When we have something, anything really: a bike, some food or money, love for another, or love received from another, we can tend to see that thing, in a practical way, as being limited, finite and transient. Mostly, this is a useful view, since it gets us to be careful with what we have. A problem arises when, because we like a thing (or inversely, through disliking a thing), we cling to it or a notion about it. That problem is that through the clinging, we distort our perception of the thing and the sense of it being finite and limited increases even while we try to convince ourselves that by clinging, we can make the thing less transient.
In one sense, you could describe our Buddhist practice as learning how to swim in a really big sea of impermanence. We train ourselves how to not panic and how to function in the medium of impermanence: practicing the paramita of generosity (Dana) is one specific way that can help us find our way in this sea.
The practice of generosity is really the entry way into a deeper spiritual relationship with our own life. What I mean by generosity is the willingness to give of ourselves without expecting to get anything in return: when we do this, it opens our heart.
To take a thing that we have and we like, and maybe we cling to a little, and to give away part of it, is to accept that the thing is finite and limited and therefore valuable and to align ourselves with its impermanence. But it is also to align ourselves with a deeper reality of existence: part of what keeps us afloat in this existence, is the quality of giving and receiving that embraces us and all beings.
Just notice your breath. On a very basic level, our life depends on breathing: breathing in and breathing out, giving and receiving. We come into this world and, for most of us, all we have to do is squawk to find out that we can breathe and that there is something to breathe. A somewhat miraculous mystery if you ask me. I certainly don’t deserve to receive the benefit of this mystery in any objective way: it is just a gift of this life.
Part of the mystery of breathing is that we breathe out carbon dioxide which just happens to be what plants breathe in. Plants breathe out oxygen which just happens to be what we breathe in. I quite realize that there are good scientific reasons for this to happen and still, it is pretty wonderful to me in a way that is not encompassed by the scientific explanation. (Of course, that we have science and the ability to understand in that way is its own wonder, but maybe we will take that up on another day.)
So, this breathing, that we all need to do, and for the most part can do, is one part of the basic web of giving and receiving that we all live suspended in. Things would get pretty unpleasant if we decided that we really liked our breath and, not wanting to give it out to the world, we decided not to exhale. But this is what we often do with the many things in our lives.
The Buddha observed that, somewhat improbably, when we give, the spiritual consequence is freedom from want, is sufficiency. In giving, we are aligning ourselves with the basic fact of impermanence and also with this other somewhat mysterious thing of giving and receiving: we are in harmony with the deep cycle of which breathing is one basic example, we are in harmony with the basic compassion of existence itself. When we give, we are opening ourselves to the basic giving and receiving of life itself.
Being somewhat fearful and weak creatures, we humans tend to emphasize the getting side of this equation. If we take a minute and reflect on where that has gotten us, both individually and collectively, we will, I think, find that it has had limited success, eh?
What we can do to gradually change our emphasis, is to find small practical and realistic ways to make a practice of giving in our lives: a kind word here, a dollar or so or some food to someone in need there, and see what the consequences of these acts are?
Because this area of life has to take into account our tendency to be distorted by greed, I find it helpful to think about the practice of contentment in conjunction with Dana. The practice of contentment is our way of acknowledging and accepting the limited and finite nature of things in the world. If I give away a part of my lunch, realistically and practically, I am going to have less lunch. I can accept that and make part of my offering my own practice of being content with less food for myself.
I am not suggesting that we starve ourselves or that we forsake our responsibilities (sometimes it may be that it is unwise to give away part of your lunch) but I often know for myself when I can do with less than I want, and I am willing to explore the line of what I actually need.
Interestingly, love is a thing that is not limited or finite or transient, although our experience of it can be transient, especially when we limit our conception of its source to one or two people. When we feel unloved, we can always give love (that kind word?).
When we give of ourselves it can be that we are giving up a bit of greed and this is how giving can address our feelings of fear. Fear and desire share a root and when we let go of one, it helps to lessen the other.
As I have mentioned, my mind tends to get all caught up with concerns about whether others will like me. As a consequence, I can enter an interaction with another person with an unintended, even if palpable, sense of wanting something from them (approval, liking, acceptance?). This can negatively affect the interaction and just be a nuisance for the other person in question. I have found that if I can think ahead of time “how can I enter this interaction with the intention of giving to this person” it can make a big difference. I often don’t have in mind any particular offering, it is more the attitude of mind, and the main offering is training myself to interact with people without wanting something from them. This training is an offering of its own.
Of course there are times that we do actually need something from another and we need to ask for that thing. This is part of the deal, we breathe in and we breathe out. If there is difficultly around asking for this kind of help, here is a great opportunity to look at the mind see what is there. Often for me, the reluctance to ask comes, at least in part, from the disappointment of having asked in the past and not gotten what I wanted or thought I needed. Whenever I have looked closely at this, there has been something offered to me by way of help or learning: sometimes it is a difficult truth, but it is there and If I make use of it, a way forward appears.
In my youth, I once found myself between jobs and I wanted to change what I did for a living; I was generally working as a baker at the time, and I found the early morning hours to be quite difficult. I was looking for work and in the mean time my rent was overdue. Happily my housemates were patient and kind and able to extend me a little slack, but I could feel that there was strain there. I went to my dad and asked him for help to cover my rent.
To my initial disappointment he said no. Fortunately, I had a pretty well established practice at the time and in addition to asking my dad for help (and my older brother as well, if I remember correctly) I was also asking the Buddha and Kanzeon for help and guidance in terms of how to find my way (I probably also asked a monk for advice). As I meditated with the situation it became clear to me that it actually would not have been good for my dad to give me the money and it was very difficult for him to say no: he had a lot of difficulty managing his money in his life and had the harmful habit of giving people money that he didn’t have – I think he did this in hopes that they would like him better for it. So I could see and appreciate that him saying no to me was a step he took in truth.
As things came together, and I looked closely at the situation, I saw that I had to be responsible for myself, I had to pay the rent. At the same time, a potential job as a carpenter fell through and I was offered a job as a baker which turned out to be a pretty good job for me. Somewhat ironically, the hours at this bakery job actually got worse, since I had to work at night initially and every now and then over the time I worked there, but it was still a very good job for me to take.
And, also somewhat ironically, a few weeks after I had taken the bakery job and made a commitment there, I received a call about the carpentry job: they wanted me to work for them since the person they had hired instead of me didn’t work out. I had to say I couldn’t take the job since I had made a commitment and the carpenter said he wished he had hired me since the person they had hired just didn’t show up.
It is hard for me to describe how important it was to me to have training during all this. To be able so see that I did get what was needed even if it wasn’t what I wanted in a short term way. To be able to make use of the circumstance to see and accept my own greeds and expectations and work on letting them go. To be able to find and give compassion and understanding to others. And to be able to come to recognize with a deepening trust that I am held within the compassionate embrace of giving and receiving and of the Buddha mind.