We live in a world in which coming to the aid of our fellow man is near to godliness. Generosity is a lauded and admired virtue and the idea that “we are all in this together” a potent human mantra. These thoughts race though our heads – “It is a good thing to give to those in need.” “There’s someone who needs my help.” “I think I have money in my pocket.” Who could doubt such statements? They are so obviously true. So this idea of giving arises from a “good” place, I think we would all agree. In this essay, I will explore the nature of giving, the two potential faces of giving, from where the desire to give and help arises, and its consequent outcome. Typically generosity arises from a “good” place, but I wonder does it arise from the “best” place?
Friends and neighbors and others all around the world, both human and animal, need and benefit from critical assistance of all kinds, that we in this first world country are in a position to give – everything from physical rescue, to sheltering, to healthcare, to food and basic supplies, to protection from violence, to human rights aid, etc. We humans depend on each other; and life lived in cooperation with all sentient beings doubtless serves us optimally as a species. But paradoxically, rather than the focus being on the recipient, the nature of the giving can sometimes depend on who the giver is, what the giver needs and who the giver perceives the person needing his/her help to be.
I want to be clear here. The desire to give arises, always in some measure, from the wholesome desire to do good, to alleviate the suffering of others, a true call of the heart. And one might quite rightly argue that food given to the hungry satisfies an empty, cavernous stomach regardless of the emotional needs and intentions of the person providing the food. But, what I want to suggest is that there are two types of giving, both initiated by the heart, but which have vastly different potential outcomes – one ego aggrandizing, even potentially addictive, and one rooted in Spirit.
One of the emotions we can experience when we help others is that we feel good, useful, important, necessary, essential, even worthy. The person who gives may feel that he/she gains “value” by giving and may begin to identify with a “giver” persona. The focus then shifts from the person being helped to the needs of the person giving the help. This giving is filling some emotional lack within us and arises from the wounded emotional heart. This giving is characterized by a strong desire and a passion to help, but has a clouded motivation, one that fulfills the needs and bolsters the self-esteem of the giver. In this way, the giving is self-serving.
Emotional giving often misses the mark. A pitfall of this type of giving is that we may begin to push our own agenda without fully and properly understanding the situation at hand. We may feel hurt and rebuffed when our help is not welcomed, after all, “all we wanted to do was help.” We are focused on the skills, talent and experience we have to offer, rather than on what is actually needed. We may be very capable and have much to offer, yet our intentions are somehow misaligned with the larger purpose. This is an ego-based giving and we may feel quite angry, self-righteous, and personally offended, if our efforts are rejected.
In personal relationships, this ego-based giving can sometimes become a burden for the recipient, adding to what they are already struggling to cope with. And, sometimes good intentions just fall flat. We struggle to understand how rejection of good intentions is even possible. Our efforts may be met with (in our minds) unexplained anger. So, what is happening when our offers of help are rejected? Why would that be? Feeling that we know what someone else needs better than they do is ego-based thinking and characterizes the giving. We may make assumptions about a person’s needs based on our own projections about their situation.
We are not someone else’s savior nor are we meant to be. Spiritually, however, we can strive to be their true companion. In spiritual giving, we can go further than address physical and emotional needs, we can listen, we can witness, thereby offering silent, loving validation of another’s experience. The desire and passion to act as the spiritual giver arises from compassion and equanimity. It may require action or no-action. Sometimes overt actions aren’t the way; sometimes the “no-action” of silence and prayer is the way. The motivation of the spiritual giver requires ultimately the replacement of the ego’s attachment to separateness and self-interest with an understanding of Oneness, a strengthening of the energetic pattern leading to Christ Consciousness – a return to wholeness, to connectedness for giver and recipient alike.
It is said of Mother Teresa that she went out daily into the streets of Calcutta to bring back abandoned babies. She bathed them, clothed them, fed them and held them. More often than not, they died. Yet, each day she went back out into the streets of Calcutta and did the very same thing. She was not disheartened by the previous day’s outcome; she never questioned whether her actions made a difference on a grand scale, or whether they had any lasting, transformative impact on the situation at hand. She did her part for the living body of humanity of which she was a part. Perhaps her work illustrates one of the most important qualities of spiritual giving. Mother Teresa gave with no expectation of receiving.
Understanding “From the Heart”
What is happening in the heart of the giver in these two different scenarios? It really is a matter of how we understand the heart. Thinking, speaking and acting from the “emotional heart” serves the ego, the self that understands itself as separate, and perceives the recipients of its attention and giving as “other” to itself. Thinking, speaking and acting from the “spiritual heart” reinforces the vision of non-self, of Self. Service to others becomes just what one does, an outgrowth of compassion, because in truth there are no “others.”
Martin Buber, in Hasidism and Modern Man, explains it this way,
In the practice of tikkun (fixing/ mending) no soul has its object in itself, in its own salvation. True, each is to know itself, purify itself, perfect itself, but not for its own sake – neither for the sake of its temporal happiness nor for that of its eternal bliss – but for the sake of the work which it is destined to perform upon the world.”
Writer and teacher Cynthia Bourgeault says that the heart is the organ of understanding, of “clear seeing.” One could say the heart is the organ of deep, authentic understanding, of soul seeing. To progress toward spiritual giving, we must focus on understanding, on clear-seeing – understanding both what is needed and what is desired. In order to be of real help, we must also search our motivations.
As we strive to deepen our spiritual understanding, we realize more and more that nothing in life is simple. The world seems to be growing more complex daily. Perhaps the most important component of true spiritual giving is yielding, surrendering to “God’s will” – yielding to complexities in the cosmos that we can’t begin to fully comprehend. In the meantime, as we strive to learn to surrender, purifying our motivations, aligning with the spiritual heart and choosing and acting for the good is what we can do.