In my work over the past several months, I’ve been accompanying a beautiful social experiment – a non-profit called daana. It’s been a joy, with many valuable lessons for our times.
“Daana” is Sanskrit for “the practice of generosity,” which the Buddha taught was the first and most fundamental practice. Only on this foundation can we be generous and compassionate towards the mind as it wanders during meditation. Only on this foundation can we engage together in building a thrivable world.
Within the 2,500-year-old tradition of Buddhism, wisdom and wellness teachings are offered as daana, given freely as an expression of mutuality and interdependence and an acknowledgment that the teaching is priceless and a birthright for all. In turn, it is an honor for community members to provide teachers with daana – gifts of money, food, clothing, shelter, medicine and service – in a spirit of generosity and gratitude, and so that the teachings may continue to be of benefit to future students. This is how wisdom traditions have been preserved and shared for millennia. As these teachings were brought to the West, however, daana was generally left behind.
The project I’m supporting centers around an online platform (www.globaldaana.org) matching those who offer activities that uplift the human condition with those who would benefit from them. Teachers provide their activities – their gifts – out of generosity. And afterwards, through the online platform, participants are invited to make an anonymous financial contribution to the teacher, in generous recognition of the priceless gift they have received, so that the cycle may continue. In this way, as the model grows, the intention is to help each person feel more connected with the inherent generosity of life, the nourishing richness of community, and the potential for vibrant health within their own body, mind and spirit. Ultimately, the vision is to enable everyone on Earth to have easy access to wellness and community, and along the way to cultivate a generous world – the world we all want to live in.
Within this daana experiment, one of the core things we are learning is that at least half the practice of generosity is not in the giving but in seeing and honoring the gift. In fact, perhaps not surprisingly, this has been the most challenging aspect to cultivate.
- In our non-Buddhist culture, the common understanding is that generosity flows in one direction, in a straight line from generous giver to passive recipient, and there it ends. With this belief, daana-style offerings are too often treated as nothing more than free or cheap classes, and then they are not sustainable, either financially or energetically, as the teacher becomes discouraged.
- On top of that, in a world that sees such interactions as transactional rather than transformational, placing the burden of “pricing” on the “consumer” is often perceived as awkward and even irritating, and so it becomes a deterrent.
- Worst of all, our culture encourages us to be skeptical of something given freely, doubting its value and suspecting hidden motives, and so we are likely to refuse the gift altogether.
- Underneath all this misunderstanding and resistance may be an unacknowledged belief that there is a limited amount of appreciation available in the world, that life is a zero-sum competition, and so welcoming one person’s gift may mean reducing opportunities for our own gifts to be shared and valued.
Fortunately, there have been pockets within the experiment where a different way shines through. There, we observe the emergence of a “giving field,” a richly generative space and time in which everyone involved feels that they receive more than they give. When daana becomes such a practice ground for generosity, then it becomes something transformative and even regenerative, healing us and making us more whole. We shift from being critical consumers of a commodity to community members, patrons of each other’s gifts and the courage it takes to share them. We reconnect with the nourishing concept of craft and ongoing cultivation. And we are able to open our hearts and discover that we, too, have gifts that might be welcomed and honored.
In noticing this, I recently started to talk about “regenerosity,” in recognition of the continuous, ever-expanding cycle involved and in a playful melding of “generosity” and “regeneration.” Both words have at their origin the Latin genus, meaning giving birth to something new – here, new possibilities and new understandings of who and how we can be together.
Through my experience with daana these past few months, I have come to believe that such an explicit practice ground for generosity is vital for our thrivability. Health may be seen as individual, a quantifiable snapshot of our personal condition at any one moment; but thriving is necessarily collective, rooted in context and community over time. To thrive is to exist within – and actively cultivate – a generous, generative and regenerative web of relationship with our world.
To bring it to an even more acute point, on a warming planet, our generosity is likely to be tested in countless and dramatic ways. We would be wise to begin now to build that muscle, expanding its capacity and reach, and creating new habits and structures to support it.
As you reflect on the new year ahead, why not imagine ways you can share your gifts more bravely and generously, and support others in sharing theirs? Why not approach your very next interaction as a practice ground for generosity, offering warm-hearted appreciation, loosening your grip on expectations, forgiving any awkwardness, looking for beauty and gifts in the moment? And why not join us in our global daana experiment?
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