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Heartcore Dharma: Obstacles to Generosity

By Stillman Brown

The first part of last night’s Heartcore Dharma class at the Interdependence Project was spent discussing dana, or the quality and practice of generosity. This got me thinking about one aspect of generosity with which I have shamefully little experience: charitable giving. 
A quick search reveals that while charitable giving is not recession proof, it hasn’t dropped as precipitously as the stock market. There are explanations for this: the truly wealthy (as in, you have a foundation named after you that appears after the credits roll on a PBS show) can afford to continue supporting their favorite causes, and most major donors operate on a 3-year profit cycle, meaning they lag behind market trends. But what about individuals? I can only offer my own experience as a miserly non-giver.

I’ve always admired people who gave double-digit percentages of their income to charity, but  the first and only time I’ve given more than a hundred dollars to anything was last year, during the Presidential campaign. I fed Barack Obama’s website about $150. I remember reading somewhere that his campaign burned through about a million dollars a day. I’m still waiting for a personal phone call from the man himself and tickets to an exclusive gala event.

Before that, I’d given about $50 to the ACLU, under $20 to Human Rights watch, $10 to the NPR show This American Life (in two installments), and purchased a Radiohead single for $2.00, the proceeds of which went to a British veterans’ charity. Unless buying entire shipping containers of Girl Scout thin mint cookies qualifies, I’ve not done well in the charity department. Why?
For one, I’m not alone in feeling resistant to simply giving money away without having a tangible sense of it being put to good use. Exactly how will the Red Cross use my donation? Probably for sexy nurse parties at one of their posh facilities in sub-Saharan Africa. Donate? Nice try. 
But mostly it comes down to a sensation of scarcity, a default belief that I don’t have enough resources – for managing challenges, or looking after someone in my life who is having a difficult time and needs a lot of care, or even just getting uptown to see a friend. I always need more sleep, more time, more space.
It’s not just an anxiety confined to the mind: I can feel it in my lower chest. If I’m asked for something that requires time or emotional capital, an internal contraction occurs – I feel myself recoil a little, as if my body is saying, “No, that’s too much.” It’s as irrational as it is real, and it’s the same feeling in relationships, charities, or when someone asks me for spare change on the street. 
Oddly, this sensation doesn’t extend to gift-giving. I spend a lot at Christmas time and on Birthdays for my family and friends. Something about the pleasure of buying and giving stuff is exempt. Well played, Mad Men.  
Generosity probably has something to do with an evolutionary feedback loop related to giving and trust in small groups. It’s easy to give to people we know intimately because we trust them to return the care. It’s harder to see that, collectively, we are interdependent and will only save our species (or not) by breaking down divisions of self and other.
I wonder if I’m alone in this. And I’m interested to see how my meditation practice will affect the reflex of withdrawing from situations that call for generosity. I think it’s lessened in recent years as my capacity grows and I realize that things like love and energy are not finite resources to be parceled out sparingly. 
In the meantime, I hope New York University will keep sending me tasteful invitations to alumni charity events. They’ve found a nice home as insulation at the bottom of my kitchen trash can.
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C.C. Saint-Clair

posted October 13, 2009 at 5:16 am

Some billionaires give millions to charity and some millionaires also give millions to charity. Many everyday people give hundreds of dollars to charity. Small earners give a handful of dollars to charity. Whatever is given to charity seldom makes a difference to the giver. What i mean is that it is not often that the giver *sacrifices* anything real by giving whatever they are prepared to give.
I’ve read that there is a spiritual law – Law of Return or something like that – that states that if you give at least 10% of your income to the needy on a regular basis, then that sum will come back to you manyfold – all, i presume, in the fullness of time. I’m not sure what you make of that but, to me, that sounds like a rather calculating way to BE caring.
Stillman, this will sound harsh to some but, when our is finally able to internalise the notion of karma as partly *inherited* from our soul’s previous incarnations, it is easier to understand that it is within their particular circumstances that people who *rely* on charity need to do their karmic amendment – just as we have to amend our karma within our own life circumstances, such as they might be.
The amending I’m thinking about is the one that is triggered by a calm and *active acceptance* of What Is – equalled by a selfless generosity of spirit – and the ubiquitous practice of being in the present moment.
I only give money to whoever happens to stop me in the streets and I’d like to read your thoughts on that.
Keep safe :)

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posted October 13, 2009 at 1:05 pm

I’m not sure I understand everything you’re talking about C.C., but I can say my post was meant, in part, to spark reactions in other people about their experience of giving. I’m familiar with concepts about the spiritual benefits of generosity, but I’m more interested in the blockages – what stops people from realizing their best selves.
The failure to give in myself and, I suspect, others, arises from the illusion of separateness. To me, the greatest benefit of giving is not some cosmic Law of Return, but the feeling of interpersonal walls being breached, the intimacy of exchange.
I’d be interested to hear what it feels like to give from someone with a lot of money. What is the spiritual (or other kind of) satisfaction like for them?

