Finding Happiness in the midst of life’s difficulties (part 3): the practice of generosity


Last week we explored the practice of gratitude as a pathway to happiness. Today I would like to continue this exploration of true happiness and talk about how we can cultivate joy in our life through the practice of generosity.

A few months ago, I told you the story of the two wolves:

An old Cherokee is teaching his grandson about life. “A fight is going on inside me,” he said to the boy. “It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil – he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.”  He continued, “The other is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you – and inside every other person, too.” The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win?” The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”

Whether or not it’s your first time hearing this story, it is a beautiful illustration of what these practices are helping us do: when we practice gratitude, generosity, loving kindness, compassion and joy we make a conscious choice to feed the good wolf in our heart. As neuroscience has shown us, neurons that fire together wire together, and whatever we practice gets stronger. Our brain takes its shape from what the mind rests upon: so if we keep resting our mind on self-criticism, worries, blaming others, hurts and stress, our brain will be shaped into greater reactivity, vulnerability to anxiety and depressed mood, anger, sadness, guilt. On the other hand, if we practice resting our mind on good events and conditions, and our good intentions and qualities, then over time our brain will have strength and resilience hardwired into it, a more positive mood and a sense of worth.


Self-reflection: Closing the eyes for a moment, take some time now to ask yourself, looking back over the past week, where has your mind been mainly resting?


So what we are learning to do here is to turn our mind towards the cultivation of wholesome states that generate lasting happiness within us. As these positive qualities grow in us, they spontaneously give rise to joy in our heart.


As the Buddhist meditation teacher Jack Kornfield reminds us in a Path with Heart: “These generosity practices are not a way to become “good”, but a way to become happy.”


Generosity expresses connection

I will start with a story I read in the Age magazine on the week-end, in the section the Two of us, and maybe some of you have read it too. It amazed and touched me. A yoga teacher, Natalie Le Sueur, invited a 19 year old Afghan refugee to come and live with her and her family, as she had just given birth to her first child and she did not know him. He stayed with them for 16 years. She supported him so he could get an education and get his life together here in Australia. This is an act of deep generosity. This woman herself had had a difficult childhood, and maybe this is what enabled her to do something so beautiful for someone else.

Growing up, I also experienced this type of generous giving, I had a nanny who looked after me almost full time from the age of 1 to the age of 5, as my mum was a single mum and away a lot for work. She refused to be paid, and she loved me as her own child, took me on holidays to the beach and the snow…, never asking for anything in return. She was truly amazing to have done that.  And she not only did it for me but for another little girl, and she also helped hundreds of people throughout her life.

And as I talk you might start to bring up your own memories of acts of generosity that you might have witnessed or experienced in your life.

These examples really show that generosity actually builds or expresses connection. When we are present and connected, the natural movement of the heart is to give. There is an African proverb that puts it this way: “It is the heart that gives, the fingers just let go”. Generosity is a movement from the heart.

It is natural for us to feel generous with people in our family, to want to help them when they are in difficulty. And as we practice mindfulness, lovingkindness, compassion, gratitude, generosity and we learn to let go of grasping, we realise our connection and interdependence with all living beings, it is as though our family grows to encompass the whole world. As Mother Teresa puts it “the trouble with you is you draw your family circle too small.”

Reverend Dr Martin Luther King Jr saw this very clearly: “In a real sense, all life is interrelated. All men [and women] are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be who I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality.”

The power of generosity

In her book Lovingkindness, the meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg tells the story of a meditation master from Thailand’s forest tradition who went to visit the United States a few years ago. He observed bemused: “In Asia the classical sequence of the teachings and practice is first generosity, then morality, and then meditation or insight. But here in the US the sequence seems to be meditation first, then morality, and after some time, as a kind of appendix, there is some teaching about generosity. What’s going on here?”

In the Buddhist tradition, new practitioners start with learning “dana”, which means “giving”, the practice of generosity, offering gifts to the teacher in exchange for the teachings. In Buddhist teachings, there is a passage where the Buddha says: “if you knew what I do about generosity, you would not let a single meal pass without offering some to others.” This is referring to the power of awakening and liberation of the heart and not being caught in the separateness of self that is brought by the practice of generosity.

The power of generosity comes from the inner quality of letting go or relinquishing that it asks from us. Being able to let go, to give up leads us to a profound inner freedom. When we practice generosity, we experience a natural joy, giving brings happiness at every stage: we feel joy when we form the intention of giving, we feel joy in the actual act of giving something, and we feel joy in remembering the fact that we have given.

Self-reflection: I invite you to close the eyes for a few moments, and bring to mind some act of giving you have done, it could be something you have done, or said that you feel was a generous action, that contributed to someone’s well-being. If something comes to mind, allow the happiness that comes from the remembrance. If nothing comes to mind, gently turn your attention to a quality you like about yourself. Is there an ability or strength within yourself you can recognise? Are you able to appreciate yourself for having been generous?

When you’re ready you can open the eyes.

