The most valuable lesson in generosity came to me from Buddhist teacher Sharon Salzberg at a retreat many years ago. She said that we often have an initial impulse to be generous, only to talk ourselves out of it. We do this whether that initial impulse is to give something away or whether it’s to contact a friend in need.
Here's an example I use in my book How to Be Sick. If someone admires a scarf of ours that we like but rarely wear, our initial thought may be to give it to the person. But then enter those second thoughts in the form of an inner dialogue that can be far-fetched and even absurd: “Hmm, if I’m ever invited to the White House, I might want to wear that scarf.”
Sharon suggests that we become mindful of this tendency and, as soon as the thought to be generous arises, resolve to follow through with it. I’ve been practicing this for twenty years now, and I’m grateful to Sharon for teaching it to me.
A recent example. A few months ago, a former colleague of mine who’d been sick for a long time died. My initial impulse was to send his wife a condolence card with a personal note. But then, the inner dialogue started: “She’ll get lots of cards; one from me won’t matter.” “In this internet age, do people even send sympathy cards anymore?” Remembering Sharon’s suggestion, I sent the card and, as has been my experience in the past, every time I follow through on that initial impulse to be generous, the person on the receiving end has told me how much the gesture was appreciated.
I’ve come to treasure generosity as a profound act of kindness. In that spirit, I offer you these twenty quotations:
“That's what I consider true generosity: You give your all and yet you always feel as if it costs you nothing.” —Simone de Beauvoir
“You cannot do a kindness too soon because you never know how soon it will be too late.” —Ralph Waldo Emerson
“It takes generosity to discover the whole through others. If you realize you are only a violin, you can open yourself up to the world by playing your role in the concert.” — Jacques-Yves Cousteau
“With gentleness, overcome anger. With generosity, overcome meanness. With truth. overcome delusion.” —The Buddha, Verse 223, The Dhammapada
“Give what you have. To someone, it may be better than you dare to think.” —Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
“You often say, ‘I would give, but only to the deserving.’ The trees in your orchard say not so, nor the flocks in your pasture. They give that they may live, for to withhold is to perish.” —Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet
“Generosity is the most natural outward expression of an inner attitude of compassion and loving-kindness.” —The Dalai Lama XIV
“Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.” —Simone Weil
“I've been so bothered with my property, that I'm tired of it, and don't mean to save up any more, but give it away as I go along, and then nobody will envy me, or want to steal it, and I shan't be suspecting folks and worrying about my old cash.” —Louisa May Alcott, Little Men
“If you can’t feed a hundred people, then just feed one.” —Mother Teresa
“We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.” —Winston Churchill
“Every man must decide whether he will walk in the light of creative altruism or in the darkness of destructive selfishness.” —Martin Luther King, Jr.
"The value of a man resides in what he gives and not in what he is capable of receiving." —Albert Einstein
"We should give as we would receive, cheerfully, quickly, and without hesitation; for there is no grace in a benefit that sticks to the fingers." —Seneca
“From the heart it has come, to the heart it shall go.” —Beethoven’s inscription on his Mass
“It is the heart that does the giving; the fingers only let go.” —Nigerian proverb
"The potlatch ceremonies found among many of the Native peoples of the Pacific Northwest have been referred to as ‘fighting with wealth’ by anthropologists who describe them as ceremonies in which a prominent figure tries to outdo a rival by either giving away or destroying vast amounts of personal possessions. . . . It could be said that while the accumulation of personal wealth is a desirable social norm in mainstream American culture, just the opposite is true in American Indian cultures. . . . At its best, a potlatch was a way to redistribute material wealth rather than leaving it in the hands of a few." —Joseph Bruchac in Our Stories Remember
"Happiness is not made by what we own. It is what we share." —Rabbi Jonathan Sacks
Because Sharon Salzberg inspired this piece, I leave the last quotation to her; it’s from her book Lovingkindness:
"The Buddha said that no true spiritual life is possible without a generous heart. Generosity allies itself with an inner feeling of abundance—the feeling that we have enough to share."
I hope this piece has started your generosity juices flowing. As Seneca said, “…there is no grace in a benefit that sticks to the fingers.”
© 2014 Toni Bernhard. Thank you for reading my work. I'm the author of three books:
Visit www.tonibernhard.com for more information.
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