heard people use the expression "generous to a fault,"
as if it were possible to be too generous, that great
Generosity would somehow be depriving oneself. I think the
opposite is true. Being able to give freely means not being
so absorbed in one's own needs that it becomes impossible to look
past them at who else is in the world and what they
need. Not being absorbed in one's own needs is--even before
any generous act happens--a relief.
Buddha taught that suffering is the extra pain in the mind that
happens when we feel an anguished imperative to have things be
different from how they are. We see it most clearly when our
personal situation is painful and we want very much for it to
change. It's the wanting very much that hurts so badly, the
feeling of "I need this desperately," that paralyzes the
mind. The "I" who wants so much feels
acts are a relief because they connect. They are always in
relationship. They can't be isolating. And generous
acts don't require some thing to give away. I
understand the Buddha's statement "We all have something we
could give away" as including--in addition to material
possessions--companionship, comfort, encouragement, and
care. I think about realizing how the act of giving
wholeheartedly--whatever one has to give--not only does not
diminish one's resources, but can be lifesaving to both the
receiver and the giver of the gift.
next-door neighbor, Jesse, died at home of colon cancer
twenty-five years ago. When I visited him just days before
he died, he explained, pointing to the bottles and hypodermic
needles arranged on his bedside table, that because he was a
physician, he was in charge of his own pain control.
is morphine," he said, "and I give it to myself when the
pain gets too terrible." He paused and looked at me as
if considering whether to go on. "Sometimes," he
said, "I think about killing myself. I could, you
know. It would be easy. I could just take too much
morphine. Each time I get ready to do it, though, I think of
someone else I need to tell something to. I have a friend in
Atlanta with a new business, and I have some good ideas for
him. And my nephew in L.A. has marriage problems. I
think I could help him. Sometimes I can't think of one more
thing I need to do, but then I think I might. So I
don't do it."
recall that as Jesse and I visited, I was thinking about how kind
he was to be remembering his friends and their needs in the last
few days of his own life. I still remember him as kind, of
course, but now I also think Jesse was very lucky. What a
relief it must have been for him to fill his mind with ideas about
what he could do rather than with sad stories about
dying. I don't think that Jesse figured out, "The wise
thing for me to do so that I feel alive as long as I am
alive is to connect." I think he just did the wise
thing naturally. That's why I think he was lucky.
I marvel at what the mind can do naturally, even in pain, even
foggy with morphine. Perhaps it's the awareness "I'm
going to die later today, or tomorrow" that wakes up the
mind's ability to pay attention. Maybe Generosity, really great
Generosity, is the expression of the deeply felt recognition that
I become part of your life when I give you something of mine and
you become part of my life when you accept it. In fact,
underneath this world full of people who appear to be separate,
living and dying individually, we are all part of life
unfolding. That's the insight that frees us from the
endless burden of worrying about ourselves: There is just us
to look after. . . .
practice was the idea of several members of the Wednesday morning
class at Spirit Rock Meditation Center, who decided--although
someone said, laughing, "I feel like a Girl Scout"--to
commit to doing five unscheduled acts of Generosity every
day. For the duration of the experiment, they reported back
to the group each week. Mostly they gave time. "I
let the person behind me in the bank have my place."
"I passed up a parking space because I could see the person
behind me wanted it." We decided that we wouldn't count
church dues, symphony support, or any other gifts that we give as
a matter of course and that don't require daily attention.
We were testing the hypothesis that the joy of generosity would be
heightened if looking for the opportunity to give something
to someone, planning to do it, doing it, and seeing
the response were all present. The people in the class said
it was exciting--like a treasure hunt with a time limit--and that
it was difficult. It required a lot of paying attention to
find five opportunities every day. They loved it.
you'll try it. Here's a hint: Find a friend who'll
agree to do it with you and tell each other, often, how you're
doing. Paying attention to the question "Who is around
me that I can do something for?" connects us to the
world. Talking with friends about our goodness connects us
more deeply to each other.
Pay Attention, for Goodness’ Sake
is delightfully clear, accessible, and immediate,
as wise teachings should be,
and it is surely destined
to be a classic.