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Category Archives: generosity

Joanna Macy writes:

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As the rug is progressively pulled out from under us, it is easy to panic, and even easier to simply shut down. These two instinctive reactions — panic and paralysis — are the roadside ditches that border our pathway to a livable future. To fall into either one is the greatest of all the dangers we face, for they deaden the heart and derail the mind. If ever we needed spiritual practices and disciplines for staying alert and connected, it is now. The greatest gift we can give our world is our presence, awake and attentive. What can help us do that? Here, drawn from ancient religions and Earth wisdom traditions, are a handful of practices I have learned to count on.

1. Breathe

Our friend the breath is always with us. When we pay attention to its flow, it merges mind with body, and connects inner world with outer world. Mindfulness of breathing in and breathing out can center and steady you. “Feel how your breathing makes more space around you,” writes the poet Rilke. “Pure, continuous exchange with all that is, flow and counterflow where rhythmically we come to be.” Notice that you are not deciding each time to exhale or inhale; it’s rather that you’re being breathed. Breathed by life. And so are all the other animals, and plants too, in vast rhythms of reciprocity. Feel that web enlivening you and holding you. The felt flow-through of matter/energy brings a measure of ease, and opens us to the flow-through of information as well. This lowers our usual defenses against distressing information, and begins to unblock the feedback loops, so we can more clearly perceive what we’ve caused to happen.



caregiver’s curiosity

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I hosted a jizo ceremony for members of our mediation group yesterday — an occasion to reflect on personal losses, sew little garment, and place them on statues in our meditation garden. All done in silence, except for a couple of chants and poems; solemn, some tears. Afterwards two people wrote to say that “it was more profound and beautiful than I could have imagined. We both noticed a sense of lightness ….”

While I guided the proceedings, I also visited my own grief. Once everyone had left, I marvelled at this wonderful practice. How did I get to be so fortunate (blessed?) to have the tools and opportunity to be of service? I felt drained and took to bed; woke up an hour later, refreshed and still.

Many friends are caregivers: nurses, counsellors, health care providers, volunteers, companions, teachers, parents. How do you do it, day in and day out?

What motivates a caregiver’s actions?
Why are we willing to be with another’s pain?
Who can say?
We want to help,
but that’s not the whole story.
We feel obliged,
but that’s not it either.

Beneath the many motives of the conditioned mind
rests the mysterious Tao,
which is the true source of all caring.
We can’t see it or understand it.
We can only trust that it
is the origin of what we do
and the power that helps us see it through.

source: Martin, W. & M. (2011). The caregiver’s Tao te Ching. Novato, CA: New World Library, p. 24. The Tao te Ching is a 2600-year old Chinese text. The term tao can be translated as “way” to mean course of life and its relation to eternal truth. 

pressed into service

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Yesterday was Good Friday (”good’ as in holy), a significant day for many as Christ is said to have been crucified on a Friday. Why it is a statutory (legal) holiday in a secular country puzzles me. I raised the topic with several people throughout the day and its meaning was unclear to most of them, other than that it had to do with Easter and that for some it was a paid day off work.

In the morning two of us trained on the steep hills of Mt. Tolmie and first noticed a cluster of Philippine women waiting in the parking lot and then a mixed gathering with a huge wooden cross forming a procession. Ah! They’d come to walk the Stations of the Cross — a custom going back to 16th century Europe when Franciscan monks began to erect 14 stations inside and near churches to help the faithful to make a pilgrimage of prayer upon Christ’s sufferings and death.

Recalling that during my European walking tours I frequently sought refuge in village churches, I mentioned that I’d been touched by depictions of the fifth station, where Simon takes up Christ’s cross. There was something in that gesture, of coming forward amid the jeering crowd and saying, “Hey, let me give you hand.” It spoke to me of compassion, literally the ‘suffering with’ another person.

This morning I checked to see how Simon the Cyrene came to play his part. The chroniclers Matthew and Mark both use the phrase “pressed into service”, while Luke says that someone “made him carry the cross.” Okay, so Simon wasn’t anyone special. He was just one of hundreds lining the path leading up Mt. Calvary to the place of execution. Regardless of whether he volunteered or was recruited, he probably exchanged a word and certainly a gesture with the condemned. For a brief moment, both men were linked in passio, in suffering. One taking up another’s strain.

