Creating a Life of Integrity

1. Generosity

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1 Generosity

For many people generosity is the easiest parami to appreciate and develop because it brings such immediate delight to our lives.


The First Parami: Generosity

The Pali word dana, which we translate as generosity, is used to designate the first parami in Buddhist texts. It means sharing with others and includes nobility of mind, magnanimity, and graciousness.

Instructions: We Start Where We Are

“Let’s begin working with the paramis by talking about generosity,” Joseph says. “There is one story, I think from the Buddha’s time, about a monk whose generosity was very undeveloped. So the Buddha said to take a stone in one hand and practice giving it to the other hand. Just go back and forth, practicing giving the stone to one hand, and then giving to the other hand. Begin to train in what the movement of giving is like.”

“And it worked?” I ask, laughing.

“It worked. Gradually he got used to the notion of giving, of letting go, even on that most basic level. So we start where we are.”


For this first instruction, Joseph and I have scheduled an early evening phone conversation. It is just after dinner on the East Coast. Joseph is in his home on the grounds of the Buddhist center he founded, the Insight Meditation Society, in Barre, Massachusetts. And I am seated on a bench outside the San Francisco Ferry Building, gazing over the bay. I have an hour before the ferry taking me home will depart. Sunlight glitters on the tops of boat wakes like scattered sequins. The breeze off the bay carries with it a salty rustle of excitement. A seagull poses for tourists on a railing post. People in business attire are eating oysters nearby, calling out to one another across a long table and laughing. A dozen pelicans glide overhead in formation. I feel happy to be sitting in this beautiful setting, starting on this new venture with Joseph as he shares his wisdom. I am filled with gratitude . . . and also a bit distracted! Next time I shall choose a less enticing location.

“So we start where we are,” begins Joseph. This idea that we can work on our generosity is intriguing, inspiring. Many of us tend to be quasi-generous, our generosity sporadic, unplanned. Sometimes we may be dismissive when an impulse to be generous arises, other times genuinely magnanimous. I much prefer the magnanimous Gail. She is happier.

“One of the great benefits of the practice of generosity,” Joseph continues, “is that we get to see the whole range of our motivations. Often we can think that our motivations are very pure, but then sometimes if we look more carefully, we see underlying motivations or mixed motivations.

“A good example of this is when I was in India in the open market bazaar,” he continues, “just buying some fruit.” (Joseph studied and lived in India for seven years.) “There was this little Indian beggar boy standing by my side. I should say, wherever one goes in India, there are hundreds and hundreds of beggars, and living there you learn, in one way or another, how you choose to relate to them.

“So I was at the bazaar, and I had bought some fruit and he was just standing there. Without thinking about it — it was not some great moment of generous feeling, it was just a spontaneous moment — I took a piece of fruit I had just bought and gave it to him. What turned out to be surprising was that after I gave it to him, he just took it and walked away. 17There was no response. There was no smile. No nod. There was not anything. No acknowledgment whatsoever.

“And it was striking to me not because I had expected some effusive thanks,” he says, laughing. “It was just an orange. I didn’t think that I wanted anything in exchange for it. But when he just walked away, without any acknowledgment whatsoever, it revealed to me that there had been at least some expectation of something in response. It revealed a level of expectation and motivation in me that I hadn’t even known was there. And so in moments of generosity, and in the practice of it, it is helpful to be watchful of what we think our motivations are for doing it. To notice what inspired us, and then to watch it through the whole act, and to pay attention afterward to see what’s going on, because it can often illuminate some hidden shadows.”

“I can definitely feel that if I did that, I would be expecting him to give something back,” I say.

“Yes,” Joseph says, “a smile perhaps.” We are quiet.

“I’m thinking now about all the homeless people I see every day,” I say slowly. “I passed several walking to get here.”

“That would be a good place to begin.”

“But there are so many.”

“Just try it. My first suggestion to you for working with generosity is each time the thought to give arises, act on it. Then notice what happens.” He chuckles — that low, deep sound that puts me on alert.


“This practice can be very revealing” is all he says.

Joseph then gives the instructions that follow below for working with generosity over the next month. We say our goodbyes and I walk to the ferry, my mind whirling.

