Spiritual Inquiry

Spiritual practice can be seen as a deep inquiry into our life. The Buddha once stated that of the 7 factors of awakening (comprising: mindfulness, investigation, energy, rapture, tranquillity, concentration and equanimity,) the most proximate cause for awakening is investigation. The spiritual journey we embark upon is to understand the truth of our life, and can be understood as the inquiry into the question “who or what am I?”

Insight meditation practise invites us to connect with our actual experience here and now, rather than dwell in the past or future, in order to cut through our concepts and images of ourselves, and of our world, and thus meet things as they actually are, face to face. From a grounded connection to where we are in the present moment, we can look more deeply and begin to see beyond surface appearances to the underlying truth.

The way we tend to conceive of ourselves, is born out of an often unexamined patchwork of memories from our past experiences, our present circumstances, our habits and preferences, feelings and thoughts and a sense of being the owner or the subject of all this experience. We conceive of ourselves in different ways: – I am like this: e.g. successful, lazy, kind, assertive etc, or I am not like that… These concepts of self, are based in past experiences, identified with in the present and projected into future. They can seem very solid and substantial when we invest in them, through believing them, repeating them, making them important. Through cultivating attention to the present moment, being here and now, we start to be able to look beyond that familiar appearance, and can engage in an authentic inner exploration of what it means to be alive.

Being present and holding the question  “what is this?” or “who am I?” within a focused connected space, not intellectualising the question, but suspending our habitual believing that we know the answer, can be at first unsettling, and yet ultimately very revealing. What is the truth of own existence? If we do not accept the familiar religious or scientific “answers” and explanations, (which are merely concepts), but look into our own experience… what is revealed?

What we actually experience is sights, sounds, smells, tastes, body sensations and thoughts and the mind that is conscious of them. We tend to unquestioningly believe that this defines who or what we are. If we investigate what is happening however, we see that we cannot control our experience. We are exposed to sights and sounds and sensations from the “outer world” which arise and pass. Our inner experience, our moods and reactions are not always what we wish for: sadness, anger, frustration, agitation, fear, pain, loneliness, despair  and more. All these come and go, determined by the changing circumstances we find ourselves immersed in, usually not in accord with what we wish to experience. When desired experiences do arise: joy, happiness, excitement, serenity, pleasure, they often pass away all too soon. In meditation, trying to stay present with the breath, in the face of our myriad thoughts and bodily sensory experiences, perhaps the first lesson we learn is that we cannot actually control our experience.

Not being able to control it, does it make sense to assume that these experiences are truly what/who we are? Wisdom would suggest it does not. Nonetheless we tend to use our experience to create and define ourselves, to inflate or deflate our sense of self: who we believe we are. Accordingly experiences become attractive or threatening according to whether they support or solidify a preferred or a disliked self-image. We then feel we must have certain experiences and avoid others, according to whether we see them as threatening to, or as enhancing of our “self.” For instance, in meditation we can turn the simple instructions to cultivate mind-full presence into a search for signposts that allow us to feel we are succeeding, such as our degree of focus or continuity of attention, and trying to prevent experiences that lead us to believe we are failing, eg agitation or restlessness.  Because we define ourselves by them, these experiences assume a great significance, and we become entangled in them. This process if unexamined, underlies much of our experience of life.

There is of course a place for recognising our patterns and tendencies, our strengths and limitations, and for cultivating wise and skilful qualities and actions. This does not however, come from identification with our experience, but from simply recognising what is conducive to well being and what is not, free from the pressure to create or negate self-images.

It is very useful to become aware of the process when one is engaged in the attempt to create, reinforce or protect our self-image. Notice when you define yourself by your experiences, past and present, our roles tendencies and preferences. See how this leads to the conclusion that I am the person who was/ is/ has/does not… Although these definitions are limiting and often painful to us, we feel compelled to continue to define ourselves in this way because at least it is familiar and safe, in the face of a changing and uncontrollable world. We feel we need to know who we are, or else how will we function, and how will we protect ourselves from the dangerous unpredictability of life? This leads to an ongoing struggle to maintain a story, or to become someone better or other than what we are. We can spend our life forever working on sustaining, building up, repairing or changing our image or sense of self. “I am too emotional…” “I am to cut off from my emotions…,” “I must fix my greediness…, change my fearfulness…, increase my compassion… improve my concentration…,” and there is no end to it. This process keeps us so busy and pre-occupied, we often do not have time or space to confront how deeply unsatisfying it is to live in this way.

