giving

Giving is the most natural thing in the world

It’s clear that we spend a lot of time giving to others. It’s the most natural thing in the world. Most giving is small, in passing, hardly noticed, the breath and wallpaper of life. It’s not hard to overlook. And with all the attention paid in the media to images and words of destruction and horrible mistreatment, it is easy to conclude that the true home of humanity is on the dark side of the force.

Yet, while it is certainly true that we are animals atop the food chain and capable of great aggressiveness, it is even more true that we are genetically programmed to be cooperative and generous. The defining feature of human society is cooperation; notwithstanding the daily weird killing on the 6 o’clock news, harmful aggression is the exception, not the rule: that’s why it’s news.

Consider these facts about human beings – in other words, you and me:

• We evolved from a rarity in the animal kingdom: species composed of groups of individuals that routinely shared food with each other, even when they weren’t related.

• Our ancestors were unusual among animals in another way as well, in that they cooperated to gather and hunt.

• A third distinctive feature of humans is that males often stay involved after children are conceived to protect and share food with them and their mother. While we might wish this were even more common, it’s important to remember that in almost all animal species, fathers take zero interest in their young.

• Genetically, our nearest relative – the chimpanzee – has DNA that is about 98% similar to our own. That crucial 2% is largely directed at brain development, and the portions of the brain are especially affected have to do with language, expressing emotion and reading it in others, and planning – all at the heart of cooperative activity.

• Under stress, researchers have found that the fight-or-flight activations of the sympathetic nervous system are commonly channeled down “tend and befriend” channels for women. I haven’t seen a study on this yet, but probably there are comparable “fix and huddle” channels for men (sorry about the lack of rhyming for guys . . . ).

• Exotic game theory analyses have shown what’s evident in hunter-gatherer cultures, at the UN, and on the playground of the local elementary school: that there is an evolutionary advantage in being a trustworthy cooperative partner, one who gives at least as much as he or she receives. In particular, studies have shown that in an intensely harsh natural environment – such as was present on the plains of Africa – groups that have members who are willing to sacrifice themselves for the good of the group will over time come to dominate other groups that lack such altruistic and generous members.

• To quote Robert Sapolsky (Foreign Affairs, January/February, 2006): “Across the roughly 150 or so primate species, the larger the average social group, the larger the cortex [the portion responsible for higher order reasoning, communication, and social judgment] relative to the rest of the brain.”

In sum, over three or four million years, the groups of hominid ancestors that developed giving, generosity, and cooperation to a fine art were the ones that survived to pass down the genes that are our endowment today. As a result, we are “born and bred” to want to give, to contribute, to make a difference.

One way to see the centrality of that impulse in the human experience is to observe what happens when it’s thwarted:

• On the job, even well-paid workers who feel they lack ways to contribute and add value have much less job satisfaction.

• In mid-life, when the developmental task of what Erik Erikson called “generativity” (versus “stagnation”) is not fulfilled, depression and a sense of aimlessness are the result.

• In adolescence today, getting shunted off to quasi-reservations of high schools and malls – away from the world of adult work that was the natural province of teenagers throughout most human history – breeds a sense of alienation and irrelevance that in turn fosters poor motivation and a predilection for drugs and other risky behaviors. One reason so many adolescents are angry is that there’s no way for them to be useful.

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What do you give?

A monkey handing something to a person

Giving — to others, to the world, to oneself — is deep in our nature as human beings.

When our mammalian ancestors first appeared, about two hundred million years ago, their capacities for bonding, emotion, and generosity were extraordinary evolutionary breakthroughs. Unlike reptiles and fish, mammals and birds care for their young, pair bond (sometimes for life), and usually form complex social groups organized around various kinds of cooperation. This takes more smarts than, say, a fish laying a swarm of eggs and swimming away – so in proportion to body weight, mammals and birds have bigger brains than reptiles and fish do.

When primates came along about sixty million years ago, there was another jump in brain size based on the “reproductive advantages” (love that phrase) of social abilities. The primate species that are the most relational – that have the most complex communications, grooming, alpha/beta hierarchies, and so on – have the largest cortex (in proportion to weight).

