Mindful Giving for the Holiday Season
The holiday season is filled with so many opportunities to give. Some moments are born purely out of generosity and authentic expressions of love and appreciation, while others might be born out of custom. This holiday season, let us introduce mindfulness into our gift giving strategy by viewing these giving moments as opportunities to create special connections with the intention of enriching our relationships with others.
In buddhism, giving, or dāna , is considered to be a sacred and intimate practice that is unequivocally necessary in one’s journey towards transcendence and enlightenment. Buddhist Scholar, Andrew Olendzski teaches us about the wisdom of giving:
“The act of giving purifies intention, the quality of mind with which any action is undertaken. For a brief moment, the giver’s self-absorption is lifted, attachment to the gift is relinquished, and kindness towards the recipient is developed. All actions—of thought, word, and deed—undertaken for the sake of others rather than for one’s own selfish purposes become transformed by the power of generosity.”
If selfishness is transformed into selfless kindness through the act of giving, then it is easy to view this sacred practice as an inherently heart-centered and intimate exchange between two people. Introducing mindfulness into our giving strategy shifts the act of giving from one born out of obligation because of the holiday season, to an opportunity to express selfless love and thereby enrich our interpersonal connections.
A mindfully given gift is one that focuses on the connection between the giver and the receiver while also considering the external impacts. The focal point of the gift exchange becomes less about the actual gift, and more about an expression of love. It effectively creates a sacred opportunity for bonding more intimately than before. The end result is an enriched relationship between each person and a fortified sense of mutual value.
Brett Steenbarger, Clinical Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at SUNY Upstate Medical University shares a Western perspective of the psychology of giving and the mutually beneficial effects that occur between the giver and the receiver:
“Mutual giving brings a higher level of engagement and learning, which means that giving yields an exponential degree of receiving. There is a powerful psychological principle at work here that underlies the psychology of giving. When we experience ourselves as givers, we receive a deep and enduring affirmation of our value to others. In transcending the self, we obtain the most profound experience of self.
What we do shapes who we become. When we give and give and give, we experience ourselves as special. In receiving, we in turn find the muscles of generosity strengthened, allowing us to engage the rest of life with our best inclinations.”
This fascinating psychological principle of experiencing a deep affirmation of personal value when giving explains why we tend to get carried away with excessive giving during the holiday season. It simply feels good. Additionally, if giving yields an exponential degree of receiving, and receiving develops generosity, then both actions essentially form the birth place of abundance.
If abundance is naturally born out of selfless generosity and openness to receiving, then attachment to material possessions becomes increasingly easy - simply because more material items are present. We see this complex happen often during the holiday season, when giving significant amounts of material items is commonplace. The concept of giving generously should not necessarily be applied only to material possessions, but open to a limitless range of possible gifts. The Dalai Lama warns against the dangers of placing too much value on our possessions:
“Physical comforts cannot subdue mental suffering, and if we look closely, we can see that those who have many possessions are not necessarily happy. In fact, being wealthy often brings even more anxiety.”
To echo both the Western and Eastern perspectives on the power of generosity, I believe we need not stifle our inclination to give generously. By taking a mindful approach to giving, we’ll successfully practice selfless love and open our hearts to receiving, all while elevating our very own consciousness. But, the question of how to mindfully give remains.
It is incredibly easy to get caught up in the commercial undercurrent by focusing on the material aspects of the season. Before rushing out to get our shopping list checked off as quickly as possible, we would be wise to first pause and consider. What gift would my recipient truly wish to receive? Why am I giving this gift, and what will be the impact? Will this action express how much I value them and will it enrich our relationship? Do they truly want or need this item, or am I giving this gift based on my personal preferences?
Not all valued gifts are tangible gifts. The recipients on our list might simply value our personal presence through spending quality time together. There is something lovely about this notion of giving time — a generous offering to counteract our culture’s habit of taking time. Additionally, verbal words of appreciation and love or a tender and compassionate touch might be exactly what the receiver craves. Another non-tangible gift that is quickly gaining acceptance is giving experiences. While slightly different than quality time spent together, experiences are geared toward what our receiver would love to do, and that experience may not necessarily involve the giver’s attendance. Or, perhaps the receivers on our list would love for us to perform an act of service to their benefit.
Furthermore, not all tangible gifts need to be purchased. Handcrafted gifts like a thoughtfully written letter, a cooked meal, or even a token found could potentially communicate just as much love and thoughtfulness as any purchased gift. It could be a beautiful feather found on the beach that reminds us of our loved one, rather than an expensive new camera, that shows the greatest amount of love and thoughtfulness.
Often times mindful and vulnerable expressions of love are more valued and memorable than any tangible gift that is given without a second thought, or without communication. Likewise, more gifts may not always equate to greater expressions of love in the eyes of our receiver. Rather, the quality and thoughtfulness of the gift is what truly communicates our value of the recipients in our lives.
Understanding what to give our recipients stems from our current connection with them. It is very likely that communicating with them prior to selecting the gift may be necessary. It is also important to acknowledge that communicating in advance is okay and doesn’t need to spoil the joy of giving or receiving. Rather, consider how validating it feels to be listened to by a friend or loved one, and then given exactly what we express that we need. Removing guessing from the equation mitigates the chances of giving a gift that actually isn’t valued by the recipient.
What arises in this moment of communication is an opportunity to listen and connect. The sequence of communication from asking and listening, to giving based on what was discovered, strengthens the bonds of trust and selfless love. These actions have the power to transform simple human connections into authentic and heart-centered relationships.
When we pause to create time for communication and consider our recipients needs and wants instead of shopping on autopilot, we allow space for mindfulness and intention to enter the equation. We also consciously opt out of the consumer-driven frenzy that leads to overwhelm during the holiday season. Mindless consumerism can be harmful, not only for the environment, but also for the giver and receiver alike.
For a moment, pause to consider the impact that excessive shopping has on the environment and the people in our community. How much plastic and paper waste is produced in our household during the holiday season? Multiply that amount by the number of homes in the community. The amount is staggering. Are the items we are purchasing traveling long distances by ground or air before they reach their final destination? What is the cost on the environment to produce these items in the first place? Would it be possible to reduce our plastic waste during the holidays in an effort to be more mindful of the environment? Carbon footprint aside, what are the psychological tremors of excessive consumerism; is it healthy to set the precedence of excessive and thoughtless giving or receiving of material items?
In summary, the act of giving is a sacred and intimate exchange between people that should be approached with mindfulness and intention, instead of one born out of habitual materialism imposed by the season. To give a gift is to generously express selfless love. Likewise, the act of giving affirms our value to others and further opens our hearts to receiving. Generous giving is a beautiful opportunity to build and reinforce the framework of a rich relationship. Remember that generosity can come in many forms, not just tangible materials. This season also presents us with an opportunity to reframe our giving strategy to live more sustainably and impact our environment and communities in a positive way.
As we move through this gift giving season, let us allow the power of our generosity to be more about the cultivation and enrichment of our relationships with others and the environment, and less about the tangible merchandise exchanged.
Aside from enriched relationships, what do you think is another benefit of mindful giving?