We make a living by what we get. We make a life by what we give. Winston Churchill
Two afternoons a week I volunteer at a local dog rescue centre. There is one dog at the centre I especially like: a young German Shepherd Dog called Isla who came from a couple who felt they could no longer cope with her. In truth, they had made little effort to train Isla and, with her very intelligent mind, it had not taken her long to become a very badly-behaved dog.
I felt so sorry for Isla, an active, highly sensitive dog living 24/7 in a small kennelled area, that I aimed to give her an enjoyable time twice a week. I used to give her a long walk and then come back and play ball with her which is her favourite pass time. She was difficult to walk: lunging out at passing cars, joggers, cyclists and, viciously, towards other dogs. It took all my strength to hold her.
On one walk, I was pondering how I could use a principle that I believe in to overcome the difficulties with Isla’s behaviour: when we focus on the challenges, faults and foibles of people’s personalities, all we perceive are those personality deficiencies. When we train our ‘seeing’ to look beyond their flaws and instead see the innate goodness and lovliness of their True nature, we quite naturally come into better interpersonal relationships with them.I decided to take this approach with Isla. I was, though, slightly put off track when one of the trainers at the centre told me I was not helping the dog by loving her! I reflected on this and realised that what would actually help Isla was to continue to love her, to focus too on her higher nature and to spend time training her to overcome the challenges of her personality. Clearly, just seeing her loving nature was not going to be enough! With this new approach, Isla is now coming along in leaps and bounds.
In many situations, we all find ourselves touched by the difficult and often painful lives of others. We only have to watch The News to feel compelled to want to help others. There is much scientific proof about the value of giving on our psyche: the brain’s pleasure and reward centres light up as if we are the recipient; endorphins are released that boost our mood; the ‘cuddle’ hormone oxytocin is discharged making us feel more connected, empathic and generous towards others. All round, we get a lot of ‘feel good’ factor from helping.
Yet contributing can sometimes have serious undertones to it: the manipulation of others to our own ends or to ‘get’, feelings of righteous superiority over the recipient and, in contrast, endless giving to feel needed and of worth. So, how can we serve from the right place internally in a way that truly benefits others?
Here are my thoughts:
- Find the right place from which to give. All religious and spiritual traditions emphasise the need for selfless service which sits at one end of the spectrum for giving. Go into any monastery and that is what you will see. At the other end of the spectrum is the ‘me, me, me’ culture where the entire focus is on pleasing the self, often to the detriment of others. Assuming you don’t want to join a monastery, it is valuable to reflect honestly where you sit on this spectrum and then choose where you want to place yourself. Factors to consider are your available time, energy, financial position and your willingness to help others. Maybe you are happy doing the occasional random act of kindness. Wherever you choose to be on the spectrum, act accordingly.
- Give from a centred place. I know, in theory, we are only meant to contribute when we feel full inside. In truth, how many of us actually experience that fullness consistently? I don’t believe every monastic feels overflowing with energy when they are up at 4.30am for morning prayers. What is more important is to share from a centred place where your generosity is inspired from within and is heartfelt and sincere. It might be thought of as ‘mindful giving’ as opposed to just giving because you feel you should.
- Ask ‘how may I best serve?’. This is a powerful question to reflect on because the answer will probably not be what you are expecting. I believe that taking this attitude of service into all that we do allows us to naturally align with our True nature which is continually giving. When we are able to enter all circumstances with this thought, rather than setting intentions about what we want to get from the situation, we enter a very exalted place.
- Give through your mind. Often, conditions prevent us from being able to contribute our time, energy or money. We can though use our mind to broadcast good vibrations. Sending out thoughts of peace, loving kindness and positive energy to others is a very worthwhile practice. Using your focus to see the Higher nature of others is too an exceptionally potent use of your mind that does effect change. Or just holding the Buddhist ‘Metta’ thought: “May you be happy; may you be healthy; may you be at peace” is a devotional way to give to others.
So in this month of August, whether you are abroad or at home, see if you can peel away another layer of your personality, that, by its very nature is self-absorbed, by keeping your focus on mindful giving. And enjoy reaping the many rewards that come from such an approach.