Buddhists casually categorize people into three types, none of which is particularly flattering: the deluded type, whose positive attribute is equanimity, is someone who can be ambivalent and somewhat casual about details, time, and appearances; the aversive type, whose positive attribute is discernment, is someone whose first response can be one of resistance or aversion; the greedy type, whose positive attribute is faith, is someone who can be motivated, basically, by desire. 18Of course we all have aspects of all three tendencies arising at different times, but we may also have a predominant inclination, a habitual first response to new stimuli. Joseph and I are classic greedy types, and we often kid each other about our shared propensity.

I am on the ferry now, gliding across San Francisco Bay toward a sun that is slipping behind the Golden Gate Bridge and letting us all know of her departure with a riotously colored show. Some folks sitting with me in the front cabin are also gazing out, sipping a wine or beer. Others are reading or working on laptops. This is the quiet cabin. I am soothed by the ambience as I sit contemplating the idea of strengthening one’s capacity for generosity. Can we really do this? You may be thinking, as I was then, that the practice of improving one’s generosity may not be easy. When I began this work I didn’t consider myself to be overly generous, especially in contrast to other magnanimously generous people I knew. This recognition in ourselves can feel tight, and disappointing, like a shield constricting the heart. Most of us would truly like to change this automatic response of scarcity, of holding back. And so, together, we will begin wherever we are, and then begin again, and again. But this time we have a set of instructions and a gentle, wise coach for guidance.


In my experience, generosity never leads to remorse.



Joseph’s Instructions: Working with Generosity

Weakness or lack of generosity can give rise to greed, desire, craving, and lack. Strength in generosity develops and manifests in much happiness. There is happiness in planning the generous act, happiness in the actual giving, and happiness in reflecting later on your generosity. I suggest:


  1. Whenever you have the thought to be generous, just do it.

  2. Notice what happens next. What feelings arise? What thoughts arise?

  3. Then pay attention as you give. What feelings arise? What thoughts arise?

  4. Finally, after you have been generous (or after you have not been generous), investigate. What thoughts arise? What feelings predominate?

  5. Try exploring other arenas, other ways to be generous. Make a list. Every day there is some way of being of service to others.

  6. Pay attention to everything. Look closely for subtleties, for that which is not at first apparent.

  7. Ask: What is the motivation underlying this moment of generosity?

  8. Then — this is important — watch throughout the day for what undermines the motivation.

  9. Have fun with this. Remember: awareness doesn’t have to be grim.


Generosity becomes stronger and more delightful the more we engage in it.



Working with Generosity: Julie

Day One: I am sitting at my desk at work, writing birthday wishes in cards for two of my nieces. Because they are older now, instead of a gift I send cash. I tuck a twenty-dollar bill into each card. Then I think, What can a teenager buy with twenty dollars? And because it is my first day strategically practicing generosity, and because I have had the thought to do it, I add another twenty-dollar bill to each card. This is more than I usually send. They will be thrilled. I am thrilled anticipating their delight.

At noon I walk out to mail the cards and have lunch, still pleased about my generous act. Just before the restaurant I pass an older man, panhandling. I smile. He smiles, then breaks into a song. He has a beautiful voice and I tell him so. Others walk past. No one is putting money in the top hat he has placed on the sidewalk. He sings parts of another few songs for me, grinning. I open my purse to give him a dollar. He leans over, peers into my wallet, and suddenly begins to cry! He tells me he has just lost a close friend. He is hoping to earn enough money to attend the funeral, traveling by bus to Seattle. “That twenty would sure be helpful,” he says.