Then early hominids emerged, starting to make stone tools about 2.5 million years ago. Since then, the brain has tripled in size, and much of this new cortex is devoted to interpersonal skills such as language, empathy, attachment to family and friends, romance, cooperative planning, and altruism. As the brain enlarged, a longer childhood was required to allow for its growth after birth and to make good use of its wonderful new capabilities.

This necessitated more help from fathers to keep children and their mothers alive during the uniquely long juvenile phase of a human life, and more help from “the village it takes to raise a child.” The bonding and nurturing of primate mothers – in a word, their giving – gradually evolved into romantic love, fathers caring for their young, friendship, and the larger web of affiliations that join humans together.

Additionally, our ancestors bred mainly within their own band; bands that were better at the give-and-take of relationships and teamwork out-competed other bands for scarce resources, so the genes that built more socially intelligent brains proliferated into the human genome. In sum, giving, broadly defined, both enabled and drove the evolution of the brain over millions of years.

Consequently, we swim in a sea of generosity – of many daily acts of consideration, reciprocity, benevolence, compassion, kindness, helpfulness, warmth, appreciation, respect, patience, forbearance, and contribution – but like those proverbial fish, often don’t realize we’re wet. Because of the brain’s negativity bias, moments of not-giving – one’s own resentments and selfishness, and the withholding and unkindness of others – pop out with blazing headlines.

Plus modern economies can make it seem like giving and getting is largely about making money – but that part of life is just a tiny fraction of the original and still vast “generosity economy,” with its circular flows of freely given, unmonetized goods and services.

When you express your giving nature, it feels good for you, benefits others, prompts them to be good to you in turn, and adds one more lovely thread to the great tapestry of human generosity.
How?

Take care of yourself. Don’t give in ways that harm you or others (e.g., offering a blind eye to someone’s alcoholism). Keep refueling yourself; it’s easier to give when your own cup runneth over – or at least you’re not running on empty.

Prime the pump of generosity. Be aware of things you are grateful for or glad about. Bring to mind a sense of already being full, so that you’ll not feel deprived or emptied out if you give a little more.

Notice that giving is natural for you. You don’t need to be a saint to be a giving person. Generosity comes in many forms, including heart, time, self-control, service, food, and money. From this perspective, consider how much you already give each day. Open to feeling good about yourself as a giver.

Give your full attention. Stay present with others minute after minute, staying with their topic or agenda. You may not like what they say, but you could still offer a receptive ear. (Especially important with a child or mate.) Then, when it’s your turn, the other person will likely feel better about you taking the microphone.

Offer nonreactivity. Much of the time, interactions, relationships, and life altogether would go better if we did not add our comments, advice, or emotional reactions to a situation. Not-doing is sometimes the best gift.

Be helpful. For example, volunteer for a school, give money to a good cause, or increase your own housework or child care if your partner is doing more than you.

Do your own practice. One of your best contributions to others is to raise your own level of well-being and functioning. Whatever your practice is or could grow to be, do it with a whole heart, as a daily offering to whatever you hold sacred, to your family and friends, and to the widening world.

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Give yourself the gift of kindness

flower in handCan you remember a time when you offered a gift to someone? Perhaps a holiday present, or a treat to a child, or taking time for a friend – or anything at all. How did this feel? Researchers have found that giving stimulates the same neural networks that light up when we feel physical pleasure, such eating a cookie or running warm water over cold hands. Long ago, the Buddha said that generosity makes one happy before, during, and after the giving.

Then there is receiving. Can you remember a different time, when someone was giving toward you? Maybe it was a tangible, something you could hold in your hands, or perhaps it was something like a moment of warmth, or an apology, or some kind of restraint. Whatever it was, how did it feel? Probably pretty good.

Well, if you are giving … toward yourself … it’s a two-for-one deal! And besides the benefits noted above, there are the implicit rewards of taking action rather than being passive (which helps reduce any sense of learned helplessness, to which mammals like us are very vulnerable), and of treating yourself like you matter, which is especially important if you haven’t felt like you mattered enough to others.

Further, when you give more to yourself, you have more to offer others when your own cup runneth over. Studies show that as people experience greater well-being, they are usually more inclined toward kindness, patience, altruism, and other kinds of “prosocial” behavior. As Bertrand Russell wrote:

“The good life is a happy life. I do not meant that if you are good you will be happy; I mean that if you are happy you will be good.”

How?

