generosity

How to appreciate and receive life’s gifts

Life gives to each one of us in so many ways.

For starters, there’s the bounty of the senses – including chocolate chip cookies, jasmine, sunsets, wind singing through pine trees, and just getting your back scratched.

What does life give you?

Consider the kindness of friends and family, made more tangible during a holiday season, but of course continuing throughout the year.

Or the giving of the people whose hard work is bound up in a single cup of coffee. Or all those people in days past who figured out how to make a stone ax – or a fire, edible grain, loom, vaccine, or computer. Or wrote plays and novels, made art or music. Developed mathematics and science, paths of psychological growth, and profound spiritual practices. A few people whose names you know, and tens of thousands – millions, really – whom you will never know: each day their contributions feed, clothe, transport, entertain, inspire, and heal us.

Consider the giving of the natural world, the sound of rain, sweep of sky and stars, and majesty of mountains. How does nature feed you?

How about your DNA? The moment of your conception presented you with the build-out instructions for becoming a human being, the hard-won fruits of 3.5 billion years of evolution.

You don’t earn these things. You can’t. They are just given.

The best you can do is to receive them. That helps fill your own cup, which is good for both you and others. It keeps the circle of giving going; when someone deflects or resists one of your own gifts, how inclined are you to give again? It draws you into deep sense of connection with life.

And if nothing else, it’s simply polite!

How can we learn to be receptive to life’s bounty?

  • Start with something a friend has recently given to you, such as a smile, an encouraging word, or simply some attention. Then open to feeling given to. Notice any reluctance here, such as thoughts of unworthiness, or a background fear of dependence, or the idea that if you receive then you will owe the other person something. Try to open past that reluctance to accepting what’s offered, to taking it in – and enjoy the pleasures of this. Let it sink in that receiving generosity is good.
  • Next pick something from nature. For example, open to the giving folded into an ordinary apple, including the cleverness and persistence it took, across hundreds of generations, to gradually breed something delicious from its sour and bitter wild precursors. See if you can taste their work in its rich sweetness. Open even more broadly to the nurturing benevolence in the whole web of life.
  • Then try something unliving, perhaps something with no apparent value, like a bit of sand. Yet in that single grain are echoes of the Big Bang – the gift that there is something at all rather than nothing. Who knows what deeper, perhaps transcendental gifts underlie the blazing bubbling emergence of our universe?
  • Take a breath, and enjoy receiving trillions of atoms of oxygen – most of them the gifts of an exploding star.
  • Consider some of the intangibles flowing toward you from others, including good will, fondness, respect, and love. See if you can drink deeply from the stream coming from one person; as you recognize something positive being offered to you, try to experience it in a felt way in your body and emotions. Then see if you can do the same with other people. If you can, include your parents and other family members, friends, and key acquaintances.
  • Try to stretch yourself further. Recall a recent interaction that was a mixed bag for you, some good in it but also some bad. Focus on whatever was accurate or useful in what the other person communicated, and try to receive that as a valuable offering. Open your mind to the good that is implicit or down deep in the other person, even if you don’t like the way it has come out.
  • Keep listening, touching, tasting, smelling, and looking for other overflowing generosity coming your way.

So many gifts.

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10 things science (and Buddhism) says will make you happy

happy buddha

I’m a science geek as well as a Buddhist geek, and recently when I was leading a retreat on how to bring more joy into our lives I found myself making a lot of references to an article published in Yes magazine, which touched on ten things that have been shown by science to make us happier. It seemed natural to draw upon the article because so much of the research that was described resonated with Buddhist teachings.

[By the way, since this article was first published it’s been viewed more than 340,000 times!]

So I thought it would be interesting to take the main points of the article and flesh them out with a little Buddhism.

1. Be generous

“Make altruism and giving part of your life, and be purposeful about it,” Yes magazine says. “Researcher Elizabeth Dunn found that those who spend money on others reported much greater happiness than those who spend it on themselves.”

And in fact Buddhism has always emphasized the practice of dana, or giving. Giving hasn’t been seen purely as the exchange of material possessions, however; giving in Buddhist terms includes non-tangibles such as education, confidence, and wisdom.

“And which are the three factors of the donor? There is the case where the donor, before giving, is glad; while giving, his/her mind is bright & clear; and after giving is gratified.” (Anguttara Nikaya)

2. Savor everyday moments

“Study participants who took time to savor ordinary events that they normally hurried through, or to think back on pleasant moments from their day, showed significant increases in happiness and reductions in depression.”

