The key question related to generosity is not whether we should be generous or if generosity is a worthwhile virtue to practice. The question, and challenge, is how to be generous when we don’t feel like it.
When I feel vulnerable and defensive, I become aware of internal rumblings and a hardening of my heart. When my heart hardens, I feel both an emotional and muscular constriction. My hands clench, and the muscles in my shoulders tighten. In such moments, I rarely feel generous.
Finding within myself a spirit of generosity in this state is very challenging. I’m unable to retrieve what I know is my generous self; I’m unable to extend a generosity of spirit, heart, time, or money. When I am in such a state, my capacity to respond generously in any way is hampered. When my heart is closed, my hand (as the Torah teaches in Deuteronomy 15.7) will be closed as well.
And yet, we know what God wants from us: to be generous and openhearted. We are told, “If, however, there is a needy person among you, one of your kinsmen in any of your settlements in the land that YHVH your God is giving you, do not harden your heart and shut your hand against your needy kinsman.”
Jewish mindfulness practice is an approach of working intentionally to bring the qualities of honesty (emet) and loving-kindness (chesed) to bear on one’s moment-by-moment experience. This approach offers a way of addressing the challenges of our lived experiences, including what it feels like when we don’t feel generous. Mindful- ness can help us respond directly to the emotional veneer of defensiveness and hardening and replace that veneer with a posture of openness and generosity. For example, over the years, I’ve taught myself to be more aware and sensitive to what is rising up within me. I’ve learned to notice how some perceived annoyance manifests in my actions. With that awareness, and the knowledge that my hardened heart is out of alignment with the values that I hope animate my life, and with patience and practice, I can actively soften my stance.
When I yearn for that more generous position, I find the prophet Ezekiel offering a helpful teaching: “And I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit into you: I will remove the heart of stone from your body and give you a heart of flesh.” (36:26)
A heart of stone is a cold and unempathetic heart that cannot emotionally respond to one’s fellow. A heart of stone is not capable of generosity; it is akin to the hardened heart of the Pharaoh who would not let the Israelites leave Egypt.
The opposite state is “lev basar,” a “heart of flesh.” This is a heart that responds to suffering, that feels and bleeds. A heart of flesh can give generously.
Here is the crux: It is not enough to want to have a heart of flesh or to aspire to be generous. We cannot simply think our way to generosity. Because the blockages to generosity are, to a significant extent, in the body — a tightening, a hardening of the heart, a heart of stone — no amount of sophisticated, rational, or persistent thinking will convince the body to be generous. We might force ourselves to give, but we will do so grudgingly without a sense of generosity.
A mindfulness practice shows us how to work with our bodies directly to change our experiences. We don’t think: “Be generous!” or “Here are the reasons I should be generous right now.” Rather, with the skills we build through mindfulness — self-awareness and working with breath and intention — we are able to actively relax and soften the tissues in our body and then transform the feeling of a heart of stone into a “heart of flesh.”
When I am feeling ungenerous, I try to pay attention to my body’s constrictions. Then I take a deep breath and intentionally try to soften the hardness in my body. I begin to feel more secure and less threatened. Then, with my defenses disarmed, I am naturally more able to come into generosity. The embodied breath helps me to move from a lev ha’even/heart of stone, into a lev basar/heart of flesh. N’divut ha’lev/generosity depends on this softened, human heart.
Rabbi Jordan Bendat-Appell is the director of Camp Ramah in Canada. Previously, he was a teacher of Jewish mindfulness and the program director of the Jewish mindfulness meditation teacher training program of the Institute for Jewish Spirituality. He was a recipient of the 2014 Covenant Foundation Pomegranate Prize.