Generosity is the most natural outward expression of an inner attitude of compassion and loving-kindness.
~The Dalai Lama XIV
Times like these make the implicit challenge behind the Dalai Lama’s words even more worthy of our attention. Generosity is a direct reflection, he says, of what is going on inside of us. In particular he points to inner “compassion and loving kindness.” Author, Sharon Salzberg affirms this idea, saying, “generosity allies itself with an inner feeling of abundance—the feeling that we have enough to share.” The idea that our actions towards others are indicative of our inner climate, is one that makes sense.
If our generosity is connected to “inner feelings of abundance” then it seems like before we try to give to others, we need to check in to see what is going on inside. Let’s be honest, the feelings are not always there. What can we do to develop inner attitudes of “compassion and loving kindness”? Paradoxically, I have found that I can best cultivate feelings of “inner abundance” necessary for giving, by receiving. It is a circle that works best when it keeps going around: a pattern of receiving and giving, giving and receiving which best cultivates inner abundance. Often if I am not feeling generous, I can trace the cause to being exhausted or depleted.
Here are some different ways to replenish the inner storehouse of generosity.
Receiving Inspiring Stories
Sometimes, generosity is inspired by hearing stories about what others have done. For example, this past week a Dairy Queen in Brainerd, Minnesota had 900 people in a row, over two and a half days, pay for the orders of the car behind them. Hearing this story, of strangers spontaneously keeping a chain of generosity going, my “inner feelings of abundance” grows. It makes me want to find a way to start such a chain, inspired by this beautiful example.
Receiving Direct Generosity from Others
Sometimes, I have received from others, either they have given their time, their expertise or a thoughtful material gift that has made me want to give to others. When I was in graduate school, a dear friend who was a few years ahead of me used to take long walks with me to talk out our ideas for papers or, in her case, for her dissertation. I so appreciated her generosity with her time and the way she held out her hand so to speak to gently bring me into the graduate school culture. She helped me work through ideas as I framed my arguments and I learned so much from hearing her as she framed her own.
When I finished graduate school, my husband threw me a big party and asked people to bring me their favorite book as a gift. I received over 200 books all inscribed beautifully about the gift giver’s connection to this book. I was in this way connected me to the book even before I read it. I ended up having a bookshelf just for these gifts. Further it has made me try to inscribe books and give them as gifts to others.
Just this week, I’ve received so much from my team at the SNF Paideia Program, kind and affirming words after a presentation from a colleague, a dozen beautiful eggs laid by another colleague’s chickens, a lovely tapestry journal from another colleague. All of these make me want to give to others gifts of time, encouragement, and beauty.
Receiving from Nature
A glorious sunset after a long day. A bird freely singing. Snow gently falling. Attentiveness to the natural world and noticing how nature gives and receives, can help replenish generosity. Sometimes even at a precognitive level. Just getting outside to experience and absorb what is going on outside of my head can be enough to be infused with peace. With the senses reinvigorated, it can be easier to give to others.
Over the next several weeks, as many of us participate in traditions of giving and receiving, it is helpful to remember the words of the Dalai Lama and to recognize that our capacity to be generous with others is a reflection of how we receive. It is a circle that we can choose to enter.