‘Tis the season of giving, and an excellent time to explore our capacity for generosity. Being mindful of how it feels to be generous cultivates an open, loving heart. This makes available to us the joys that come from recognizing what’s good in our world, and celebrating it through kindness.
In the Insight tradition of Buddhism, teachers usually don’t charge for the teachings, accepting dana (donations) instead. This honors the priceless nature of the dharma. It also gives students an opportunity to observe how gratitude and generosity feel by being mindful as they contemplate giving, actually do so, and then after they have given.
What most people observe is a mix of attitudes and feelings. Some people notice they just don’t like letting go of money. Many feel a sense of obligation or other kinds of pressure to give, sometimes accompanied by resentment. These are normal states of mind, and they often co-exist with wanting to keep the sangha going or thank the teacher.
The same dynamics can be observed with other kinds of gift-giving, like the year-end parade of appeals from public service or political organizations, and seasonal gifts to so many people, from mail carriers to loved ones.
What we’ve learned about our generosity in the supportive practice of dana can make it easier to sort out the many attitudes we have toward year-end giving. It can help us observe the feelings that arise from simply wanting to contribute to the happiness of other beings. Without suppressing all the other motives that exist in our minds and hearts, we can cultivate this essential kind of generosity just by recognizing and enjoying the experience of it.
In this way, mindfulness can open the door to states of mind that transform a complex phenomenon like seasonal gift-giving into a truly heart-opening exercise. We don’t have to turn ourselves into different people in the process. Some attitudes that we’d rather not make public can persist as we develop a growing acceptance of ourselves, and cultivate the rewarding feelings of love, kindness, compassion and sympathetic joy. Whether or not our gifts fill the recipients with delight, we will be able to enjoy the act of giving in itself.