Generosity is a creative power emerging from the deepest part of ourselves, drawing us closer and closer to life. But for such a transformative power, it needs only the smallest gestures to express itself--a smile for a stranger, a hand to someone who is stumbling, a donation to a cause that touches us.
When we act with generosity, we creatively participate in the world--providing a way for our head and hands to serve the heart. We see beyond our own needs and become capable of serving the needs around us. Living in service isn't just a practice or a duty, but a simple and direct expression of who we are and who we can be.
The Myth of 'Not Enough'
"Not enough" is one of the most destructive myths of our time. As we perpetuate this myth, give it substance and honor it in our private and public lives, we build structures around ourselves, hoard our resources, and isolate ourselves from others through competition and fear. As Rabindranath Tagore said, "Whatever we treasure for ourselves separates us from others: our possessions are our limitations."
Generosity releases us from these bonds of self-interest, and allows us to directly experience the truth that not only do most of us have enough--we have enough to share.
Nipun Mehta founded the California-based non-profit Service Space in 1999 as an "experiment in giving." Run by almost 9,000 volunteers, Service Space offers a variety of services geared toward helping those in need, and encouraging others to do the same. Mehta explains that giving reveals a fundamental truth: "The reason why you feel empty is because you don't give enough, not because you don't have enough!" Mehta echoes wisdom of almost every spiritual tradition. From Taoism's Lao Tze: "The master has no possessions... The more he gives to others, the wealthier he is."
The myth of "not enough" is more than just harmless fantasy; it's a destructive force in the world perpetuating ignorance and imbalance. When we choose to hoard or waste what we have instead of exploring what is possible through giving to others, we limit ourselves and humanity as a whole. Every day many of us throw away food, while somewhere nearby a person goes hungry. Is there a way to think and act with more imagination so we can serve our primal instinct to serve others? It's up to us. "Every man must decide whether he will walk in the light of creative altruism or in the darkness of destructive selfishness," said Martin Luther King
Life's Unconditional Nature
Sometimes we give because we want something in return--we want acknowledgement, or to feel better about ourselves. But every time we practice serving others, no matter what our motivation, there's an opportunity to experience life's unconditional nature.
In the West, the desire for "reward" has deep cultural and spiritual roots. The Protestant work ethic that infused the life of our earliest American settlers suggested that hard work here on earth reflected entrance into heaven. "Lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt...," says Matthew 6:20 in the New Testament, suggesting we must hide away what is most valuable for later enjoyment. And our modern ideas about karma inspire us to do good things now, so good things will come to us later.
But generosity and service can take us to a dimension beyond cause and effect. The more we give of ourselves, the more deeply engaged we become with life. In this dynamic space of engagement, the limitations of "yours and mine" no longer restrict the joys and possibilities of presence--this is the real reward.
One way to move beyond a "reward" mentality is to practice anonymous giving. For example, Mehta's Service Space has developed "smile cards" that allow one to easily and playfully give anonymously. "Smile cards" come with a gift--like paying for a stranger's meal, or putting extra coins in someone's parking meter. The smile card is left behind to "tag" the receiver and provide encouragement for him or her to "pay it forward" through a gift to someone else. And while it's ironic that our society needs a gimmick to encourage giving, the cards do reveal the infectious, fun, and transformative qualities of generosity.
We need to trust what generosity feels like. In our culture, we are conditioned to value the feeling of selfishness and individuality. It's simply what feels 'right.' But most would also agree that when we give to someone in need when it doesn't take away from us, it feels good. But giving when it does seem to take away from us (i.e., a sick relative needs help on a day when we'd rather go on a trip to a movie or dinner with friends) it gets confusing. How do we learn to give of ourselves on a personal level in the way a mother gives of herself for her children and family? There is a need to start to recognize and value the all but obscured inner voice that knows how to act from a place of generosity and to put others first when needed.
And at work, how would an organization re-orient its HR department to truly prioritize the well-being of its employees over the bottom line?
