A Few Generous Days in New England

Nov 2, 2009

"We're 14 chefs.  I like this idea of doing small acts of kindness.  Do you think we can do something?" a young man asked me, after a talk.  "Why don't you cook up a full-out meal, and anonymously start gifting each other's parents and family members?"  He liked the idea and is soon to implement it.

Service is ultimately about planting trees under whose shade you don't expect to sit.  And the motivation for doing such acts is predicated on the awareness of receiving that shade for seeds planted by our forefathers.    That whole cycle of give-receive-pay-forward seems to be particularly in-your-face obvious when you're traveling.   

Or so it was when Paul and I spent four nights in four states, being handed off from one trust network to another.

In Massachusetts, Marion Institute had invited me to keynote to their 1500+ person conference.  I open with Dalai Lama's "Be selfish, Be generous" quote and end with the idea of trusting a "seventh generation" ripple effect.  In between are anecdotes that routinely fill up the CharityFocus mailboxes.  The stories are powerful because they are of everyday people, the projects matter because they involve so many volunteers, the vision is appealing because it is dynamically co-created, and the insights are innately endearing because they're so fundamental and ancient.  To be an instrument for all that is a beautiful mix of humility and gratefulness.   And to receive a heartfelt standing ovation amps all that up to another level.

Perhaps the coolest part of the CharityFocus message is that people respond with, "Oh, that's simple.  I can see myself doing that."    Younger kids could be heard talking about Smile Card ideas.  A Burmese woman really resonates with the "spiritual-ness" of the gift-economy approach and shifts her organizing strategy.  A gentleman in his thirties says that he found new courage to embark on his own personal pilgrimage.   At a subsequent talk in New Jersey, a college student speaks about gifting cookies at the local park and brainstorms ways to start a local Karma Kitchen.  A couple had been intending to adopt an orphanage, and "Today, we just decided to do it."  During a 10-minute radio interview, the host herself starts to tear up before concluding, "Hearing the CharityFocus story has somehow just given me permission to embrace my own."

Some people, of course, start practicing generosity directly with us!   While dropping us off to a train station, Molly hands us some books, hand-made toffee, :) and a stack of bills to cover our "train tickets, cab fare and such."  Those bills turn out to be a stack of twenty dollar bills -- something like $300!  "Nooooo."  "Yessss."  "Reallyyyy?"  "Yesssss."   It's love and we gratefully accept.  Incidentally, at our next meeting, Birju speaks about the adventures of people encountering "Give something away right now!" idea on the Generositree; hearing that, I share the story of Molly's unexpected gift and offer the stash of twenties from my pocket to their work at Parabola.   Almost immediately, our strategy conversations transform into a palpable, experiential understanding of generosity.  We erupt into a spontaneous group-hug.  Soon after, the managing editor emails us this note:

After the meeting ended, and as I was walking home from the grind, a friend of mine called and asked, "Hey, can you help me carry this insanely heavy, large, cumbersome dresser ten blocks through Manhattan?" Internally I grumbled, but I thought to myself, "What would the CharityFocus crew do?" As I was walking toward her apartment, this feeling of happiness, just a simple joy, was really tangible. When we finished, my friend sent me two texts thanking me. It was really clear how we both benefited and how that happiness affected other people we ran into that evening.

Anyway ... a simple tale, but a confirming one for me.

PS- Then I went and bought a snack, and my overriding impulse was to buy something I knew she would like, and just not tell her that's what I was doing. A super simple example, but it really proved how infectious the impulse to give is, once you get the ball rolling.

Another time, during a Subway station meeting, Seema offers us four "Cocodots" -- vegan, raw, organic, bite-sized, hand-made treats.  Just as we speak about the art of receiving offerings and the incubment responsibility to pay-forward, an unsuspecting young man approaches us for a dollar.  The serendipity is uncanny, as I shake this stranger's hand, give him a dollar and ask him to spread the love.

Often, though, the cycle of giving and receiving becomes even subtler.   Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi, an authority on the words of Buddha, invites us over for tea and lunch.  In between, when he is teaching a Pali class, Paul and I meditate at the Chuang Yen Monastery in Carmel; Paul later remarks on the power of that place: "That hour has got to count as at least two hours." :)  As we commute with Bhikkhu Bodhi, the privilege of being with a monastic of many decades becomes evident in the smallest ways.  When, for instance, we speak about gift-economy and money, he casually mentions that he hasn't touched money since the 1970s.  It's one thing to talk about the car in front of you paying your toll, but it's quite another to have your every meal, your every expense, be offered as a gift ... for decades!  Even his passing comments on topics like pain vs. suffering or Buddha-on-violence feel like profound insights.

It's hard to say exactly how the posse is built but its beautiful to watch the strands being interwoven together.   Robin Chase, founder of ZipCar, was in tears as I showed OneEarth's video and later writes to me about gifting GoLoco.org to CharityFocus.  Months ago, Amit received Jonathan's art-and-prayer cards, and his buddy Shail hosts us in a home with this sign on the door: "Mi Casa Es Su Casa"  Let alone the talk he organized at the local Jain Temple.  Manal and Ashish, a founding volunteer of CF, treated a Princeton posse to some royal Greek food!  Karma Kitchen inspired Philip's wildly successful Karma Auction, as he hosted "Wednesday" meditation in Manhattan -- which included Paul, who wrote the first story on CF in 1999, and Joel, who wrote the first SF Weekly cover story in 2000.    A hip-hop artist comes up and rhythmically says: "Yo, yo.  I've heard of them Smile Cards.  The sensei at my dojo, yeah, he gives us these cards and asks us to do acts of kindness."  Then he quietly tags me with his CD.

As we board the airport train, a woman insists on giving us her seat; it was so out of place and over-the-top that one just had to figure it was somehow all connected with the previous stream of kindness.  On the plane ride back, the woman in the seat next to Paul randomly starts crying ... and we tried to bring her cheer.

The journey continues.

Philip's dog, Lando, has a unique trait -- he holds his leash in his own mouth.  In the hustle and bustle of New York City, here is a composed dog who walks himself.  Walking behind him, Birju noted: "People see him and just smile.  Lando's just doing his thing but it creates an incredible field of smiles for those behind him."

May we all leave a field of smiles for those behind us.

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"Service doesn't start when you have something to give; it blossoms naturally when you have nothing left to take."

"Real privilege lies in knowing that you have enough."