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NOTE: This is the first draft of the “Generosity” essay in my forthcoming book, Fifty-Two Flower Mandalas.
Responses and comments welcome, no matter how brief.
Generosity: Lighting the candle
Copyright 2013 David J. Bookbinder
There is a riddle that goes something like this:
In Hell is a great dining table. On it are bowls of the most aromatic stew you can imagine. Sitting across from each other, with the bowls between them, are two long rows of people. Each person has a spoon with a handle so long that no matter how hard they try to stretch their arms, they can’t manage to get even a single spoonful into their mouths. They cannot leave their seats and are in a state of perpetual, agonizing hunger.
In Heaven, the setup is identical: bowls of savory stew, rows of people, long-handled spoons. Yet each member of this dining party is happy and well fed.
What is the difference?
In Heaven, they are all feeding the person across from them.
When I was at a Buddhist retreat held by Thich Nhat Hanh, in one of his dharma talks he demonstrated how, when one candle is used to light another, and another, and still another, its own light is undiminished. Chanukah, the Festival of Lights, similarly expresses sharing-the-light when the shamash is used, each night, to ignite the remaining Menorah candles.
Many of us who have been wounded in love withhold our generosity. We keep our love inside us, as if there were a limited quantity and that whenever it is given away, there is less for us. We track our giving, striving for a tit-for-tat “fair” relationship with those around us; we give what we expect to receive and no more, and we become resentful when our giving is not evenly balanced by what we get back.
As young children, we need to receive more than we give or we cannot survive. If we grow up getting less than we need, however, we soon learn to protect what little we have, as if our lives depended on it – and in circumstances of true scarcity, they do. But this feeling of deprivation, and the strategies we unconsciously develop to protect ourselves from it, can result in an impoverished life, a sense of always lacking and always wanting, that propagates the deprivation we experienced growing up.
Our wounds become our shields. To break free, we need to heal the woundedness that binds us.
The therapist/client relationship is not purely giving-based because it is also a business relationship, but for me it has been good training for learning how to be deeply satisfied by giving without expectation of getting anything in return. As my own issues arise in reaction to difficult experiences in the therapy, I have come to recognize them as artifacts of earlier deprivation. Because I cannot act out my own defensive patterns or ask clients to reciprocate giving, I am forced to come out from behind my shield and experience giving for its own sake.
This process became clear to me early in my first internship, at Massachusetts College of Art. While driving home after a late class, exhausted from a work/school day that began at 6am and was going to end at midnight, I found myself reflecting on one of the clients I had seen that morning. I had felt deeply criticized by a young women with a terrible family background who seemed alienated not only from her family but also from most of the people she was encountering at school. She bitterly depicted her awful experiences with five previous therapists, all of whom she deemed incompetent and “useless.” I knew one of these therapists personally and found it hard to imagine she was incompetent. I understood in that moment that if I could not help my client break this pattern, I would be “useless” therapist number six when she started counseling with therapist number seven.
Initially, what I felt was defensive anger, and although I managed to contain it in the session, it sat inside me all day and evening. On the ride home, I told myself that if I remained angry and self-protective with this client, I could not help her. I realized that as a therapist I couldn’t help only the easy, grateful clients. I had to help the hardened, angry, critical ones, too. But how?
As I asked myself this question, the answer came: I had to love her in an unselfish way, the way I loved children. And immediately the love began to flow.
The course of my client’s treatment changed dramatically. No more would I frantically look on the Internet between our sessions to help me diagnose her multitude of symptoms, and no more would I dash into my supervisor’s office, desperate for advice. The therapy, I saw, would be as much about our relationship as it was about the issues she brought into the room. It always had been; I just hadn’t understood that before.
In our next session, when the litany of attack resumed, I asked her to pause. I told her that I understood how disappointing therapy had been for her. I said I admired her courage for continuing to try, and that although I also might not be everything she hoped for in a therapist, I would do my best to help her and I would stay with her as long as she wanted me to.
At the end of the school year, when I was moving to another internship and she had used up her sessions at the counseling center, she took me up on that offer. She became my first private client. Initially, I rented office space on Sundays and drove into Boston just to see her.
By the time she completed therapy and was about to move away from the Boston area, she was a much more actualized version of herself. She was financially self-sufficient, was active in a wide variety of art-related activities, had many friends, and being in the room with her was a joy. She had also referred some of her friends to me, enabling me to more rapidly shift from working at agencies into private practice. The generosity of heart I was able to find on that long ride home to Gloucester had lit a flame of generosity in her, and she had returned my gift in spades.