Developing the Mindset of Generosity

There may be many definitions of generosity as well as many ideas about how to practice it. However, in the Buddhist teachings, the essence of generosity is considered to be any action of body or speech motivated by the mindset of giving.

The “mindset of giving” means that we not only have an intent to give, but also that our intent to give arises with a sense of non-attachment. When we have the mindset of giving, both of these arise in our mind together. This is why, when we train in developing generosity to its greatest extent, we are primarily working with the mind. The primary factor is not our body or speech. It is this mindset of giving, along with non-attachment, that we are trying to develop.

For example, we may engage in the generosity practice by giving to people who are suffering from poverty. In that context, our practice does not depend upon completely dispelling the poverty of those people we wish to help. If it did, then it would follow that the buddhas have not perfected the practice of generosity either, as clearly there are still many people suffering from poverty.

So when we work to develop great generosity, it means we are trying to become fully habituated to the mindset of giving. To do this, we start by giving the things we have the ability to give.

What to avoid when we give

Let’s consider material generosity –– giving away our possessions, our stuff.  We start with our extra yogurt containers. Then we can move on to giving away extra books, those expensive shirts and shoes that we never wore, but still want to keep. But we can begin with things like our yogurt containers. I have nothing against yogurt containers, actually. I like them. But when we are engaging in generosity as a practice, in order to develop the mindset of giving, we have to stop and consider what we’re doing. Often when we give, we’re not really checking how we are going about it.

When we give our things to others, it’s important that we don’t give with the wrong intention. For example, we shouldn’t give with an attitude of arrogance or in a demeaning way. It’s important not to give something out of a competitive motivation, with the idea of harming the recipient. We shouldn’t give with a motivation of ambition, thinking, “Due to my act of generosity I will become famous,” and so forth.

These days, in the very highest tiers of the economy, in the realm of corporations and such, there could be a kind of giving that is performed only for the purpose of avoiding taxes. If these acts of generosity were performed only from the motivation of self-benefit and not for the benefit of others, they would fit into this category of giving with the wrong intention.

We should also avoid what could be called feeble-minded generosity. In other words, you don’t really want to give what you’re giving, and then even after giving it, you regret that you gave it. That’s an example of generosity with an impure intention.

If we’re serious about developing the mindset of giving, we also need to avoid giving in such a way that we’re only focused on the recipient’s response. In other words, when you’re hoping there’s going to be a reciprocal response. In this case, one doesn’t really want to give at all, but is giving solely to get something in return. Or one is giving only to gain a karmic reward, a positive future ripening of their karma. If your sole motivation for practicing generosity is fear of your future karma, that too is an impure motivation or intention.

We also need to avoid giving out of a distracted or disturbed state of mind such as resentment or some feeling of obligation. And we would not be practicing generosity if, in the act of giving, we were somehow demeaning others –– for example, highlighting their state of poverty and digging into them about it while we are giving.

It is also important not to give in a disrespectful way. For example, if someone asked us for something and we gave it, but did so while ridiculing or threatening them, taking the wind out of their sails, or otherwise depriving them of their courage.

If we want to practice true generosity, we need to avoid all of these ways of giving.

How to give and what to give

In the context of practicing genuine generosity, we may give many different kinds of material things such as food, drink, clothing, modes of transport, and so on. But before we give, it’s important for us to reflect on whether the things we’re giving are actually going to be useful or helpful for those who will receive them. If the items aren’t useful or is something we no longer want, such as old or expired food or a rickety, broken-down table, then our giving them isn’t considered an act of generosity.

To attend to generosity properly, we need to give things we ourselves like and find useful, whether food or clothing, or other enjoyments or possessions, such as jewelry or money. Usually when we want to buy food for ourselves, we go to the expensive organic stores. But when we want to donate something for others, we buy it at a discount grocery store, and we buy whatever is cheapest. If we’re trying to develop a genuine mindset of giving, that kind of giving is not really okay.

So if we’re serious about developing the mindset of generosity, we need to reflect well on the items we give. We need to take the time to consider whether we’re giving a proper item or not. Don’t we usually think of giving things away as being very easy and straightforward? We think, “It’s just stuff, what is there to think about?” But actually there is quite a lot to think about, as we consider whether or not what we’re giving is really going to be beneficial to the recipient.

True generosity happens when our mind is intent on giving without attachment. For this reason, we will need some practice to develop this habit. We will have to engage with that mindset again and again. As we do this, we become more and more familiar with the desire or willingness to give. And for our generosity to be genuine, that willingness to give must come with the heart of letting go.

When we give without attachment, we’re really letting go. Of course, to be totally free of attachment is not possible. If we were totally attachment-free, we would be in a state of buddhahood. And at this point we’re engaging in generosity as a practice, not as a virtue we have already perfected. We’re trying to develop this mindset of giving, becoming familiar with the mind of non-attachment, so that generosity becomes an effortless habit for us. So we have to give ourselves a little push. Don’t say to yourself, “Wait, I can’t give right now because I’m not free of attachment to all my possessions.” Don’t wait. just give.

Building the habit of generosity – an exercise

Before we give something away, we can check out our generosity to see if it’s coming from the mindset of giving without attachment. To do this, we can ask ourselves these questions:

1. Am I giving with the simple motivation to help others? Or is it mixed with a desire to get something in return?

2. What is the state of my mind as I’m giving this? Do I feel good about giving, or is my mind somewhat disturbed about it?

3. Am I giving this with respect and care for the recipient?

4. Is this item going to be genuinely useful and helpful to them? How will it be useful?

5. Am I giving something that I like, that I myself would find pleasing and helpful?

6. Am I really letting go while giving this, or is part of me holding on? How can I let go a bit more?

There’s no need to feel bad if we still notice some sense of attachment. We’re not looking for perfection. We can simply take note of that and see if there’s a way to make a slight adjustment. It takes practice to develop the habit of giving with the heart of letting go. It happens a little bit at a time.