This of course is an example of another fundamental Buddhist practice — mindfulness. When we’re mindful we stay in the present moment, and really pay attention to our experience. Walking meditation, and even eating, can be ways of savoring everyday moments. In being present, we dwell in the present without obsessing about the past or future, and this brings radiant happiness:

They sorrow not for what is past,
They have no longing for the future,
The present is sufficient for them:
Hence it is they appear so radiant.
(Samyutta Nikaya)

3. Avoid comparisons

“While keeping up with the Joneses is part of American culture, comparing ourselves with others can be damaging to happiness and self-esteem. Instead of comparing ourselves to others, focusing on our own personal achievement leads to greater satisfaction.”

Buddhists are advised to avoid “conceit.” Now in the west we think of conceit as a sense of superiority, but in Buddhism conceit includes thinking you’re inferior to others, AND it includes thinking that you’re equal to others! What’s left? Just not thinking in terms of self and other at all. The ideal in Buddhism is a kind of “flow” state in which we un-selfconsciously respond to others without any conceptualization of there being a self or an other.

“Though possessing many a virtue one should not compare oneself with others by deeming oneself better or equal or inferior.” (Sutta Nipata 918)

4. Put money low on the list

“The more we seek satisfactions in material goods, the less we find them there,” [researcher Richard] Ryan says. “The satisfaction has a short half-life—it’s very fleeting.” People who put money high on their priority list are more at risk for depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem.

Despite western preconceptions to the contrary, the Buddha wasn’t against people making money. In fact he encouraged it! Money’s useful to the extent that it supports our physical needs, allows us to make others happy, and — most importantly — to the extent that we use it to support genuine spiritual practice. In Buddhist terms we validate our wealth creation by giving our money away to support what’s really important in life, which is the pursuit of wellbeing, truth, and goodness. The idea that materialism can bring us genuine happiness is what Buddhism calls a “false refuge.”

There is no satisfying sensual desires, even with the rain of gold coins. (Dhammapada 186)

Knowing the bliss of debtlessness,
& recollecting the bliss of having,
enjoying the bliss of wealth, the mortal
then sees clearly with discernment.
Seeing clearly — the wise one —
he knows both sides:
that these are not worth one sixteenth-sixteenth
of the bliss of blamelessness.
(Anguttara Nikaya)

5. Have meaningful goals

According to Harvard’s resident happiness professor, Tal Ben-Shahar, “Happiness lies at the intersection between pleasure and meaning.”

The Buddha’s last words were “strive diligently.” The whole point of being a Buddhist is in order to attain spiritual awakening — which means to maximize our compassion and mindfulness. What could be more meaningful than that?

“He gains enthusiasm for the goal, gains enthusiasm for the Dhamma, gains gladness connected with the Dhamma.” (Majjhima Nikaya)

6. Take initiative at work

“How happy you are at work depends in part on how much initiative you take. Researcher Amy Wrzesniewski says that when we express creativity, help others, suggest improvements, or do additional tasks on the job, we make our work more rewarding and feel more in control.”

The Buddhist teaching on work is called the practice of Right Livelihood. And the Buddha saw work as being a way to show initiative and intelligence:

“By whatsoever activity a clansman make his living … he is deft and tireless; gifted with an inquiring turn of mind in to ways and means, he is able to arrange and carry out his job.” (Anguttara Nikaya)

Heedful at administering
or working at one’s occupation,
… [these are factors] leading to welfare & happiness.
(Anguttara Nikaya)

7. Make friends, treasure family

“We don’t just need relationships, we need close ones,” says Yes magazine.

To the Buddha, spiritual friendship was “the whole of the spiritual life.” And even though people tend to think about monks and nuns leaving home, for those who embraced the household life, close and loving relationships with others was highly recommended. “Generosity, kind words, beneficial help, and consistency in the face of events” are the things that hold a family together, according to the Buddha.

Let him associate with friends who are noble, energetic, and pure in life, let him be cordial and refined in conduct. Thus, full of joy, he will make an end of suffering. (Dhammapada 376)

Support for one’s parents,
assistance to one’s wife and children,
consistency in one’s work:
This is the highest protection [from suffering].
(Mangala Sutta)

8. Look on the bright side

“Happy people … see possibilities, opportunities, and success. When they think of the future, they are optimistic, and when they review the past, they tend to savor the high points,” say [researchers Ed] Diener and [Robert] Biswas-Diener.