We can be so busy building or maintaining our identity that we do not stop to question what we are protecting. We hold on to our identity in an attempt to protect ourselves from the world, but what do we find inside its structures. The walls of identity enclose the very fears, cravings and the sense of separation that drove us to build them and we find we are imprisoned within that which we built to protect ourselves. The sense of initial unease that engaging the question “Who am I?” or “What is this experience?” may evoke, has less capacity to discourage us from the inquiry as we realise just how uncomfortable and limiting it is to be defined.

What if we were to discover that we are not what we have believed? Our experiences, past, present and future are not our possessions, nor do they define us. Asking deeply the question “ who am I?” or “what is this?” – not seeking answers, but open to knowing the truth, our mind may be humbled into silence by the vastness, the impact, the significance of that question. If we are wholeheartedly present, free from preconceptions and open to discovery, we may find that our mind lets go into the mystery of life, and our heart responds, speaking to us without words. Life is a movement, from birth and growing, through ageing and death, every moment different. Your body that was a baby and was a child, will one day be aged, and yet where is the body you had as a child, where is the body you will have when aged? Where is the mind you had as a child, the thoughts, the experiences you had in the past, those you will have in the future? They are not here: past and the future cannot be found. Memories arise, thoughts of future too, but these are experiences happening here and now. The sense of ownership or being the subject of the experience is simply another experience, arising, changing and passing like all others.

Life reveals to us the experiences that we easily call our own, the experiences we define ourselves by, but equally reveals that the truth lies deeper than this appearance. Our sense that we are moving through life, from birth to death, is based on identifying with the changing uncontrollable experiences of body, heart and mind that arise like waves, moving restlessly on the vast ocean. This identification is the basis of a bondage that we are not compelled to subject ourselves to.  If you simply meet the experiences, as they come and go, without taking them as a definition of who you are, what happens? Rather than believing that it is you moving through life, you may discover that life is moving through you. When we rest in awareness, meeting each wave, but not identifying with them, we may sense the stillness, the space through which all of life is moving. That dimension of being, which is not defined by, nor yet separate from the waves that come and go: the very vastness of the ocean itself. This discovery reveals that we are not separate from each other, and out of this understanding a deep compassion arises for all beings. May all beings be free from suffering.


Yanai Postelnik

Wisdom flows into empty spaces.

It is rare to value absence, space or emptiness. Our culture and conditioning usually attributes value according to qualities that can be measured and values material things, which have substance and which can be owned. Space and absence however are important, and many things we use every day such as cups, windows, rooms and many musical instruments are only of value because of their emptiness or lack of content. It is the very absence that we make use of. The cup must be empty for it to be able to hold the water that can quench our thirst. In the same way meditation practice is an invitation to cultivate a quality of inner space where we are empty and able to receive life.

We so easily fill our lives and our selves up in such a way that we feel that there is no space left, and in fact not even enough to contain all that we are trying to fit into in our days. There is so much activity in our lives: doing this and that, going places, accumulating possessions and experiences. In our daily life we have work, study, relationships, parenting, shopping and “leisure activities” such as sport and entertainment and it often feels like there is no time to stop, let alone time for meditation or spiritual practise. We seek for experiences and no matter how many we get we seem to want more and a greater variety and intensity of experiences. We can never come to rest when always seeking for more, and may realise that we feel an absence of peace in our lives.

We spend so much time lost in thinking, our mind racing along in the grip of past and future scenarios, planning, fantasy, worrying and wondering. Our thinking even notices how busy it is and thinks that it would be nice to have less thoughts, but this just generates more busyness as the mind comes in to conflict with its own activity.

Life can feel so full – over-full and under pressure almost to bursting point. Even when feeling nearly overwhelmed by the intensity and business of our life we often find it very hard to slow down, let alone stop.