1:00 p.m. Back at my desk, I check in with myself, as Joseph has instructed. I still feel happy. And generous. Also poorer: $80 to my nieces + $20 to the street singer = $100, my entire month’s budget for cash. Enthused and pumped up with the intention to be generous, I have just given it all away in an hour on day one! Now some deflation occurs, tempering the enthusiasm. Doubts join the gathering clouds preparing to rain on my parade of good intentions. The man on the street may have just been telling me a story. It doesn’t matter, I argue with myself. He asked; I gave. The Buddha said, “There is no spiritual life without a generous heart.” But he could be buying liquor right now with the twenty dollars. I imagine him pouring drinks into plastic cups for all his friends on the street from a bottle in a brown bag. Confusion arises about this idea to act on every generous impulse. I have to be more discerning, right? But that thought feels like a piece of the old, less generous tendency. Well, I obviously can’t call Joseph on day one. So, somewhat 21confused but still determined, I decide to continue stretching my generosity, no holding back, and watch what happens. I am curious to see how this is going to play out. Which will I run out of first — my cash or my heart’s measure of generosity? I also notice I am still feeling a quiet, soft peace as I reflect on the gladness I feel I have just brought others. Small efforts, but in the moment I did respond generously, at least more generously than I think I would have responded yesterday. Happiness arises . . . then doubts . . . happiness . . . second-guessing . . . happiness. This continues at intervals all afternoon. On the way home I stop at an ATM and withdraw another hundred dollars. Begin again.

Still determined to be generous whenever the opportunity arises, I now focus also on how I am giving. Is it grudgingly or is it with delight? Am I giving the best I have, the most I am able, or am I holding something back?

To get to work I often take the ferry from Sausalito to San Francisco, then walk many long urban blocks to my office. I pass, on average, half a dozen folks sitting on the filthy sidewalk with various signs, all asking for my generosity. I try to honor my first instinct, which I am happy to discover is almost always to be generous. Still, I do not always act on that initial impulse to give. Why is that? So I begin paying attention to what happens when I don’t give. I make a list of why I sometimes choose not to be generous.

My list: I notice there are times I just don’t want to make the effort. It’s not convenient to stop and rummage through my bag for my wallet. The person asking annoys me or follows me or keeps pressing. I am tired. I am cold. I am rushing. I am cranky. The light turns green as I’m still rummaging in my bag. My shoes hurt. I don’t have any dollar bills. I just gave to three people before the one now asking me. I don’t feel this one looks needy enough. I look ahead to see how many more pleading faces I will walk by; my heart sinks to see them ahead. I make detours. I pretend to be distracted, look at something else as I pass. I tell myself it is OK to pass by just this once, then notice this is not how I feel after I have passed by.

All this awareness may be a sign of progress, but I feel the discouragement and I fear I’m sliding back. When I tell Joseph I have made a list 22of why I sometimes choose not to be generous, he asks, “Is it a long list?” And yet, each morning I awake inspired to hit the streets again with new resolve. This is something that I am beginning to feel I can change. Today. So I just begin again, mindfully. Don’t judge others, don’t judge myself. This morning I almost walk past a young man needing ninety dollars to pay his rent, or so his sign says. He appears to be healthy and sane. My first thought is, as has been my habit, But he looks like he could be working. I almost pass by. Then I think, Actually, these days, there is a good chance he could not find work. I stop walking. I am delighted to feel my old habit of rating who is worthy of my generosity slipping. Everyone I pass who asks, is asking me, and if someone is asking me, I will give. I open my wallet to get a dollar bill but have none. He talks me into giving him a twenty-dollar bill. We are both grinning as I walk away. On the way home I stop at a bank on Market Street and get twenty dollars’ worth of one-dollar bills, which I fold and slip into my coat pocket, not my wallet.

And so I continue watching and trying hard not to judge or talk myself out of my initial motivation of generosity. Today I’m surprised and delighted to notice the desire to be generous is quickly becoming the first response to arise. Seeing that natural instinct of goodness arising fortifies me. That impulse, sometimes but certainly not always, can be immediately followed by rationalizations. As Joseph suggests, I can choose to believe these thoughts, or I can choose to let them float by, like the insubstantial clouds they are. I can ignore them as if they were someone else’s thoughts blown down the crowded city street and into my head. I can’t (yet) seem to stop those old patterns of thinking from arising, but I can choose not to listen. I can choose for them not to be the motive I act on.

As I continue my walk to work, spirits buoyant, I recall Don Terner, who died tragically in a small plane crash while on a humanitarian mission in Nigeria. Don founded a San Francisco company that is now the largest builder of affordable housing in the country, BRIDGE Housing. When he walked the streets of San Francisco, he would stop before every street person, greet them (often in the middle of a conversation he 23might be having with a companion), and give them a dollar bill from a wad he always kept in his pocket for just such occasions. A wad!