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posted October 14, 2009 at 12:11 am

I give to several charities, some more than others. I am spread a bit thin this year, but I’ve been using that feeling as a way to practice giving a little more than I really want to. I’ve been trying to give without expecting any thanks in return (which actually has been more of a challenge for me more than the extra giving), and they’ve both been challenging practices, but its been getting easier. And the unexpected gain is that its been helping me to let go in other aspects of my life. It has been a liberating exercise.
Speaking of giving on the street, I had a moment on the street last night (on my way to class, as a matter of fact). I saw a woman panhandling on the corner, and as I walked by, I glanced at her sign. It read ‘Tired of prostitution’. That one got to me. Hard. I went back and gave her what I had on me (which was 20 bucks). It was still bothering me at class and I let my emotions get a little carried away as I thought about her. What the hell would my 20 bucks do for her in the long run? I told my husband about it when I got home. His first reaction was that I was suckered. And then he pointed out that I never give to the meth heads who beg in my neighborhood, so why was giving to a prostitute different? Both are suffering in ways that I can’t judge or deem less worthy than the other might be. We talked about panhandling, manipulation, and what good one small charitable act can really do. In the end we decided that while my 20 dollars wasn’t going to change much for her, it was more important to let myself see her humanity (I see so many homeless, sometimes I feel numbed to it), and for her to know that she wasn’t invisible. Maybe I WAS taken, but if I felt right about giving her the money, it was OK. Maybe my reasons for giving to her were entirely wrong, but I’m still glad I did it.

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C.C. Saint-Clair

posted October 14, 2009 at 5:29 am

While we wait to hear about the spiritual satisfaction felt by those who give a lot of money, I’ll add another 2 cents worth. Put simply, the most worthwhile benefit of giving – not as a concept of generosity – but as a spiritual act, is when the giving is done not as a gesture but as a caring act.
The giving of any sum becomes a great deed if – *large* or *small* – depending on our bank account – the sum given represents some sort of a sacrifice from us i.e. a cutting back on something we would otherwise have enjoyed for ourselves – as opposed to handing over a sum-with-a-shrug like, who cares, it’s no big deal.
One more point: when we give one-on-one, as I do, we cut out the middle men.
Furthermore, it is not for us to question what the receiver will or won’t do with our donation. Whether they will buy cigarettes, booze, lottery tickets or food for themselves or their children or meth, as in the case of the meth-heads that skulk in your neighbourhood, DMC, should never be our concern. That is best left for the great Karmic arbiter to tabulate.
Our concern, for our own spiritual well-being – need simply be to give to the best of our financial ability – when tapped on the shoulder, so to speak – and to give that sum freely, without looking back, without moralistic, judgemental opinions.
Stillman, unless you are simply after case studies or vicarious experiences from the rich who give big bucks, any preoccupations other than the above, I believe, only amount to accumulating thoughts and theories = playing with words – instead of DOING.
Instead of feeling.
When you say: I’d be interested to hear what it feels like to give from someone with a lot of money. What is the spiritual (or other kind of) satisfaction like for them?
What I’d be interested in hearing from people who give altruistically AND anonymously, as these people get absolutely no recognition for their big bucks – no write ups in magazines, no plaque – not even a pat on the back. How do these people feel about their feel-good moments?
Anyway, since the very rich don’t seem any happier than the rest of us, and the sum they give is relative to their bank accounts, I assume the way they give their millions brings them the same short-term joy as giving a few dollars brings us, if you know what I mean.
Back @ you, DMC :)
Don’t worry about having been suckered by that panhandler of yours. I got suckered, too, and only a couple of days ago. There I was, about to get back into my car when a young woman came to me, looking a bit flustered. She said her car had broken down; that she had called roadside assistance a long time ago but they had not yet showed up. She needed to get home to look after her children and needed $20 to get a taxi.
First thought: Is sucker written on my forehead this morning?
Second thought: ‘K, ‘k! I get it! This is a test – this is practice time.
Third thought: ‘K, but $20 is toooo much.
And I told the woman just that, although I knew I had a couple of $5 and $10 bills and also a couple of $50s in my wallet plus a few dollar coins at the bottom of my bag.
While I was rummaging around for *some* money, i sensed that my reasoning was flawed.
This was NOT the time to pinch pennies. I needed to give the woman what she had asked for and not a penny less and i needed to give it to her kindly – from the heart, not as an empty gesture. And although i knew, I just knew, that her drama had been fabricated, I remembered that such a call was not mine to make.
End of story: I gave her the $20 with a real smile. She thanked me in an absent-minded sort of way. I smiled again, this time thinking that really, really, what i should have given her was one of my $50 bills.

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posted October 14, 2009 at 1:11 pm

Good Job DMC! You felt a need to give and went on that impulse. It has helped that person enormously. The spontaneous need to help and then act on it is a good impulse to cultivate.
Stillman, I don’t know by statistics – but I have found that often times the people that I know that don’t make very much money but are socially conscious will often give to organizations that they think are making a difference. So, I wonder if that is why the decline in charitable giving has not diminished as fast as the stock market as well.

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posted October 15, 2009 at 8:41 pm

All, thanks for the thoughtful comments. DMC, maybe you did get taken, but that’s not what’s important – you were deeply moved to help someone. That is precious in and of itself.
CC, I’ve been around some ultra-rich folks and they DON’T seem happier than the rest of us, perhaps just more insulated.
I like your definition of giving as a “caring act.” Very nice.

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posted October 16, 2009 at 12:33 pm

I try to practice giving that which is difficult for me. Often this is not money, but time and energy, my listening ear – as in undivided attention- or my food when I am really hungry.

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C.C. Saint-Clair

posted October 31, 2009 at 9:39 pm

Thanks, Stillman :-)
I started a blog on beliefnet a few weeks ago, but it’s only in the past couple of days that i’ve been adding serious bits of thinking to it and plan to keep that going for a while. so maybe you’ll drop in when you have a minute and add your 2 cents worth, yes?
kind thoughts,

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