We start to realise the importance of making space in our lives. We wish to learn to be…to let go of doing, anxiety, stress, pressure and busyness.  But this is not easy as

we can experience discomfort with non-doing, with absence and with space. We are both attracted towards finding non-busyness in our lives and at the same time afraid of it. Our sense of self worth is often derived through doing, achieving and getting results, often to please others. Even more importantly our sense of who we are, is greatly dependent on the same activities. We are so very identified with our roles and activities, the experiences of mind and body, as being me and mine, that we easily lose our sense of who we are and the meaning or direction of our life when we do not have any thing to do. There is nothing for us to hold onto or possess in empty space and the absence of directed activity, so we can find it unsettling, even alarming. The lack of reference points and information to tell us who we are when we are not doing something makes it a real challenge to stop. Most of the time we do not realise that we are caught in this process because our first response and often unquestioned response to any unease is to get lost in trying to “do” something about it.

The cost of this way of living is that we lose contact with any sense of inner peace and any possibility of true clarity. Although it is not easy, we realise that we must make a commitment to creating space in our lives and in our hearts, to enable ourselves and our heart to breath, and our minds to see clearly. Valuing the quality of simply being, and opening to making space means letting go.  Letting go of our need to constantly occupy our selves with activity and define ourselves by our roles. If we are willing to enter this unfamiliar space we can discover a deep and abiding trust in our own deep value, and an understanding of our own true nature, arising from the truth of our being, not from all or any of our doing.

Making space can take many forms, but they are all characterised by an absence of doing. Non-doing means simply connecting with the way things are, rather than always trying to make them the way we want them to be. Periods of daily meditation, going on retreats, taking the opportunity in moments during our day when we can stop and re-connect, all offer to us the opportunity to be. As we learn to include times of non-doing in our life, we find peace in being, allowing the mind to slow down. Not giving it momentum through struggling with it, nor believing in the stories it tells. Watching the process with-out identifying with it through aversion or grasping, we realise that we do not have to manipulate our experience in order to find peace.

At first it may feel almost counter-productive when we stop, because we become acutely aware of the amount of activity we are inwardly caught up in and just how uncomfortable that feels. By staying steady with the experience however, it begins to be transformed. Simply being, allows mind and body, heart and spirit come into harmony when we rest in the present. In being, we connect with the space that is always available in the moment we can let go and simply abide in the here and now.

In insight meditation we use the words  “the dharma” to refer to both the teachings of wisdom, compassion and freedom, and the truth of the way things are, from which

these teachings arise. To understand the dharma is to realise a fulfilling and authentic spiritual life, and it is towards this that the path of insight meditation leads.

Teachings and understanding may come to us in many forms, but they only transform our life when we absorb them into the depths of our being and allow them to guide us.

When we consciously begin to create space in our lives and our hearts through meditation and through learning to just be, is it this space that allows us to receive the dharma, the teachings and the essential truths of life, so that they can touch us in a deep and transforming way.

The space that is created, through learning to connect with and be at peace with what is, acts like a centre of gravity in which we feel grounded, and towards which wisdom flows. In other words we are able to see more clearly the truth of our life and to live our life in harmony with this understanding. Our heart is like a garden which becomes choked with weeds and hard packed soil. Making space in our lives is like cultivating the soil of our inner being so that the seeds of kindness and understanding that lie in our heart can flourish and grow, flowering into wisdom and compassion, and bearing the sweet fruit of inner peace and freedom.

May all beings live in peace and harmony.

Insight Meditation Practice: It’s not about having a better experience.

What is it that moves you to engage in the practice of meditation? How many times do we come to our practice hoping to produce a particular inner experience such as calm, peace or tranquility? Given the very real challenges that we all face in living our lives, this is a very understandable human orientation, but it does not offer real freedom.

Jack Kornfield, one of the elders of the Insight Meditation tradition, once observed that we come to a retreat thinking it is like a visit to the store: where we can get some thing we want, but in fact it is more like a visit to the dump: where we can let go of what no longer serves our life and  wellbeing.

