THE BLOG
03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

The Practice of Generosity

The fact that everything has been given to us is so obvious that it can be difficult to fathom. Our hands and eyes, our body and mind -- all gifts! The air we breathe, the water we drink, the stars in the sky -- gifts. If we can really let this feeling of awe envelop us, it shifts nearly everything that we can so easily take for granted about our work, our relationships, and our lives.

It's often difficult for us to meet our challenges and problems with generosity, and to express gratitude for painful experiences, large or small. To give just a simple example, when I encounter a long, slow line at the grocery story, I often think of one of my favorite quotes by calligrapher Kazuaki Tanahashi: "If you learn to enjoy waiting, you don't have to wait to enjoy." You can practice generosity with everything in daily life -- and doing so can help you cope with traffic delays, canceled flights, and coffee spills on your clean shirt, as well as those major emotional and physical challenges that strike unexpectedly.

Even more difficult to fathom, not only do we receive the gifts of life and beauty from the world, but we give these gifts! We are not separate from our body and mind, from the air and water, and from the stars. In a mysterious, practical, and essentially unknowable way, we are involved in creating everything. Every breath, every thought, and every action we take is both a gift and an act of generosity.

Practicing generosity in our daily lives, in our work, and in our relationships is not easy or simple. Giving that is self-centered or self-serving is merely another form of fear. But giving our full caring and attention to someone, without expecting anything in return, is an act of generosity. Real generosity requires that we open our heart and allow ourself to be curious and vulnerable and accepting. Gratitude says yes to all facets of life, even the difficult ones, which also leaves us open to experiencing more joy. The generosity of acceptance feels like doing less, but it brings us more. It is amazingly regenerative.

During a recent "Accomplishing More By Doing Less" retreat, one of the participants was a recently retired physics professor, whom I'll call Michael. For the past fifteen years Michael's work had been his primary focus, and he generally averaged twelve-hour work days. During lunch on the second day of the three-day workshop, he asked me, "When is the theme of this workshop, how to get more done by doing less, going to become clear?" His impatience was obvious. I responded that I thought that everything we were doing in the workshop focused on ways of exploring how to do less.

When we began the next session that afternoon, I suggested to Michael and to the group that so often we can get distracted by searching for answers. Sometimes, slowing down and being generous with ourselves may create space for the right questions to emerge, often slowly, allowing us to go deeper in our lives and open doors to new ways of approaching and resolving thorny issues.

The next morning, the third and last day of the retreat, I could see tears in Michael's eyes as he began to speak about an insight. He had come to the workshop wanting to better utilize and prioritize his time as he was leaving his busy professional life. What he came to understand, through doing less and experimenting with being generous with himself, was that what really mattered in his life at this time was healing some of the gaps in his relationships with his two grown daughters.

When you can find composure and act with clarity and resolve, right in the midst of your fears, this is a form of generosity that in Buddhism is referred to as "giving the gift of fearlessness." I remember several years ago someone approached me after I had given a talk to an audience of several hundred people. He said that he noticed that my hands were shaking as I was speaking, yet my voice and body seemed clear and calm. I responded that this was exactly how I felt -- shaky, filled with fear, and at the same time, I felt clear and calm.

Generosity is an antidote to fear. When you practice generosity toward yourself and others, fear loosens its grip. Generosity in this case means gratitude and acceptance for who we are and what is. After all, it takes less energy to relax and release than it does to clench and hold on, or to attempt to control or manipulate others or the environment. The result is greater accomplishment with less effort.