“Wherever there is a human being, there is an opportunity for kindness” – Seneca
I was first introduced to the concept and the act of generosity when I began my spiritual journey. I decided, I wanted to start with Buddhism. I recall why it was that I began a spiritual journey, but I don’t recall why it was that I chose Buddhism. I knew nothing about it, besides the oriental cultural influence that I associated with the faith, plus the fat statue. I thought, the figure that represented Buddhism looked joyful and coming from a place of sadness, I was drawn to this contrasting representation to a philosophy and a faith. Was it out of fear, or just pure desperation? The emotional pain that was being experienced at the time was starting to become debilitating. After one particular night of some of the most intense emotional pain I have ever felt, I made the decision that I would need something to turn to if I were to ever encounter pain on this level in the future.
After finishing numerous books, I began to learn more about the four noble truths of Buddhism;
- The truth of suffering (Dukkha)
- The truth of the origin of suffering (Samudaya)
- The truth of the cessation of suffering (Nirodha)
- The truth of the path to the cessation of suffering (Magga)
The first truth – life is suffering. Suffering comes in many forms, the three most fundamental forms being; old age, sickness and death. However, the Buddhists believe that it tends to go much deeper than that. The truth is, life is not ideal. Life fails to live up to our expectations and as humans, we are subject to certain desires and cravings. Even when our desires are satisfied, it is only temporary. Shortly after, we go back to our original state of desire and craving.
The second truth – the origins of our suffering. Besides our immediate worries, such as injury or the loss of a loved one, the deeper rooted origins also come from; greed and desire, which is represented by the rooster, ignorance or delusion, which is represented by the pig and finally, hatred and destructive urges, which is represented by the snake.
The third truth – the possibility of liberation from suffering. The Buddha was a living example that this is possible in a human lifetime. This is in reference to Nirvana; meaning ‘extinguishing’. Attaining Nirvana means extinguishing the three fires of greed, delusion and hatred.
The fourth truth – the Buddha’s prescription for the end of suffering. The set of principles are referred to as the eightfold path. Within these are a few stages that include; having the right intention with a commitment to cultivate the right attitudes, taking the right action and behaving peacefully, and cultivating positive states of mind.
Having lived in Cambodia for an extended period of time – a predominantly Buddhist country, I began to observe the ways in which their faith may have influenced their behaviours and the way in which they operate as a society. I recall doing some research on the benefits of showing generosity and how it can have positive impacts on your mental and emotional health, and so I set out to put this combination of new found spiritual and scientific knowledge to the test.
I was on my way to work one morning, riding my bicycle through town when I came to a stop at a set of traffic lights. There, I spotted a man sitting on the side of the road in a wheelchair. He was an elderly man with no legs. He sat there with a hat in his hand, signalling to those who rode passed that he was asking for donations as he was obviously incapable of working for his own money. This man looked poor to begin with, and the fact that he was unable to work meant his life was one of struggle and misfortune.
I watched closely, as I spotted a tuk tuk driver hand him over some money and place it in his hat. Suddenly, I woke out of my half sleepy state and I was sitting there in admiration. These tuk tuk drivers earn an average of $10 per day and most have families to feed. For a tuk tuk driver to be handing out donations told me something extremely relevant to the mission I was on in learning more about how generosity works in Cambodian Buddhist society. This wasn’t the only time I saw people who struggled financially, hand out money to those who were flat broke. It was a common occurrence, and I gathered that there was a certain mentality amongst the people where by, those who handed out money were less concerned with having excess amounts, even though that wasn’t an option for most middle class people. However, they saw the importance of being generous with what they had. If they had enough to feed themselves, then whatever was left over should go to someone who is unable to feed themselves. In a sense, as much as you might think you are struggling, there is always someone else out there who is doing worse and it is your duty to make a contribution to the best of your capabilities.
From a spiritual standpoint, if we go back to the four noble truths in Buddhism, we see that one of the causes of human suffering has to do with our desires and cravings as human beings. Besides the immediate causes of suffering, which are illness or death, our deep rooted causes of suffering may come from our greed. If the Buddhists believe in the liberation of suffering, then it is obvious to me why generosity is such a valued act in their society. I came to conclusion that the act of generosity is the counter weapon against greed, and therefore has the potential to reduce our suffering as human beings.
For me personally, knowing this was enough. However, I knew that if I were to ever share this story with others, it would be best to gather some scientific evidence to support these claims. From my own experience, it has always felt good to be generous, and research is starting to show that generosity affects our brains and health, possibly even extending our lives.
The feel good effects of giving begin in the brain. When people show acts of generosity, there are chemicals in the brain that are triggered in the mesolimbic pathway, which recognises rewarding stimuli. When these acts are performed, there are several happiness chemicals including dopamine and endorphins, which give people a sense of euphoria. Oxytocin is also released, the chemical associated with feelings of peace and tranquility.
The pleasure and reward system in our brains have evolved overtime, and at its most basic level, is tied to the joy that people experience from things like eating, having sex and social interactions.
Some experts suggest that evolution isn’t just about the survival of the fittest, but also dependent on how one can thrive in a group or a community. As a result of the Khmer Rouge genocide in the 1970’s, Cambodian society has been torn down to its core and forced to rebuild from almost nothing. In order for survival, it is vital that one sees the value of working together as a community. I say this for two reasons;
- You never know when you are going to need help. Poverty and struggle is prevalent, and your support network becomes extremely important during times of strife.
- The benefits of working as a team, combining minds and spirit far outweigh the benefits of working for yourself, especially when you are trying to rebuild a nation as the Cambodians are trying to do.
In a study published in Nature Communications, researchers at the University of Zurich conducted a study where 50 participants were promised varied sums of money that they would receive in the near future. One group were told to spend the money on themselves, while the other group chose to spend the money on others. While this was going on, the researchers studied activity in three parts of the brain – the ventral striatum (controls happiness), the temporoparietal junction (processes generosity), and the orbitofrontal cortex (regulating decision-making processes). Surprisingly enough, the areas of the brain associated with generosity and happiness interacted intensely in those who chose to give money to others. It was said that the neural activity intensified, just at the thought of giving. This study shows that performing acts of generosity is enough to boost personal happiness.
So, maybe the Buddhists were on to something. If it is true what they say, that life is suffering and the forms of human suffering come from our own cravings and desires, then it is fair to say that through our liberation from suffering, we can use the act of generosity as an antidote – a medicine prescribed to reduce our pain plus make the world around us a better place in which we can live and thrive.
It is truly a no brainer for me.