Read an Excerpt
The Giving Heart
Unlocking the Transformative Power of Generosity in Our Lives
By M.J. Ryan
Red Wheel/Weiser, LLCCopyright © 2000 Conari Press
All rights reserved.
Opening Our Hearts and Hands
It's not the earthquake That controls the advent of a different life But storms of generosity....
I was sitting in a café one day, waiting for a friend, when I noticed a middle-aged woman walking toward a nearby table, juggling three cups of coffee and the paraphernalia that goes along with them. She handed two of the cups over to two gentlemen who were sitting there. "Thank you," one of them said. "My pleasure," she replied and flashed such a radiant smile that I knew down to my bones that her simple act had brought her pleasure, and even happiness.
If you are like me, you want to be happy. Like me, you've probably spent a lot of time trying to be happy. Are you? A large study in England and the United States recently found that the number of Americans who consider themselves happy has been steadily declining over the past thirty years. I think it's because we're looking for happiness in all the wrong places.
The United States is currently undergoing the biggest sustained economic expansion in history, and the Internet and the stock market are creating multimillionaires left and right. It's all about making money these days. Even my peers, ex-lefties and hippies, talk about nothing but IPOs. Several young friends are regularly ridiculed by their peers for following their career passions instead of jumping into the dot-com craze. The clincher about where our contemporary values are came while I was watching the television show Greed: The Series. It's a game show in which contestants "climb the tower of greed," and give in to their "need for greed" when "The Terminator" allows one of them to get an automatic $10,000 if they challenge a teammate. I couldn't get over the fact that greed—a vice, a poison, something that spiritual traditions historically caution against—was now elevated so openly into something good, something to be joyously indulged in.
What is wrong with this picture?
I don't profess to have all the answers. All I know is that in my twenties and thirties, I was your average unhappy and fearful person. Then, about twelve years ago, through a series of circumstances, I began to refocus my life on what truly mattered and stopped being miserable. And that has made all the difference.
It started when I, along with several others, published the book Random Acts of Kindness.™ It seemed like a good idea at the time—let's all do nice little things for strangers—but once I began to see and hear about its effects, I sensed I had stumbled upon something very important. Suddenly I was inundated with letters from people telling me about the joy they had experienced as either doers or receivers of these acts. I will never forget the letter from a high school student who said he was going to kill himself until he read our book and decided that life was worth living. I became fascinated with the power of kindness, and went on to help write a series of books on the topic. I tried to enact what I was writing about and became more kind both to strangers and to those I am close to. Like the boy who didn't kill himself, I got happier.
I began to wonder about the other qualities that could produce the same positive effect as kindness, and turned my attention to gratitude. The more I cultivated a sense of appreciation for all that I had instead of focusing on what I lacked, the happier and less fearful I was. I wrote about my experiences, this time in Attitudes of Gratitude, and once again, I received many letters about the power gratitude has in bringing peace of mind and a sense of contentment.
My study of gratitude led me to generosity, the spontaneous giving of ourselves and our resources to someone else. In a sense, I have now come full circle. Generosity is the mother of kindness. Our desire to give help, comfort, support, or appreciation is often the reason we do kind things.
In reading, talking, and thinking about generosity, I realized just how important it is. Boris Pasternak alludes to the power of generosity in the quote at the beginning of this chapter. We tend to think about generosity as volunteering or giving money or time, but generosity is actually much broader. It comes in all kinds of forms—material, intellectual, emotional, and spiritual. We can be generous when we give our knowledge, our awareness, our empathy, or our silence. Generosity is also about letting go of grudges, hurts, and concepts of ourselves and the world that stand in the way of our connection to others.
True generosity is open-heartedness, the experience and expression of our boundless, unconditionally loving nature. It is such an important concept that Buddhists consider its opposite to be delusion. When we are out of touch with our giving hearts, the natural flow of generosity within us, we think we need to hold on to money, possessions, and fixed ideas. We are sure we need these things to be happy, when our very grasping and clinging is what makes us miserable. We hold on so tightly that our hands are unavailable to reach out for the happiness we could gain by letting go. Our delusion of material happiness prevents us from being truly happy.
However, when we are living from true generosity, we feel expansive and abundant. We know that we can find true happiness in loving and being loved to the core of our being. Our hearts and hands are open, ready to offer what they can and able to receive what comes back to us in return.
As the woman in the café realized, giving makes us feel great. It's a fabulous feeling, even when we offer something as small as a cup of coffee. Giving lifts us out of our preoccupation with ourselves and reminds us that there is plenty of kindness to go around.