Joseph is like this. In a coffee shop, at the overnight free ski kiosk, on the shuttle bus, and especially walking San Francisco streets with me, he has money out and offered often before I even notice that we are being asked. He seems to have an early radar system, and he always gives when the opportunity presents itself.

In the third week I begin looking for other opportunities, other ways to be generous. Not limited to handing out dollar bills, I have fun just trying to bring a smile to someone’s face. I bring dinner to a friend recovering from surgery, offer unsolicited kind words and compliments. I do those little inconvenient acts that can seem so trivial, so easily dismissed, and yet can bring such gladness to others and to myself. I discover there are many inconvenient acts I routinely talk myself out of doing. Acknowledging another person’s good qualities (a personal favorite). Calling on an elderly neighbor. Offering encouragement. Withholding a criticism (a big one). Smiling at, acknowledging, thanking all those who serve: cashiers, bus drivers, waiters, clerks, ticket takers, office cleaners. Their often surprised smile of delight and thanks cheer me immensely. Such small gestures, but such heartfelt connections.

As the generosity month is waning, I am in downtown San Francisco. It is Saturday, and I am off work. All morning I have been feeling relaxed and curiously, softly content, despite all I have to do today. It is noon. I have finished all my errands and still have time for a quiet lunch outside at a sidewalk café on Maiden Lane. I carry my lunch tray outside. It is one of those delightful, rare days in San Francisco that is warm enough, with no wind, to do this enjoyably. I am just about to sit down when a woman, clearly a person living on the streets, approaches asking for money. I feel an initial irritation. It passes quickly. I set my tray down on an empty table and reach for one of the dollars I have loose in my coat pocket. As I hand it to her, I look into her creased, leathery face. We exchange greetings. Then she asks if we can talk. I am momentarily taken aback. When I say yes, she sits down at the table!


Still standing, my buoyant spirits now sink. This is not the leisurely, tranquil meal I had been looking forward to all morning. I see other patrons, some with kids, staring at us. I also see a waiter start forward from the café doorway. A shiver of fear brushes me lightly, probably shared by some of the diners watching us. I hear Joseph’s voice reminding me to look closely for subtleties. What do I fear here? I fear that if I open up to the disadvantaged waiting on every city street corner that they will burden me with their sad tale and ask for more and more. I fear I am out of my comfort zone and don’t know the proper response. Perhaps most acutely, I fear not knowing how to extricate myself once we begin. All this is arising. But she is seated at the table now. This is the month to investigate and expand my generosity. So my fears and I sit down, trepidation and reluctance joining us. What a crowded table this has suddenly become.

We begin to talk. She speaks softly. She tells me her name is Julie and that she is forty-eight years old. She looks sixty-eight. She tells me she is grateful that I was willing to speak with her and tears up as she says this. I do, too, imagining the isolation, loneliness, and invisibility of a woman living on the streets. This is something I had not really considered before. She is wearing several layers of clothing, topped with a long red wool sweater, even though it is quite warm. The clothes seem clean but are patched, wrinkled, unraveling. There is grime beneath her fingernails. Her hands are chapped, red and large-knuckled. She is thin, with rounded shoulders. A gray wool ski cap with dangling tassels covers her head. Her eyes, set deeply into lined cheeks, are a brilliant pale blue.

I am hungry, my full plate untouched before me. I ask if she is hungry. She rummages in a crumpled brown bag and shows me a Starbucks package with a partially eaten chicken salad sandwich and says she is not hungry right now. So I begin eating and talking, but mostly listening. As I listen, I can feel myself slowly relaxing. I actually physically feel my heart opening. Compassion arises, quite spontaneously. Julie is very lucid, and I am increasingly interested in knowing her story, how she got to where she is and what it is like to actually live on the streets.


First, however, we do the traditional dance. She tells me if she only had twenty dollars, that would buy her two nights at a shelter. I give her the twenty. Then, after carefully pocketing the bill, she looks down as she says, “Now, if only I had forty dollars . . .”