And we can begin to incorporate generosity and service into our collective social systems. For example, as our economic structures crumble, perhaps we can integrate the value of generosity into the foundations of our future economy.
It's not as crazy as it sounds--and it's already starting to happen. Seva Cafe is one of a growing trend of "pay it forward" restaurants first founded in Ahmedebad, India with a branch in Long Beach, CA. Seva Cafe was created out of the basic belief that "living is giving". Here, meals are cooked by volunteers who hold the ancient Indian understanding that "all guests are God," and they are served accordingly. Nobody is turned away for not having enough funds.
Generosity can be reflected in the way our corporations and organizations run. The very foundation and orientation could be about serving others. It doesn't mean that the product is free, but that the customer/client/employees come first, that the product serves a real need, that the corporation charges only a reasonable amount for the product, that the focus is on 'service' rather than greed and self-interest.
Generosity is a creative process that includes a continual expansion of consciousness. Mother Teresa once said, "I want you to be concerned about your next-door neighbor. Do you know who your neighbor is?"
In the West, with our extreme focus on our own individual pursuits, we have much less of an emphasis on "knowing our neighbors" than other more collectivist cultures. And that's why we need to make an effort and change those habits.
Jayesh Patel, founder of the Gandhian NGO Manav Sadhna, offers his time and energy to feeding, educating, and caring for India's poor. Jayeshbhai encourages people to serve others through simple acts that already make sense--depending on character and interests: "Love and work according to your strength," he says. "Don't stretch. Never stretch.... And don't think too much."
Every time we practice generosity we step more fully into the reality of interdependence, where another's need can be felt as our own. And from this lived understanding, we find an endless source of power and sustenance.
In South Africa, the philosophy of ubuntu points to the reality of interdependence--"I am human because you are human," it says. If we live ubuntu, one person cannot be happy while another is suffering, and so we naturally offer to help. But at the same time, through ubuntu we have access to the gifts of all people--when we are in need, we will be provided for. As Dorah Lebelo, founder of the GreenHouse Project in Johannesburg, says: "If you recognize 'I am who I am because you are' - then everything else will be taken care of." This is not naive idealism, but the truth of abundance.
Service and its foundation of generosity are seeds in the real revolution--the turning away from illusion and stepping into what's real. And we do not need to engage in any big activities to start this revolution; small gestures have reverberating effects. We just need to be willing to give.
"The giving of love is an education in itself." ~Mother Teresa
There is a frequently told story in Tibet:
Once there were two brothers; one had ninety-nine horses and the other brother had only one. So the poor one always thought, "Why doesn't my brother give me at least one horse, so my horse can have a little company." On the other hand, the rich brother thought, "If he would just give me his horse, I would then have one hundred! Why can't he just give me this one horse?!"
~Told by Yulgyal Rinpoche
"You're it. Pass it on."
Smile cards are a game of "Pay It Forward" created by Service Space founder Nipun Mehta.
Starting in September of 2003, smile cards began appearing all around the world. They are markers of a newfangled game of tag, where "you're it" because someone has done something nice for you. Then it's your turn to do something nice for someone else and, in the process, pass the card along. This is a game of pay it forward: anonymously make someone smile, leave behind a card asking them to keep the ripple going. It's easy and fun. Is kindness truly contagious? There's only one way to find out...
Paying it Forward in 1784
Did you know Benjamin Franklin was one of the first to discuss the "Pay it Forward" model? In 1784 he wrote a bankrupt acquaintance to whom he had given some money:
"I do not pretend to give such a Sum; I only lend it to you. When you meet with an other honest Man in similar Distress, you must pay me by lending this Sum to him; enjoining him to discharge the Debt by a like operation, when he shall be able, and shall meet with another opportunity. I hope it may thus go thro' many hands, before it meets with a Knave that will stop its Progress. This is a trick of mine for doing a deal of good with a little money."
Yulgyal Rinpoche - Creative Commons
Smile Cards - Service Space
Benjamin Franklin - Creative Commons