Generosity’s Perfection

Giving up, giving in, just plain giving—Sharon Salzberg says that’s the truly transformative experience.

Sharon Salzberg
4 August 2017
Generosity Insight Meditation Shambhala Sun Lion's Roar Buddhism Sharon Salzberg
Photo by Micah Esguerra.

The cultivation of generosity is the beginning of spiritual awakening. Generosity has tremendous force because it arises from an inner quality of letting go. Being able to let go, to give up, to renounce, and to give generously all spring from the same source, and when we practice generosity, dana, we open up these qualities within ourselves. Letting go gives us profound freedom and many loving ways to express that freedom. Generosity is the beginning of the path. When the Buddha taught, he always began with generosity.

I recall a Thai forest master who visited the West being puzzled by the sequence of teachings we seemed to be following here. In Asia, he said, the teachings proceed from generosity to morality, and then to meditation or insight. But here we appeared to begin with meditation, then say something about morality, and only after some time, as a kind of appendix, teach about generosity. He asked, “What’s going on?”

He was right to ask. We like the idea of a transformative, transcendental meditative state, and we are willing to put our effort into that. However, the springboard for genuine meditative states is the cultivation of generosity and morality. That’s what allows insight to occur most gracefully and easily.

The Buddha said that a true spiritual life is not possible without a generous heart. Generosity is the very first parami, or quality of an awakened mind. The path begins there because of the joy that arises from a generous heart. Pure unhindered delight flows freely when we practice generosity. We experience joy in forming the intention to give, in the actual act of giving, and in recollecting the fact that we’ve given.

In the practice of generosity, we learn to see through our attachments.

If we practice joyful giving, we experience confidence. We grow in self-esteem, self-respect and well-being because we continually test our limits. Our attachments say, “I will give this much and no more,” or “I will give this article or object if I am appreciated enough for this act of giving.” In the practice of generosity, we learn to see through our attachments. We see they are transparent, that they have no solidity. They don’t need to hold us back, so we can go beyond them.

Therefore, the practice of generosity is about creating space. We see our limits and we extend them continuously, which creates an expansiveness and spaciousness of mind that’s deeply composed. This happiness, self-respect and spaciousness is the appropriate ground in which meditation practice can flourish. It is the ideal place from which to undertake deep investigation, because with this kind of inner happiness and spaciousness, we have the strength and flexibility to look at absolutely everything that arises in our experience.

Think about what it’s like when the opposite is happening, when the mind feels brittle, narrow, confined and dark. At that point, you feel on edge, uneasy, and you don’t like yourself very much. With all that going on, how easy is it to accept calmly a painful or difficult experience? How easy is it to be with the experience without judging it—to accept it as it is, to allow it to be there? It’s not very easy because of the narrowness of the mind that is receiving it. By contrast, a vast and spacious mind doesn’t feel so bound, contracted and self-denigrating.

Conversely, when a pleasant experience arises, we don’t lunge at it with desperation, because we don’t really need it. We don’t have that sense of needing it to feel good about ourselves. When an unpleasant experience arises, we don’t fear that it’s going to diminish us in some way, that we’re going to be a lesser being because of it. We are whole and we are happy. What better way to be able to look at the vast array of experiences that come and go than with a spacious, generous heart?

Two people reaching out towards each other, passing a flower back and forth.
Photo by Evan Kirby.

The aim of dana is twofold, or else it’s an incomplete experience. The first aim of dana is to free our minds from the conditioned forces that bind and limit us. Craving, clinging and attachment bring confinement and lack of self-esteem. If we’re always looking for some person or thing to complete us, we miss the degree to which we are complete in every moment. It’s a bit like leaning on a mirage only to find that it can’t hold us; there’s nothing there.

When we are continually moved by looking for the next experience and the next pleasure, it’s like going from one mirage to another. We have no security. Nothing is holding us up. We practice generosity to free the mind from that delusion, to weaken the forces of craving and clinging so we can find essential happiness.

We also practice generosity to free others, to extend welfare and happiness to all beings, to somehow, as much as each one of us can, lessen the suffering in this world. When our practice of generosity is genuine, when it’s complete, we realize inner spaciousness and peace, and we also learn to extend boundless caring to all living beings.

The movement of the heart in practicing generosity mirrors the movement of the heart that lets go inside. So the external training of giving deeply influences the internal feeling-tone of the meditation practice, and vice versa. If we cultivate a generous heart, then more and more we can unconditionally allow things to be the way they are. We can accept the truth of the present moment, rather than continually impose conditions on what’s going on: it must be this way or that way or you can’t be happy. Your sitting must be perfect or you won’t be happy. You must have no restlessness or you won’t feel good about yourself. Reality moves along outside of our control, and yet we impose all of these conditions on it. Generosity allows that whole project to start to fall away.

