“The heart cannot deny the law of action and reaction. It will give in proportion to what it has cherished.” ~ Hafiz
So, I have this friend, let’s call her Ruby. Ruby has one of the kindest, most giving hearts I know. Which makes her very hard to hang out with. Why? Because we perpetually end up engaged in something I call … Competitive Altruism.
Take last week, for instance. Ruby and I met for lunch to explore a joint project we might want to work on together. Shortly before the lunch drew to a close, Ruby excused herself ostensibly to go to the bathroom. When she returned some time later, she announced, “All set. Let’s go.”
“What do you mean, ‘All set. Let’s go’?” I asked. “What about the check?” Ruby just smiled her familiar Gotcha Smile. She may have gone to the bathroom, but in either going or coming she stopped off to pickup and pay the check and include the tip as well.
And that’s how it often goes with Ruby and several other friends here on Whidbey Island. Ever since they read this blog I wrote several years ago, and this one as well, describing how authentic altruism appears to positively affect neurogenesis (growing new brain cells) and synaptogenesis (increasing connections between cells) – exponentially increasing the robustness of the neural network, these friends constantly make me work really hard to find creative ways to altruistically get over on them. I frequently find myself struggling to stretch my brain and heart creativity-wise. More and more I’m finding myself having to resort to Secret Charity.
Long-Standing Traditional Wisdom
Many established religions inherently know and understand the value of altruism. Any number of Christian denominations pass the offertory basket during services; other faiths sit collection plates out by the doors. Buddhism has a formal term, dana, that relates to such practices.
Phillip Moffitt, former CEO of Esquire Magazine turned Buddhist teacher, has this to say about dana:
Dana reverberates out into unknown directions, over indefinite periods of time. But to the giver, it is not the fruits of giving that are of concern, only the practice of dana itself – the inner intention to find release from attachment and egoism by giving freely whatever one has that is of value. What you have to give may be material in nature, or it may be your time, energy, or wisdom.
Understanding dana is key to living the dharma in daily life, yet it is seldom taught … as a practice. You practice dana to eradicate the attachment that comes from feelings of scarcity and separateness. However, there is a paradox contained in dana: You practice it as an act of liberation for yourself, yet it is not self-centered. True dana arises from the intention underlying your act. It is not that you are supposed to have only pure motives but rather that your intention is to cultivate purity of generosity without self-consideration.
Hilary Davidson and Christian Smith are connected with the Generosity Initiative at Notre Dame University. They do empirical research on altruism. So does Nicholas Christakis at Harvard, who would like to see generosity become a contagion. I’m guessing I don’t have to tell you that generous people live longer, healthier, happier lives. Perhaps I don’t, but I will. They do.
In this spirit of playful, self-less “competitiveness” then, Ruby and I engage in our own authentic generative altruism. What becomes obvious over time is that our gifts to one another continue to cycle around and more than balance out. What makes the practice juicy, however, is when I consider making a charitable donation that my left brain and my 10th cranial nerve get together and try to convince me “I really can’t afford.” It’s at least a weekly game I play with my neurophysiology. Neuroscience research has taught me that the more often I perform a deliberate action and repeat it, the stronger the connections between neurons associated with that action become. Thus, my best educated guess is that the Sanity Neurons – the ones that connect the fearful limbic structures and the orbito-prefrontal cortex via the ACC (anterior cingulate cortex) – grow stronger and increase in number. When they do, the more easily I am able to confront that fearful thinking and intentionally act to reassure it. Essentially, I become more and more like a person I want to spend a lot of time hanging around and having fun with. And now, more than five-eighths of a Century down the road, it looks like it all may work out.
P.S. Here’s your chance … the journey of a billion network connections begins with the first generosity neurons connecting …