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Compassion, Action and Sleeping Well

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In my "other life," I run a homestay Bed and Breakfast. The supplementary income allows me to keep my Victorian house, important because I am way too lazy to pack up and move after almost 30 years, and I meet interesting people from all over the world by just walking around. It's a cost-effective way, uncomplicated by jet lag, to become more worldly.

Some of my B & B guests are in the Boston area for regular conferences and workshops. There is a Jungian Institute, a School for Acupuncture, a school for Homeopathy and the Samadhi Yoga Center, all within a four-mile radius. Samadhi Yoga Center features sophisticated week-long meditation retreats led by a world renowned psychologist and meditation teacher named Dan Brown.

Recently, at the breakfast table, Greg, a frequent Dan Brown retreat attendee and a regular guest at the B & B, talked about why he had slept so well the previous night. Greg told me that the $900 per student tuition fee that forty students paid to Dan Brown was going to be donated to Pangling Village, Mustang, Nepal. At the retreat, Geshe Sonam Gurung, a Tibetan monk interested in reviving and teaching the Bon culture and religion, was teaching meditation with Dan Brown. Bon is the indigenous religion of Tibet that pre-dates Buddhism but has many similarities.

The Pangling Village project consists of irrigation, badly needed due to a severe water shortage as well as the loss of a river that was diverted from Pangling. A dam and a canal are needed to help sustain the agricultural economy and a volunteer Swiss engineer was willing to help complete that project. Pangling farming produces potatoes, apples, pears and vegetables. A drought in the summer of 2012 and an apple crop failure dramatically challenged the livelihood of the village's residents. Geshe Sonam had met with the elders of Pangling and determined the necessity of the irrigation project and together they worked on a design. This was the top priority of the community. Schooling was another. Even though Pangling's children support the farming economy, having the 37 children obtain an education is of great importance. Given the small size of this community - 203 residents -- and its unknown future, the children all need schooling. However, there is no school in Pangling, according to Karin Case, co-president of the Pointing Out the Great Way Foundation, the organization managing the donations. The retreat participants made individual gifts on top of their tuition. These gifts will go to support scholarships for the children so they can attend a boarding school a two and a half-hour walk away.

I trekked in Nepal in 1978 so the story intrigued me beyond the usual aspects of an interesting breakfast table conversation. I was especially pleased to learn about the acts of philanthropy from the teachers foregoing their fees and students' individual contributions. The funds, it turns out, will solve an economic conundrum for the community as well as providing an educational opportunity for the young people of Pangling. For just about the $36,000 that the students' collective tuition produced as well as their own personal gifts, economic survival and education are addressed. And the plan to do this was not reflective of what outside people thought should happen, but Geshe Sonam's conversation with Pangling's elders and what they wanted for their homeland. He wasn't "involving" the community, they were involving him.

Just a couple of weeks prior, the Wall Street Journal ran an article on giving and the brain science behind it (WSJ September 1, 2013--Svoboda). The article, adapted from Elizabeth Svoboda's book, "What Makes a Hero? The Surprising Science of Selflessness," reminded me of other studies which also showed a brain response to giving. One of the studies cited in the WSJ article, performed by Dr. Jordan Grafman at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, found that subjects who donated money, in an experiment where functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) tracked brain response, had the same region of the mid-brain lit up as it would for food cravings and sex. The article discussed how that made sense to the researchers because giving is often inherently rewarding and the "brain churns out a pleasurable response when we engage in it." Rather than "a kind of...moral capacity that altruism is associated with, giving is a reward in and of itself." Bill Harbaugh, a University of Oregon economist, is also quoted in the article. His interest in charitable giving stemmed from his assumption that a guiding principle in life is that people act in their own self-interest. To Dr. Harbaugh, giving seemed like an exception to this basic rule. In the article, Dr. Harbaugh said, "There's some primary reward people get from seeing money go from themselves to provide to other people." (WSJ, September 1, 2013).

Remember at the beginning of my story, Greg said how well he had slept? After hearing about these projects, he had decided to donate a couple of thousand dollars that lay dormant in an old account. He said his sleep was sound and profound after he had made that decision. Karin Case of the Pointing Out the Great Way Foundation saw that response in tune with the meditation experience itself. "A similar brain response arises spontaneously from practice as deep compassion evokes profound generosity and connectedness," she says.

These conversations connected all the dots for me, allowing all my worlds to collide in that brief breakfast encounter--my work in the Sillerman Center for the Advancement of Philanthropy-- my trek that took me through Mustang in 1978-- and my bed and breakfast guest, Greg. To me, it was a cosmic collection of the many molecules that my life consists of in a nice little breakfast sandwich that even McDonald's couldn't top!