The Buddha’s recognition that this human life is subject to aging, decay and death,  led him to seek to understand and realize the fullness of human potential.  His question “Why should I who am subject to aging decay and death, seek that which is also subject to aging, decay and death?” is one we could usefully ask ourselves. And he went on to ask “would it not make more sense that I who am subject to aging, decay and death, seek that which is not subject to aging, decay and death…?” MN 26.13

Through his deep commitment to exploring the truth of his life, the Buddha came to understand the experience of dukkha – suffering, and its relationship to unawareness or ignorance, – the not seeing and not understanding the causes of suffering and happiness. He realized the possibility of inner freedom,  a release from suffering through understanding the way things are and aligning our lives with that truth and reality.

Fundamental to his understanding was the seeing of craving and attachment as the cause and conditions for suffering and with that the recognition that letting go is the basis of freedom.  This letting go is a deep renunciation of our investment in agency – the idea that we are, or should be, in control of our experience. Renunciation is not a popular concept in Western culture, often evoking a sense of deprivation or suggesting a puritanical rejection of self-nurturing. Correctly understood however, it is the foundation of peace, and freedom. Letting go is what is required to release ourselves from the compulsion of conditioning. From this perspective we can see that so far as there is any way to usefully evaluate our practice, it is not on the basis of our ability to perform a technique or sustain our attention on an object such as the breath, but much more a question of what we are able to let go of, and how deeply we can let go.

We have a strong conditioned view that happiness and satisfaction can be derived through some form of materialism – i.e. getting something.

This materialistic tendency can been seen expressed in three levels of activity directed towards:

  • Getting material possessions or controlling material and worldly circumstances: conventional materialism.
  • Generating, avoiding or controlling inner experiences: more subtle materialism.
  • Becoming someone who we wish to be, or avoiding becoming someone who we do not wish to be: the deeper materialism of craving and attachment with regard to identities and views of self.

If we consider how much of our activity effort and mental preoccupation is concerned with these areas of endeavor, most of us would find it is frequently a large part of what we are engaged with. All this in the conviction, that succeeding would bring satisfaction and fulfillment to our life, allowing our hearts and mind to rest. The Buddha pointed out that our habit is to seek stability and satisfaction in the content of our experience – what is happening in and around us, and that it is not capable of offering us this.

Attachment is the way we hold on to an inner position, founded on a belief which is often unconscious and unquestioned, that the arising or the continuation of the wanted thing or wished for experience is absolutely necessary for our happiness. The sense is that getting what we want will finally and permanently resolve the experience of inner lack or unease, and likewise that the presence of the unwanted experience or circumstance is what prevents us from being happy and at peace.

This gives the object, experience or circumstance immense power and holds us in bondage: in thrall we could say, and so we become enthralled with experience. We commonly use this word to suggest fascinated or enchanted, but to be “in thrall” is to be a prisoner and subject to the capricious nature of changing and uncontrollable phenomena. The painful effect of this attachment is the pressure we place on experience, on each other, on the world and on ourselves to conform to our desires and aversions, our preferences and our fantasies.

Letting go means relinquishing our demand that our experiences be different than they are, and deeply questioning our assumption that we are somehow defined by the arising, passing, presence or absence of particular experiences. Becoming aware of our reactions to the experiences of body, heart and mind, and giving ourselves permission to simply notice them, not having to straight away become involved in controlling them, we learn what it means to let things be. Often we can think letting go means the experience should go away – but with those experiences we find difficult, the expression ‘let it be’ is often more useful, as we can easily take the suggestion ‘to let it go’ to suggest that if we are practicing correctly the experience should go away or cease.

To let go of thinking and dwelling does not mean the stopping the minds activity, but no longer investing in the thinking process of the mind as the source of solutions to the suffering or our life. Nor setting up the mental activity itself as the experience which prevents us from being happy and making it into the problem. It is our understanding of the minds activity that transforms it and ourselves, and this understanding arises from watching what happens when we engage in meditation with the conscious intention to be present.

In learning to be aware of, and to not act on the habits and patterns of distractedness, craving and aversion that arise, we can see they are always part of our unconscious investment in building or maintaining a particular sense of self, but do not actually support our wellbeing.

What if we were to look at our practice as not so much an opportunity to get something, or to become someone? Not trying to be a good meditator or become a more spiritual self, but seeing the practice as on opportunity to offer something – to our experience and our world. To not follow the urge to act on the craving, aversion and resistance that arises is not an act of self-deprivation. It brings an immediate sense of relief as the pressure we can place on ourselves begins to fall away, and provides the foundation for offering a sensitive and wholehearted attention to what is immediately here.