In doing so, his life may have taken a turn — who knows. Simon’s act represents the times any of us might be “pressed into service.” Opportunities abound to step outside our zone of comfort and offer a touch, a word, a moment’s silent attention. Perhaps today …

image: Simon the Cyrene helps Jesus bear his cross, #5 in ’14 stations of the cross’ series by Laura James (2002).

the next time i complain …

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… about our health care system, remind me how dramatically different things work just around the corner from where we live. Beth Goldring is a 67-year old American, a former ballet dancer, university humanities teacher and human rights worker. She was ordained a Rinzai Zen nun in 1995 and currently directs Brahmavihara, a chaplaincy program providing services to destitute AIDS patients and their families in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Here’s an excerpt from her newsletter —

“The government, without announcement, set a policy that anybody more than five days late for their medicines after three months is automatically cut from the rolls of patients receiving medicines (three-month appointments are now standard for people, except when the hospitals run out of medicines and can only give for shorter periods). Neither patients nor doctors were informed of this. We first heard about it from a doctor we are close to, who discovered it when he went to give medicines for someone and found the records gone.  

“Ta Heng, our beloved schizophrenic patient, went for medicines in early April only to find he could not receive them. We and Maryknoll [a Catholic mission] have covered his situation, which remains complicated, but we don’t know how many other patients have been cut off.  Most people who come late for their medicines are poor and come late because it is hard to find the money for transportation. I found out more recently that patients taken off the rolls theoretically can go to one government-run clinic for treatment; we don’t know yet if this actually works.”

Click here to see Beth’s annual support, budget, and donation site.

to be heard

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Having someone listen and give me their full attention is a wonderful experience. To look at me directly, face me squarely, perhaps lean-in a little — all the outwards signs of what in counselling is called “attending behavior.” This way you show that my well-being matters to you. Kindly withhold advice and opinions, go easy with “I know just how you feel,” and delay analysis and “here’s what you should do.”

Being heard allows me to relax a little, knowing that I’m not alone (although ultimately I am just that). It offers me some wiggle room, some breathing space so that I can begin to distance my/self from the problem, to begin seeing “it” as separate from “me.”

So, please, the next you find yourself the recipient of someone’s personal story, relax. Unless specifically asked, you’re not required to solve their problem, nor produce a remedy. Exhale and give as much as attention as you’re able to. That is your gift.


darn gifts

This morning, after a sweaty workout, my trainer gave to me … a festive paper bag containing what looked like a Christmas gift. Before I could say “gosh”, my thoughts went to I should have brought her a present and Maybe I’m off the hook because I live a monk’s life. My ego-centred mind reacted with a deeply ingrained habit where gifts are part of a tit-for-tat transaction.

Returning home, I found the second envelope in as many days containing an artful card hinting at Christmas wishes — without an inscription to say who’d sent either one. Could it be that someone’s teaching me about receiving expressions of kindness regardless of the sender’s identity?

Following last night’s meditation we again passed gifts to each other: little packages I’d wrapped beforehand so that neither giver nor receiver would know their contents. One person who’d been a recipient on Monday told us that she’d given hers to someone who was unable to attend. In response, the person opposite burst out: “Now I feel guilty.” Asked what that was about, he explained that he’d just imagined unwrapping his gift and now felt bad for being so selfish.

There’s a line in a Zen meal blessing that speaks of “the emptiness of the three wheels: giver, receiver, and gift.” By themselves all three are just as they are — until our conditioned minds come along to burden them with psycho-baggage.

May your gift-giving and receiving be free from add-ons.
May your heart be
filled with joy and gratitude.


giving and receiving

Yesterday, following evening meditation, I passed around a basket of wrapped gifts. Please take one and offer it to your neighbour, I said, neither of you will know what’s inside. My intention was for us to experience the pure act of exchanging gifts, of giving and receiving, regardless of the utility, value, or suitability of what’s being exchanged.

“Giving simply because it is right to give, without thought of return … is enlightened giving” (Hinduism’s Bhagavad Gita, 17.20-21).

“Enlightened beings are magnanimous givers, bestowing whatever they have with equanimity, without regret, without hoping for reward, without seeking honour, without coveting material benefits …” (Buddhism’s Garland Sutra, 21).

image: Pablo Picasso (1881-1973)