I reach for another twenty, then look up, smile, and say, “Oh, now, enough of this game.”

She stops, looks up at me intently, then throws back her head and laughs surprisingly robustly. “OK,” she says nodding, and we bump knuckles across the café tabletop, grinning at one another. I am quite certain people around us are shocked, but now Julie and I are tight. And I give her the second twenty.

Over the next hour we laugh. We get teary. I am delighted to discover she is as interested in my life as I am in hers. I ask her bunches of questions, and she asks them of me in return. At one point she wants to know what brings me downtown. I say a hair appointment and show her the gray hairs I am going to the salon to get colored. She whips off her knit cap to show me her gray hairs and we grin at each other, shaking our heads. I learn it is alcohol that has taken her down, although she says she no longer drinks. She tells me in two months she is going to get her own apartment. This she glowingly describes in much detail. She has been accepted by a City of San Francisco outreach program. She will also receive money every month, which she can hardly imagine. She tells me she has requested they dole out the money in small portions so she won’t get into trouble again.

At this point the waiter approaches. He has continually watched us and is, I believe, shocked to see us continue sitting together. “Will there be anything else?” he asks me. Julie asks if she can have a Coke, and he pretends not to hear her.

“Please bring my friend a Coke,” I tell him. He returns with the Coke in a can! Julie requests a glass with ice, and reluctantly he brings it. After he leaves, Julie leans in and whispers. She tells me how important and good it had felt to her that I would speak up for her.

We talk about relationships. She was married for fifteen years, she tells me, until the drinking and fooling around finally brought down the marriage. I ask what she did for a living before landing on the streets, 26and she proudly describes working in construction. We talk another thirty minutes, lingering long after I have paid the bill. Finally, reluctantly, I glance at my watch. Almost immediately she begins gathering her things, clearly not wanting to detain me. I am touched at this gesture from her.

We rise, and as we walk away from the table, she asks for a hug. There on the sidewalk outside the café, with patrons watching, we embrace — a long, tight hug. The waiter emerges from the café, sees us, and laughs. It doesn’t bother either of us. We look into each other’s eyes, holding hands. “Thank you,” she says. “I hope to see you again.”

“Yes,” I say. “I hope so too.” She turns and walks away down Maiden Lane, past upscale boutiques. I turn and walk in the opposite direction.


Generosity weakens the tendency of attachment and grasping and is intimately connected with the feeling of loving-kindness.



And we are all held back at times, but I think what is important is to acknowledge it, to remember this is a practice, and understand that at times we can just . . . push that edge.



Check-In Conversation: Push That Edge

For my check-in conversation with Joseph at the end of the month, I am home alone on a Sunday. The house and the neighborhood are quiet, much fewer distractions than when we spoke at the beginning of the month. I take a few deep breaths, look one last time through the notes I have accumulated all month, and dial Joseph’s number. This is the first of our monthly taped conversations, and he is expecting my call.

“Hello,” he says, and I can hear the smile in his voice. I relax. After exchanging quick pleasantries and checking in on each other’s health and recent activities, I dive in.

“So, Joseph, I am appalled at the magnitude of my selfishness. I can’t believe all the rationalizations and judgments.” I describe my experiences walking the streets of San Francisco. “And when I felt I was suffering — you know, when my shoes hurt, for gosh sakes — I was even less compassionate, less generous. It is terrible to see that, and so discouraging.”

“Yes, but remember, the practice is to investigate, not to judge.”

“Investigate, not judge. It is so easy to forget that broader perspective,” I groan.

“Yes. I think that the main part of this is really making it an investigation and also not assuming that it’s always just one simple thing. We can act spontaneously but then take an interest, asking, ‘OK, what really happened here?’ We sort out what are the pure motivations and what are the motivations that are not so pure. This is what makes it so interesting — and ultimately purifying. Because if you don’t see what is unskillful, then you can’t see what needs more work.”


“I understand. And I do notice that after I give, I always feel good. And I notice when I don’t act on the impulse to be generous that arises, I am always disappointed in myself. But I also observe how quickly the bad feeling dissipates. It seems I can dismiss it so easily.”

“Dismiss what? The impulse to be generous?”

