‘Generosity is the bread and butter of feeling connected in our lives — to ourselves, to others, and to life itself. And it’s a practice.’ Sharon Salzberg
Imagine a life where you give nothing of yourself – where you never smile at anyone in acknowledgment, invite family or friends for a meal, bring your excess lemons to work to share, or listen with tenderness to a child who is upset and help her feel better. A life without generosity would be a very cold and heartless life, one in which we are utterly disconnected from those around us. We can see why generosity instinctively feels good – it enables us to feel part of a group, to have a sense of belonging to each other.
When we bring mindfulness to the experience of generosity, we can appreciate that generosity is in its essence a giving of ourselves – whether it is in the form of material resources such as donations, or in the quality of our presence with others. Listening to someone with full attention is an act of generosity, as is smiling at the stranger you pass in the street. A mindful generosity is gracious rather than transactional. We understand that all acts of generosity make the world a better place for us to live in, so we don’t always need to be ‘rewarded in kind’ for each act of generosity.
There may be times, however, when we give too much of ourselves – when we are busy taking care of the needs of others over a long period of time without sufficient replenishment. It could be that we are in one of the caring professions and are constantly confronted with human suffering. Or we might be caring for a family member with complex needs, and feel alone and unsupported in that role. Perhaps we have high expectations of ourselves as someone who ‘should’ be caring and generous at all times, but over time, living out this persona can leave us feeling exhausted, depleted, and increasingly resentful.
We gain a lot from being generous – to give is to receive, and to receive is to give. Being able to receive graciously is also important – if we are only ever the ‘giver’, this can place us in an unequal power relationship with those around us. Sometimes, this simple understanding can help us to relax into making generosity, as Sharon Salzberg said, a practice. Yet being generous doesn’t need to mean we are taken advantage of, what the Dalai Lama calls ‘doormat’ compassion.
In the end, it is the intention behind our acts of giving and receiving which help us to feel either more connected to ourselves and others, or to live with a sense of competition, of always needing to look out for ‘number one’. Generosity in itself won’t help us buy love, but openhearted generosity, arising from a sense of our common humanity, can offer us a sense of belonging and care. We provide clean water in the birdbath for the local birds, not because we want the birds to say thank you, but as a small contribution to life around us. Each small act of warm-hearted giving is life-affirming, and allows our inner garden to be visited daily by beautiful birds.
For a week, at the end of each day, write down something you received and something you gave that day. It could be material aid, or your time, or really being present for someone. As you review the list at the end of the week, what do you notice about generosity and its influence in your life?