Like kindness and gratitude, giving—both of ourselves and our unique gifts—is actually very simple. So simple that it's often difficult to believe it can bring us such joy. We think giving should be hard, so we make it complicated. We guilt-trip ourselves into thinking we should give more or try harder, usually turning our guilt into shame, and then trying to avoid the whole issue entirely.
It doesn't have to be that way. The purpose of A Giving Heart is to provide encouragement. Encouragement in noticing that the river of generosity is already flowing in you, and encouragement in opening your heart as much as you feel comfortable and giving exactly as much as you want. It's about paying attention and noticing how you feel when you give, when it feels good and when it doesn't. Noticing the effects on your life and then choosing to do more of what makes you feel good.
I've come to understand that generosity is both a feeling—of fullness, of expansion, of joy—and a choice. The more we make the choice, the more we experience the feeling. This book charts a journey through attitudes and behaviors that I hope will allow you to open your heart more easily and frequently.
I am not setting myself up as an expert. If you met me, I don't think you'd be particularly struck by my generosity. Regard me as a fellow seeker on the path, a person who has often been quite fearful and stingy but who wants to change. Recently I read a novel about a girl with "a heart so clear you could see all the way through it." That's how openhearted I want to be. I've seen, and even tasted a bit for myself, the peace, joy, and sense of contentment that the giving heart can offer, and I want us all to share in more of that contentment.
I'm convinced that we are here on Earth to grow our souls, to open wider, to reach higher, and to stretch farther. Our goal is to soften where we would normally constrict, to loosen when we would habitually tighten, and to extend where we would usually hold back. Each and every one of us has so much to offer, and the world needs what we have to give.
The Gifts of Giving
About all let us never forget that an act of goodness is an act of happiness
—Count Maurice Maeterlinck
We begin by examining the bounty generosity can bring us whenever we open our hearts to another being. Understanding the rewards we will reap may motivate us to cultivate our own gifts and offer them wholeheartedly to the world. As we discover the grace that comes of giving, we begin to experience generosity as a natural upwelling of the heart that exists in each of us, and as a limitless treasure that can bring us immeasurable delight.
Giving Is a Great Mood Elevator
No joy can equal the joy of serving others.
It was one of those no-good rotten days in which nothing was going right for me. I had been up half the night with my daughter Ana, my computer kept crashing, and I got ten phone calls that distracted me from my writing. When I picked Ana up from preschool, I was in a less than stellar mood. I popped her into the car, and, still grumbling to myself, we headed for the grocery store.
At the store, the line seemed interminable. Finally I was the next one up, but it was still taking forever. Despite my annoyance, I tuned in to what was happening. The young woman in front of me kept asking the cashier to give her the total after each item. She had a tiny baby in her cart, and it was clear she didn't have enough money to pay for all the food she bought, so she went off to make a phone call, presumably to ask someone for money.
While she was gone, I asked the cashier to total up everything and tell her that she had enough money. I would make up the difference when she left. The cashier asked me if I knew her—I didn't—and then if I were wealthy. "Yes," I replied, thinking of my beautiful daughter, the roof over my head, and the privilege of doing work that I loved.
When I left the store, I realized I was singing along with the radio and feeling remarkably good. The best part of the situation was that the woman never realized what I had done. A bit puzzled, she had gladly wheeled her cart away. I smiled to myself. Reaching out to her had reset my mood, and I felt like I was in love with the whole world.
Helping others really is like a "feel good" pill. When I was doing the research for my last book, 365 Health and Happiness Boosters, I realized that making someone else happy creates happiness the fastest. Lending a hand, making someone smile, or being of use to someone other than ourselves helps us stop focusing solely on our own difficulties and gives a larger perspective to our days. This is what Karl Marx meant when he said, "Experience praises the most happy the one who made the most people happy."
Giving Can Heal
There is a wonderful, mystical law of nature that the three things we crave most in life—happiness, freedom, and peace of mind—are always attained by giving them to someone else.
During the break-up of a fourteen-year relationship, I was in terrible pain and leaned heavily on the love and advice of my friends, including author Daphne Rose Kingma, who flew up from Santa Barbara to sit with me for a few days. When she was about to leave, she gave me a tiny piece of paper, her prescription for my healing: (1) Go to therapy; (2) Meditate; (3) Reach out to others in pain.
I'm glad to say I did all three items. At the time, though, I didn't see why helping others would help me. I understood the benefits of therapy—working through the grief, coming to see my part in the break-up, and understanding the relationship dynamics I tend to encounter. I saw how meditation might work—tapping into the sense of peacefulness and wholeness beneath the pain of my situation. But giving to others? Wasn't this a time to focus on myself?
