When we describe someone as generous or acting with generosity, we are experiencing a giving person.
Synonyms of generous include liberality, magnanimity, abundance, amplitude, largesse, unselfishness, kindness, beneficence, and even hospitality. And yet, I find these definitions and synonyms confusing because they miss the fundamental truth of generosity—an openness that begins with letting go.
To clarify and deepen our notion of generosity, Eastern thinking offers some wisdom. Dāna is a Sanskrit and Pali word that translates to “generosity.” It connotes the virtue of offering or giving in Indian religions and philosophies. Giving and receiving require open hands—thus letting go.
In Buddhist teachings, generosity cultivates giving freely without expecting anything in return, purely out of compassion, goodwill, or the desire to aid someone. It comes from open hands (material), an open heart (compassion), and an open mind (wisdom).
Indeed, informed by the East at Bhavana Learning Group, our definition of generosity is an openness to giving and receiving freely.
So then, how might we cultivate an openness to giving and receiving freely? Three elements support this definition.
- Letting Go and Openness
- Giving and Receiving
You may have already recognized something different from the conventional understanding of generosity. As we unpack these elements, consider where you may expand your understanding of this important principle and practice.
1- Letting Go and Openness
Generosity begins with openness, a function of letting go, as explored in a previous blog. Letting go involves releasing control and clinging, an ongoing practice as we cling to attachments and judgments and continually identify with objects and concepts.
When we practice letting go, we create a space for openness that offers the presence of mind and open hearts.
- Place an object in your left hand, pass it to your right hand, and then back again. This can train the mind in letting go.
- We can support letting go by observing when we become closed, including when we are overwhelmed or experience fear, threat, stress, or anxiety.
- Pausing, breathing, reflecting, and investigating are good practices to discover and let go of underlying attachments or fears that find us closed.
Some letting go can be especially challenging, such as areas that involve forgiveness.
Forgiving ourselves can be especially hard, yet it opens us to forgive others. Deserving its own blog, forgiveness involves letting go of blame, shame, judgments, grudges, resentments, and bitterness. We absolve ourselves from making mistakes, hence creating a space of vulnerability.
When we let go, openness emerges. We become open to whatever arises and then allow it to be. It can then pass naturally and prepare a level of openness for giving and receiving.
2- Giving and Receiving
Giving and receiving are part of an interdependent, free-flowing energy. Core to generosity is the openness that keeps the energy flowing freely without obstruction.
Closed fists push others away and fix us in place, while open hands are receptive and invite flow. When we let go and are open to receiving life, we become a source of giving.
Tuning into our lives offers a fuller experience of the many mundane details we often take for granted. When we receive the moment fully, we experience our legs walking, our nose inhaling, our mind resting, our smile lifting us, our eyes witnessing, and our touch connecting.
Our full presence develops an appreciation for the many details life offers. Such appreciation cultivates gratitude and satisfaction.
Learning Model for Generosity
Appreciation is an underutilized skill and practice in our growth toolkit. Briefly, it has two definitions: to recognize something’s full worth and to increase something’s value.
According to Buddhist teachings, human birth is precious. The first of the “four reminders” is “the preciousness of human life,” as such:
Here, now, I have a chance to make something of my life.
I have health.
I have energy.
I have the ability to think and feel freely.
I have enough food and enough money to meet my needs.
I live in a country free of war and many of the other difficulties people can face.
I’m not trapped in a negative state of mind like madness, craving, hatred, or depression.
All of these things can change, but while I have these advantages, I have a great opportunity.
Before there can be any change or liberation from suffering, the Dharma asks that we contemplate this precious life.
From an interdependent awareness, appreciation is a precondition for gratitude. When we recognize and appreciate how much we have, gratitude naturally emerges. Appreciation and gratitude make it possible to give and receive.
