The Dalai Lama was giving teachings in Dharamsala, India. It was very crowded and cold and pretty uncomfortable sitting on thin mats on the concrete floor. Deb was longing to go back to our hotel room to be on her own when we heard him start talking about the dangers of solitary peace. He spoke of how tempting it can be to want to be on our own, but how easily this can disengage us from the reality around us. That it is vital to be in communication, engaged in giving, sharing and caring for each other, and that the giving of ourselves is the greatest act of generosity. She stayed put!
His point was that we are not alone here, and that our communication, caring and awareness of one another is essential to making the world a safe and viable place for us all to live. In this way, he put the importance of service center stage. All the great spiritual teachers from all traditions have taught that this path of service is the most significant of all, as through caring for others, we are able to step outside of ourselves and release any sense of separateness.
At this time of the year, joyous celebrations are being held in many countries and religions, celebrating the gift of light and life, whether through Diwali, Thanksgiving, Chanukah or Christmas. Such celebrations are an essential reminder of how special and precious life is. But for many, it is not a reminder they necessarily want. This is where we can be truly giving.
Service is not about how much we serve, or about giving just for the sake of giving. We need to see with wise discrimination what is needed, what would help most, and how we can be of help. True generosity is giving without expectation; there is no desire that something will be received in return. Swami Chidananda used to bathe lepers. When we were last with him in Rishikesh, India, his open-hearted generosity was inspiring. As we were leaving he said to us, “Be happy and make others happy!”
Although the main purpose of service, or seva in Sanskrit, is not particularly about ourselves, it is one of the quickest routes to well being. Seeing the gratitude of those being helped brings great joy and releases us of our own selfishness. One Christmas, when we were living in Brighton, England, we spent the day serving dinner at the homeless shelter. We have never enjoyed a Christmas more, nor laughed and sang more heartily. The thankfulness of those being fed humbled us beyond words.
When we give to someone there is however, often a hidden desire to be noticed and appreciated. The ego wants attention and giving is one way to get it. But giving without any acknowledgement is surely a far greater thrill. When we pay the toll for the car behind us, when we give without needing to get, we are the ones who feel great – we get a rush of endorphins and the heart is nourished.
We were doing a book signing at a bookstore in California and had arrived early so as to avoid the rush-hour traffic. As Deb talked with the bookshop owner, Ed chatted with a customer in the store, a man who was training to be a Zen priest. Then we left to get something to eat at a Chinese restaurant across the street. As we were eating, the man Ed had been talking to came in, nodded to us, then walked to the back of the restaurant. A while later he came back. As he passed our table he stopped and simply said, “Your dinner is paid for.” Then he left. We were stunned by such a kind and generous act, and the warm memory of it has stayed with us.
True generosity is unconditional; it is giving without any thought of getting or receiving, unattached, free to land wherever it will. Through giving and sharing in this way, we soon find that we do not lose anything; we do not have any less. Rather, we gain so much.
As Christmas is near, we wanted to see what Santa had to say about giving, which turned out to be quite a lot. Whether Santa is real or not really doesn’t matter, as he has been endowed with some remarkable qualities that we can all learn from. In fact, in many ways, he is better able to show us true spirituality than even the average yogi or guru
He asks us to be good. Which is significant, considering many of us so often act selfishly and greedily. By being good, he means being kind, generous, considerate and thoughtful.
He gives to everyone, whoever and wherever they are, all at pretty much the same time. And he does it without asking for anything in return (except for the odd glass of milk and cookies). This indicates he has a truly generous heart, one that takes great joy in giving without needing to receive. Which, as we have seen, is a very important lesson, as giving with no expectation of getting is the quickest route to happiness. Through giving to others, as Santa does, we get away from selfishness and neediness.
Yet he does not give blindly. Rather he considers what is the most appropriate gift for each. This shows great discernment. Too often we give without thinking (like giving candy to a starving child when what they need is food), so here Santa shows us how giving needs wisdom in order to be of most benefit.
He listens to our requests and reads our letters, meaning that he takes the time to hear and pay attention, which we could all do a lot more of. How often do we really listen to someone without judging them, or without imposing our own thoughts on them or telling them what we think is right for them?
He has great psychic powers: flies in the sky with reindeer, descends chimneys without getting covered in soot, he goes by many names and forms, and is extraordinarily elusive. Has anyone actually ever seen him? The lesson here is that we can all do more than we think we can, and we don’t need to be applauded. We can practice random acts of kindness quietly, simply, without bringing attention to ourselves.
Santa is filled with joy and lifts our spirits at the darkest time. And we can do the same for each other. No need to spread doom and gloom, no need to focus on what is wrong with ourselves or the world. By focusing on what is good, we not only bring a lightness of spirit to others, but we also get to feel a lot better too.
He knows where we live. In other words, he is inside every one of us. Santa is our true, authentic self that is there when we can let go of our ego-centered needs.
Festival and celebration times are about gathering together with family or friends, to share stories, abundant food, and mutual appreciation. Ed remembers when he was a young swami training in India:
Celebrations are times for great gratitude and thankfulness for each other. This is often reflected in sharing gifts as a token of our feelings. Usually this leads to everyone treating each other a bit more nicely, at least for a while, but it doesn’t always mean that we become more caring and friendly to others outside of our own circle. We may be kind to our families but we often forget about others.
Yet we are all a part of one human family and we each need to be loved and appreciated, whatever our religion, skin color or name may be. And we need this not just for one day each year, but for every day of every year. There is a wonderful Native American saying: “Think with your heart and not with your head.” When we think with our heart, then appreciation, kindness and generosity become a natural and effortless part of who we are.
So, as all the great wise ones have said, let’s find our happiness through caring and sharing. This is surely the quickest route to our own happiness, and certainly the quickest route to someone else’s happiness. Happy giving this holiday season!