Zell Kravinsky is an investment broker who for years has been giving away his money—$45 million at last count. He made news in 2003 by donating a kidney to a woman he had not known. That was also the moment the Kravinsky family began saying that his altruism bordered on the obsessive. A New York Times reporter wrote that talking to him was "unsettling"—especially when Kravinsky said he'd gladly give his other kidney to a person whose life seemed more valuable than Kravinsky's own. His wife worried that he was depriving their children. Friends confessed that his gesture made them feel guilty. "I don't think I'm a bad person," Kravinsky's longtime friend Barry Katz told the reporter. "I give money to charity and I think I'm fairly generous, but when I look at what he's done, I can't help but notice a little voice in the back of my head saying, 'What have you done lately? Why haven't you saved someone's life?'"
Whether you think Kravinsky's generosity is saintly or neurotic, it is hard to read about him without asking yourself the same sorts of questions: What am I really giving in this life? How much could I or should I give? Where am I truly generous, and where do I hold back? And when is generosity out of balance?
These questions show up with special intensity during holiday time, when the very air seems to vibrate with invitations to max out your credit cards on gifts, and when your desire to buy for friends all the stuff you're too sensible to buy for yourself wars with the uneasy feeling that the money you're spending could feed dozens of needy children for a year. The questions rise even more insistently after watching a movie like The Constant Gardener or, for me, when I drive past the pickers' camps that line the back roads around Salinas, California. That's when I wonder when I last sent a check to the farm workers' union, and why I'm not teaching meditation at the local high school.
Generosity is one of the 10 paramitas, or enlightened qualities, that Buddhists try to cultivate; it is a core virtue extolled in every spiritual and religious tradition. It may also be the one virtue that most of us believe we possess. The department store's Christmas tag line "Everyone has a gift to give!" is not only a brilliant marketing ploy but also a reflection of our need to believe that in a pinch, we'd choose to offer rather than grasp.
In one sense, generosity is natural: We can no more help giving than we can live without the support of everything we receive. Verses in the Vedas describe the generosity of the natural elements, the way the earth supports us without ever demanding thanks, the way the sun shines and the rain falls. The universe is, in fact, a web of giving and receiving; to grasp the truth of this, we need only to remember the eighth-grade science trip to the pond, or to think about the life of a city, with its symbiotic, mutually dependent networks of relationship.
But if our essence is naturally generous, the ego fears not having enough, worries about getting hurt or losing out, feels anxious at the thought of looking silly or getting ripped off, and above all, looks for a payoff. So for most of us, there's a continual push-pull between our natural generosity and genuine desire to share and the ego's feeling of lack and its desire to drive a bargain.
That's why practicing generosity can be such a boundary-expanding thing to do. Every time we make a genuine offering or even think a generous thought, especially when we can do it for its own sake without thought of reward, we strengthen our essence. In that way, generosity truly is an enlightening activity: It opens us to the loving, abundant, good-natured core of ourselves and, at least for the moment, loosens the ego's grip.
Gifts of the Heart
Problems may arise, however, when pride, regret, or self-doubt surfaces and infects the pure impulse of offering, because, of course, generosity is susceptible to the ego's genius for distortion. You might know people whose generosity is a pure power ploy, designed to buy loyalty or social advancement, reward favors, or cover shady business practices. Often what looks like generosity is a form of bribery or braggadocio. We may be generous in one area because we can't or won't be generous in another—the classic example being the busy parent who buys endless toys for a child she can't or doesn't want to spend time with.
On the other end of the spectrum, we might be compulsively open-handed with time or money, giving because we feel guilty or because in some way we devalue ourselves and our gifts. These are all varieties of unbalanced generosity, as are gifts given in a way that subtly diminishes the recipient, or gestures that squander our resources without actually being of help.
Moreover, for many of us, there's the problem of malaise, the automatized, dulled feeling that sets in when our giving becomes a matter of routine. As a friend said, "The first time you write a check to Doctors Without Borders, your heart swells with happiness at being able to help. But when you get solicited for more money every week, the act either turns into a rote reflex or a source of guilt as you throw the letter in the trash. What happens to your generosity then?"
She went on to share her experience of volunteering to do an extra dishwashing shift at a meditation retreat—and of the annoyance she couldn't suppress when she was then asked to take on one more. If you have ever worked for a volunteer organization, you'll know that humbling moment when your enthusiasm for helping gets derailed by a desperate supervisor's demand that you fill in for someone who hasn't shown up, or by a self-righteous co-worker's snapped orders.
Of course, if all of us insisted on feeling generous before we wrote the check to the food bank or put in our hour of washing dishes at the retreat, the work of nonprofits and spiritual organizations would grind to a halt, and the lives of the poor would be even harder than they are now. Still, my friend has a point. There is a difference between dutiful generosity and the heartfelt kind. For one thing, heartfelt generosity just feels better, as dancing with someone you adore feels better than dancing with a polite stranger.
Yet beyond passionate generosity is something I'd call pure generosity, or natural generosity—generosity that doesn't have to wait for passion, that doesn't save itself for special occasions, and that doesn't make a big deal out of giving.
