Metta and the practice of generosity
One of the most immediate implications of practicing lovingkindness (metta) in daily life as well as in meditation is becoming more generous. You don’t need to think about generosity purely in terms of giving material goods or money. In fact the traditional Buddhist approach is to see material giving as just part of the picture – a picture that includes other ways of giving.
As well as material things, we can give our time and energy; we can give our attention; we can give thanks; we can give encouragement; we can give people the initiative. There is no limit to the ways in which we can be generous. What we need to develop is a spirit of generosity that expresses itself in many ways, but all of the ways in which we can give are just ways of making ourselves available to help others.
Walt Whitman said, “When I give, I give myself,” and that statement perfectly sums up the spirit of giving through metta.
Dhardo Rimpoche’s gift
A greatly respected Tibetan lama called Dhardo Rimpoche, who founded a school in India for the children of Tibetan refugees, was once in the middle of performing an elaborate devotional ceremony. Tibetan devotional ceremonies can take a long time, and involve chanting, musical instruments, and complex gestures, all of which have to be performed at exactly the right time. In the middle of this particular ceremony, a child wandered into the room and asked for help with his homework.
Many of us have been in the situation where we’re caught up in some task that involves a lot of concentration when there’s an interruption. It’s hard in such a situation to respond to the demand that’s been placed upon us, and often our response is to dismiss the other person – perhaps unkindly – treating them as if they’re an obstacle to our happiness. But that’s not what Dhardo Rimpoche did. Without giving it a second thought, and in a graceful spirit of generosity, he stopped the ceremony, turned to the child, and gave him the help he needed. He didn’t do this grudgingly; he gave his full attention to the child.
To Rinpoche, helping a child do his homework was as important as a devotional ceremony. Perhaps we could even say that for him helping others was a form of devotional ceremony.
The gift of full attention
Giving your whole attention to someone is one of the highest gifts we can make.
If you’ve ever had the experience of talking with someone who really knows how to listen then you’ll know what I mean. There’s something incredibly affirming about having someone really listening to us. When it happens we feel valued, and we consequently take ourselves more seriously.
Because of this we’re often able to learn a great deal about ourselves. And of course this is something we can do for others as well. We can learn to become good listeners. The mindfulness of breathing practice helps us to develop the skill of letting go of distracting thoughts so that we can be more fully present for another person.
The metta bhavana meditation practice helps us to value others more highly so that we want to give them our full attention.
Being aware of when we negate generosity
But we also need to be aware of the ways that we tend to negate this kind of generosity. Sometimes we take peoples’ time and energy without due regard for whether the other person really wants to be with us.
We can take people for granted by not giving them praise.
We can undermine people and take away their initiative and confidence by carelessly critical comments.
We have these choices, almost in every moment of every day; to take or to give, to act generously and with regard to the welfare of another or to act selfishly.
With practice we can become able to choose to act more generously.
Giving to ourselves
Of course our giving to others has to be balanced with nourishing ourselves. People sometimes go too far in terms of giving to others and neglect to look after themselves. When we’re giving in such a way it generally comes out of a sense of guilt or a lack of self-worth.
In the long-term, if we are going to sustain our giving to others, then we have to make sure that we have something to give. So we need to make sure that we give ourselves time to reflect, time to rest, time to play.
Try this: A practice for the week
Perhaps you might want to notice over the next few days the ways in which you give (we often give without really thinking about it) and the ways in which you resist giving or perhaps even take unduly, in the material and non-material ways that I’ve suggested above.
Once you begin to notice a tendency to resist giving, or to take, just be aware that there is a choice. Often you can create a space in your experience into which a spirit of generosity can emerge. And then you can enjoy that sense of free generosity in which “the gift is in the giving” – where we have a sense that to give is to receive.
What we receive when we give in this way is a new sense of ourselves. We can experience the freedom and joy that comes from letting go of a constricting notion of ourselves – a misguided sense that in order to feel secure we have to hold on tightly to our possessions, our energy, and our time.