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Brahmaviharas

metta and micro-charity in the wild

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metta and micro-charity in the wild
Answer
9/26/16 12:46 PM
Most days driving through my city, I pass at least half a dozen panhandlers. Since I rarely carry cash these days, I started picking up granola bars by the case to keep in the car. I send metta to them all and pass out the granola bars when I end up stopping at their intersections.

Most politely accept and walk away. A few decline because they only want money or because they have no teeth. And every once in awhile, I get that spark of human connection.

There was one crusty punk girl with a pitbull that I gave two bars to--an extra for the dog--and when she took them she held onto my hand for a second and smiled back at me and then she started to cry. She said she used to eat that kind as a kid and asked if I'd ever had the sweet and salty kind because those are the best. I agreed. Then the light turned green and I had to say goodbye.

There are usually a group of at least 2-3 panhandlers on my walking route to the dollar store up the street and so I buy them a box of chocolate, which is always a hit. There's something about chocolate.

I've switched to practicing tonglen style, breathing in pain and suffering and breathing out metta and like this much better.

What does everyone else do?

RE: metta and micro-charity in the wild
Answer
9/27/16 10:50 AM as a reply to Ann.
Usually I just avoid eye contact because I never have cash either and the whole thing makes me uncomfortable. I like your approach better. I think I'll grab a box or two and give it a try. I guess I have mixed feelings about panhandling because 1) I don't know where the money actually goes 2) I don't know what the circumstances are that lead to the person being there; are they malingering or really in need? and considerations along those lines. But I haven't questioned myself very much on this issue and it's definitely worthy of reflection. And those concerns don't really apply in the same way to a snack as they do to cash so for the time being it looks like I have no excuse.

On the Tonglen front I've found that to be an excellent practice and much easier for me personally to implement than metta which I've never gotten any traction with. Sounds like just the antidote for my studied avoidance of the issue.

RE: metta and micro-charity in the wild
Answer
9/28/16 6:45 AM as a reply to . Jake ..
My own discomfort with the situation is what led to this. Giving food does eliminate the concerns of giving cash, and it's a primal way of expressing love.

I think the so-called malingerers present a particular challenge and opportunity. Our tribal monkey brains want to label them "other" and undeserving of our limited resources, to close ourselves off from them, but the truth is they are just as deserving of our compassion because they are suffering and compassion is not truly a limited resource.

They may even be suffering more than others whom we can more easily deem "needy," and if we could peel back the layers of their beings or live for awhile in their skin maybe we could see that. But we can't, and so we must instead refrain from judgment and strive for equanimity and an honest sort of compassion. What exactly are we breathing in? I think this is worth a close examination.

I will be curious to hear about your experiment.

RE: metta and micro-charity in the wild
Answer
9/28/16 9:59 AM as a reply to Ann.
Wow!  What a great idea. There are a ton of traffic light pan handlers in Seattle.  I'm going to buy a box, try this, and report back.

RE: metta and micro-charity in the wild
Answer
9/30/16 6:04 AM as a reply to Noah D.
Cool! Looking forward to hearing about your experiment.

RE: metta and micro-charity in the wild
Answer
10/20/16 10:55 AM as a reply to Ann.
I'd decided that once or twice a day I would give a two-euro coin to whomever crossed my path who wanted it. I was tight on money during this period, so giving in this way was helpful for me to lessen my clinging and sense of poverty - made it quite obvious to me that I was far from poor. To me it isn't a concern what they do wish the cash. That is for them to decide, that is why its called giving. Even if they buy alcohol - who am I to say that isn't a good thing to do? I've also bought alcohol before. If this is what they think helps them the most in that moment then so be it. I also have cravings, addictions, and buy things for myself to consume which I later see to be unskillful, etc. I'm not yet at a position where I could help them develop their minds.

I also made sure to give a two euro coin because with this you can actually buy a sandwhich or something to eat. So the feeling was, "this person needn't go hungry today". In other words I gave something I'd want to receive. I wouldn't feel very good if someone just gave me 40 cents. It would be very hard to save up enough to buy a sandwhich. But with a two euro coin, you can already buy something. They're giving me the freedom to choose to do something. What if I don't like bananas?

Reflecting on how these people are no different than myself and that I could very well end up in the same position as them someday (something I actually believe, which I didn't believe in the past - i went through a period of being quite afraid of this possibility) helps with this generosity and tonglen practice. Also interesting to see the various levels of gratitude or ingratitude etc that are expressed by people and not letting that interfere with my own giving. Also trying to be as respectful and dignified as possible in my way of giving - for example it must be pretty unpleasant for an older person to receive some money from a younger person who gives it in a condescending way, or who gives it expecting to be praised and thanked for being such a generous person. So I try to be as respectful and friendly as possible and give in a dignified way and wish them a good day.

