Philanthropy and the Inner Life: The Contemplative Contribution

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by Mirabai Bush

Michael Lerner once said to me, “In order to give, one has to know one’s gifts.” That is, as I see it, the heart of the first relation of contemplative practice to philanthropy. It helps us know ourselves better. The second is that it can help us know the people and the world around us better, revealing opportunities for creative responses and relationships. If it can be separated from the other two, the third might be that contemplative practice can help us know the nature of reality, of the truth, and therefore live more in harmony with the world, listening more fully to its call.

The work of contemplative practice is cultivating awareness, which means opening the doors of perception wider so that we take in more than usual. We look, we listen, and we avoid judgment. We see more. Contemplative practice doesn’t ensure that we will have personal awakenings, but its systematic nature (every day, sit down, close your eyes, watch your breath) makes it more likely that we will see more clearly who we are. And who we are is a set of gifts, if you will.

In order to “work,” contemplative practice must be done with gentleness, patience, and kindness. Tibetan teacher Khamtul Rinpoche calls it “kind mind.” We practice first on and with ourselves and then learn how to bring that kind mind into our relations with others.

As we widen our gentle inquiry into inner space, we encounter the “existential” questions: What really matters to me? If I could act from my deepest beliefs, what would I do? Who am I, anyhow? How can I act unless I know these things? None of the answers is fixed, everything is in flux, but listening to ourselves gets us closer to the inner river of truth. And it links us with work in the world.

Getting more familiar with the inner life doesn’t answer the hard questions of the outer world of philanthropy. It doesn’t resolve the difficulties of conflicting ideals between social change projects and investment portfolios, or reveal how to redistribute resources in a way that honors the deepest meaning of democratic values. It doesn’t tell us what forms would let us run our organizations in ways that allow us to be more creative and loving (although I did think up a one-day-a-month retreat for Center staff last week while sitting, and it is likely to bring a healthy balance to our group). But it can give the mind flexibility grounded in compassion. That mind can sometimes see things in a creative new way because it is not obstructed by former opinions.

In Center retreats, we have witnessed many such moments. A Monsanto scientist said, “Wait-we have been creating products (like herbicides) that kill living things (“weeds”)-we need to shift our understanding so that we create products that support life.” A Yale law student: “Oh my god! I just realized that I have been listening to my girlfriend as if she were an opposing lawyer in the courtroom…I need to develop a few different kinds of listening.” A journalist, “I never thought about what a compassionate media would look like….” A foundation executive, “I’m beginning to think that the most important outcomes can’t be measured.”

Are these insights alone “enough”? Of course not, they need cultivation and development, often education and support. Contemplative practices alone, contemplative “aha” moments alone, will not bring the change we need to save the world. But they are seeds. They can open a closed mind to new options.

Contemplative practice, with its open eyes to the rising and falling of inner life, can also reveal the relativity of roles and power, a source of suffering for many philanthropists and grantees alike. Enough inner reflection, and it becomes pretty clear that one’s essence is not “the giver,” or at least not the giver of grants and money, even if that is what we do. If one truly gives at all, it is of oneself, one’s own gifts.

As grantors at Seva Foundation, Sunanda Markus and I worked together for years with Don Vicente Gabriel Cutzal, Mayan elder and leader of his community, Hacienda Vieja, in the altiplano of Guatemala. Having gone from a stable traditional community through a siege by the Army, which Guatemalans called “The Violence,” during which parents were murdered, women were raped, babies starved, and the whole village was burned, he had a deep sense of the relativity of things. He had no idea who we were or how we got to this remote spot as they came staggering out of the forest after two years in hiding. We weren’t so sure ourselves. But our hearts were opened by their situation. They needed help, and we could give it simply, especially when it meant money to rebuild homes, buy seed, and weave cloth for a first set of clothes. (One cold winter day, Sunanda bought 200 children’s sweaters in a shop in Chichicastenango at retail!) As time and rebuilding went on, however, the corrosive power of the “development” relation threatened our original bond, which had been based on doing what needed to be done together in the moment. Who decided whether they should distribute the money among neighboring communities as well as themselves and whether it should be used for chemical fertilizer or for building compost heaps? Were we colonizing minds as others from the North had colonized Mayan people for years? And at the same time were we romanticizing their traditional culture, when we resisted spending money on electrifying the village? The pressure increased as the Seva Board wanted to make sure we were following the foundation values and guidelines. The relation survived because we were able to find each other outside “development.” We sat together many dark nights in what can only be called contemplative space, talking about the mystery of our organizations and ourselves, finding each other, wondering what our deepest callings were, sharing our fears and misgivings, talking about our children and our visions for their future and our thoughts about the meaning of life. Sitting often in silence (a refuge, since Spanish was a second language for all of us), listening, learning to trust. We did this often during our visits for ten years. It became a true collaboration. Hacienda Vieja was eventually named one of the UN’s 100 successful villages, and, when the peace accords were signed, they became one of the first wholly Guatemalan organizations to offer technical assistance and training to other village leaders. Individuals within it still struggle with power; Don Vicente’s son-in-law usurped his leadership role. But the grantor/grantee relationship modeled collaboration and respect. It contributed to the empowered sense of the community and deepened our sense of how learning happens. And it held up the question of who gave (and received) more in the exchange. When we left, they were healthier and had their livelihood together, but we learned so much from Vicente and the others (and ate so many tortillas and bowls of chicken soup!) that it can only be remembered as a full-circle exchange.

Beginning with very little understanding of why the traditional hierarchy of giving would not work well, we moved closer to what Michael Edwards at Ford calls the rare “critical friendship,” ” a loyal but challenging relationship” in which both sides do what they do well, and “each trusts the other to find ways forward which fit their reality best.”

Not all philanthropic relationships need to be as deep and sustained as ours with Vicente, but if we look at the best relations we have known as grantor or grantee, we know this is true: the relations are textured and multilayered, we move in and out of roles, and the results are surprising and vital. Research has shown that contemplative practices can develop capacities useful for such relationships: the ability to hold multiple conflicting or apparently contradictory ideas in the mind at the same time, compassion, empathy, trust, honesty, self-confidence, willingness to be accountable, and appreciation for the interconnected nature of all life. These are gifts we can cultivate and then give with abandon since they are ever-renewing.
As Joy Harjo writes,

…we must take the utmost care
And kindness in all things.
Breathe in, knowing that we are made of
All this, and breathe, knowing
We are truly blessed because we
Were born, and die soon, within a true circle of motion.
Like eagle rounding out the morning
Inside us.
We pray that it will be done
In beauty
In beauty.

–Joy Harjo, “Eagle Poem”