Saturday, February 1, 2014

Generosity as a practice

I'm alive today because of the generosity of others; so are you. Someone had to feed us and keep us safe or we wouldn't have survived. What we have today is also because of the generosity of others—the generosity of ideas, time spent planning and creating, tilling the earth, and so on.
Lineage of generosity (my mother, far right in back, and her mother), 1950
Generosity is the first of 6 paramitas. The word paramita means “gone to the other shore.” We might think of the paramitas (generosity, discipline, patience, enthusiasm, meditation, and unconditional wisdom) as qualities that open up the shut down parts of ourselves—so that we might move from the shore of where we are to the shore of more compassionate living. To make that trip, we must leave firm ground and become more fluid. 

Rumi writes about generosity in his tale of a man begging for a crust of bread at someone’s home, and the homeowner replying, What do you think this is, a bakery? The beggar then asks for some gristle. No butchershop here, says the man. Finally the beggar asks for at least a sip of water, and the man tells him, This is not a well. At this point the beggar runs into the house and squats to defecate. Whoa! yells the man. What do you think you’re doing? The beggar explains that since the space seems vacant and unused, that it could use a little fertilizer. 

Since it’s often difficult to see our own vacant, unused potential, I sometimes choose to practice something for a period of time—to become curious about it and how it is playing out in my life. I am currently practicing generosity. But instead of focusing on generosity as it relates to possessions, I’m noticing how generous I am with these 4 intangibles:

It feels wonderful to receive authentic praise, and I want to be generous with my praise of others. I’m noticing when it’s easy to offer praise, and when it would feel disingenuous or trite. When I feel as though I'm holding back praise that is warranted, I'm asking myself why: Am I jealous? afraid to show tenderness? Or is something else causing me to hold back? I notice also when I am praising out of guilt or a desire to be accepted or liked—or simply to fill up silence. Part of the practice is also being specific with praise. There are studies that point to how generic praise (Great job, Way to go, and so on) can actually inhibit motivation in children, whereas specific praise (You always do a great job of putting your dirty clothes in the hamper) is motivating. I wonder if that holds true with adults. I'm checking it out.

I'm also working on being specific with expressions of gratitude: Thank you for always being on time. I appreciate how you tuck the sheets in extra tight on the bed. I feel welcome when you smile at me. Expressions such as Thanks for all you do aren’t wrong, of course, but I’m trying to offer more personalized expressions of gratitude—the stuff we might remember for a long time.

I am currently on retreat in Canada. I arrived on a Friday; my luggage showed up 4 days later. I got to the abbey late at night, ready for a good night’s sleep, when I learned that I would be living offsite in a cabin with 4 other women. The prime spaces were already claimed, with personal belongings in place. It was interesting to watch my mind turn flips as I considered how to mark my territory without physical belongings. I’m still working on ways to loosen up in my sharing of physical space, especially when space is at a premium.
Christmas dinner at the abbey: Not much room. A lot of space.
Silence is a formal practice here much of the time, but even when it’s not, I’m focusing on letting my generosity with praise, gratitude, and space speak louder than my conversational speech. It usually doesn't require many, if any, words to share in these ways, which leaves me in silence a lot. I am certainly listening a lot more than usual, and trying to speak words that promote peace and love.

With That Moon Language, by Hafiz

Admit something:
Everyone you see, you say to them, “Love me.”
Of course you do not do this out loud;
otherwise someone would call the cops.
Still, though, think about this, this great pull in us to connect.
Why not become the one who lives with a full moon in each eye
that is always saying,
with that sweet moon language,
what every other eye in this world is dying to hear.