When we examine our own giving, we often discern that we give for a wide variety of reasons, often with mixed motives. Although we may have the well-being of the recipient in mind when we give, we also give in order to receive.

Giving often creates the expectation that it’s now our turn to get something. We give because we like the other person and hope to be liked in return. We give in order to be accepted or recognized in a particular community, to be admired, honored, or praised. Often we give in order to think well of ourselves, in order to think of ourselves as truly generous people. Even the admirable desire to become a profoundly generous person still maintains the primacy of self-concern. It focuses on me, the giver, rather on those who might need my help. But it is a mistake to simply reject these mixed and sometimes immature motivations, because for most of us these are the motives that do in fact drive our lives.

The movement from ordinary states of self-concern to selfless giving always involves a gradual transformation of character, not a sudden leap. Like any form of strength, generosity needs to be intentionally cultivated over time, and everyone must begin in whatever state of mind they already happen to be. Understanding and accepting who you really are right now is as important as the commitment to become someone more open and generous. Whatever the quality of motivation, when we intentionally reach out to others in giving, some degree of transformation occurs. We become what we practice and do in daily life. When we engage in acts of giving, we begin to feel generous, and the force of this feeling encourages our wanting to give.

Generous feelings are not always enough to make someone truly generous, however, because there are other important capacities entailed in effective giving. One of these is receptivity, a sensitive openness to others that enables both our noting their need and our willingness to hear their requests. If we simply don’t notice the problems and the suffering all around us, our generosity won’t amount to much. And if we don’t present ourselves as open and willing to help, we probably won’t help, because we won’t be asked. Our physical and psychological presence sets this stage and communicates clearly whether or not we care about the plight of someone there before us.

The traditional Mahayana embodiment of receptivity is the Bodhisattva of Compassion, Avalokiteshvara, whose multiple arms are always extended in the gesture of generous outreach. The Bodhisattva of Compassion welcomes and invites all pleas for help. Other familiar forms of presence, other gestures, restrict the field of asking and giving. Eyes down and arms folded tightly around ourselves communicate that we are self-contained, not open outwardly. Arms raised in gestures of anger or self-assertion say even more about our relations to others. The extent to which we are sensitively open to others and the way in which we communicate that openness determine to a great extent what level of generosity we will be able to practice in daily life. Practicing mindfulness, we open our minds to the very possibility that someone may need our assistance, and we welcome their requests for our help.

If we are both open to offering help and notice when help is needed, but are mistaken and ineffectual in how we go about giving it, then what we intend as an act of generosity may in fact just compound the difficulties. Without practical skill and wisdom, giving may be counterproductive or misguided in a number of ways. First, giving is best when it is based on a sound understanding of the overall situation. Effective generosity requires understanding who might benefit from your giving and how that giving might affect others beside the recipient. It is important to know when to give, how much to give, and how to do it with integrity, both for the well-being of the recipient and for that of others, including yourself. Wisdom is involved in knowing how different ways of giving might be received by others, and to what effect. There is also wisdom involved in asking how often to give and at what intervals. Intelligent giving is learned through practice, both as a meditation when we reflect on possible giving and as an activity in the world. Moreover, wisdom includes mindfulness that is watchful for our deepest ingrained habits, most especially the intrusions of self-concern and the always-present manipulations of self-interest.

Related: Rich Generosity

One of the reasons that practicing generosity is so closely linked to Buddhist enlightenment is that the quality of our giving always proceeds from the true state of our character. Normally, we act as separate and self-contained beings who need to attend to our own well-being and security. Grounded in that ordinary but limited self-understanding, the generosity that we are able to practice is at least partially self-concerned. Still, as we practice generosity in the spirit of selflessness, we develop a sense of interdependent connection to others, a sense of community and reciprocal responsibility, and we begin to understand and feel all the ways in which our selves are in fact interlinked with others. When barriers separating the self begin to dissolve, generosity becomes easier—more natural—because more in alignment with our self-understanding. When this occurs, the motives that initiate giving become less patently selfish, and the meaning of the Buddhist sense of no-self begins to become clear. Indeed, every act of generosity reminds us of the possibility that we might actually live the bodhisattva’s vow, the vow to engage in everyday life as though the well-being of others is just as important as our own.

To act generously is to awaken a certain kind of freedom: freedom from the stranglehold of self-concern, and, consequently, freedom to choose a level of responsibility beyond the minimal charge most of us have for ourselves. To give unselfishly is at least momentarily to be free of ourselves, free of greed and attachments, resentments and hatreds, habitual and isolating acts of self-protection. This experience is exhilarating because it entails an expansion out beyond the compulsive anxieties of self-protection. In this sense, the practice of generosity is the practice of freedom, and it carries with it all the joy and pleasure that are associated with liberation. Indeed, there may be no greater sense of fulfillment in life than the simultaneous feelings of human interconnection and pure freedom that arise from an authentic act of selfless generosity.

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