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The Purpose of Giving
“Do you love your creator? Love your fellow-beings first”
“A generous heart, kind speech, and a life of service and compassion are the things which renew humanity.”
“Love thy neighbor as thyself.”
Spiritual leaders for centuries have taught the idea of putting someone else’s needs before one’s own. What is it about this common thread - the act of giving of one’s self - that is so valuable?
From Michael Berg
The real purpose for which we have each come to this life is to live in complete joy and fulfillment. How do we achieve this destiny? By transforming the foundation of our being from getting to giving.
Kabbalah explains that every instance of happiness, whether the small satisfaction of a task well done at work or the great joy that accompanies the birth of a child, has its source in a universal energy, what the Kabbalists call the “Light of the Creator” and what most call “God”.
Therefore, the answer to the ultimate question - “How do I achieve fulfillment?” – is simple: connect to the Light of the Creator. We can accomplish this through what the kabbalists call, “similarity of form.”
Similarity of form with the Creator depends not on how well you know the Bible, where you worship, how much you suffer, how often you pray, what you eat, or how much of your income you give away. It depends on what’s in your soul, and how your soul expresses itself in the world.
Consider, for example, two people who hate one another. We say that they are “far apart.” And if they love one another, we say they are “of one flesh.” Here we are not speaking of spatial proximity or distance. Instead, we refer to an inner similarity of form.
It is the same with spirituality. The one thing we know of the Creator is that all of its actions are geared towards imparting and helping. In the same way, when all our actions are focused on imparting and helping others, we achieve similarity of form with the Creator.
Closeness to the Creator offers us something exponentially greater than closeness in human relationships. It offers oneness with the source of all goodness, abundance, protection, and unconditional love. Therefore, when true spiritual leaders advocate the path of giving, sharing and loving thy neighbor, they are leading people towards forming an affinity with the Light of the Creator that will allow them to draw and receive lasting fulfillment in their lives.
This is the only purpose for spiritual work: to go through a process of transformation from our natural born self to a higher self. Giving becomes easier when we are always aware of the real goal toward which all positive change is directed - the expansion of our own joy and fulfillment when this transformation takes place. In this way, it’s self-interest in the highest sense.
Our root is the Creator, whose essence is sharing—but our daily lives can distance us from our own true nature. Getting instead of giving can become an ingrained reflex. We are thus born to challenge and question that reflex. We need to move in a counterintuitive way from what we’ve been taught by the material world to what we know in the foundation of our souls. We need to reeducate ourselves from the idea that joy comes from receiving to the understanding that real joy comes from giving, which is the essence of our very souls. This is the key to making lasting fulfillment the foundation of our lives.
– Michael Berg
Michael Berg is a Kabbalah scholar and author. He is co-Director of The Kabbalah Centre, www.kabbalah.com. You can follow Michael on twitter, twitter.com/inspiringchange. His latest book is What God Meant.
From Elizabeth Mattis Namgyel
There does seem to be this common thread amongst spiritual traditions – a shared experience that comes from practicing loving kindness. I don’t know how other traditions would explain its tremendous value in spirituality. But in the Buddhist tradition the practice of putting others ahead of oneself is strongly emphasized and explained in a specific way.
The Dalai Lama often teaches on a famous Buddhist verse that says: “All the happiness the world has to offer comes from desiring wellbeing for others. And all the suffering the world has to offer comes from desiring happiness solely for oneself.”
This simple verse reflects a natural equation: that selfishness causes pain, and caring for others causes happiness. It suggests that if happiness is truly what we seek, we need to engage the cause of happiness by turning our attention toward the wellbeing of others.
Curiously, we have some strong misguided instincts that fool us into thinking that we can find happiness solely through cherishing and protecting our self. Our thoughts and activities most often focus on our own welfare. We spend much of each day struggling with what we want, what we don’t want, and all of our hopes and fears.
The practice of extending love and kindness to others does not require we get rid of our own desire for happiness. It only requires we include others in this wish – a wish we usually reserve only for ourselves, our family, or our friends. We have to expand our sense of “me” and “mine” in order to include others in the realm of our care. And as we do this we move away from a contracted, self-focused and isolated state toward a way of being that has limitless connection to life around us.
