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sparrow gives its song only awakened ears hear distance means nothing
In spite of my many years of productive work in psychotherapy, I don’t remember a great deal about my childhood, but there is an incident that has remained with me for more than half a century. Our family occasionally had lunch on Sundays at a popular neighbor- hood restaurant. (The concept of “brunch” had not been conceived as yet, or perhaps had not reached the far shores of Brooklyn, New York, so “lunch” it was.) On one particular Sunday, as we left the restaurant, there were two women sitting at a table just outside the entrance. They were dressed in costumes that this ten-year-old, having been raised in, and limited to, a predominantly Jewish neighborhood, had never seen before. They were Catholic nuns. On the table was a glass bowl with a small amount of money in it, and as I walked past, one of them said gently, “Please help the poor.” My allowance at that time was twenty-five cents a week, and I had six weeks’ worth in my pocket. I took my six quarters and placed them in the bowl. The ladies smiled, thanked me, and said, “God bless you.” As I walked away I felt warm and special inside, and very grown-up, feelings to which I was not accustomed. My father, having caught the tail end of the exchange, realized what I had done and quickly yanked me by the arm. His fury, to which I was well accustomed, flared up, and in a growly whisper he demanded, “Did you give them money?” I nodded that I had. He barked his angry reply, “We don’t do that!” as he yanked me harder by the arm. I wanted to ask what I had done wrong, but I was too frightened, a feeling to which I was also well accustomed, so I never learned what it was we didn’t do. Was I not supposed to give money away, or not give to a religion different from ours, or not give to women in penguin-like costumes, or . . . Actually, I never could come up with another possibility. I do know that I was left with a lesson firmly communicated—I had committed a serious error, and it was not to be repeated.
Years later I learned that my father had a great many significant things taken from him in his youth. He was removed from school at an early age to help run the family business, so he never was able to fulfill his dream of becoming a doctor. The business grew and became quite successful, but then all was lost in the Great Depression and he was left with nothing. As an adult he was able to support his family, but any innate qualities of generosity never developed. Also, unbeknownst to me, the under-pinnings of a serious mental illness were there, and it would become more debilitating throughout his life.
What I also didn’t know at the time was that although the message of my misdeed had been made abundantly clear, my intuitive act of generosity was noble, kind, and an honorable endeavor. The feeling of openhearted joy that I had experienced in that moment was powerful and, although squelched, ultimately would not be denied. It was many years later that I learned that generosity is one of the main practices from which all spiritual growth emanates, and it is the energy with which spiritual development flourishes. Generosity is compel- ling, and we increase its power when we offer a kind word, a compassionate ear, or material gifts such as food, clothing, or money.
More than two thousand five hundred years ago, no less a sage than the Buddha taught how important it is to develop an open heart and a generous spirit. In naming the virtuous practices that lead the way to enlightenment, a listing that includes morality, wisdom, truthfulness, and loving kindness, he placed generosity at the very top of the list. From this we might conclude that one cannot begin to lead a moral life with a heart that is closed to the needs of others. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, generosity is considered mandatory. There is a story about a yeshiva student who asked a rabbi if, on a given day, he didn’t feel generous in his heart, did he have to act against his feelings and give anyway? The rabbi said, “The hungry must be fed today, not just when we’re in the mood.” Then he added, “Acts of generosity open a constricted heart.”
The Buddha saw that all beings want to be happy and that even the simplest act of generosity could free us from the fear of not having enough; it also loosens the shackles of endless greed and obsessiveness. “If beings knew, as I know, the results of giving and sharing,” said the Buddha, “they would not eat without having given. . . . Even if it were their last bite, they would not eat without having shared” (Itivuttaka 18).
Unfortunately, most of us are bombarded with such an array of appeals from worthy causes that the joy of giving can metamorphose into what feels like an assault on our spirit, our wallets, and our energy. The phone rings with recorded appeals, and earnest requests by e-mail are more and more pervasive. The mailbox is jammed with pleas from important causes at holiday time (which used to begin a month before Christmas and now seems to begin a month after Christmas—for the next holiday season). City dwellers are approached by unfortunate beings with their hands out on every street corner. Television and newspaper accounts of individuals, groups, and countries in desperate need can leave us distraught, saddened, and numb. It is understandable that our hearts might harden without our realizing that we have cut ourselves off from our fellow beings who are most in need of our generosity. Through this lens my father’s fear, while not particularly enlightened, can be viewed with compassion.
I once read about a teacher in a privileged private school who asked her fifth-grade class to write an essay about poverty. One ten-year-old began his by writing, “Once there was a very poor family. They were so poor that the butler was poor, the maids were poor, and both chauffeurs were poor.” For the vast majority of us, wealth or poverty is very much a matter of perspective. I once heard the Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh say that when an American says he is hungry, it’s usually because he arrived home late for dinner.