“Well, yes, that too, but more the regret, feeling ‘I should have’ after I don’t act on the impulse to give.”

“Yes. That is a big one to investigate.”

“Any suggestions?”

“Well, one of the practices I do — or I try to do — is when I recognize the impulse to give arising, I try to make it a practice to act on it. Just simply act on it. And it’s not perfect, but I follow through on the generous act much more often now. And I really enjoy this, because it takes you over the hump of laziness or perhaps a bit of apathy, because you have it in your mind that this is a practice. This is one way of practicing generosity. And it’s beautiful. It’s really beautiful.

“In some teachings it is said that you should give without regard to the outcome, without regard to the need. If there is an opportunity to give, you give. And so for me my practice has been if I come into contact with a situation where there is an opportunity to give, I don’t think about what kind of person they are or even what they are going to do with the money. It’s just a spontaneous act. It is about not letting those opportunities pass by.”

“Yes, I see. I understand the difference. That simple commitment is quite powerful.”

“I have also found it interesting to play with generosity on varying levels of largesse. In other words, you could have the impulse to give a dollar to someone on the street, or twenty dollars, as you describe, or . . .” He pauses. “Or you could have an impulse to give a thousand dollars to a friend who you think really needs it. And this is something that you would not normally do. But the thought might come, and with something like that there could also come a lot of second-guessing.”

“Oh, I definitely have experienced the second-guessing.”

“And I think that this could also be taken to an extreme that might not be skillful, where you just give everything away and then you’re 29living on the street. I’m not suggesting that. But I think there is a very wide range within which we can be unusually generous and have it not be to our detriment, even financially. And again, watch the motivation behind it. You can give the best of what you have, which is called ‘royal giving.’ But if you are not delighted to do so, then that would not be considered royal giving. I guess you could call that ‘princely giving,’” Joseph says, laughing. “The important piece is to notice on which level you are giving. But it is also important to remember that even beggarly giving is better than giving nothing.”

I am quiet for a few moments, letting this boundary-stretching concept settle in. Then I speak. “OK, so now another question. I know this can be tricky because you and I have talked about this before. Generosity, giving, makes one happy. It really does. But if we are doing it to feel happy — if we’re feeling glum and think, I’ll just pass out dollar bills to everyone on my way to work and then I’ll feel better — is that beggarly giving? Is that motive impure?”

“Well, again, as with almost everything for those of us who are not yet fully enlightened, our motivations will often be mixed.”

“Oh. Mixed. Right.”

“So it’s not to expect that we’ll necessarily always have completely pure motives. But I think to the extent that we’re honest with ourselves, that we see what’s going on, that we’re not deluding ourselves, then we can give emphasis to the more skillful aspects. Even if other conflicting thoughts are arising in the mind, we can let them come and we can let them go rather than have those thoughts be the main motivation.”

“I see, even with beggarly giving, you’re still giving.”

“Yes, absolutely. And I’ve played with this quite a lot, both ways,” Joseph says.

“You mean sometimes you’ve acted and sometimes you’ve talked yourself out of it?”

“Exactly!” He laughs, then becomes quiet.

“But even when it feels like something significant relative to my resources,” he says softly, slowly, “I have never ever regretted doing it. Which is itself something to learn.”


“Yes, I understand that.” We are both quiet for a few moments before I continue.

“When I began this work I would walk down the street making judgments — this person looks like they could get a job, this person is harassing me, or whatever. And it is so encouraging now, only a month later, to discover that I may still have one of those thoughts come up, but then I’ll have another thought, Well, maybe he couldn’t get a job. Or, maybe she didn’t have a place to sleep last night. And, you know, it doesn’t matter. They are asking, and at this moment they are asking me, so I will give.”

“Right. And maybe this is their job.”


Joseph laughs. “That’s what I say to myself. Maybe this is his job. This is what they have chosen to do for a job.”

“Oh, my God, Joseph . . . that’s crazy.”

“So, I really like that,” Joseph says. He begins chuckling.


“It’s not a job that I would want to do.” This makes me laugh.

“So his job is . . .”

“To sit there and ask for money.”

“And, I guess, also help us to expand our generosity?”

