generous? Who has more than that?
What does it mean to practice the art of giving when our world is shifting? To quote the reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., when experience “a different kind of fear…the fear of not being good enough…fear based on hate, envy and insecurity.” This fear compels us to look for ways to retrench. Life becomes about “getting by” or “getting through”.
As Dr. King mentions, sometimes pulling back manifests as envy and competition. Comparing ourselves with someone, we find that they are more articulate, more insightful, more gifted, and perhaps these days, better at being outraged. We fixate, measuring our situation against an imagined version of theirs. In this atmosphere, invitations, as well as challenges, become threatening. Either we retreat, feeling overwhelmed, or we attack, feeling defensive.
Time to Give
Finding ourselves at the center of a challenging universe, extending to others feels ill-advised. According to Mahayana Buddhism, the time to give is when giving is hard. Another way of putting this: give when you have discovered your own need and vulnerability. This teaching is not about a moral obligation. It’s about overcoming the cowardice of personal poverty and training in resourcefulness. It is, according to my teacher Sakyong Mipham, learning to say, “Yes!” Yes, we will meet our world with a sense of openness and bravery. In other words, the time to give is now.
Where to Give
Where to give? Giving begins with how you feel about you. Dr. King talks about hate. But what about self-hatred? Driven by fear, we are our own chief critic. Subject to this nagging and often unconscious self-critique, we find ourselves trapped and frozen, without any good options. According the Mind-Only School of Mahayana Buddhism, our own self-loathing will also manifest as the judgement of others.
Being friendly with ourselves is important not because we need confirmation, but because friendliness allows friendship. In friendship we can examine ourselves up close. When we do, we find nothing fundamentally wrong with who we are.
Self judgement has to be overcome; at the same time, it shows something positive. It shows we care. According to the Mahayana teachings, we continually overlook and underestimate the depth of our own warmth and resourcefulness. It’s good to admit mistakes and apologize, but we can always make room for a fresh start. Extend the care you have for yourself to your partner, your family, your neighborhood—as far as you can. Kindness is a difference that expands—like ripples on water. Be human—who and where you are. Breathe. Give from there.
What to Give
What to give is personal. It could be our attention, our money, our truth, our effort, a few words of praise or even an insight. As an artist, we offer our art. As a businessperson, we treat customers with respect and offer a product or service that’s helpful. Healers offer their care. Feeling overwhelmed is a sign of holding back. At the same time it shows that intuitively, we know that more is needed. What to give? Pay attention to the details of life confronting you right now. You can always offer a smile and a hello, inviting conversation. Or simply make room for someone—creating space. Offer what you can, however modest it may be.
The Gift of Friendship
Meditation is the gift of friendship with ourselves. When we relax with who we are in the moment, naturally, an openness to others is born. The art of giving is based upon this discipline of friendship. Giving here is less about self-sacrifice and more about self-enrichment. Just because someone has a fever, it doesn’t mean we need to catch their flu. Before giving: let yourself be. If there is suffering, feel it. According to the Venerable, Chögyam Trungpa, Rinpoche, being hurt by others is a perfectly acceptable way to begin a relationship. This is a radical assertion. But the point is that generosity happens in the space of vulnerability, of things getting to you, and not knowing exactly how to help. One thing to remember, no matter how much you have given, more will always be needed. This realization leaves room to smile.
The Art of Giving
Dear reader, this blog post is a reminder to myself of what I have learned from the examples offered by our teachers and leaders. Especially helpful have been the writings on Lojong, or Mind Training, by Ani Pema Chödrön and the Venerable, Chögyam Trungpa.
To give is to challenge the myth of possession—the idea that we could ever hold on to anything—including ourselves. In my own experience, giving, offering, and extending is the way out of mental poverty and the confusion of materialism. Practicing the art of giving in the spirit of real friendship and humor makes us rich. It is something we can do that makes a difference. It is something we can do now.
The Art of Giving: More Blog Posts
How to Give to Victims of Disaster (this is a link!)