Buddhism doesn’t encourage us to have a false sense of positivity, but neither are these researchers. They’re suggesting that we find the good in any situation we find ourselves in. Buddhism encourages positivity through practices such as affectionate and helpful speech, where we consciously look for the good in ourselves and others.

The strongest expression of this is where we’re told to maintain compassionate thoughts even toward those who are sadistically cruel toward us:

“Monks, even if bandits were to carve you up savagely, limb by limb, with a two-handled saw, he among you who let his heart get angered even at that would not be doing my bidding. Even then you should train yourselves: ‘Our minds will be unaffected and we will say no evil words. We will remain sympathetic, with a mind of good will, and with no inner hate. We will keep pervading these people with an awareness imbued with good will and, beginning with them, we will keep pervading the all-encompassing world with an awareness imbued with good will — abundant, expansive, immeasurable, free from hostility, free from ill will.’ That’s how you should train yourselves.” (Majjhima Nikaya)

9. Say thank you like you mean it

“People who keep gratitude journals on a weekly basis are healthier, more optimistic, and more likely to make progress toward achieving personal goals, according to author Robert Emmons.”

The Buddha said that gratitude, among other qualities, was the “highest protection,” meaning that it protects us against unhappiness. And:

“A person of integrity is grateful and thankful. This gratitude, this thankfulness, is advocated by civil people.”(Anguttara Nikaya)

To one ever eager to revere and serve the elders, these four blessing accrue: long life and beauty, happiness and power.(Dhammapada 109)

Gratitude in Buddhism helps us to align our being with the good (kusala) so that we’re more likely to live in a way that leads to happiness and wellbeing.

10. Get out and exercise

“A Duke University study shows that exercise may be just as effective as drugs in treating depression, without all the side effects and expense.”

And the Buddha said — well, I don’t think he said much about exercise! In a culture like the Buddha’s where most people worked manually, and where walking was the main form of transportation, there wasn’t much need to emphasize exercise as a thing in itself. It’s only in sedentary cultures like ours that people have to make a special trip to the gym to exercise — although they usually park as close to the entrance as possible to minimize the amount of exercise they have to do in order to get to the exercise machines! But walking meditation was, and is, a key practice in Buddhism, even though it’s sometimes done very slowly. However the Buddhist scriptures commonly mention that such-and-such a person was “walking and wandering up and down beside the river for exercise,” suggesting that monks, with their own form of semi-sedentary lifestyle, needed to set aside special time to get their bodies moving.

Monks, there are these five benefits of walking up & down. What five?

One is fit for long journeys; one is fit for striving; one has little disease; that which is eaten, drunk, chewed, tasted, goes through proper digestion; the composure attained by walking up & down is long-lasting.

These, monks, are the five benefits of walking up & down. (Anguttara Nikaya)

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Do all you can, with what you have, in the time you have, in the place where you are.

One of the strangest and most meaningful experiences of my life occurred when I going through Rolfing (ten brilliant sessions of deep-tissue bodywork) in my early 20’s. The fifth session works on the stomach area, and I was anticipating (= dreading) the release of buried sadness. Instead, there was a dam burst of love, which poured out of me during the session and afterward. I realized it was love, not sadness, that I had bottled up in childhood – and what I now needed to give and express.

We can hold back our contributions to the world, including love, just as much as we can muzzle or repress sorrow or anger. But contribution needs to flow; it stagnates and gets stinky if it doesn’t. Thwarted contribution is the source of much unhappiness. For example, the wound of loneliness and heartache is about not having others to give to as much as not having others to get from. And one of the major issues with adolescence in technological cultures is that there are few opportunities for teenagers to make a real difference, to matter and feel a sense of earned worth.

Now, “contribution” covers a lot of ground. It includes big things like raising a child, inventing the paperclip, or composing a symphony. But mainly it’s a matter of many little things. You give or receive hundreds of small offerings each day, such as doing the dishes, treating customers with respect, picking up a gum wrapper, encouraging a friend, having good intentions, or staying open to feedback. You contribute with thought, word, and deed, and both by what you do and by what you restrain yourself from doing.

In addition to the offerings you already make, you may sense other things inside that want to be offered. Can you open to these and let them flow? It does not matter how large or small they are. As Nkosi Johnson – a South African boy born with HIV who became a national voice for children with AIDS before dying at about age 12 – once said:

Do all you can, with what you have, in the time you have, in the place where you are.

How can we learn to give?

Appreciate some of the things you already contribute through thought, word, and deed. Let yourself feel good about this.

