Where ever you go there you are
"Why do people give?" has been the rhetorical headline seen round the world this holiday season. In the New York Times ethicist Peter Singer recently asked, "Why are the people who are giving doing so? Does it do any good? Should we praise them for giving so much or criticize them for not giving still more?" On Philanthropy 2173 blog maven Lucy Bernholz queried her readers , “If you give without giving, do you get anything?” Down the street at the Gift Hub the literate Phil Cubeta mused, “On what should giving be contingent? Who is the most appropriate person to see about your giving?”
By and large, the public response as been lacking. Across the country many have tried to position their communities as the most giving, or claim somehow there were errors in the reporting methods. Elsewhere, a few dozen grad students, running though a rat-like maze of choices, has resulted in the new oxymoronic term competitive altruism as a way to now explain our giving.
So while pundits across the blogosphere continue to debate the death of charity and the future of philanthropy driven by strategic planning, donor intents, for-profit investments, social entrepreneurism and measurable outcomes, I morn the loss of the simple joy of giving. For a gift that is truly given with an open heart transforms not only the recipient, but the giver as well, collapsing the artificial barriers that keep us all separated.
So during the waning days of this holiday season -- when we celebrate the return of light into our lives in a myriad of beautiful different ways -- I'd like to humbly share with you a simple exercise from Jon Kabiat Zinn's meditation book Where Ever You Go There You Are.
You might experiment with using the cultivation of generosity as a vehicle for deep self-observation and inquiry, as well as an exercise in giving. I am not talking solely of money or material processions, although it can be wonderfully growth enhancing, uplifting and truly helpful to share material abundance. Rather, what is being suggested here is to practice sharing the fullness of your being, your best self, your enthusiasm, your vitality, your spirit, your trust, your openness, and above all, your presence. Share it with yourself, with your family, and with the world.
By practicing the mindfulness of generosity, by giving, by observing its effects on others and ourselves, we are transforming ourselves, purifying ourselves, discovering expanding versions of ourselves. You may protest that you don't have the energy or enthusiasm to give anything away, that you are already feeling overwhelmed or impoverished. Or you may feel that you give, give, give, and that it is just taken for granted by others, not appreciated or even seen. Or that you use it as way of hiding from pain and fear, as a way of making sure that others like you or feel dependent on you. Such difficult patterns in relationships call out for attention and scrutiny.
Mindless giving is never healthy or generous. It is important to know your motives for giving, and to know when to know when some kinds of gifts are not a display of generosity, but rather of fear and lack of confidence. In the mindful cultivation of generosity it is not necessary to give everything away, or even anything. Above all, generosity is an inward giving, a feeling state, a willingness to share your own being with the world.
Most important is to trust and honor your instincts, but at the same time to walk the edge and take some risks as part of your experiment. Perhaps you need to give less, or to trust your intuition about exploitation or unhealthy motivates or impulses. Perhaps you do need to give, but in a different way or to different people. Perhaps first of all you need to give to yourself first for a while. Then you might try to give to others a tiny bit more than you think you can, consciously noting and letting go of any ideas of getting any thing in return.
Initiate giving. Don't wait for someone to ask. See what happens, especially to you. You may find that you that you gain a greater clarity about yourself and about your relationships, as well as more energy, rather than less. You may find that rather exhausting yourself and your resources you will replenish them. Such is the power of mindful, selfless generosity. At the deepest level there is no giver, no gift and no recipient, only the universe rearranging itself.