By BHANTE SUDDHĀSO
Everyone loves to talk about meditation. It’s cool. Heightened awareness? Control of your mental experience? Profound tranquility and joy? Sounds great.
So we learn some basic meditation techniques and start practicing. We notice some benefits arising from their practice, so we keep it up. Then eventually it seems to plateau. Years go by with little or no noticeable improvement. We’re stuck: despite meditating every day, we’re still not enlightened. In fact, far from it. We start to wonder: What went wrong?
This is not a hypothetical scenario; in fact it’s something people ask me relatively often. They’ll say things like, “I’ve been meditating for 10, 20, 30 years. Why am I not enlightened yet?”
Well… the truth is, there’s a lot more to the Buddha’s path than meditation. If all we’re doing is meditation, then we’re missing out on several major components of the practice. These other aspects of practice receive very little press and often aren’t even known to be part of spiritual self-development. And yet they are just as vital to spiritual progress.
Ultimately, the purpose of every one of the Buddha’s techniques is to help us develop helpful mindstates and eliminate harmful mindstates. This is all aimed in the direction of complete freedom from suffering – that is, enlightenment. The success of this endeavor is dependent upon continually working to cleanse our mind; this is something to be done all day long – not just for a few minutes a day when we’re meditating. If we do 30 minutes of meditation a day (which is good!), we’re still only spending 2% of our time meditating. If we’re spending 98% of our time neglecting mental self-development, then it should come as no surprise that progress is limited even after many years. So what can we do to develop our minds during that 98% when we aren’t meditating?
A good example of this is generosity. Practicing generosity – physical acts of kindness and consideration for others – directly benefits our spiritual development in many ways. So what are the benefits of generosity?
First of all, when we consider the wants and needs of others, we are developing compassion and consideration, which directly counter anger, hatred, and aversion. Since aversion is one of the five primary obstacles to success in meditation, developing generosity aids our meditation practice.
Second, when we give a gift to another person (whether it’s an object, or our time, or our attention, or any other kind of support), we are developing an appreciation for the good fortune of others (which in Pāli is called mudita). This acts to directly counter envy and jealousy, which are also obstacles to spiritual progress.
Third, when we give a gift, we are giving up something that we possess; therefore, we are developing an attitude of renunciation and non-attachment: the willingness to let go of our possessions and experiences. This is vitally important for our peace of mind; since everything is temporary, we will eventually lose what we have regardless – and thus it is critical that we prepare ourselves for that eventuality. This doesn’t mean that we need to get rid of everything we own, but rather that we need to be willing to let it all go without any trace of regret. Then when we are separated from it – which we inevitably will be – we are not overwhelmed by the loss, and are able to maintain equanimity and contentment.
Fourth, when we see the beneficial effect we have on others by giving to them, it makes us happy; we develop joy and positive self-regard. This directly aids our meditation practice: as the Buddha says literally dozens of times throughout the Discourses, “A happy mind easily attains concentration” (Sukhino cittaṁ samādhiyati). It also prevents the arising of dejection and depression, and fosters enthusiasm for Dhamma practice.
Fifth, when we help others, they are more likely to help us. So even if one has trouble relating to altruistic motives, one can at least act out of self-interest: being generous to others usually makes them like us more and support us more. It also helps foster a good reputation for us, as others spread word of our kindness.
Finally, if we ascribe to the principle of causality (karma), then we will be the recipients of our own choices. As the Buddha clearly states in the “Lesser Discourse on Karma” (MN135 Cūḷakammavibhaṅga Sutta), one who is generous in this life will be wealthy in future lives. And even if one is not ready to accept that idea, then one can at least acknowledge the numerous benefits of generosity that are visible in this very life.
So if we’re already practicing meditation and are looking to deepen our spiritual life, then performing acts of generosity – freely sharing our time, effort, and resources with others – is an excellent way to accelerate our practice.
Would you like to read more? You can find more writings by Bhante Suddhāso on www.bhantesuddhaso.com