Nothing stays forever. Nevertheless, we try to hold on.

The strength of our generosity is a primary factor in our ability to accept change. In any single act of giving, fear and attachment are diminished. Fear and attachment make us hold on to a pleasant experience when it comes. We like to have a pleasant sight or sound, a nice sensation in the body, or a sweet and lovely mental state. Because we think we need them to be happy, we don’t simply enjoy them. We want to hold on to them; we want to make them stay forever. But nothing stays forever. Nevertheless, we try to hold on, to make our experiences last as long as we can.

I have a friend who said that from the time she was a child and first started to talk, her favorite phrase was, “I need it, I want it, I have to have it.” She’d say this over and over again to her poor parents. I thought that was a perfect description of who we are. You can just feel that headlong rush to grasp, to cling, to mold things as we want them and keep them that way. This is our normal conditioning. But as we learn how to give at the most obvious level—giving material objects to others—in that giving, we develop the ability to let go, to let things be as they are. We begin to see that compulsive attachment really doesn’t bring us any happiness, whereas the benefits of learning to let go, learning to relinquish, being able to give fully with a pure intention, are innumerable.

The Buddha talked about many worldly benefits that come from being able to give. When people are generous, other beings love them quite a lot. Such love occurs without a sense of contrivance or expectation: we don’t give so we can become popular. Being loved is not part of the motivation for the act of giving. It’s just a law of the universe: as we give, we receive. So there is an openness that beings feel toward us and a great deal of love. If you think about somebody you know who’s very generous, even if they haven’t given to you directly, what does it feel like if you call this person to mind? There is so much warmth and such delight. That’s how we regard people who are generous.

Trust develops toward those who are generous.

The Buddha taught that if a person is generous they can enter any group without fear. Once again, such courage is without contrivance; it’s not thought out or planned. It’s just the natural consequence of opening one’s heart. A certain brightness grows within us as we learn to give, and people are drawn to us. Trust develops toward those who are generous.

These types of worldly happiness are all types of spiritual happiness as well. There’s value in a single act of giving that goes beyond what we would normally conceive. The Buddha said that when we offer someone food, we’re not just giving that person something to eat; we’re giving far more. We’re giving them strength, health, beauty and clarity of mind, even life itself, because none of those things is possible without food. We’re offering the stuff of life itself.

That single moment of offering someone food represents a tremendous proportion of the entire spiritual path. All four of the qualities that we talk about as the Brahma Viharas, or Divine Abodes, are found in that single moment.

Love, or metta, is there because we feel goodwill in that moment toward the person who is receiving; we feel a sense of oneness with them, rather than alienation. We feel friendship, which is the meaning of metta. We want them to be happy.

We feel compassion in that moment because we wish that being to be free from pain or suffering, to be happy. There’s tenderness, that trembling of the heart that’s responds to a being and wants them to be happy.

We also experience the third Brahma Vihara, sympathetic joy. That means we rejoice in the happiness of someone else rather than feeling what we can so easily feel—envy, jealousy and wanting them to be just a little bit less happy so we can feel a little more happy about our own state. In an act of giving, we want another being’s happiness to increase, and so we feel sympathetic joy for them.

The last of the Brahma Viharas is equanimity. That’s also found in the act of giving because we have an object of craving that we’re willing to let go of—to be without it ourselves and let it belong to others, to everybody.

All four of these qualities are found in that one moment. In that moment of giving, we’re abandoning desire and grasping. We’re abandoning ill will and aversion. Aversion creates separateness and withdrawal, a sense of not being at one with the other. Giving is an act of moving forward, of yielding, of coming forth, of coming closer. And we’re abandoning delusion as well, because when we perform a wholesome or skillful action we understand that what we do in our life—the choices we make, the values we hold—matters.

A photo of a person in a white shirt holding pine cones.
Photo by Annie Spratt.

It’s not just happenstance that we don’t live in some kind of crazy, haphazard universe. There are natural laws, laws of nature such as karma, that deeply affect how we are in this world. It matters what we care about and commit to, and to understand this is very important. The most powerful aspect of ignorance is the feeling that it just doesn’t matter what we do, when in fact it matters so very much. We have so much power to create the life we want.

In an act of giving we’re aligning ourselves with certain values. We develop love, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity. We let go of grasping, aversion and delusion in a single act of giving. That’s why the Buddha said that if we knew as he did the power of giving, we wouldn’t let a single meal pass without sharing something. You can even do it mentally if you don’t actually hand something over to the person sitting next to you, which might not be very wise. To create spaciousness all of the time, over and over again, is what giving is all about.

