‘Truth’? What’s truth? Okay, so this is really about what passes for truth. More people are able to agree on scientific ‘truth’ than any other ‘truth’. Interestingly, science is proving through brain imaging that there is more pleasure in giving than in receiving (1,2,3). Wiser people have known this for ages. It is an essential pillar of most religions. (photo: just sitting…bzzzz…giving blood)
Giving mostly centers around social altruism, where giving is about helping others. However, there are counterproductive unintended consequences that result when we overdo this. For one thing, it fosters dependency in the recipients of giving that can cripple them long-term. As they say, ‘the road to hell is paved with good intentions’. In addition, you can only give so much until you run out of things to give; you can only help so much until you run out of ways to help… not that these last two are usually a problem.
Fortunately, altruistic giving is not the only path! Buddha’s Eight Fold Path (4) offers ways to give that have virtually no counterproductive consequences as long as we apply them sincerely. Four of the steps specifically concern the mind: Right Understanding, Right Mindfulness, Right Attentiveness, Right Concentration (5). Note also, that carrying out the other four Right steps center on these four. “Mind only”, as Buddha once put it.
Alas, Buddha’s ‘Rights’ don’t usually drive our approach to life. On the other hand, it is not that we are not innately inattentive and unmindful either. It is just that we are not innately all that Right. What is the difference between ordinary attentiveness and Right Attentiveness? In a word, Balance — underlined with a capital B! Too much attentiveness and our focus becomes obsessive and we can’t see the forest. Too little attentiveness and we can’t even see the trees, let alone the forest… or the snake or tiger that lurks in the forest.
As I see it, Nature employs this difference to help thin the herd, so to speak. This makes living the Right way difficult. The confession voiced in chapter 63, ‘even the sage treats some things as difficult‘ must pertain to this. Maintaining balance requires paying attention moment-to-moment, along with enough reflective awareness to see whether we are paying too much or too little attention. That is a tall order! What can we do? Deploy free will?
Free will is likely wishful thinking, otherwise none of this would be an issue, right? This is where Buddha’s ‘letting your sole desire be the performance of your duty‘, comes in handy. When any action is approached as personal duty (Dharma), it becomes a way to channel watchfulness: sweeping the floor, walking, working, resting, yoga… everything! Action that is your duty is likely to be more balanced than any action driven by whims of the moment. However, even action prompted by whims of the moment can be balanced, if Right Attentiveness is awake. On a practical note, watching life attentively helps avoid some of life’s potholes that otherwise trip us up.
As long as life is action, we might as well get the most out of it, by giving our utmost attentiveness to it — Right Attentiveness. I’m talking moment-to-moment watchfulness, which is invisible to the outside world; there is neither medal nor merit bestowed here. Again, no action, from washing the dishes to winning an Olympic race, is actually special in respect to watchfulness and integrity of living true. Naturally, from a Taoist perspective, all action is the same in the light of mysterious sameness, as chapter 56 calls it.
In summary, watching life attentively — a giving of mind to moment — just feels better than life would otherwise feel. I find that knowing the ways science corroborates all this helps me… re: When the best student hears about the way, He practices it assiduously.
(1) In Europe, taxation rates are high, and services are funded by government spending, whereas in the United States, low taxes and higher philanthropic donations are the norm. Not surprisingly, in Neural Responses to Taxation and Voluntary Giving, we see this:
Subjects experienced a hedonic reaction when tax revenues were transferred to a charity, and subjects who showed greater neural activation under this regime were more generous when charitable contributions were made voluntary. The sense of well-being in the voluntary giving condition surpassed that seen when subjects were taxed.
(2) Research using brain scans is lending empirical support to the long held belief that ‘it is better to give than to receive’. Consider this quote from research on charitable donations:
Remarkably, more anterior sectors of the prefrontal cortex are distinctively recruited when altruistic choices prevail over selfish material interests.
(3) Or consider this study on the brain effects of donating money to a cause. In The Act of Giving Effects the Brain, we see this:
In the automatic transfer of funds to the foodbank, pleasure areas of the brain (that are traditionally stimulated by food, sex, sweets, shelter and social connection) were significantly activated. In the second part of the study when the subject chose to donate the money, the effect was even greater.
(4) Study the Bhagavad Gita and you will probably notice the rational seeds from which Buddha’s message later sprouted. This verse, for example, could pertain to the useful role science has in a spiritual life, “But the man who knows the relation between the forces of Nature and actions, sees how some forces of Nature work upon other forces of Nature, and becomes not their slave.” Doesn’t “forces of Nature” sound like what I call the bio-hoodwink?
(5) I found what for me feels a more accurate translation of Buddha’s Eightfold Path. These correspond closer to certain core Taoist views of thought: ♦ Right Understanding -> Comprehension ♦ Right Mindedness -> Resolution ♦ Right Attentiveness -> Thought ♦ Right Concentration -> State of Peaceful Mind. See Right state of peaceful mind for details.