The Yoga of Generosity
When I was a child, my parents always went all out at Christmas. Both grew up in the lean years of the Great Depression, so they relished being able to be generous with my sisters and me. In addition to giving us the things we’d asked for, our parents would always surprise each of us with a bigger, more elaborate gift that they thought we’d enjoy. I remember the excitement of walking into the living room and seeing these surprises for the first time.
I also remember that quite often, by the end of the day, or certainly by the next day, the excitement would morph into exhaustion. While I was grateful to have received such a bounty, over the next days and weeks, the sheen would dull, and something else would become the shiny object of my desire. I’m now convinced that my parents’ delight at giving was far more durable than was my joy at receiving.
Generosity (dana) is the first of the 10 paramis in the Buddhist tradition. The paramis are skillful qualities of character. In addition to generosity, the paramis include virtue, renunciation, wisdom, patience, truthfulness, resolve, lovingkindness, and equanimity.
In Buddhist practice, generosity is as important as meditation itself. This is because practicing generosity cultivates kindness and compassion, deepens awareness of our innate interconnectedness, and deconditions attachment and greed. In the eight limbs of yoga, aparigraha (non-greed or non-attachment) is one of the five yamas (moral precepts) that form the foundation of the whole system of yoga.
So generosity is also a foundational practice in yoga.
According to Buddhist teachings, generosity benefits both the giver and the receiver. The giver practices sharing and letting go, and the receiver practices gratitude for what is given.
Start Where You Are
Generosity is not as simple or as easy as it may sound. The pattern of attachment runs deep in all of us. In addition, our individual life circumstances may make generosity even more challenging. Maybe you grew up in a home where resources were tight. Or perhaps you live on limited means as an adult. These situations can make us think twice about giving up resources we might need later.
These are valid considerations.
In her new book, Creating a Life of Integrity: In Conversation with Joseph Goldstein, my friend and fellow meditator, Gail Andersen Stark, addresses these challenges. In the chapter on generosity, she shares a traditional story that Goldstein told her:
“There is one story … about a monk whose generosity was undeveloped. So the Buddha said to take a stone in one hand and practice giving it to the other hand. Just go back and forth, giving the stone to one hand, and then giving it to the other hand. Begin to train in what the movement of giving is like … Gradually, he got used to the notion of giving, of letting go, even on the most basic level. So we start where we are.”
I’ve managed to live on limited resources for most of my adult life. At times, giving of material resources simply hasn’t been an option. My teacher, Pujari Keays, has always encouraged his students to give whenever the impulse arises. Sometimes my mind’s immediate response is to pull back and question the impulse. Other times, generosity flows more freely. My takeaway from this practice is that there has never been a time when I have regretted giving.
Installing a New Pattern
Like all of yoga, generosity is a practice that we develop over time. In her book, Stark writes about taking 30 days, with Goldstein’s initial guidance, to make generosity a priority. She shares stories of sending extra cash to her nieces for their birthdays, along with giving varying amounts of money to people in need on the streets of San Francisco.
She writes about the times she hesitated or questioned the wisdom of giving. Does this person really deserve it? Shouldn’t they be able to work? She writes about spending an hour sitting at a café table with a homeless woman, simply exchanging life stories. Most importantly, she writes about how, by the end of the month, the second-guessing had almost disappeared, and giving became easier every day. Practicing generosity brought richness and delight to her life and to the lives of her beneficiaries.
How to Practice Generosity
There’s an old musician joke that asks the question: “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” The answer: “Practice.” This is true of learning an instrument, but it is equally true of developing any character quality such as generosity. In order for generosity to become a habit, rather than something we consider when it randomly pops into our heads, we must practice. In order to get to the Carnegie Hall of generosity, we need to set an intention, and then practice, practice, practice.
This includes noticing the times when our minds and hearts resist and noticing the times when it feels easy and joyful—without judgment either way. Just notice. Practice is a learning process. We can learn a lot from being mindful of our motivations.
If your financial resources are limited, you can give of your time. Reach out to a friend or family member. Share a meal. Donate time to a cause you care about. When someone confides in you, listen, not only with your ears but also with your heart. Play with your cat or dog. If I haven’t worn an item of clothing for a year or two—even if I really like it—I enjoy giving it a new life with a friend who will wear it and appreciate it.
Generosity in the Time of COVID
In the time of COVID, many people’s resources have been stretched to, and beyond, their limits. This may be the case for you as well. I had to close my yoga studio in September because I just couldn’t continue to pay rent on the space with all the uncertainty about when it would be safe to reopen. Still, I’ve found small ways to practice generosity.
For example, once or twice a week, I order carryout from a local restaurant. This is because I’m grateful to live in a place where there are so many great local eateries and I want to help them survive the pandemic. When I buy takeout, I always give a 20 percent tip, even though I’m not receiving wait service.
When I go to the grocery store, I often buy a small treat for the cashier to share with his/her fellow workers. Grocery store employees have worked very hard throughout the pandemic. And I know from the experience of cashiering in a health food store years ago, that they often bear the brunt of customer frustrations and complaints. Most often, I buy them a few fancy chocolate bars. It’s a small thing, but they always express surprise and appreciation, which, in turn, makes me happy.
Finally, I wear a mask and follow health guidelines. I have claustrophobia, so wearing a mask is very uncomfortable for me. (I didn’t like Halloween masks as a kid either!) But every day, I read accounts from fatigued healthcare workers, their energies spent caring for severely ill patients. They plead with the public daily to pitch in and follow health guidelines. While I don’t enjoy wearing a mask, I do it for my neighbors and for the healthcare workers who are putting their own lives at risk every day. This costs me absolutely nothing.
While we often think of holidays as the time of year for giving, we can practice generosity every day, in ways big and small. Be creative. And practice. Generosity can become a daily source of happiness.
Charlotte Bell began practicing yoga in 1982 and began teaching in 1986. She was certified by B.K.S. Iyengar in 1989 following a trip to Pune. In 1986, she began practicing Insight Meditation with her mentors Pujari and Abhilasha Keays. Her asana classes blend mindfulness with physical movement. Charlotte writes a column for Catalyst Magazine and serves as editor for Yoga U Online. She is the author of two books: Mindful Yoga, Mindful Life, and Yoga for Meditators, both published by Rodmell Press. She also edits Hugger Mugger Yoga Products’ blog and is a founding board member for GreenTREE Yoga, a non-profit that brings yoga to underserved populations. A lifelong musician, she plays oboe and English horn in the Salt Lake Symphony and the folk sextet Red Rock Rondo whose 2010 PBS music special won two Emmys.