“Well, yes. And it gets even further complicated. There is a lot in this, and that is why the whole practice of generosity is so rich. Of course the fruit, the benefit of the gift — beside the obvious benefit to the receiver — is enhanced by not wanting the benefit.”

“Yes. I understand that.”

“It must be given in a really spontaneous and genuine way. So it is all of these aspects. This is what makes it such a rich practice. There are many dimensions to it — many dimensions to look at and to examine within oneself.”

I’m beginning to understand the richness and complexity to this practice, levels I had not observed. I am quiet again as this new understanding sinks in.

“Now this may sound silly,” I say finally, “but I did notice that even cooking felt like a gift of generosity.”


“Oh, yes,” he says. “As you well know, I love it when you cook. Anytime anyone cooks a meal for me, I feel they are being generous. Especially for those of us who don’t cook, or who don’t enjoy cooking for ourselves.” Joseph doesn’t cook much. As a bachelor he has created the perfect scenario: an easy stroll through the woods from his house to the Insight Meditation Society dining hall.

“I also love being generous when no one else knows,” I continue, “like preparing dinner and giving Ron the best of whatever it is I’ve prepared. Something about that tickles me.”

“And the shadow side of that is . . .” Joseph says.

“Now what?”

He pauses. “To see if there’s some ego gratification in that. And there could or could not be. Again, it’s not with any judgment, because so often our motivations are mixed, remember. So it’s all by way of exploration.”

“Well, it’s interesting you say that. It’s true. There is ego gratification. It does make me feel good about myself. How could it not?”

“Right, but again . . .”

“That’s not my only motive?”

“Right. Think the mix.”

“Oh, the mix. That is so good to remember, Joseph. We all can tend to think either/or. We have to remember that. Not either/or. I can so easily get stuck here.”

“Yes. For example, in giving the best piece of food, that generosity could be combined with a genuine feeling of mudita for Ron’s enjoyment” (mudita is a Pali word meaning “sympathetic joy” or “wishing another well”).

“It is.”

“And, on the other hand — which I think it’s probably not, but maybe a little — mixed in with feeling good about yourself for having done it.”

“Yup. That too.”

“So then, that’s different than mudita. That mind moment is not wishing well for another; it is not mudita. That mind moment is not generosity.”


“I understand totally. So now a question that can be kind of juicy. We have spoken about this before. Being generous to oneself. For the greedy types, this can be very . . . sticky.” He laughs. “You know? It can be hard for us to discern wholesome and unwholesome generosity for oneself. What could you say about that?”

“Oh, well, I’m in the same boat, as you know!”

“But you’re farther along. You’ve been rowing a lot longer than we have — you can see the shore!”

Joseph is quiet for several moments. “I think a useful question, just to make us more aware, might be to ask, ‘Do I need this?’ Of course need can cover a wide range of things,” he says, chuckling. “But at least asking the question stops the mindless forward momentum. And then at times I might think, No, I don’t really need this. And then at other times I may think, I don’t really need this, but I’m going to do it anyway. Or it might be, Well, in a way I need it, you know, it will do this, this, or this for me. So I think there’s a whole range of responses to that question. But at least in asking the question it makes one stop and reflect a bit.”

“Yes, that’s good, and I have worked with another similar idea I got from you, which is asking, ‘Will this lead to a simpler life?’”

“Right. That’s also a good one. Something else I do sometimes . . .” He laughs. “I’m assuming it’s a good thing to do. There may be some undertones that are not. But sometimes, if I’m doing something for myself that feels a little extravagant, I’ll make a not always comparable but significant donation or gift to some place or person that I feel really needs it. It’s kind of the sense of, well, if I’m doing this for myself, I ought to do something like this for others.”

“Oh, I really like that idea. I don’t know if we’ve talked about this before, but probably we have. Interesting. I can feel what you’re saying, that it can be hard to discern if it’s totally wholesome.”

“I think the point of interest here is to see if one is doing this out of guilt.” We both laugh.

“Yes, I think that’s what I was just feeling arise,” I say.

“But that can be sorted out. Generally, I think it’s a good thing to do.”


“Yes, because as you said, there are often mixed motives. Guilt might arise, but it might not be the motivat

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