In this way the practice of freeing our hearts and minds is one of again and again becoming conscious of what is happening in our heart mind and body, and letting go: letting go of what we think should be happening and opening to what is happening.

The fundamental understanding for us here, is to see that true happiness and lasting satisfaction are not found via controlling and manipulating our experience. Because all experience is changing and insubstantial, the pursuit of pleasure and avoidance of the difficult are not effective strategies for real fulfillment. Seeing this leads to a growing disenchantment with the content of experience: no longer believing it is the problem or can be the solution.   As our focus becomes disentangled from the particulars of our experience, we naturally come to contemplate the remarkable and inexplicable fact, that this conscious experiencing is happening at all.

What happens if we allow ourselves to be curious about this? To not take this experiencing for granted. To ask perhaps, “what is the nature of this that experiences it all?”  We can not answer this question  from the conceiving mind, but if we do not define ourselves by what is happening, nor hold ourselves apart from the process itself, something in the heart opens up.

Whatever our experience may be in any moment, letting go into the truth of it opens us to the touch of the deeper truth, which is vast and open, mysterious and awake. This is the natural quality of the awakened heart-mind, that is not bound to the particulars of momentary experience, but rests in our innate capacity to encompass it all with awareness, understanding and acceptance.

Yanai Postelnik

“Luminous is this heart-mind, brightly shining, but it is coloured by the attachments that visit it. This unlearned people do not really understand, and so do not cultivate this heart-mind. Luminous is this heart-mind, brightly shining, and it is free of the attachments that visit it. This the noble follower of the way really understands; so for them there is cultivation of this heart-mind.”  AN 1.51-52



A culture of generosity

I recently had the good fortune to spend some time at the Buddhist Monastery in Chithurst, “Cittaviveka,” which can be translated as “the secluded heart.” While there I was touched by many expressions of kindness and generosity all around, and struck by the beauty and power of the sharing that takes place there, and in monasteries around the world, every day. These monasteries  are founded on generosity or ‘dana’ as it is known,  and through them the dharma  teachings have been transmitted.  I find it a real blessing and deeply nourishing to reconnect with where this tradition comes from.

There is something very special and yet ordinary in the offering of food and other forms of material support by the laypeople to the ordained community of monks and nuns: The bubbling joy and delight of two young girls offering the flowers they had brought; The deep quiet pleasure of their grandmother giving out woollen hats which she had knitted for the nuns, monks, and novices, in the exact colours of their respective brown, ochre, and white robes; The smiling colourful groups of friends and families, making up the many people who had brought food and other gifts.  All these beings and their offerings being graciously received by the ordained community with warm smiles, friendly words and the traditional blessing chant, Being present amidst all this, I could not help but reflect on the wholesome transformative power of  sharing.  Right there in the middle of their silent three month winter retreat, in the monastery of the secluded heart, these kindly, dignified Buddhist  monastics invite the laypeople into their  quiet, tranquil space and receive the dana they offer. In this traditional meeting and exchange, it seems to me that the spiritual world and the material world come together and reveal that they are inseparable.

The foundation of our dharma culture could be understood as the process of giving and receiving, and this was how it felt to me at the time. There I was sitting on a new inflatable travel zafu (cushion)  which  I had received as a dana offering from a student in America, in the elegant and beautiful yet understated new dharma hall, which was completed last year through the generosity of many people. Having come prepared to camp off site, I had been spontaneously offered accommodation for a few days when this is generally not available during the winter retreat. It was like bathing in a fount of generosity in which the sense of support, nourishment  and inspiration was profoundly tangible.

In all its aspects, freedom is most truly revealed by what we can let go off, rather than by what we have.  Rather than the usual accumulation of possessions or experiences that we are conditioned to pursue, we are invited to let go. We can usefully consider our practise as not like a visit to the shops, to get more, but in fact a trip to the dump – to get rid of that we do not need to hold on to any longer. The effect of a visit to the dump is that we have more space at home to enjoy.  The inner space that opens up as we learn to let go becomes the basis of deep joy in the heart. The core dharma teaching of dukkha (dissatisfaction / suffering / limitation) and its end is twofold: understanding craving, clinging and holding to be the cause of suffering, and  practising non-clinging or letting go, as the basis of liberation.