Gifting yourself comes in many forms, most them in small moments in everyday life. For example, as I write this, the gift is to lean back from the keyboard, take a breath, look out the window, and relax. It’s a do-able gift.

Less tangibly, earlier this week I was getting wrapped up mentally in wanting a friend to succeed in his business, so I gave myself the “treat” of letting go of my over-investment in things beyond my control. Sitting in a meeting earlier today and thinking about this practice, I took in the gift of appreciating how fortunate I was to learn from the other people in the room.

Not doing can also be an important gift to yourself: Not having that third beer, not interrupting a friend’s irritated account of a hassle at work, not bugging a lover who wants some space right now, not staying up late watching TV, not rushing about while you drive …

You can see how many opportunities there are each day to offer yourself simple yet beautiful and powerful gifts. Routinely ask yourself: What could I give myself right now? Or: What do I long for – that’s in my power to give myself? Then try to actually do it.

Focusing on a longer time frame, ask yourself: What’s the gift I want to offer myself today? This week? This year? Even: This life? Try to stay with the listening to the answers, letting them ring and ring again in the open space of awareness.

You could also imagine a deeply nurturing being and see what this one gives you – and then open to giving this to yourself.

Knowing your own giving heart – which is usually offered to others – can you extend that heart to yourself? Out of kindness and wisdom, cherishing and support, let your gifts flow to that one being in this world over whom you have the most power and therefore to whom you have the highest duty of care – the one who has your name.

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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

Book of Corinthians

I just read a list of biblical suggestions for ways to show love and I was inspired to write this article including a Buddhist’s perspective of ways to carry out the 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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Little Princes: One Man’s Promise to Bring Home the Lost Children of Nepal

About to turn thirty, Conor Grennan planned a year-long trip around the world. He started his trip with a three-month stint volunteering in the Little Princes Orphanage in war-torn Nepal. What was supposed to be just a three-month experience changed Conor’s life, and the lives of countless others.While playing on the roof of the orphanage, Conor was approached by a woman who would turn out to be the mother of two of the wards. Over hours of conversations with her, Conor learned the truth about the kids he’d come to love. Many of the little princes were not orphans but rather had been taken from their homes and families by child traffickers. In addition to losing two of her boys, this woman, while under the control of a human trafficker, was doing her best to keep seven other terrified kids alive in her mud hut. Conor’s life changed in those moments, as he decided to commit himself to these kids. After securing spots in an orphanage for all seven and arranging for an excellent local staff to run the Little Princes orphanage, Conor escaped Nepal, one day before revolution erupted in Kathmandu, with the King’s police shooting protestors in the streets.

After arriving home, Conor received a devastating email reporting that the seven kids had disappeared, snatched once again by the same trafficker. Soon he was back in Kathmandu, riding through the chaotic streets on the back of a local’s motorcycle, searching for his kids, seven needles in a corrupt haystack. And that is where Conor’s story begins.

Conor pledged to not only start a new orphanage for these seven but to start an entire new program dedicated to reuniting kids with their lost families in remote villages in the Nepalese hills, a four-day walk at best through war-torn precincts with no roads.

Conor’s organization, Next Generation Nepal, has reconnected almost 300 families with children they feared were lost to them forever.

Connor is a “volunteering evangelist.” He says:

I am desperate for readers, especially younger readers, to see what getting involved can do. How it can change your life so completely, and in ways you could never imagine. How volunteering, whether it is in an impoverished third world nation or in your hometown, requires only that you show up. Don’t worry how little of your time or resources you may have to offer—just offer it, and see what happens.

The fact is, volunteering is no longer a fringe activity—the world gets smaller every day and we have a responsibility to understand what it looks like. It’s not how the other half lives, it’s how the other 90% live. And I believe that each of us has a responsibility to know what those lives look like, even if we only give one single day of our life to discovering it. Because it could have been us.

See more videos at Next Generation Nepal’s website, or buy the book on Amazon.com, or Amazon.co.uk.

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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).

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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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Dharma in Hell: The Prison Writings of Fleet Maull

Dharma in Hell, Fleet Maull

In a sense we all live in a prison, but a life of literal confinement can force us to confront our existential situation — and our need for change — with unflinching honesty.