If we give a gift with this kind of motivation, without attachment to a certain result, without expectation of what will come back to us, it’s like a celebration. It’s celebrating freedom within ourselves as a giver and also freedom within the receiver. In that moment, we’re not relating to each other in terms of roles or differences. There’s no hierarchy. In a moment of pure giving, we become one. We’re not thinking, “Well, this person has a lot more than I do materially, and so what difference does it make if I give them something?” We’re not thinking, “Maybe they don’t like me. Here I am about to offer them something, and I feel really foolish.” All of those thought patterns that might go on in a single interaction in our lives fall away in one moment of true giving.

In 1984, I was on retreat at the Insight Meditation Society and because I knew everybody on staff and had a lot of friends in the community, people kept giving me things. I’d go back to my room and something would be outside my door. I began to feel bad for the people who were sitting the retreat who didn’t know anybody and weren’t getting all of these extra things. So I started giving them away. I chose someone who would see my door frequently and had seen most of what I had gotten. I felt the worst about this one person, so I gave her something. I left it outside her door, and somehow from that point on in the retreat, she started receiving packages from home. Then she kept giving them to me, and I had to give them away to other people. An intense wellspring of affluence suddenly appeared. In that moment it felt as if we really were one; it didn’t matter where the things had come from. They just arose from our interest in taking care of each another, being good to one another.

We all want to be happy; this is what we essentially share.

When we cut through all of our role differentiations, we see that our most basic drive—for every single one of us—is a longing for happiness. This is what every single, living, breathing being shares, no matter how we behave, no matter who we are. We all want to be happy. When we give something, this is what we’re acknowledging. We acknowledge our oneness. We all want to be happy; this is what we essentially share. The ability to do this, to practice dana, both arises from and cultivates further an internal sense of abundance, the conviction that we have enough to share. What’s interesting is that there’s no objective standard for this. There are very poor people who have a strong sense of inner abundance. They have enough to share and keep giving, even though from the outside it looks like they have nothing to give. But they don’t feel that; they give what they can. And there are some wealthy people in this world who have a tremendous sense of inner poverty, and it’s very difficult for them to let go of clinging to their possessions. It’s very painful; it’s very hard for them to give.

There’s a quotation from the Tao Te Ching that says, “One who knows that enough is enough will always have enough.” It’s an inner sense. One of the great joys that comes from generosity is the understanding that no matter how much or how little we have by the world’s standards, if we know we have enough, we can always give something. Then we can share, we can open, we can express loving-kindness. Our conditioning does not emphasize this. The dominant emphasis in our conditioning is wanting, getting and holding on. It doesn’t emphasize the opposite qualities of yielding, letting go and relinquishing.

The world we live in, in the Buddhist context, is called samsara, a world of birth and death, of arising and passing away, where nothing happens unless conditions come together to bring it about. This is our life. One of the amazing attributes of samsara is that no matter what we have, somewhere out there we know there’s always more. The potential for dissatisfaction is infinite because in this world of change, the possibility of comparing and looking for the next moment is infinite.

I have a friend who recently went to India. I talked with him the day before he was going to fly. It turned out he was flying with another friend who had made all of the travel arrangements, and this person didn’t realize that for just a little more money they could have flown business class instead of economy class, which would have been far more comfortable on such a long flight. We were talking about whether they could manage to change their tickets, and if there’d be a penalty and how much nicer it would be to go business class and to arrive rested instead of tortured and unhappy, and right in the middle of this conversation, my friend said, “I wonder how much it would cost to go first class?”

We need to loosen our grasping and our clinging, and we need to have the courage to defy our conditioning.

I know that state of mind so well. As soon as you get into business class, you start thinking about first class. This is how we are; this is samsara. There’s always something else to want because the variety of opportunity and circumstance is infinite. We get into that mind state of looking for the next upgrade; it’s endless. That’s why practice is about turning around, deconditioning, getting out of that mind-state and discovering a radically different kind of happiness that is not so vulnerable, that does not lead to endless dissatisfaction. We need to loosen our grasping and our clinging, and we need to have the courage to defy our conditioning.

The primary question in the practice, and something I’ve held as a guiding principle throughout all my years of practice, is, “What do I really need right now, in this moment, to be happy?” The world offers us many answers to that question: “I need a new this and a new that.” But do we really? “What do I lack right now? Does anything need to change in order for me to be happy? What do I really need?” Those are powerful questions.

