Really Great Generosity
Sylvia Boorstein


I've 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.

The 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 isolated.  Alone.

Generous 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.

My 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.

"This 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."

I 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.

And 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. . . .

Generosity 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.

Perhaps 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.


Practice giving things away, not just things you don't care about, but things
you do like. Remember, it is not the size of a gift, it is its quality and the
amount of mental attachment you overcome that count. So don't bankrupt
yourself on a momentary positive impulse, only to regret it later. Give thought
to giving. Give small things, carefully, and observe the mental processes
going along with the act of releasing the little thing you liked.

Robert A.F. Thurman


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