10/26/2012 06:15 pm ET Updated Dec 26, 2012

As Good as It Gives

"He who causes others to do good things is greater than the doer" -- The Jewish Talmud

See if this rings a bell:

You are driving in the city, in line at a red light. Three cars ahead, you spot the weathered man or woman working his way up the line of windows, hand out, maybe a sign explaining his plight.

Is there a flash of wanting the light to change before he makes it up to you? Is there a recognition that of course you are a good person, and the holidays are coming soon, so you do want to give them money... But in this economy things can be pretty tight for a good person, and there are so many people again needing help that it's hard to be fair or know who to give to. I mean, how can you trust that he won't just blow the money you give him on booze?! Maybe that is why you have budgeted your charity and always send it to the same, reputable places.

But despite all these reasons not to give, you -- out of the goodness of your heart -- go ahead anyway, and out comes the quarter, or the dollar, or whatever.

You are probably just following the good advice of your parents, to "give back" to those less fortunate. And all of the major teachers and traditions place a high level of importance on giving, from Jesus' direction to "give to him who asks of you," to the Mahayana Buddhist "perfection of giving," to the Islamic tenet of charity as one of the five pillars of that tradition. In Judaism, there is the practice of "tzeddakah," which is considered one of the most important acts in the human repertoire for bringing out our greatest potential, which this tradition sees as the "spark of divinity trapped within us."

At first blush, this might seem obvious: If we give to those in need, then they will have a better life and be able to tap into more of their potential. But then what to make of that Talmudic teaching at the top of this post? Now that is truly a zen koan to a compulsive do-gooder, and something I have been reflecting on a lot lately -- perhaps because I seem to have found myself sitting in my car at a lot of red lights, with others asking for a hand.

Maybe giving isn't just about improving the plight of the less fortunate; maybe giving is as much, or even more, about improving our own state of mind?

Rabbi David Cooper teaches precisely this in a book (which I find amazing) entitled God is a Verb. He suggests a practice of "kavannah," or "intentional awareness," as a way of looking at how we ourselves are reacting to our own acts of giving. The trick is to be rather focused on the energy we feel as we give, and then to be radically honest about those energies.

I decided to take his direction and perform an experiment. Whenever I became aware of a charitable opportunity, I tried to pay attention to my experience of the exchange while also being honest about what my state of consciousness was. Without a doubt, this was a profound practice for me. Here is an "executive summary" of the insights arising out of this real world "lab" work.

First, if an opportunity to be charitable arises and you feel stingy, give witness to that sense of constriction. In fact follow it, to see if it leads you to a new insight.

Second, if times are too tough for you to give money, then pass on the current opportunity to give, but find a way to give of your time. Make somebody a sandwich, pick some litter off the earth, or give someone your space on the road to ease traffic.

Third, if you are giving but become aware that that you expect it to be received in a certain way, or to be thanked in a certain way, or any condition whatsoever, witness that which you expect or want and discern if you can get that satisfaction in another way. Then try to just give freely what you are prepared to depart with in the moment unconditionally. After all, if you give someone something, and they use it in a way you deem inappropriate, then did you really give it to them? Or are you still thinking its "yours" in some way?

Fourth, if you budget your charity and have your usual "go-to" beneficiaries, witness whether it has become a rote -- and thus, remote -- process. If so, then perhaps you can reconnect to the spirit of giving by writing a note to the beneficiary, or by saying a little blessing or something to yourself, or by finding a new "go-to" for your giving.

Or -- and this is my personal suggestion -- set aside 25 percent of your charity budget for spontaneous giving.

And finally: If you are giving, honestly recognize if you also feel that it is earning you merit or making you more special than others, especially those you are giving too.

This is where tzeddakah gets really interesting, at least for me. Because it allows you to see if through charity you truly are giving away a piece of your ego-ic self, or if you are merely inflating and armoring it up with a pride that you can't even detect.

By practicing in this way, we begin to notice theses energies, and in the noticing, there is a softening. The more we can notice without adding to or getting caught up in, the less fuel there is to fire those energies. I have heard that it is even possible for them to extinguish. Then we can give these tendencies away with ease. Perhaps this might even lead to a Talmudic sense of gratitude for having had those opportunistic encounters.

If you feel so inclined, please give us your experience, your lab report. It would be, well, a wonderful way of giving back to all of us!


For more by Doug Binzak, click here.

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