What are the obstacles that come between us and the instinct to help? While there are a number of answers, I think they all begin with fear. We may fear that we won’t have enough for ourselves, or that the cause before us is not really worthy or honest. We may resent (a form of fear) those who are needy and making our neighborhood (and therefore us) look less appealing. We may fear the people asking for our help because they don’t look like us or because their customs (or costumes) are different from ours. It is easy to find reasons not to be generous. Unfortunately, none of them bring happiness to ourselves or anyone else. So, how can we rekindle the joy of a generous heart in a practical and meaningful way?
For one week carry at least five one-dollar bills with you wherever you go, and do not walk past anyone who is asking for help.
During this week, make eye contact with every home- less person, or those in any way down on their luck who reach out for your help. Engage in a short conversation: “How are you doing?” is a good starter. Give them a dollar and wish them well. The specific amount can vary in accordance with your resources, but not by judging the recipient’s worthiness. This exercise needs to be done in a completely nonjudgmental way. It’s easy to rationalize that the downtrodden might use your generosity for drink or drugs, or that anyone who really wants to can find a job, but for this practice leave out the suppositions. After all, we don’t know. We can never really know someone else’s story. It would be better to be fooled by a hundred con men than to bypass one worthy being. Try it for a week. Just practice generosity. Be more generous than you have ever been. Give for the sake of giving; be totally indiscriminate; get intoxicated with the joy of generosity. Once a year for a week, engage in this type of wholesale generosity and note what it feels like.
To be completely honest, the practice can be addictive. People have reported to me that once they had done it for a week they found themselves unwilling to give up the joy of face-to-face sharing. One woman told me that this practice helped her get over her fear of a local homeless man, and now she looks forward to her chat with Tommy each morning. Another shared with me that giving so freely led her to realize how much she had. While she is not particularly wealthy, she learned that she always had enough to share with others, which made her feel rich. My own experience has been that so many times when I give a homeless person a dollar and a moment of myself, they often respond by saying, “God bless you.” We all like bar- gains. A heartfelt blessing for a dollar—that is a good deal. Yes, you may occasionally run into a person who responds to your gift by expressing dissatisfaction with the amount you gave, or does not respond at all. That’s okay, your part is to practice generosity. How your gift is received is up to the recipient. When an act of generosity is genuinely altruistic, it is free of expectations and therefore the response of the recipient is seen as unimportant. One more point: if you find you are too busy to spend a moment with people who are down on their luck, perhaps you’re too busy.
There is an old Hasidic tale about a man who lived in a small village and was known for his generosity. It was said that no one who came to his door left empty- handed. One day a beggar appeared, and the kindly man was dismayed because he had absolutely nothing in the house. Then he remembered a gold watch he had put away in a drawer years ago. He got it out and gave it to the beggar. When his wife saw what he had done she yelled at him, “Are you crazy? That watch is worth hundreds. Call that beggar back.” So the man called out, “Hey, you, come back here.” The beggar came back, and the man said to him, “That watch is worth hundreds. When you sell it, be sure to get a good price.” That man was not only generous, he was wise and had an under- standing of the real worth of things.
Of course, all cities and towns have their unique attributes, and you may live where you don’t often encounter street people, homeless folks, or beggars. To work with this Pocket Practice, simply use your imagination and expand the parameters. Go to places that could benefit from your generosity and make a contribution regularly. See if you can spend a few minutes with one or two of the needy folk. If that isn’t possible, adopt a generous attitude toward the appeals that come in the mail or online. On certain websites you can contribute with the click of a mouse. Some of them don’t even require that you give money—just a click and advertisers will con- tribute. Perhaps for a year, make a five-dollar contribution each month to one of the causes that you may have previously ignored. Again, bypass judgment and simply give. A five-dollar donation once a month adds up to sixty dollars for the entire year. Whatever the amount, the object is to practice giving; it is a practice whose value is priceless.
Not long ago, my brother Harry died after a protracted illness that attacked his body for twenty-eight years. His condition first appeared one morning while he was enjoying his daily jog. It began as numbness in his left leg, causing it to become unresponsive and heavy, and as time went by he was walking with a noticeable limp. After a few years he reluctantly began using a cane. Then two canes became necessary in order for him to get around. All through this time he continued to work actively and play golf and even tennis—moving from singles to doubles as his mobility decreased. On the golf course, he would steady himself with two crutches under his arms and drive the ball with consistent accuracy, and although his game became shorter, he loved playing and his enthusiasm was a joyful reminder to his friends that there can be more to a game than just the score. Propped up on two crutches, Harry actually hit a hole in one and was voted man of the year in his Floridian community. Surely not even Tiger Woods could have been more ecstatic. Eventually, Harry had no choice but to yield to a wheelchair, which became his mode of transportation for the last ten years of his life. In those latter years his condition gradually overtook his entire body, and by the last year, even eating was a major challenge.
