Gift Rapt

She went on to share her experience of volunteering to do an extra dishwashing shift at a meditation retreat—and of the annoyance she couldn't suppress when she was then asked to take on one more. If you have ever worked for a volunteer organization, you'll know that humbling moment when your enthusiasm for helping gets derailed by a desperate supervisor's demand that you fill in for someone who hasn't shown up, or by a self-righteous co-worker's testy tone when she gives you an order.

Of course, if all of us insisted on feeling generous before we wrote the check to the food bank or put in our hour of washing dishes at the retreat, the work of nonprofits and spiritual organizations would grind to a halt, and the lives of the poor would be even harder than they are now. Still, my friend has a point. There is a difference between dutiful generosity and the heartfelt, passionate kind. For one thing, heartfelt generosity just feels better, as dancing with someone you adore feels better than dancing with a polite stranger.

True Generosity
Yet beyond even heart-felt, passionate generosity is something I'd call pure generosity, or natural generosity—generosity that doesn't have to wait for passion, that doesn't save itself for special occasions, and that doesn't make a big deal out of giving.

I identify natural or pure generosity by three signs. First, it arises from a sense of rightness strong enough to take you past your ego's comfort zone. Often, there's a feeling of inspiration behind it; one of my teachers, Gurumayi, used to say that true generosity is a movement of the life force itself. The most generous people I've met offer without thinking about it, much the same way nature offers. I once asked my friend Ruth, whose generosity is iconic, what goes through her mind when she gives. She looked puzzled, and then said, "Nothing. It just happens."

Second, pure generosity is balanced, free from compulsion, and appropriate. It neither bankrupts you nor weakens the recipient.

Third, pure generosity contains no regret. Recently, a friend admired a piece of jewelry that I was wearing, and so I took if off and gave it to her. Two minutes later, I was sorry. I loved that pendant. I knew I'd never get another one like it. Confronting my giver's remorse, I realized that I was experiencing the age-old battle between generosity and its opposite—avarice—and that my generosity, in that instance, was far from perfect.

However, even when being generous feels forced, even at times when giving your time and money feels about as attractive as getting into an ice-cold shower, you can still do it as a practice. Even imperfect generosity is beneficial. Being generous transforms us, which means that the more we do it, the better we get at it, just as practice improves our meditation or our tennis serve or our social skills.

Despite missing my pendant for a few hours, I'm still glad my friend has it and glad I was able to offer it before second thoughts kicked in. I've noticed that every time I give away something I'm attached to, I get a little further beyond the tendency to hang on to things. Practicing generosity is an antidote not only to basic selfishness but also to a fear of loss.

The practice of generosity confronts us on several levels. It tests our ability to empathize with others. And it calls us on our sense of separation. The more "different" we feel from other people, the harder it will be to give freely. The more we recognize that we are one and that other people's happiness is as important as ours, the more easily we can offer what we have.

Ultimately, acts of generosity strengthen our feeling of interconnectedness with the rest of the world. Then, rather than being something special or contrived, giving begins to seem like a natural overflow of our own brimming life force. And sooner or later we see that giving to others is really giving to ourselves—because in truth there is no other. That's the true fruit.

Give Yourself Away
Generosity is a whole-being practice, and we experience it most deeply when we practice it on several levels simultaneously. On a physical level, we can practice giving away money or time, or volunteering our labor. Mentally, we "do" generosity by cultivating an attitude of offering and a willingness to examine our motives for giving. On an emotional level, we can learn to notice how the impulse to give feels, and how to use imagery and generous thoughts to summon our generous feelings. Energetically, we can notice the tightness that sometimes forms in the heart around giving, and work with breath to help release those contractions.

I've found that when I practice generosity, it's enormously interesting to notice what comes up. What are your expectations around giving? Do you expect thanks? Do you expect your gifts to be used in particular ways? How unconditional is your giving? Can you offer in a spirit of equality, without subtly feeling better than the person who receives the gift?

5/30/2011 4:00:00 AM