By Christina Walker
Last Sunday, my stepmother called to vent about what dreadful things my father had done that week and how terrible life is at home. It is a conversation we have been having for years. I was not feeling well at all and was really not up for talking. I have an illness that leaves me fatigued and in pain on a good day. Sunday was not a good day. As she talked, I felt my jaw clench. My breath became rapid and shallow. I felt irritation, impatience, and even despair arise. And then the mind tales started: “Why won’t she go to counseling or file for divorce? Why do we have to keep rehashing the same thing again and again? Why doesn’t my family ever ask how I am doing? I can’t do this!”
Almost immediately, I stopped and took three deep breaths, smiling that little inner smile: “Come on Christina, don’t you have a few minutes to spare? Where is that place of compassion? Where is your generous heart?”
PRACTICING TRUE GENEROSITY
I recalled the Buddha’s teachings about generosity. When we hear the term generosity (dana in Sanskrit), we often equate it with monetary or material giving. But the Buddha teaches us that there are in fact three kinds of giving: material giving, giving of the heart, and giving the Dharma.
To me, giving of my heart is giving of myself. It is the gift of my time and full, undistracted presence. It is my love and understanding. Sometimes it manifests as simply sitting with someone and listening deeply. At other times, it may take the form of offering a helping hand or kind words.
I recalled too that it is not only the act of generosity that is important; it is the attitude with which I give. When I practice with generosity like I did last Sunday, I ask myself, “Do my heart, mind, and body feel relaxed, open, and joyful when I give? Or am I holding back? Am I resentful or feeling guilty? Am I giving with an expectation of getting something in return? Am I giving from a place of abundance or am I partially withholding out of a sense of scarcity?”
True generosity is not just giving to those I love or like, or to people I feel deserve it. It is opening my heart to everyone. It means seeing the pain and suffering of the other person and embracing it as my own. I know that true generosity is present when I feel the distinction between myself and the receiver dissolve and a quiet sense of peace arise.
There are days like last Sunday when I don’t feel like I have an abundance of anything—not time or energy and certainly not patience. It is a small and closed feeling, the “Little Me,” as my grandmother used to call it.
But practicing with generosity stretches my heart. When I feel that small, closed feeling, I look at where I am clinging, attaching, holding back. Where do I feel like I don’t have enough? Where am I fearful? I find it helpful to use the Four Foundations of Mindfulness to look at my body, feelings, mind, and mental objects to examine what is arising in me. (1)
When my generous heart is unlocked, it feels like a pure mountain stream that has been released from a dam—refreshing and nourishing everything in its path.
And so as I breathed in and out, my heart softened and opened. A half smile arose on my lips as I held the image of my stepmother with eyes of compassion. My heart was full and overflowing, and the veil of separation between us slipped away. I could be there for her, as long as she needed.
1 The Four Foundations of Mindfulness are four domains or objects of mindfulness: the body, the feelings, the mind, and the objects of mind. The Discourse on the Four Establishments of Mindfulness is available at: plumvillage.org/sutra/discourse-on-the-four-establishments-of-mindfulness/.
Christina Walker, True Garden of Suchness, lives with her husband in Sarasota, Florida, where she practices with the Florida Community of Mindfulness. She is a Board member for the Thich Nhat Hanh Foundation.