It is important to acknowledge and remember generosity, as it helps nurture the feeling of joy and happiness this brings us. It gladdens the heart, this is part of our practice of taking in the good, feeling it in our whole body, and creating new neural pathways in our brain.

The act of sharing what we have helps us develop very naturally the four wholesome states or qualities that we also cultivate through formal meditation practice: loving kindness, because we feel goodwill toward the person who is receiving, we want that person to be happy. We feel compassion in that moment, because we wish that person to be free from pain or suffering. We experience sympathetic joy, because we are happy at that person’s happiness. And finally equanimity or peace arises from the act of sharing or giving, because we are able to let go of something we have and be without it ourselves.

The act of giving releases grasping and desire, we also let go of ill will or aversion and the illusion of separateness from others.

As Sharon Salzberg beautifully writes in Loving kindness, “generosity establishes the ground in which meditation practice can flourish. The stability of this internal happiness and spaciousness gives us the strength to look at absolutely anything that arises in our heart, and the flexibility to let it go.”

The blocks to generosity

The main block to generosity is the illusion of scarcity, which is built in our conditioning and our Western culture. Our normal conditioning is to grasp, to cling, to want, to hoard. Although we teach to our children that “sharing is caring”, this is not always reflected in our behaviours.

In the Iroquois Nation, one of the rituals is to bring a young child into the centre of the community circle and to give her a beautiful drink. And then someone outside the circle cries “I’m thirsty, and I have nothing to drink”. And then the child is encouraged to carry that drink to the person who is thirsty. And then they bring the child back to the centre and they say “here is some beautiful food”. And someone else outside the circle cries out “I’m so hungry and I have nothing to eat”. And the child is encouraged to carry some of that food to that person. That’s how generosity is taught from a young age.

The pure joy of giving

Generosity can take many forms: sometimes our generosity is the giving of a smile, silence, listening, comforting touch or words. Sometimes we might give our time and skills, money, knowledge or expertise. As Jack Kornfield writes in a Path with Heart, “every form of giving is a blessing”.

Jack Kornfield describes the three levels of generosity:

The first is tentative giving: maybe I will give it, maybe I won’t, maybe I will need it again, I’ll put it in the attic. And we accumulate stuff that we never use, and one day we give it away. This is still good.

Then there is brotherly/sisterly giving, sharing with one another, which opens the heart a bit more.

And finally there is royal giving, which is giving the best we have to another, and delighting in their happiness.

In Buddhist cultures, generosity is practiced extensively and openly. Even though people in the villages of Thailand, India and Burma are poor, they rejoice in the ability to offer food to the Buddhist monks, every single day, this is royal giving. The villagers don’t give out of guilt or duty, they do it because it brings them joy and as an expression of their gratitude to the monks. They are generous out of a sense of inner abundance, the feeling that they have enough to share. When we cultivate generosity we start understanding that no matter how much we have, we can always give something.

In order to cultivate this sense of inner abundance, Sharon Salzberg suggests asking oneself: what do I really need, right now, in order to be happy?

The practice of generosity

Because of our conditioning toward grasping and clinging, generosity is a practice, a training. And it starts with our intention to be more generous, more giving, to learn to let go a bit more.

We can practice giving in many ways throughout the day: we can give material goods and money, we can give our time, our service, our presence, our caring, our praise, our expertise, our forgiveness. We can make a conscious choice to stop fighting and competing with one another, and to stop clinging. We choose to let go and be generous with one another.

Sharon Salzberg gives the example of giving up your parking space and letting it go when another car rushes ahead of you to get it. Or giving your spot in the queue to someone else in the supermarket. There are many opportunities for us to practice being generous every day.

Jack Kornfield invites us to share his own generosity practice, which is that if we have a thought of giving something, we simply do it, without hesitating or asking ourselves “maybe I shouldn’t, or is that right, or will I need it?”, we have the thought and we just do it. Most of the time, we won’t regret it.

A final point to remember about practicing generosity is that we need to be generous to ourselves as well, to know how to take care of ourselves in the process of giving. For example, at a retreat I went to last year, the organisers gave us a talk about the practice of Dana at the end. They said: “If after you’ve given dana you can not afford to pay your rent, then it means you have given too much. And if after leaving the retreat you feel that you have made a good deal, then you probably did not give enough”.


It feels good to be generous, it brings us joy, and it frees us. Science now shows that the parts in the brain that light up when we are generous are associated with positive emotions.

It is as if we have been making a tight fist for a long time, and slowly the fist opens. We experience relief and happiness as that grip loosens. ” – Sharon Salzberg

You can try a guided generosity practice HERE.


Jack Kornfield, A Path with Heart, 2008

Sharon Salzberg, Lovingkindness – the revolutionary art of happiness, 1995

Jack Kornfield and Tara Brach: Mindfulness Meditation Teacher Certification Training 2019-2020

Rick Hanson: Giving is good, generosity from everyday, Buddhist and evolutionary perspective,

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