When we practice in Burma (or in other Asian countries, but most of my experience in this regard has been in Burma), there is no charge for staying at the monasteries or the retreat centers, and all of the food is donated. Often it’s donated by village people or families who come to the center to make these offerings. I’m sure that each of these groups of people offer the best that they can, but each day what is offered can differ quite a lot depending on the circumstances of those who are offering. Sometimes it’s a lavish, bountiful feast. Sometimes it’s awful. In Burma we practiced the eight precepts strictly, which means no solid food is taken after noon, and lunch is served at ten o’clock in the morning. It’s over at ten thirty, and there’s nothing else until five o’clock the next morning. Lunch feels very important.

There was a Buddha image in the dining room, and it was customary to bow to the Buddha. Sometimes I would go in, bow three times, and I’d feel a wealth of gratitude and joy in just looking at the image and bowing. And then I’d look at the table and the food, and sometimes it looked like there was just nothing there to eat. I would feel all of the fear and misery and dread, and then I would look at the faces of the people who had made the offering. They come to watch you eat. They would be radiant, so happy that they’d had this opportunity to feed you, to offer something, and that you were going to be meditating and exploring the truth and purifying your mind and heart on the strength of their offering. They were so happy. I’d go through amazing changes. I’d look at the Buddha, I’d look at the food, and then I’d look at them. In that moment, when they were so genuinely grateful for the chance to give, I would ask myself, “What do I really need right now in order to be happy?” I realized that in a powerful way I was getting fed a lot more by their joy and delight than I was by the food. It was more important, more nourishing.

The benefits of generosity have the power to change us. If we cultivate generosity, the mind will stop sticking to things. It’s as if we’ve made a tight fist that is slowly opening, and we experience the relief of that. When the mind becomes suffused with the feeling of generosity, it moves out of rigid confinement into a less bounded space. Our world opens up because we can let go.

A photo of a person holding grapes.
Photo by Maja Petric.

We can give in so many ways. We can give materially in terms of goods and money. We can give time and service. We can give care. In a retreat situation, even to give space is a kind of giving, to allow someone to be the way they are. If somebody’s rushing ahead of you in the lunch line, you can let it go and be happy. We have enough—we don’t have to fight or compete with one another.

To be able to let go and be generous with one another is a relief. If we practice this quality again and again, it will grow very strong. If we can do it externally toward others, we can do it internally as well. We will develop a generosity of spirit so when painful states arise within us, like depression or anger or desire or jealousy, we can let them go. We are happier with their passing, so we allow them to follow their natural path of coming and going. We are not served or made happier by their staying.

The question as always is, “What do I really need right now to be happy?” If we hold this question as a guiding light, we’ll experience many different things: delight, surprise, chagrin, shock, all kinds of feelings. But what we come to is that only something as vast and deep as the truth will really make us happy. That can be the truth of this very moment, to see it as it actually is, to be able to let go.

We recall acts of generosity, not to bolster ego, but rather to acknowledge that—in this world that offers so many choices and possibilities—we cared enough about ourselves and others to choose to give rather than hold on.

The Buddha talked about cultivating the spirit of generosity, and he also talked about reflecting on the good things we’ve done and taking delight in them. We recall acts of generosity, not to bolster ego, but rather to acknowledge that—in this world that offers so many choices and possibilities—we cared enough about ourselves and others to choose to give rather than hold on. This recollection will help us immeasurably in our practice. It’s so easy for us to dwell constantly on all of the awful things we’ve done or said. If I were to ask you to think for the next few minutes about what you’ve really done well, when you’ve really been generous, and to appreciate yourself for having done that, it might be hard for you. It’s kind of embarrassing to sit and think about that. It’s so much easier to think about the time I almost gave something, but then I decided not to, and it’s still in the attic.

To understand that the wish to be happy is appropriate and beneficial will motivate us towards skillful action. To rejoice in our ability to make choices, to cultivate the good, to let go of that which harms us and causes suffering for us, will give us the confidence and joy to keep practicing, to do things that are difficult and unfamiliar to us. As we keep rejoicing in generosity, we will keep on purifying.

No one of us can do these things perfectly; it is a practice. We practice generosity with others and with ourselves, over and over again, and the power of it begins to grow until it becomes almost like a waterfall, a flow. This is who we become, this is what is natural, and this is how we continually are able to touch on and deepen a true and genuine happiness.

Sharon Salzberg

Sharon Salzberg

Sharon Salzberg is co-founder of Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts, and the author of many books, including the New York Times bestseller, Real Happiness; her seminal work, Lovingkindness; and her latest, Real Change: Mindfulness To Heal Ourselves and the World.