Harry wasn’t a movie star, a politician, or any other type of celebrity, nor was he a particularly religious or spiritual person, but when he died some four hundred people attended his funeral. Over and over again, people said the same thing to me about my brother: “Harry always greeted me with a smile and asked how I was doing.” This, of course, from his wheelchair. A number of people told me how Harry inspired them with his ubiquitous smile. They knew he had serious physical challenges with which he had to contend every moment of every day. The basics that most of us take for granted— getting a glass of water, going to the bathroom, shaving, traveling, turning around—all presented issues. But no one ever heard him complain—they knew only his smile and friendly greeting. And when people told me about their particular experience of Harry and his smile, they smiled, many with tears in their eyes, and I had the sense that he would be remembered for a very long time.
Greet folks with a smile.
No matter what your mood or the circumstances of the moment, it is almost always possible to conjure up a smile. This is not meant to be a form of denial but rather a way to make the world a more joyful place, and a reminder to ourselves that there is more to life than our current difficulties. You can brighten the day for others, and that has to be good for you as well. Imagine, every time you cross paths with someone you can both get a little lift from your smile. I have been consciously doing this practice for a number of years, and during that time—life being what it is—I have had my share of serious issues with which to deal, the death of my only brother being but one of them. Yet every smile as I greet someone, or simply cross someone’s path, has lightened whatever distress or care has been within me. The smile that is usually returned has often lifted me right out of my concerns. Issues don’t evaporate as if by magic, but our perspective can change and life will become brighter. No economic crisis can devalue a smile, and it might be just the stimulus package a friend needs.
A few years ago, my wife, Susanna, suddenly began running a high fever, which at night would spike to more than 104 degrees. Our doctor was baffled, and after a couple of days we found ourselves checking in at the hospital. After a few more days an entire medical team was baffled. Tests were being run, guesses were being offered by everyone, but no answers. The doctors expressed amazement at some of the astonishing numbers that were coming back from her tests, but still no answers. My daily routine during this time became: rise early, walk the dog, and head for the hospital. After a few hours, I would then go back across town for another dog walk and general check-in at home, and then back to the hospital. On one of those runs, when I gave the taxi driver the hospital address, he asked if I was a doctor. When I explained about my wife he was quiet for a while, and then he reached up to the rearview mirror, where a long set of prayer beads hung. He handed them to me and asked that I give them to my wife. He assured me that they would help. He had been praying with them for many years, and Allah had always been good to him. He also refused to accept payment for the ride, saying it was his way of giving thanks in advance for my wife’s recovery. That night, Susanna’s fever went down and stayed down. Two days later she was discharged from the hospital with no diagnosis, no medication, and, most important, no symptoms. I have no way of knowing what, if anything, that taxi driver’s generosity contributed to Susanna’s recovery. I do know that he gave us a tremendous lift during a difficult time, a lift we have never forgotten.
Perform spontaneous acts of generosity.
It might feel a bit awkward at first, but most of us find it exhilarating to let go of inhibition. It can take a bit of practice, but the desire to be both spontaneous and generous already exists within you. Give yourself and those around you the joy of your generous heart.
I think the greatest gift any of us can offer to another is our complete presence. It is astonishing how many people go through life without anyone who truly listens to them. To become one who listens deeply, without judgment, without offering advice, without the need to be anything but fully, consciously present, is to become a great gift to all who cross your path. You might be the first person to actually listen to the human being who isspeaking to you. You can, in such moments, change a life. When a life changes, the world changes.
Focus intently on what is being said by others, so as to be able to repeat accurately what they have said.
Do this exercise with family members, friends, or anyone. Listen as closely as you can. Notice if you have a desire to respond with advice or an opinion. Gently let go of all that and just listen. It is unlikely that you could do this exercise all the time, so choose one or two conversations each day for a week and give it a try. This practice can actually be fun as well as deeply rewarding. It is a great honor to be known as one who truly listens.
From time to time, when you want to ask for more, ask instead, “How can I give more?”
Also, sometimes, when you are about to say, “Things aren’t being done the way I want,” say instead, “How can I help?” Notice what it feels like to bypass your desires and open yourself up to the needs of others. Conversely, what does it feel like to be concerned primarily with your own needs and desires? Understand the difference, and encourage your generous self to flourish.
Whatever you give, give with a smile, gratitude for all you have, and respect for the recipient. Whenever we are asked to give, it is an opportunity to practice generosity, which leads naturally to freedom, joy, and enlightenment. The person who asks for your help is, therefore, offering you a great gift. We come to see that the giver and the receiver are one.