Moving through your day, try considering your contributions as offerings – particularly the little things that are easy to overlook, such as the laundry, courteous driving, or saying thanks. When you relate to everyday actions as offerings, you feel an intimacy with the world, more kindness, perhaps even something sacred.

Also try on a sense of being unattached to the results of your offerings. Sure, it’s OK to hope for the best. But if you get fixed on some outcome, it’s a set up for pressure and disappointment. I got a good lesson about this from my friend David, who was becoming a priest in an urban zen center and preparing for his first public talk. I asked David if it bothered him to work hard to present something precious to people who might not value it. He looked at me like he could not understand my question. Then he made a gesture with both hands as if he were setting something at my feet, saying: “My part is to give the talk as best I can. Whatever they pick up is up to them. I hope it’s helpful, but that’s out of my hands.”

It’s alright to make offerings from enlightened self-interest. When you give, you receive. Which helps you keep giving. To be benevolent to others, you must be benevolent to yourself.

Also listen to your heart for additional offerings calling to be expressed. Maybe it’s the offering of never speaking out of anger, or really starting that novel, or determining to give love each day. It could even be an offering to your future self – the being above all others you have the greatest power over, and thus the highest duty to – such as regular exercise or taking steps toward a better job.

Help yourself sustain this practice by feeling good about your contributions, regarding actions as offerings, staying focused on a key new offering, and holding self-criticism at bay. As Leonard Cohen sings:

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in
That’s how the light gets in

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A Buddhist’s perspective on biblical ways to love

I just read a list of ways to show love and I was inspired to write this article including a Buddhist’s perspective of ways to carry out the biblical suggestions on the list.

Ten ways to show people you love them:

  1. Listen without interrupting. (Proverbs 18) – When someone is speaking, the most loving thing we can do is listen. And, if we are really listening, we are not thinking of how to respond or how to get our point across or asking questions or saying anything. We are simply listening to hear and understand what the person is saying. So, the next time you are listening to someone, wait until the person is finished and then respond.
  2. Speak without accusing. (James 1:19) – We all have times with our partners, family members and friends when we disagree, feel disappointed, feel hurt or get angry. When someone accuses us of doing something, we can respond honestly, without blaming or accusing them, by gently speaking from our own experience including: how we felt, what we heard and how we responded. Whenever we accuse or blame someone, they feel defensive and communication is blocked.
  3. Give without sparing. (Proverbs 21:26) – A friend of mine suggested “Always follow through on an impulse of generosity”. I love this idea and put it into practice as often as possible. Yesterday I was selling tote bags and jewelry at a Crafts Fair. A young woman, with two young children, was at a table next to mine. She came to see my jewelry and found a necklace she liked. She told me she would love the necklace but she works at a Child Care Center and cannot wear jewelry to work. She went back to her table where she was selling things her students made so they could take the proceeds and purchase holiday gifts for children who otherwise wouldn’t have them. I put the necklace she liked in a box and gave it to her and told her I would like her to have it. We were both very happy. At the end of the Crafts Fair, she came back to my table with a box, filled with goodies to make a gingerbread house and offered it to me. I accepted her gift and agreed with her when she said “After all, it’s all about creating community.”
  4. Pray without ceasing. (Colossians 1:9) At times in our lives when we feel overwhelmed, uninspired, exhausted or hopeless, the best we can do is to meditate or pray.
  5. Answer without arguing. (Proverbs 17:1) Recently I received an email from a friend (Cindy) who told me she heard from a friend (Janet) who was upset because they had not gotten together for a long time. Janet has a relationship that is on again, off again and Cindy hears from her when the relationship is in the “off again” mode. Janet expects Cindy to be available when Janet wants to get together. Cindy loves Janet but feels Janet takes advantage of their friendship. Cindy wrote to Janet and expressed her feelings. Janet got defensive and argued her case. Cindy refused to enter into an argument and although they didn’t come to an agreement, Cindy left the door open for further communication. When two people argue, it is unlikely they will find a resolution.
  6. Share without pretending. (Ephesians 4:15) Real sharing comes from the heart, without pretense of giving something because it is expected or given with strings attached.
  7. Enjoy without complaint. (Philippians 2:14) Real enjoyment comes when we are wholeheartedly in the present moment. When we have a tendency to find fault with or complain about things, we stop ourselves from enjoying life.
  8. Trust without wavering. (Corinthians 13:7) Many people grow up in situations where they learn not to trust people. This lack of trust can become a habit, a way of protecting ourselves, but it also interferes with closeness with others. When we are aware that we lack trust, it is important to make a resolution to learn to trust again, not blindly, but with wisdom and compassion for ourselves and others.
  9. Forgive without punishing. (Colossians 3:13) People will disappoint us and we will forgive them and when we do, the forgiveness should come without conditions or punishment.
  10. Promise without forgetting. (Proverbs 13:12) It is so important to follow through with our promises so that we are trustworthy and dependable.
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“Beyond Happiness” by Ezra Bayda