As the subtitle indicates, this is a collection of writings; of the nine chapters comprising the body of this text five appear to be written while the author was still in prison. A sixth chapter appears to have been composed within two weeks of his release. The remaining three chapters recount the nature and experience of the author in relation to practicing the Buddha’s path.

Title: Dharma in Hell: The Prison Writings of Fleet Maull
Author: Fleet Maull
Publisher: Prison Dharma Network
ISBN: 0-9718143-1-7
Available from: Amazon.co.uk, and Amazon.com.

Chapter one carries the book’s title and also expands on the theme with the subheading “Practicing in Prisons and Charnel Grounds”. Here, the author compares the experience of living and practicing in prison with doctrinal reasons for and benefits of practicing in charnel grounds, a main point being that both prisons and charnel grounds thrust one directly into experience of mental poisons, that is, into direct contact with greed, anger, and ignorance. The chapter begins by explaining just what is a charnel ground, and by extension what charnel grounds represent. This makes it possible to explain, in Buddhist terms, what is a charnel ground practice, both traditionally and in contemporary terms. Lastly, the reader is given a glimpse inside Fleet Maull’s prison experience, showing just how the prison conditions, both external/physical and internal/psychological, provided him with the opportunity for charnel ground practice.

Chapter two looks at Buddhist practice in prison as a form of monasticism, particularly the author’s experience of taking and applying monastic vows in prison. First we get to see that Buddhist practice in prison is very different from its counterpart in a monastery. “Noise and chaos are a prison’s most pervasive qualities” (p.41). Eventually it becomes evident that while formal practice is very difficult the practice of mindfulness throughout daily life is crucial in prison.

See also:

Chapter three, like the previous chapter, is an edited excerpt of previously published material. It addresses “Money and Livelihood Behind Bars.” There is an economy in prison. Wages can be earned and trade does occur, and there is inevitably a black market where goods and services can be bought. While it is possible to live on very little, everything about prison life and western society at large tends to ensnare us in economic gain. With his pre-incarceration livelihood coming from drug smuggling, the author realized upon entering prison that it would be necessary for him to practice Right Livelihood, with its attendant honesty.

In chapter four the author considers “Death Without Dogma”. In this chapter Maull recounts his interaction with dying inmates while performing hospice work. The stories are very personal and give a real flavor of how he brought practice into his interactions with inmates of other faiths.

Chapter five speaks of the widespread phenomenon of depression. Although this problem is not specific to prison or charnel grounds, in this case prison is the framework for examining and understanding depression. And, although this is the shortest chapter of the book, the author makes quick work of explaining just how potent a steady meditation practice can be at dissolving the life-sapping darkness of depression and hopelessness.

In chapter six, “Rumblings from Inside,” we get a look at the psychology of the incarcerated. Emphasis is placed on considering the effects of penal methods (punishment vs. rehabilitation) for the inmate in terms of taking responsibility for his or her life. Negative mental states abound, and are structurally encouraged, in prison life. The author suggests that real change can come about when inmates learn to be of service to others. He also speaks of the value meditation offers in seeing inmates’ responsibility for their current conditions.

Chapter seven, “A Taste of Freedom” looks at the experience of stepping outside the role of prisoner for a three day unescorted furlough. The author has been in prison for thirteen years by the time we get to this chapter. The sudden shift to experiencing freedom outside of prison prompts the author to reflect on his years of prison conditioning, conditioning that he realizes can be met with mindfulness and emotional receptivity.

Chapter eight sees the author finally released from prison and embarking on life afterward, speaking to a Buddhist audience about “Transforming Obstacles into Path”, and explaining how he came to see that whatever difficulties encountered can be met without reactivity and used as fuel for practice. By this point in the book much of the material has been stated in prior chapters.

And lastly, chapter nine discusses the “Path of Service”. Here Fleet Maull explains how service to others in prison benefited him, allowing him to get beyond his own personal drama. He also explains how he thinks that service to others is offers healing to those still in prison. Getting out of the endless loops of our mind by helping others makes it possible to let go of our own self-perpetuated suffering. As is stated in the opening verse of the Dhammapada:

“Mind precedes all mental states. Mind is their chief; they are all mind-wrought. If with an impure mind a person speaks or acts suffering follows him like the wheel that follows the foot of the ox.”

Life in prison can easily be seen as life in hell, but as Fleet Maull illustrates it need not be so.

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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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