Editor’s Note: The following is the third in a series of posts by Nora Murphy about the “10 paramis,” or qualities of heart-mind. With these posts, she’ll take an informal, personal approach to each of the paramis, in an effort to reveal the simple, everyday lesson in each.
“Gimme ‘dat. That’s mine. I want it,” was a refrain my youngest often said as a toddler. To his credit, once he received the object in question— say, a toy or a cookie—he always said, “Thank you.” Of course, when he didn’t get what he wanted, his grasping easily blossomed into a temper tantrum.
How much different are we than toddlers?
I often catch myself grasping. But unlike a toddler, I’ve learned to masquerade much of my clinging. In fact, sometimes this grasping is so subtle I can hardly see it. But when the object of my desire isn’t forthcoming, I have my own kind of temper tantrum. I don’t kick or scream like a two-year-old, but it can get rather loud inside my head when I don’t get what I want. Sometimes it gets loud in the house, too—just ask my son who is now 12. He learned how to swear under his breath from his mother, not his classmates in seventh grade.
Generosity, the first of the ten paramis or perfections the Buddha encouraged lay people to practice, is a powerful antidote to grasping. When we train our awareness on acting with generosity, we can really see how often we grasp at mental and physical things. Just this insight helps us cultivate a more spacious heart.
Not only is giving beneficial, it’s also exquisitely beautiful. Giving gifts forms a celebratory cord of love and respect between two people, two families, or two communities. In traditional Buddhist cultures, this sweet link is woven daily as villagers feed monks on their alms walk. In the treasured practice of the give-away in Native culture, a family offers gifts to everyone in the wider community who supported the family member being honored. Even in mainstream American culture our glitzy holidays contain beautiful seeds for gracious giving.
Still, we often struggle to give with an open heart, especially when we begin to see how often the mind prefers to cling instead of letting go and how often we mentally say, “Gimme ‘dat” ourselves. For inspiration, I turn to the autumn leaves tumbling to the ground this season. What a splendid dance unfolds as they fall merrily to the ground! Does the tree make a plan of action to give its gift of golden leaves? Probably not. Trees don’t grasp. They don’t take what is not theirs. They honor what arises and what passes away. What if we followed the example of these teachers this fall and simply tried the practice of not-taking?
When I spent a few days looking at how often I take things that are not mine, I was pretty shocked. I discovered that I exist in an almost constant state of taking things. Lots of things, not just toys or cookies. I take thoughts and mental streams. I take feelings and emotions. I take air and water. I take heat and pressure. I take good actions and their merit. I take unhealthy actions and their thorns. I take pride and conceit. I take my old patterns of suffering. I take other people’s patterns of suffering. In fact, this fall, there is very little that I am willing to let go of. Even the in-breath and the out-breath are objects I try to take as me and mine. Ugh! How will I ever live a life of deep generosity?
Thankfully, the Buddha’s teaching kindly included everything—even desire itself. So this householder is trying a generosity experiment. I’m trying to practice a developmental skill in generosity—not-taking. It means when my son returns from school drinking a 32-ounce Diet Mountain Dew on sale for 69 cents from the Holiday store he passes on his walk home, I can observe and express my dislike, but I don’t have to ‘take’ the mental stream of judgment that arises. It means when I cut into a tiny misshapen cantaloupe from the garden, I can appreciate its sweet fragrance, but I don’t have to ‘take’ this smell and long for more fruit. It means that when my heart breaks from love lost, I can feel compassion for all parties involved, but I don’t have to ‘take’ the loss and turn it into a dramatic solid storyline of doom. Instead, I can try breathing in and out with generosity, like the golden leaves of October in their splendid dance of death.