The beginning of the path to awakening is giving, letting go, shifting our focus from a me-centred framework to a relational framework. We start to notice how we feel when we are generous, and how we feel when we are defensive or greedy. So what does this beginning step of cultivating generosity look like?
The following list is a wonderful compilation of recommendations in the canon concerning how to cultivate wholesome thoughts, words, and deeds. You’ll notice that items 1, 4, 5, 6, and 7 all have to do with giving in some way.
- keeping the precepts
- sharing merit
- rejoicing at the merit of others
- giving service
- showing respect
- teaching Dhamma
- listening to the Dhamma
- acting with right view
Giving material things and giving service are closely related and have instant and far-reaching results; they are effective in counteracting selfish tendencies. The gift itself (of goods or services) establishes a connection between two or more people. It may also affect anyone who witnesses it or hears of it later. Perhaps even more importantly, it affects our own hearts when we give. There is a release of grasping, however brief, that digs a fertile furrow for the seeds of awakening.
Sharing merit may be a tricky concept in the English-speaking world. One monk said that we could substitute the word “joy” for merit. When we do a generous act, we feel joy as a result; that’s the feeling that we can share with others. This elation is without pride, and the thought “I’m so good, look at me” is absent. It can lift others up and make them happy. In parallel, when we witness or become aware of a generous act by another person, we can allow a feeling of sympathetic happiness to arise. That is “rejoicing at the merit of others.”
Lastly, showing respect is an excellent way to tame our arrogance, to nourish our humility, and to reduce our need to be the center of our imagined universe. We can make space for those we admire and wish to emulate in the inner circle of our consciousness.