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“Do you love your creator? Love your fellow-beings first”—Muhammed

“A generous heart, kind speech, and a life of service and compassion are the things which renew humanity.”—Buddha

“Love thy neighbor as thyself.”—Jesus

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?

Love, gp

What Does Giving Really Mean?

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.

“Life seems to be better, friendlier, more connected, more whole, more flowing when we participate in it by giving rather than taking.”

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 giving 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.

“Giving isn’t just money and possessions; even more importantly, we give our attention, our listening ear, our commitment, our presence.”

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.”

“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.”

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 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. She is the author of The Meaning of Mary Magdalene.

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