When we begin to pay attention to life around us we start to see opportunities to practice loving kindness everywhere. We might give a blanket to a homeless person on the street, lend an ear to someone in pain, feed a stray animal or simply acknowledge the presence of a stranger. These small gestures make such a big difference to others and they awaken in us the best of our humanity. When we see a need and respond to it, the joy we experience can sustain us for the entire day.
The wish for others’ happiness can be the focus of our lives whether we are in a position to give or simply driving alone in our car. Once I bought a lottery ticket on my way from Colorado to Santa Fe. The whole way I imagined what I could do with $170 million… “I could build a hospice and retirement home in my community where everyone could have free health care…I could contribute to homeless shelters in every state in the country and beyond…I could open clinics in India to treat all the mangy, homeless dogs that wander the streets...” Whatever came to mind I offered. When I arrived in Santa Fe I was full of energy and felt open, clear and vibrant. And the reason for this, I realized, was that for 3 ½ hours (without even intending to) I had thought only of the welfare of others, never once thinking of what I could get for myself.
The practice of giving is not simply a crusade to do good. It serves as a means of awakening the best of who we are as human beings. Whether we are actively engaged in giving or simply including others in our wish for happiness, we could never find a more meaningful or intelligent way to live out our lives than this. Given its power, it’s no wonder that the great spiritual leaders throughout history so highly valued the transformative nature of loving kindness and the act of serving others.
– Elizabeth Mattis-Namgyel
Elizabeth Mattis-Namgyel is the author of the upcoming book, “The Power of an Open Question” (Shambhala Publications).
From Cynthia Bourgeault
As I try to respond to this question, I realize how hard it is to do so without referring to some underlying moral or ethical value system: What is life about, anyway? The act of giving points toward (and allows us to experience) some “higher” value or purpose enfolding our lives, something that isn’t just the “law of the jungle,” or “the one with the most toys when they die wins.” It’s like a finger pointing to the moon of higher meaning. But what meaning? Religious systems have mined this turf thoroughly over the ages, but in so doing have sometimes landmined it as well. Traditional religious explanations can so easily sound far-fetched or self-serving (“We give because good people go to Heaven”; “giving brings you good karma,” etc.). But in rejecting these systems we often find ourselves hard put to explain the reason to behave according to something “higher” if in fact there is no higher.
So I think the best way to approach this is to start close to home, right in the gut, and then ponder what it teaches us. And the plain fact is that giving “feels right”—feels good, actually. Life seems to be better, friendlier, more connected, more whole, more flowing when we participate in it by givingness rather than taking. And giving isn’t just money and possessions; even more importantly, we give our attention, our listening ear, our commitment, our presence. And out of this giving, life seems to relax and go deeper. Connections open up, trust builds. It’s like oil on the cogwheels of life.
So what do we make of this? The contemporary spiritual teacher Michael Brown has an intriguing and explanation. He observes: “Giving-is-receiving is the energetic frequency upon which our universe is aligned. All other approaches to energy exchange immediately cause dissonance and disharmony in our life experience.”
That’s not a metaphysical statement; it’s a wager. Try it out in your own life. See if you can detect the relationship Michael suggests here: generosity and flow lead to a sense of harmony in life; all attempts to constrict, shut off, take, protect, or hoard lead to a personal experience of being unsafe, threatened, and living in a world that is harsh and even meaningless. The more we hoard ourselves and our assets, the more we experience life as harsh and adversarial. The more we enter the dance of giving-is-receiving, the more we experience life as friendly and “safe.”
And it works in THAT order; it’s totally counterintuitive. We don’t give only after we reach a certain critical point of safety and abundance (some would say that point is never reached). It’s the giving that CREATES the sense of safety and abundance. Puzzling, yes, but check it out.