I identify natural or pure generosity by three signs. First, it arises from a sense of rightness strong enough to take you past your ego's comfort zone. Often, there's a feeling of inspiration behind it; one of my teachers, Gurumayi, used to say that true generosity is a movement of the life force itself. The most generous people I've met offer without thinking about it, much the same way nature offers. I once asked my friend Ruth, whose generosity is iconic, what goes through her mind when she gives. She looked puzzled, and then said, "Nothing. It just happens."
Second, pure generosity is balanced, free from compulsion, and appropriate. It neither bankrupts you nor weakens the recipient. Third, pure generosity contains no regret. Recently, a friend admired a piece of jewelry that I was wearing, and so I took it off and gave it to her. Two minutes later, I was sorry. I loved that pendant. I knew I'd never get another one like it. Confronting my giver's remorse, I realized that I was experiencing the age-old battle between generosity and its opposite—avarice—and that my generosity, in that instance, was far from perfect.
However, even when being generous feels forced, even at times when giving your time or money feels about as attractive as getting into a cold shower, you can still do it as a practice. Even imperfect generosity is beneficial. Being generous transforms us, which means that the more we do it, the better we get at it, just as practice improves our meditation or our tennis serve or our social skills.
Despite missing my pendant for a few hours, I'm still glad my friend has it and glad I was able to offer it before second thoughts kicked in. I've noticed that every time I give away something I'm attached to, I get a little further beyond the tendency to hang on to things. Practicing generosity is an antidote not only to basic selfishness but also to a fear of loss.
The practice of generosity confronts us on several levels. It tests our trust in abundance. It tests our ability to empathize with others. And finally, it calls us on our sense of separation. The more "different" we feel from other people, the harder it will be to give freely. The more we recognize that we are one and that other people's happiness is as important as ours, the more easily we can offer what we have. At the same time, acting generously strengthens our feeling of connectedness to the rest of the world. That's the true fruit of practicing generosity. Sooner or later, it will give us the insight that giving to others is really giving to ourselves—because in truth there is no other.
Give Yourself Away
Generosity is a whole-being practice, and we experience it most deeply when we practice it on several levels simultaneously. On a physical level, we can practice giving away money or time, or volunteering our labor. Mentally, we "do" generosity by cultivating an attitude of offering and a willingness to examine our motives for giving. On an emotional level, we can learn to notice how the impulse to give feels, and how to use imagery and generous thoughts to summon our generous feelings. Energetically, we can notice the tightness that sometimes forms in the heart around giving, and work with breath to help release those contractions.
And through it all, we can be open at the level of spirit to realize our essential interconnectedness. Then, our acts of generosity begin to seem like a natural overflow of our own life force, rather than something special or contrived.
Come Bearing Gifts
For a week, try giving something away every day. You might offer a piece of fruit to a friend, some money to a favorite cause, or $5 to a street person. Buy a flower or a latte for someone at work. Give a Christmas present to someone who doesn't expect it—and give it anonymously. Call your mother! Try to give just a little past your edge. This does not mean that you go without or break your budget. However, if in offering you can go just a little bit beyond your comfort zone, carefully monitoring your reactions, you'll find that the act of giving does, little by little, help dissolve the instinct to hold fast to possessions and expands your ability to open your heart.
Be of Service
Consider volunteering your service in your community, working an hour or two at a shelter or in an after-school program. Or give time to a friend who needs company. Help someone move, or volunteer to do errands for a busy mom. Feed a feral cat.
As you do all this, be aware of potential pitfalls. Try to notice your expectations around giving. Do you expect thanks? Do you expect your gifts to be used in particular ways? How unconditional is your giving? Can you offer in a spirit of equality, without subtly feeling better than the person who receives the gift?
Imagine Good Things
When it comes to inward giving, you have no limits. In India, there is a meditation practice called mental offering, in which you create lavish gifts and offer them to God. You can do the same for a friend. If there is something you know that someone would love to have—a brand-new house or a wonderful career opportunity—imagine it happening for them. You can make offerings to the environment: Imagine the oceans healthy and teeming with fish, imagine verdant trees springing up in dying forests or food growing in drought-stricken fields.
As you imagine these changes that are desired by others (as well as yourself), you'll notice that the practice cultivates feelings of love and generosity in your emotional body. And, who knows? It might also help create an atmosphere in which these things come to pass.
A subtler version of this is the practice of offering blessings or prayers for another's welfare. During meditation, or for a few minutes every day, sit and bring to mind the people in your life. Then mentally touch each one with your awareness and ask that they be blessed. If there is something you know they need, ask that they receive it. Or simply ask for their well-being.
This is a practice you can do many times a day, or whenever someone you know comes to mind. It is especially powerful and transformative when you do it with so-called enemies, or people you dislike or of whom you disapprove.
Again, as you make this mental offering, also observe your own state. Notice whether reluctance or smugness arises. If so, don't judge yourself; simply see whether you can hold these feelings in awareness. Often, the very awareness of them will allow them to change. When you notice a feeling of tightness or fear coming up around your giving, imagine your fear or contraction surrounded by space. See if you can let the tightness of the contraction or fear dissolve into it.
Sally Kempton is an internationally recognized teacher of meditation and yoga philosophy and the author of Meditation for the Love of It.