Neuroscience has revealed a link between gratitude and generosity. Researchers Robert Emmons, Michael McCullough, among other psychologists, have learned through several scientific studies that there’s a deep neural connection between gratitude and giving—they share a pathway in the brain—and that, when we’re grateful, our brains become more charitable.
Still, to experience generosity requires an openness to receiving and giving. For many, receiving can be challenging, as detailed in this lovely piece. Receiving appreciation through help, recognition, friendship, love, or support from others can be met with confusion or suspicion.
How do we receive appreciation? Are we dismissive or indifferent?
How many of us—when thanked or acknowledged by someone—respond with something like, “Oh, that was nothing, no worries,” or “No need to thank me.” How many of us find it difficult to receive a gift of appreciation or support when offered?
Anytime we obstruct the natural flow of appreciation, we choke off the cultivation of gratitude. Indeed, we may miss how others truly appreciate us, thus not fully appreciating what others offer.
Lacking gratitude for what we already have can cause us to look elsewhere for satisfaction. We may purchase happiness in expensive dinners or vacations, change our appearance to feel good, or seek out new toys, different mates, chemicals to offer relief, or self-help programs to discover what is right inside our heart.
When we learn to appreciate the mundane and fullness of our lives, our gratitude cultivates satisfaction.
Developing appreciation and gratitude that leads to satisfaction can take the form of keeping a gratitude journal or reflecting on each day to support greater awareness.
Reflecting can also mark events and our growth from just one month or year ago or recognize satisfaction, as in what is enough to offer contentment.
In either case, we become more aware of the details that make up the flow of life.
Cultivating satisfaction through appreciation and gratitude finds us open to giving and receiving.
Perhaps the most challenging element of generosity involves this final point: “freely.” Remember that the core of generosity is the openness that keeps energy flowing freely without any obstruction.
Obstructions often involve a desire for virtue or decency out of an obligation to demonstrate generosity or to appear generous. “Freely” lacks any such desires, cravings, or expectations.
To give with the intention or expectation of getting something in return is not a pure act of generosity. Generosity involves no strings attached, as stated by scholar and Dharma teacher Chögyam Trungpa:
The nature of generosity is nonattachment. It is based on having the personal intelligence and vision that everything is not constantly dependent upon what you want … We do not have to cut ourselves out completely, but we are willing to be the period at the end of the sentence.
With full awareness, the spaciousness of “freely” is a precondition to being with what arises. We become a clear vessel through which giving and receiving flow freely. We are fully open, experience satisfaction, and give and receive without attachments or hidden motivations.
Borrowing from Buddhist psychology, generosity progresses freely through three layers:
- We begin with material needs. With open hands, we give and receive food, clothing, money, or other material resources.
- Then, we offer our time and attention with an open heart. We offer our dignity as the gift of fearlessness to support others in need.
- Finally, we offer our wisdom. With an open mind, we receive others fully and be with them to share wisdom, love, and connection in a grounded manner.
With the presence and awareness, we cultivate “freely” to be with whatever arises. As noted by Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh, “The greatest gift we can offer anyone is our true presence.”
Generosity in Practice
Practicing generosity is done in our moment-to-moment existence. Given our exploration, this involves letting go for openness, developing appreciation, gratitude, and satisfaction for giving and receiving, and freely being with what arises.
Applying generosity to our life offers a different view of ourselves and reality. For instance, simply listening to someone else’s problems is an act of generosity. A generous listener can do the following:
Let go of agendas, judgments, and expectations.
Give time and complete attention to the person(s) they are with and receive their concerns and trust fully.
Freely, without any attachments or hidden motivations, be with whatever arises.
This kind of listening connects us deeply.
Like listening, when we practice all three legs of generosity in any part of our lives, we develop the mind of letting go. We can access a free-flowing energy that is inviting, expansive, and spacious.
Practicing cultivates an open-minded space—an openness to giving and receiving freely. It is perhaps why Dāna is both a principle and practice of Buddhism.
When practiced, we become generous.
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