The word “abundance” contains at its heart the word “dance.” It’s all a dance, a movement, a flow. In Helen Luke’s marvelously wise book Old Age I remember reading that the word “mercy” (as in “the mercy of God”) comes from the same root word as “merchant” and “commerce.” They all derive from the Old Etruscan word “merc,” which means exchange. To my dear son-in-law the hedge fund manager, I am happy to report that a healthy human spirituality, just like a healthy economy, depends on exchange—“cash flow.” Giving-is-receiving seems to be an intrinsic component of that system, in fact, the driveshaft. For it’s through participation in that “dance” that the Mercy of God makes itself manifest: as goodness, connection, and a felt sense of meaning. Until we actually get into the dance, all these so-called “divine attributes” remain mute and invisible, inaccessible to a world sorely in need of them.
We live Meaning into reality by how we live. It’s not about going to heaven when we die, but about creating a small taste of heaven here and now.
– Cynthia Bourgeault
Cynthia Bourgeault is an Episcopal priest, writer and retreat leader. She is founding director of the Aspen Wisdom School in Colorado and principal visiting teacher for the Contemplative Society in Victoria, BC, Canada. Her forthcoming book, “The Meaning of Mary Magdalene,” will be available September 14th
From Deepak Chopra
It's not just giving, it's the spirit.
I'd like to talk about the hidden side of giving. People have a vague feeling that God favors those who give. Since Jesus said that it is more blessed to give than to receive, tithing became an established practice in Christian life. In India the focus is on karma -- in order to offset their bad deeds, people want some good karma, and giving to the poor is a way to do that. Still, as religious practice fades in every society, giving has become more secular. Few people feel secure in their conviction that giving has spiritual meaning.
I think that East and West are offering the same piece of wisdom: it's not what you give but the spirit in which you give that counts. At the level of the soul there are really three levels of giving:
- Quid pro quo: you give in order to get something back. Whether you want a bit of good karma or a smile from God, the spirit here is selfish. Tit for tat is the rule. The giver expects to be appreciated. Big donors, whether to a political candidate or a prominent charity, expect to be noticed and praised. In small ways we all harbor a selfish part of ourselves. Imagine how you'd feel if you gave a lavish Christmas present to someone and received nothing back, not even a word of thanks? Suddenly, the act of giving would turn sour. When you give in order to add to your self-image, the act may be generous, but the spirit isn't. It's even common for this kind of giving to involve a good measure of guilt.
- Charity from the heart. This is giving out of love. The word "charity" comes from the Latin "caritas," or love. In early Christianity caritas became one of the three great virtues, along with hope and faith. By the time of St. Paul it already meant charity in the modern sense, but the spirit of love was always understood. One gives as a child of God to another child of God. In this spirit there is no expectation of return. One may give anonymously or to strangers. Charity is selfless. It leaves the ego aside, if only briefly, with one intent in mind: to add to the sum total of love in the world. The spiritual significance is to expand the heart.
- Giving everything that you are. This is true generosity of spirit. There is no separation between giver and receiver. You offer up your whole life, and in return life makes you more whole. This isn't just a mystical wish. Once you realize that everything comes from the universe and goes back to the universe, there is no need to make giving be about "me." Possessing nothing, you can give everything. You know that the universe has infinite resources; therefore, life itself can be based upon giving.
Looking around, one realizes that giving everything is the most natural way. You and I are here because Nature stinted in nothing. The air, the sky, the plant and animal kingdoms enrich the earth freely. The creative source that gave rise to life allowed single-celled algae and bacteria to evolve into the human brain, the most complex structure in the known universe. When the spirit of life really sinks in, and we realize the incredible gift we've received, the only possible act of appreciation is to give back with equal generosity.
In other words, giving should be twenty-four hours a day. At the level of spirit you can give of yourself completely. That's the goal we are all evolving toward. At certain moments we sense this, all of us. A mother's attitude toward her infant child is one of complete giving, out of wonder that new life has become hers to nurture and protect. In expanded form, this attitude becomes Ahimsa, a Sanskrit word often translated as "reverence for life." As a doctor I also like the definition for "harmlessness," because a physician's first duty is to do no harm. When you revere life, violence disappears, and it is only natural to do no harm. You are linked to all life, and by magic, every gift you give becomes a gift to yourself.
– Deepak Chopra
Deepak Chopra is the President of the Alliance for A New Humanity