Ezra Bayda is a Zen teacher and former student of Charlotte Joko Beck. He has written four other books, including At Home in the Muddy Water: a Guide to Finding Peace within Everyday Chaos. With his wife, Elizabeth Hamilton, he runs the San Diego Zen Centre, which, as their web-site says, is not affiliated with any particular religious denomination. This is a book that doesn’t talk much about Buddhism and has only a handful of references to the Buddha and his teachings. So is it “secular Buddhism,” with a watered down yet more widely palatable message promising that happiness is easily within our grasp, or something more?

Title: Beyond Happiness
Author: Ezra Bayda
Publisher: Shambhala
ISBN: 978-1-59030-825-7
Available from: Shambhala, Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.co.uk Kindle Store Amazon.com, and Amazon.com Kindle Store.

In the very first sentence Bayda tells us there is no quick fix to unhappiness, and his title, “beyond happiness,” suggests that his interest is not in soothing our neurosis and giving easy answers. In some ways his message — which I found deeply inspiring — goes strongly against the current of our “instant rewards” culture.

The book is divided into three main sections: “What blocks happiness?,” “The Roots of Happiness,” and finally “Cultivating Happiness.” In the introductory chapter, he makes a distinction between “personal happiness” — based on our individual disposition or “set point” for happiness and the pleasure we gain from externals, success, praise and things generally going well for us — and what he calls “genuine happiness.” Genuine happiness is not dependent on positive conditions such as good health, promotions at work or being in love but on “being fundamentally OK with life as it is,” however that is.

One of the few Buddhist teachings he refers to is an early sutta called The Sutta of Two Arrows. This teaching spells out our deeply ingrained tendency to demand that life give us what we want and that it never deal up what we don’t want. Both these tendencies cause us suffering (the first arrow). Our habit of complaint and protest about this first arrow causes the second arrow to strike — the pain of our refusal to accept things as they are.

Baydas’ first section details the ways in which we cause ourselves pain — through our sense of entitlement (that things should go the way we want them to) and how we get stuck in unhelpful patterns of thinking and behaving. Our expectations, negative emotions, and judgements all prevent us from deeper happiness. Before we can be happy he says we have to see how we cause our own unhappiness. Not only that but we tend to have a distorted view of ourselves so we have to learn to see ourselves more clearly. The view in the mirror is not flattering but our work is to learn to look with kindly awareness.

The “Roots of Happiness” section encourages us to be curious and open to who it is we are. The quality of present moment awareness is the first chapter but its flavour permeates the whole book and gives a real beauty to the following chapters — which focus on generosity, loving-kindness and gratitude — helping create an attitude of freshness and tenderness towards experience, whatever it is. He gives us several tools, in the form of questions, meditations, reflections and stories from his own life and teaching career, to aid awareness and help cultivate genuine happiness. I particularly liked the suggestion to reflect every evening on what has happened during the day (increasing awareness) and noticing what we can feel appreciative of (increasing gratitude).

The section on meditation gives instruction in formless practice and developing loving-kindness, compassion and forgiveness. The loving-kindness practice may seem a little limited or lacking in guidance compared to the traditional practice, which explicitly includes cultivating friendliness to those we have no interest in or actively dislike. He uses the breath throughout various practices as an aid to breathe different people or qualities into the heart.

Bayda makes it clear that the spiritual life is not easy or cosy, at one point, talking about ‘the blue collar work of practice’. I was reminded of vipassana teacher Joseph Goldstein who talks about “work days” (of which there are many) and “fruits of practice days” (of which there are few!). The most prized quality according to Bayda is the un-showy perseverance that keeps us steady through the unrewarding but vital ‘work days’.

The final section and last five chapters focus on how our growing self knowledge and sense of aliveness is expressed in the world through our work, relationships and the many ways we can express a “generosity of the heart.” Giving, or dana, he writes, confronts us with our own fears. This confrontation is necessary to for the heart to learn how to be free. Altruism is obviously strong in Bayda. Practice is not about increasing self-interest. Happiness, he says, ultimately comes from lessening our own grip on what we desire and doing whatever we can to benefit others.

