Have we lost our natural capacity to give?
How compassionate giving frees us from suffering.
I always seem to feel a warm lightness when recalling experiences of heartfelt giving. Maybe it’s because I remember the joy that comes from such an act. I had the pleasure of meeting Ken, a friend who was a natural giver. It would seem I learned plenty from him.
One sunny afternoon, we were having lunch when I saw two kids beg for food. My automatic response was to ignore them, but Ken bought them food anyway and invited them to our table. It really opened me to new ways of relating to people I’ve never met. Soon I learned that they were orphans, and they gobbled the food pretty fast. Since that day, I’ve grown fond of the kids in that area, giving them food and company when I can.
I was taught that genuinely sharing felt nice mainly because I “gave from the heart”. What does that really mean?
Giving from the heart
I believe giving from the heart involves doing things for the purpose of enriching someone’s life. This means giving without the expectation of any reward (other than happiness of course). In a business standpoint, this sounds bogus and leads to bankruptcy. We all have ‘happiness banks’ though we sometimes neglect. This is especially since giving from the heart makes us feel alive and happy.
Heartfelt giving doesn’t require you to become a saint and give all your belongings. However, we do need to check our motivations and feelings when dealing with anyone. Do I do things out of necessity or a ‘ just business’ mindset? To what extent am I motivated to promote the happiness of the person I am dealing with? Absolutely any action can become an avenue of heartfelt giving, one of love and kindness. Even something as simple as playing competitive online games apply.
One day, I was playing League of Legends as a support character. I was paired with a cocky player who wasn’t really that good at all. He would start to blame me when he dies on our lane (he died a lot), chatting profanities at me like an angry child. My initial reaction was to say that it’s his fault he sucks, and insult him some more. Then I remembered that people who are harsh to others are just as harsh towards themselves. He probably wanted to feel good about his game play, and I respected that. I resisted the urge to insult him, and instead supported him like a boss.
He eventually got a good in-game score and started insulting other people in the game (aside from me, yahoo!). Even when someone aggressively demands from us, we can always choose to respond with kindness and compassion. This might take more effort, but responding with kindness is a form of heartfelt giving too.
If one can freely give from the heart, what stops us from using this amazing capacity?
A mindset that alienates
Marshall Rosenberg, the founder of nonviolent communication, says our mindset can also hinder our efforts for heartfelt giving. Oftentimes, our words can alienate us from getting what we truly want from others. I find what’s common in this kind of negative language is the presence of ‘shoulds’.
The presence of ‘shoulds’ does not give us room to give from the heart, since there is no room for choice. “You should be kind”, “I should do my job well”, “We should behave appropriately.” Upholding one’s duties is necessary if society is to function, but doing anything because one should do so, can be hazardous for our souls.
I can only describe the feeling of dutiful giving as deadening, that it gives me a sort of numbness that I do not notice because it’s ‘normal’. Conversely, when I give something from the heart, I feel that a layer of numbness in me leaks a little joy. I feel happy to be alive. Perhaps this is my natural state, and everyone else’s. Marshall Rosenberg seems to think so too.
The gift of compassion: a way out of suffering
When this type of giving seems too tiresome, I remind myself that it is a way out of suffering. I find it paradoxical how giving from my heart actually enlarges my heart in the process. Consequently, I feel this is really good for me, and strengthens me to face many poop people have to offer. People can be inconsiderate, abusive, and violent. But through compassion, I am able to embrace this with open arms.
A notable Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, cleverly explains this:
If you pour a handful of salt into a cup of water, the water becomes undrinkable. But if you pour the salt into a river, people can continue to draw the water to cook, wash, and drink. The river is immense, and it has the capacity to receive, embrace, and transform. When our hearts are small, our understanding and compassion are limited, and we suffer. We can’t accept or tolerate others and their shortcomings, and we demand that they change. But when our hearts expand, these same things don’t make us suffer anymore. We have a lot of understanding and compassion and can embrace others. We accept others as they are, and then they have a chance to transform.
It’s beautiful how this message relates to a handful of people. Whenever I receive ‘saltiness’ or violence from someone, maybe the guy behind me honks too loud, or someone hurts me through insult, my programmed reaction will always be violent. I react and become ‘salty’. The suffering of this person spreads to me.
But when I give my compassion and good will to this person, the suffering seems to vanish. My heart begins to open up as I say “This person must’ve had a nasty day at work” or “Maybe she’s facing many problems right now.” Then I become more tolerant, and I want to help.
If we create compassion for the people that hurt us, we would have achieved a great deal. Buddhist practices liken it to a muscle, that gets stronger with practice. We usually start with the people we like to the people we barely know–until we are compassionate enough to finally embrace the people that disgust us. This also means we must give compassion to ourselves, since self-compassion is a prerequisite of compassion. I dream of the day when compassion becomes the norm in society.
Is this even attainable for society? I believe it is–and it starts with ourselves. When we become a blessing to others, we create ripples.
A society that gives from the heart
The writer of the insightful book Altruism, Matthieu Ricard, said there used to be a time when giving from the heart was more common. This might be due to the small sizes of old communities. Everyone knew each other by name. They all cared for each other and gave what they can.
The urban life we’re used to doesn’t encourage this anymore. Practicality dictates we have to work to get ahead and survive. A theme of ‘Us vs. Them’ emerges as we erect our psychological walls. We might not be as generous as we would want. This happens because giving our resources and energy to everyone can be costly.
Nevertheless, we can always choose to excel in whatever niche we have as our form of heartfelt giving. When you do excel, consider doing pro bonos or free jobs for those in need. Or simply do what you do with the highest intentions for the people that you deal with. Give yourself the gift of giving. And when you do this, do it from the heart.
Never give unless it’s from the heart.
Originally published at www.chenpsych.com on February 24, 2017.