Once I began to volunteer at a "Meals on Wheels" organization for people with AIDS, I learned that giving to others was also a way to help myself. Helping others forced me to notice something other than my own misery, which was a great gift. Rather than wallowing in all the ways I had been mistreated and abused, I could turn my attention to someone else. As months passed, however, I discovered something else. Walking the halls of the welfare hotel where most of my deliveries were, I stopped being so attached to my particular wound and began to see that suffering is part of life. All kinds of terrible things happen to people, often for no reason, and I was not specially singled out for victimization.
While it wasn't true for me in this situation, giving when you are feeling hurt often makes meaning out of your suffering. The person who's paralyzed by a gunshot wound and then becomes an advocate for gun control, the woman who finally escapes from her abusive husband and works to set up a shelter for battered women—these are individuals who reach up out of the particulars of their individual tragedies to ensure that others will not have to suffer the same fate.
You don't have to be suffering from some specific hurt to reap the benefits of giving. Any time we reach out to others—in our hurt or with our love—we feel better.
Giving Is Good for Our Health
It is one of the most beautiful compensations of life that no man can sincerely try to help another without helping himself.
—Ralph Waldo Emerson
I have a friend who has had a terrible case of lupus for nearly twenty years. She has been hospitalized many times and is constantly on medication that has horrible side effects, including cataracts. She had to quit her job as a graphic designer and now is completely supported by her husband. She can get really down about her life. Recently she decided to become a volunteer at a soup kitchen. She goes when she feels up to it, and she's started to discover that the more she goes, the better she feels—emotionally and physically. Her arthritis (a consequence of lupus) isn't as severe and she has more energy.
Helping others can not only make us feel good about ourselves; it can also increase our physical well-being. The mind and body aren't separate. Anything we do to elevate our spirits will also have a beneficial effect on our health. A recent study by Cornell University found that volunteering increases a person's energy, sense of mastery over life, and self-esteem. Other studies have demonstrated that such positive feelings can actually strengthen and enhance the immune system. Positive emotions increase the body's number of T-cells, cells in the immune system that help the body resist disease and recover quickly from illness. Positive emotions also release endorphins into the bloodstream. Endorphins are the body's natural tranquilizers and painkillers; they stimulate dilation of the blood vessels, which leads to a relaxed heart.
While we don't quite understand all the reasons why giving creates good health, many studies have documented generosity's positive effects. Michigan researchers who studied 2,700 people for almost ten years found that men who regularly did volunteer work had death rates two-and-one half times lower than men who didn't. In a separate study, volunteers who worked directly with those who benefited from their services had a greater immune system boost than those whose volunteer work was restricted to pushing papers.
Harvard researchers also conducted a study that showed how giving is such a powerful immune booster that it can be experienced just by watching someone else in the act of giving! In this well-known experiment, students looking at a film of Mother Teresa as she tended the sick in Calcutta—even those who purported to dislike Mother Teresa—got an increase in immune function.
Psychologist Robert Ornstein and physician David Sobel are well known for their examinations of the health effects of altruism. In their book Healthy Pleasures, they describe what they call the "helper's high," a kind of euphoria volunteers get when helping others—a warm glow in the chest and a sense of vitality that comes from being simultaneously energized and calm. They compare it to a runner's high and claim it is caused by the body's release of endorphins. Because of all these health benefits, as Stella Reznick says in The Pleasure Zone, "the one who ends up getting the most from a good deed may, ultimately, be the good Samaritan."
Generosity Alleviates Fear
It is expressly at those times when we feel needy that we will benefit the most from giving.
I've never had the privilege of meeting writer Anne Lamott, but I have loved her books, particularly Operating Instructions. Her emotional honesty leaps off every page—here is a woman who is not afraid to show herself, warts and all. In admitting her vulnerabilities, she makes it okay for us to be just who we are too.
In an interview, she was asked about her relationship to money. As a single mother living off her writing, her financial security has been precarious at best. She spoke of having survived, at times, off the generosity of friends, and then said something that leaped out at me. "I know that if I feel any deprivation or fear [about money], the solution is to give. The solution is to go find some mothers on the streets of San Raphael and give them tens and twenties and mail off another $50 to Doctors Without Borders to use for the refugees in KOSOVO. Because I know that giving is the way we can feel abundant. Giving is the way that we fill ourselves up.... For me the way to fill up is through service and sharing and getting myself to give more than I feel comfortable giving."
Excerpted from The Giving Heart by M.J. Ryan. Copyright © 2000 Conari Press. Excerpted by permission of Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC.
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