This is a book about serious practice written in an accessible and engaging way. It would be easy to underestimate the value of it, due to the style and focusing as it does on the currently fashionable topic of happiness. To really put into practice what Bayda says, however, requires commitment, patience, faith and, yes, as he says, perseverance.

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Meditation on money, mindfulness and motorcycles

As a proponent of living mindfully and with a desire to bring mindfulness into my daily life in terms of: communication, work, family life, friendship, abundance, skillfulness and simplicity I have been thinking about mindfulness and money. I’ll write about the motorcycle in a bit.

I grew up with parents who wanted me to “understand the value of a dollar” and to “work for what I got”. These messages have been deeply ingrained. As a result, I have worked hard and believed what I have should be a result of the work I performed, so I had difficulty accepting gifts, especially gifts of money.

That being said, I do desire material things. I like to live in a place that is visually pleasing, preferably near a pond and surrounded by hemlock trees. I like to dress in clothing that is made well and is flattering.

I like to drive my Subaru because I live where winter is long and snowy and driving a Subaru helps me to feel safe. But yesterday, while driving my Subaru, I saw what seemed to be so many Lexuses (Lexi?) and I had a deep desire to have one because as well as being safe when I drive, I like to drive a fast and powerful automobile.

Perhaps for you, it is a house by the ocean, a red Porsche convertible, traveling to exotic places, or a motorcycle you desire.

I love gourmet food and fine dining at restaurants with ambiance. I desire beauty in the form of art, crafts, music, film and dance so I indulge in going to museums, crafts fairs, concerts, movies and dance performances.

I enjoy being generous with my sons, my friends and family members. I am also aware that when I am with people who have more money than I do, I enjoy being treated to meals. I find I am more generous to some people than others. I wish I had more money to be more generous, especially with my sons.

I find, when it comes to being mindful about money I have more questions than answers. I have many questions:

  • What does my upbringing have to do with the way I think about money?
  • What does my upbringing have to do with the way I spend money?
  • What does my upbringing have to do with the level of my generosity?
  • Why do I give to some people and causes more easily and liberally than others?
  • Why am I comfortable accepting gifts in certain situations and from certain people, and uncomfortable in other situations?
  • How do I assign value to what I purchase?
  • How does money fit in with living a life of simplicity?
  • Why is it so difficult to talk about money?
  • How does money fit with the way I feel about myself and others?
  • How do I feel about family members who withhold money?
  • What do I want to teach my children about money?
  • Why do I feel that when people have “a lot of money” their lives are “easier”?
  • Would I be happier if I had more money?

What I do not question, is the importance of being mindful when it comes to money. I do not question the importance I place on living simply even with my desire for material things. And I do not question the value I place on being generous no matter how much money I have.

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Review of “Super Rich,” a self-help book by hip-hop promoter Russell Simmons

Russell Simmons Super RichThe transformation of hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons from the recreational drug-using, model-chasing manager of seminal 1980s rap artists Run-DMC, LL Cool J and Will Smith into a serene 21st-century prophet of veganism and meditation may be surreal, but it’s also quite real.

Even in his dark days of excess, Simmons had a lot of light around him. As 1990s entrepreneurs like Suge Knight made the rap business virtually synonymous with invective and violence, Simmons stood above them as a relative paragon of virtue, achieving unmatched success with humor and hustle rather than brutality. As he matured and embraced his holistic lifestyle, Simmons became “Uncle Rush,” purveyor of hip-hop brands but also philanthropist and father-figure.

Title: Super Rich: A Guide to Having It All
Author: Russell Simmons with Chris Morrow
Publisher: Gotham
ISBN: 978-1592405879
Available from: Amazon.co.uk, and Amazon.com.

Simmons takes his mentoring role seriously. In 2007, he wrote his first self-help book, a go-get-’em career primer called “Do You.” Now, he issues his follow-up, “Super Rich,” a slim, succinct and sagacious volume about the true meaning of wealth (spoiler alert: It ain’t about the money).

Read the rest of this article…

While Americans easily welcome advice from wealthy men, could anything be more obnoxious than a rich guy telling the aspiring masses, as Simmons does, that “there’s no difference between being broke and being a millionaire”? But Simmons knows this and spends the first passages of “Super Rich” front-loading his explanation: There’s nothing shameful in enjoying the worldly fruits of your labor, he argues. But it’s the labor, and not its fruits, that brings happiness.