The Buddha emphasised generosity and sharing as the foundation of the teaching he gave to laypeople, and made it the primary basis of the Buddhist monks and nuns existence. He once instructed his son Rahula with the well known statement, “if you knew what I know about giving, you would not let a single meal pass without sharing.” So important is this practise, that Joseph Goldstein describes generosity as “the first pillar of the dharma.”  Despite this emphasis however, it could be that we attend meditation retreats without hearing much teaching on generosity, other then the brief “dana talk” on the last day. In translating teachings and practises from the retreat to our life, the practise of dana: generosity and sharing is a crucial bridge. Generosity is the foundation of dharma practice, because you can always return to it as a touch point that uplifts the heart.

Dana is the first of the parami ,  the wholesome qualities of the heart that can be cultivated  and the basis of a culture of goodness. When the Buddha taught about generosity, it was not as a moral injunction, i.e  not “you should do this or you are not a good person.” Instead he would invite the listener to recall how they felt when they had received the generosity of others and how they had felt when they had been generous themselves. This reflection on how natural and good it feels to participate in generosity – in giving and receiving,  gladdens the heart and turns our motivation away from selfishness and towards an interest in the common good. Recognising that which uplifts the heart and connects us with our own goodness is much of the path. In the  English language, the word generosity derives from the latin “generosus,” meaning nobly born, which seems very apt, as the practise of generosity is the basis for the establishment of a noble life in dharma teachings.  Receiving is as much an expression of generosity as is giving. Giving expresses the release of holding and clinging, while receiving expresses that attitude which accepts what is offered, and so transforms our aversive tendency to reject our experience.

Like letting go, practising generosity and sharing is not always easy for us. The prospect of giving away what we have can confront us with the risk of not having enough for ourselves. This risk triggers our aversion to discomfort and insecurity and touches our deepest survival fears. Choosing to practice giving and sharing however, enables us to connect with a sense of having enough, releasing the grip of self-centred neediness, and dissolving the feeling of lack or poverty that we can experience at times. The pressure to get, to keep, to want more and more creates a contracted inner environment, in which we can feel trapped, identified with needing to protect or promote only ourselves. To give and share is to trust that there is enough for now, and therefore to live more fully in the present. On many occasions travelling in undeveloped regions of the world, I have been humbled by the enthusiasm and joy with which the simple poor people have shared their food with me.  Experiences such as this confirm that happiness is born from the condition of our heart, not what we own, have or control. In giving and sharing the heart opens, liberating us from the tyranny of fear and the isolated ego structure that is built on fear.

Generosity is the natural response of an open heart. I notice how often when I encounter wild-life around Gaia House – birds, squirrel rabbits etc, I experience what feels like a very natural urge to offer them food.  Of course it is not always possible, and sometimes actually not good for them, but the urge speaks to a felt sense of connectedness that finds its natural expression in the wish to share.  In this context however some wisdom is required. It can be that our impulse to give will not actually serve the recipients welfare, as is sometimes the case with feeding wild creatures. We must also recognise that we may not have the material capacity or degree of inner freedom needed to fulfil our generous impulses. I remember travelling in India, in my early twenties, feeling my heart poignantly touched by the desperate circumstances of so many poor people, and the thought occurring to me  “ I could give them all my “hard earned” savings and go back to the West now.” Even with recognising that it may transform some lives and would not harm mine in real terms, I found myself still too attached to my modest savings and travel plans to be able to give them away just like that. I was engaged in dharma practise at the time, and it was humbling to see and acknowledge the attachment in my own heart. Through the process of feeling into the suffering in my own holding,  it became clear that it is crucial to include oneself, with all ones limitations in the field of those who deserve our generosity. Kindness and generosity to oneself recognises that it is ok to take care of one’s own genuine need too, and to forgive ourselves for our limitations is itself an act of generosity. If generosity becomes equated with obligatory self sacrifice, or with “shoulds” and judgement, then demanding it from oneself or others becomes a form of taking which is actually opposed to the spirit of generosity.  Allowing generosity is much more skilful than requiring it, and then it can find an appropriate form.  In India I learned that giving away some but not all of what I had, was actually the appropriate response in my circumstances.

