Now, about the tools or aids to meditation practice – there should be mettā (goodwill) in your heart; in other words, the qualities of generosity, kindness and helpfulness. These should be maintained as the foundation for mental purity. For example, begin doing away with lobha, or selfishness, by giving. When people are selfish they aren’t happy. Selfishness leads to a sense of discontent, and yet people tend to be very selfish without realizing how it affects them.
– from Supports for Meditation in The Collected Teachings of Ajahn Chah
When I was in Myanmar, Sayadaw U Tejaniya asked a group of us: How many times a day would you say we think of ourselves? It was an invitation to consider whether we are ever NOT thinking about ourselves. I replied, “An infinite number”, and he laughed.
The “mental purity” mentioned in the quote above is what remains after we’ve worn away the imperfections/defilements. The absence of the defilements is the same as mental purity, and this forms the foundation for developing calm, and subsequently for awakening. The tools that Ajahn Chah recommends for building this foundation are not esoteric or mysterious: generosity, kindness and helpfulness. All of us have many moments when these wholesome mind states are present in us; do we notice them when they are? Do we recognize them, value them and consider how we might sustain and build on them?
The Ajahn especially recommends the act of giving to counteract our selfish impulses. What type of giving makes our hearts feel warm and open? Some gifts are more effective at combatting selfishness than others, but we’ve got to figure out for ourselves what sort of letting-go is needed and what specific act of giving might address the particular clinging we experience.
Remembering certain financial gifts re-warms my heart every time I think of them, but the gifts of kindness are at least as potent: inviting a neighbor over to view the lunar eclipse, offering to baby-sit for the child of a busy mother, sending flowers or a birthday card or a “thinking of you” letter. We could consider these acts insignificant, but if we are working towards awakening (even part-way), these are the most important things we can do.