This isn’t some spiritual sleight-of-hand or mystical mumbo jumbo. Simmons may be a multimillionaire, but his real love has never been the dough; it has always been his work, which in his life has always seemed more like the yogic concept of “leela,” or divine play. In “Super Rich,” the philosophy is sound – articulated in simple prose with assistance from journalist Chris Morrow, but filled with anecdotes, humor and raw language that are unmistakably Simmons’s.

Simmons reworks the “Bhagavad Gita” as if Arjuna and Lord Krishna were two guys from his neighborhood in Hollis, Queens. These moments might read like blasphemy, but they sit atop a foundation of real knowledge and practice. Simmons does more than talk: He teaches, providing meditation tools for the reader to put his concepts into action.

Hip-hop and spirituality might seem to have little in common. But like yogic philosophy, hip-hop is all about the power of vibration, the power of the word. In “Super Rich,” Simmons emerges as the first influential voice to make that connection for a new generation.

bookworld@washpost.com Charnas, author of “The Big Payback: The History of the Business of Hip-Hop,” is a certified Kundalini Yoga instructor.

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Have less, give more

I’m fascinated by the psychology of giving and/or financial exchanges. Just this morning I was noticing my hesitation in committing to pay 99¢ for an iPhone app without having tried it first. But when I go into a coffee shop I happily plonk down $1.50 or so for a cup of Joe, without hesitating or asking for a free trial. The coffee will last me for 20 minutes, while I might end up using the app on a daily basis for an indefinite period of time. There’s no guarantee I’m going to find the coffee pleasant. Screwy, but normal.

One peculiarity regarding money is that people who have less of it are more willing to give it to another person in need. The following is from an article in today’s Boston Globe:

Given the opportunity to share money with an anonymous person, people who considered themselves lower in socioeconomic status shared more. When asked how much of one’s salary should be donated to charity, they designated a higher percentage. And, when confronted with a distressed person in need, they offered more help. These differences don’t seem to be innate. For example, after simply asking people to contemplate their socioeconomic status relative to those with higher socioeconomic status, people became more charitable. The authors theorize that people in the lower strata of society are particularly motivated by a greater dependence on — and, thus, concern for — social relationships, though affluent individuals may be more inclined to abstract charity (e.g., the environment).

The research is from, Piff, P. et al., “Having Less, Giving More: The Influence of Social Class on Prosocial Behavior,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (forthcoming).

Isn’t that interesting? It’s not a simple case, as I would have assumed, of “the rich” getting that way by being tight with their money. It seems more that poorer people are more tied into social networks and value the support they give. In my experience, many people who are better off are unable or unwilling to empathize with the difficulties of those who are less well off. In the US it’s common to blame people for being poor, even though it’s impossible for every single person to accumulate wealth, given how our society operates, with the people who have wealth setting the wages and conditions for those who don’t, often making it very difficult indeed to escape poverty.

It’s encouraging that reflecting on one’s relative lack of wealth compared to others boosts empathy and generosity. At least these attitudes are not fixed, and reflection, self-awareness, and social awareness are tools for change.

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Life is about giving

A retired building engineer, artist and life-long Buddhist, who gifted his 6 hectare Takou Bay property to a Buddhist trust to use as a meditation centre, has died aged 96.

Bruno Mertens died peacefully on April 19, at the Kaikohe Care Centre, where he had been a resident since 2008.

His funeral was held at the Otaha Rd property, now used by the Pannarama Buddhist Sati School, last Thursday.

Friends of Mr Mertens said he would be cremated and his ashes scattered on the property.

Mr Mertens was born in the Netherlands, but moved to New Zealand in the late 1980s.

He founded an engineering firm in Kaeo because he wanted to help poor people, then gifted the business to his employees.

He later sold a large collection of his art works, donating the proceeds to blindness prevention charity the Fred Hollows Foundation.

Mr Mertens devoted most of his life to learning and teaching meditation and was a Buddhist monk in Thailand for 18 months in the 1930s.

It was a long-held wish that his Takou Bay property, where he built a domed meditation hall out of earth bricks, one day be a place where people could learn meditation.

[via Stuff (New Zealand)]
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Practicing compassion

compassionate handsMost of us probably think of the practice of compassion as synonymous with altruism. Giving. Helping. Being of service. Sunada flips that idea on its head — that it may be just as important to be vulnerable as it is to be strong, and to receive as it is to give.