Receiving is also an act of generosity, as the author Stephen Donaldson once wrote, “to receive generosity is to honour the giver.” Although at first it looks as though it should be easy, receiving can also be difficult for us. Feelings of unworthiness can arise in a situation where generosity is being extended to us, leading us to reject the offer.  How often have we refused something offered to us that we would actually have liked to receive, because we were not comfortable with receiving? A longstanding friend of mine once who described a guiding principle of his life as “never refuse generosity.” This is great advice. Have you noticed how sometimes it can be hard to receive praise and not contradict it, or to receive gratitude without saying “it was nothing,” or to receive an unexpected gift when you have nothing to offer in return? Of course it is wonderful to be moved to make an offering in return when receiving a gift,  and wise to take praise with a pinch of salt, but we can be very conditioned to need everything to be an exchange, and uncomfortable in just receiving.  When someone says “thank you” I often notice the tendency to say “thank you” in return.  Instead of this response, which I notice has the affect of putting me back into the familiar and valued role of the giver, I make a practise at times of just staying in the humble vulnerable place of receiving,  accepting the expression of gratitude, and leaving space for the other to occupy the role of the giver, in their offering of appreciation or thanks. This is not always easy to do.  To receive that which is freely offered, requires a degree of humility, and vulnerability. We do not have to be generous, or become generous, but simply to learn to not impede the flow of that natural generosity which is an organic expression of our interconnectedness.

As well as reflecting on the effects of generosity, the Buddha encouraged his lay followers to reflect on how it feels to act selfishly, or affected by the selfishness of others, and in recognising that this led to an afflicted and contracted state of heart and mind,  to incline away from such action.  This is again an expression of discerning what actions truly serve our natural wish to be happy. So what happens when we reflect upon the experience generosity and of selfishness, in ourselves and in others?

Life is something we receive, like a meal, and when we understand that this very life is given to us, is an offering of something precious that we do not own,  our relationship to it is transformed. Forgetting that our life is not something we own, we can have a sense of entitlement, in which we tend to take for granted that which we have, and easily focus upon its shortcomings. This leads us to struggle with the limitations inherent in life. When recognise “the gift of our days and nights” as Kahlil Gibran puts it, we are much more likely to be grateful for our life, with all its imperfections, and less likely to look the gift horse in the mouth.  In understanding our very existence as a precious offering, that we have not had to earn, we open to gratitude for the warmth of the sun, the coolness of the breeze, the light of the moon, the kind presence of a friend, in fact anything and everything, even the difficult.

Giving and receiving is the very nature of life’s engagement with itself. Rather than being something that we do, sharing is actually what we are. In each moment our very breath is received from the world, the oxygen released by the metabolic processes of plants sustaining our biological survival moment to moment,  and the carbon dioxide  that we breathe out provides plants with what they need to sustain the photosynthesis that nourishes them, and upon which all life on earth depends. I find it so helpful to just remember that which I call “me” is an expression of an ever-changing, timeless and unstoppable process of giving and receiving, and in remembering,  relaxing again and again,  allowing it all to unfold.

It can be that we struggle to find time for practice in our lives and wonder how we can stay connected with the deeper aspirations of our hearts. The path can be summarised as dana, sila, and bhavana (generosity, ethical behaviour / non harming and meditation / cultivation ) and Buddha once suggested that if possible practise bhavana, if that was not possible, at least practise sila, but if that was not possible, he said that it is always possible to practise dana.  Although time for formal meditation is sometimes limited, there are so many opportunities in life to cultivate generosity. Sharing our resources such as goods,  money, time , space and understanding,  as well as kind actions of body, speech and mind,  can all be expressions of generosity. A culture of dharma is one that recognises generosity as a powerful basis for  the cultivation of happiness and well-being, and  as the expression of a liberated heart and mind. To live in accordance with Buddha-dharma, is to more and more align our lives with the spirit of giving and receiving, with the reality of the benevolence that is at the core of our being, and the joy that arises from allowing that goodness to express itself, through our shared existence.

May we all live with generosity,  abiding in goodness of heart, for our own welfare, and that of all beings.