We can get ourselves into a bit of trouble when we think of compassion only in terms of “giving.” It leaves a huge opening for our ego to step in. I don’t know about yours, but my ego is a sneaky little beast! It’s so easy to get duped by that guy.

 We can get ourselves into a bit of trouble when we think of compassion only in terms of “giving.”  

One way he tricks me is by turning my actions into a role or mask to hide behind. It’s such an easy trap — to fall into acting from that mask rather than a fuller experience of my being. To put it in the worst terms, I suppose it’s like the compassion gets a bit institutionalized. I act by rote because I know that’s what’s I’m supposed to do. An example is giving spare change to a homeless person because I had decided that I’m going to be kind to a homeless person today. If I just drop some coins in her cup without making an effort to at least smile and make a connection with her, then I’m probably acting from my role of “be kind to a homeless person today.”

 One way [my ego] tricks me is by turning my actions into a role or mask to hide behind.  

I’m not saying that’s bad, but it’s not true compassion. It’s more a contrived act than something springing from a fresh, alive connection to my feelings in that moment about the person and the situation. I’ve been taught that this called a Near Enemy of compassion. A Far Enemy is something that’s an obvious opposite, like cruelty. A Near Enemy is something that sort of looks like the real thing, but isn’t on closer examination. It’s that tricky ego sneaking in.

 Even worse, the mask can become a shield for hiding away the parts of myself that I don’t want to show the world.  

Even worse, the mask can become a shield for hiding away the parts of myself that I don’t want to show the world. It makes my ego feel good to think I’m strong and capable, someone who can step in and be of help. And yes, of course, there are times when I AM being of help. After all, that homeless woman probably really needed the money. But the Buddha always taught that it’s not the action that counts, but the true motivation behind it. Am I using my kind acts as a way to make myself feel better and compensate for all the icky stuff inside that I don’t want to deal with? If so, that’s not true compassion. That’s self-deception.

So then what does real compassion look like? It’s a lot more than just reaching out to help. I also need to open myself up to let others touch me. It’s just as much about being vulnerable as it is strong. And receiving as it is about giving. In other words, it’s only when we can bring the whole of ourselves forward to meet someone that a real connection takes place. And that’s a MUCH bigger challenge than simple helping or giving! And boy, it takes some real courage to do.

 it’s only when we can bring the whole of ourselves forward to meet someone that a real connection takes place.  

A few years ago, I was on a retreat that focused on becoming more ourselves and living up to our potential. We spent a lot of time on what was holding us back. What was our biggest fear about boldly stepping forward into what we wished we could do. One “secret” I shared with the group was how I wanted to be a singer, and to have the courage to perform publicly. Well of course, it’s impossible to say that to a group like this without getting prodded into singing before the weekend was through.

So I did it. I screwed up my courage and sang a solo unaccompanied song in front of everyone. I was nervous as hell and my throat felt all dry and tight. My voice cracked, and the notes at the higher end of the piece squawked. Yuck. It didn’t feel good at all. It probably didn’t sound all that good either. But of course, everyone gave me a big round of applause and kudos, because this was SUCH a supportive group.

But you know what? There was one person who was silently sitting there, watching me in tears. She hadn’t said much the whole weekend, and I knew that she too was struggling with her demons about taking a stand and openly being herself in front of others. Her response, more than all the others combined, is what has stayed with me. We didn’t talk about it, so I’ll never really know what was going through her mind. But it was obviously genuine, and obviously profound. For that one moment, I felt a strong connection with her because something real in me touched something real in her.

Experiences like this are what keep reminding me to get off my ego’s high horse. As much as it wants to see itself as the proverbial cavalry riding in to save the day, it’s not the most helpful way to see things. Sometimes the best thing to do is to just be a human being, here to share the fullness of who I am. It’s when I stop trying so hard to be something I’m not that something genuine pops up out of nowhere. It’s really very simple, though it’s sure not easy.

My teacher, Sangharakshita, wrote a poem about this. I first came across it over ten years ago, but it’s only now that it’s starting to sink in what he meant. In closing, I’ll leave you with that poem, called “The Unseen Flower.”

Compassion is far more than emotion.
It is something which springs
Up in the emptiness which is when
you yourself are not there
So that you do not know anything about it.
Nobody, in fact, knows anything about it.
(If they knew it, it would not be compassion);
But they can only smell
The scent of the unseen flower
That blooms in the heart of the Void.

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