This can be a good practice and can easily lead one to spontaneously be much more generous in daily situations and also in terms of giving cash/food etc to anyone. I think its worth just giving money (or food or whatever) for giving's sake especially if you have some uncomfortable negative reactions to the idea of it. If clinging and attachment are the root of suffering then generosity truly is one of the most accessible ways of working with that in daily life. I think I've heard it mentioned in a dharma talk that this is why generosity is listed as the first parami, and that it is the most important one, that focusing on developing this one will naturally develop the others (which I guess is why its common to so many mystical traditions and probably is a big component in people who develop saintly qualities).

My friend told me about when he was leaving Prague he had about 50$ of Czech money leftover that he couldn't use so he gave it to a kneeling beggar who completely lit up. And of course my friend I'm sure he felt good too. So you CAN buy happiness!

RE: metta and micro-charity in the wild
Answer
10/20/16 11:34 AM as a reply to Noah D.
This reminds me to follow up.  I started handing out travel size hand sanitizer and tissues to the folks standing by traffic lights.  In my city they are able to get food at food banks but not hygiene products.  Feels good to give.

RE: metta and micro-charity in the wild
Answer
10/22/16 6:22 AM as a reply to Andrew K.
Well played and well spoken, sir! I like your experiment very much.

There but for the grace of God go I... We are low hanging fruit but one calamity away from loss of all material security. It is easy for me to look back now and see many forks in the road that seemed insignificant at the time but could have easily led me down a darker path had a different choice been made. I have also found this tonglen practice to be a good way to reflect on my good fortune and how it is mostly just this that separates me from those who have practically nothing. 

RE: metta and micro-charity in the wild
Answer
10/22/16 6:27 AM as a reply to Noah D.
Now that's a creative approach and extremely practical! I can imagine that a lack of good hygiene must be one of the most unpleasant and demoralizing aspects of being homeless. Very thoughtful.

RE: metta and micro-charity in the wild
Answer
10/31/16 11:22 AM as a reply to Ann.
So far I've found it easiest to just give cash. Engaging is obviously better than ignoring. Tonglen is good to practice anytime and I find it useful in these situations. Generally my only intentional content in Tonglen is very abstract (just visualizing negativity per se being breathed in as dark smoke and positivity as rainbow light being breathed out for instance, all in the context of emptiness). I remain open to whatever comes across intuitively along with the intentional visualization but take it all with a grain of salt.

I like giving money because that's what I would want and I am uncomfortable making assumptions (or more to the point, letting those assumptions inform my giving) but I respect anyone's choice in this and think giving food and hygeine products is also awesome. I do have mixed feelings about the whole thing but that's natural and definitely seperate from compassion per se which is not obstructed by limited information or personal feelings; as you say, it isn't a scarce resource!

With regard to malingering I wouldn't say someone is malingering if they, for intance, have a mental health issue going on, which could easily be happening even when someone looks like an 'able bodied adult'. I mean straight up malingering. I am a social worker and as such often have to protect my clients from 'friends' who are exploitative. There is a small subsection of the population in my area who simply prefer to panhandle and use others' food stamps etc. They are few in number but generally my impression is they are sociopaths, and unfortunately their lack of conscience seems if anything to make them less prone to suffering per se. By the way, I was told by one client who probably was a sociopath himself that $10-$20/hr for panhandling is pretty typical, for whatever that is worth-- just to make the point that folks who panghandle aren't necessarily homeless and some choose it as alifestyle because it's easy money.
Oh well! It's impossible to know who is malingering in this sense without personal knowledge of that individual and I only cross paths with this on-the-edge population professionally so I suppose i can't be sure if the particular panhandlers I've been giving to recently fall into that category as i haven't encountered them outside their panhandling. I just let it go. Even if they are just using that money for drugs or worse are malingering, at least I've saved them a little time by putting my money in their hat.

RE: metta and micro-charity in the wild
Answer
10/31/16 1:29 PM as a reply to . Jake ..
I also continue to have mixed feelings about this whole thing, but as you say it is better than simply avoiding the issue. It is more honest to observe the world as it is than to hide parts of it from ourselves. 

You bring up an interesting question: how much do sociopaths suffer? I imagine their internal worlds to be small, claustrophobic, miserable places and wouldn't want to trade places with them, that's for sure. Perhaps they suffer less because they don't understand what they're missing, but that's rather sad in and of itself. None of us gets to choose the circumstances of our birth and basic wiring. If panhandling keeps them from participating in other predatory behaviors, maybe it's not the worst thing in the world. 

RE: metta and micro-charity in the wild
Answer
11/1/16 8:53 AM as a reply to Ann.
"If panhandling keepes them from..."
Totally agree emoticon

From a traditional Buddhist point of view I would share your sense of their inner world. However based on some candid conversations my sense is the extent of their suffering is frustration when they don't get what they want and physical pain. I too find it sad that this may be the case and that what is missing may not be missed, but there you go :/

Anyhow speculation aside, this has been and continues to be an illuminating practice for me and the inspiration came at an opportune time when I was looking into the nexus of issues related to it so I thank you for your provocative OP

RE: metta and micro-charity in the wild
Answer
11/1/16 9:50 AM as a reply to . Jake ..
I've had a number of candid conversations with some truly reprehensible individuals, including one self-admitted psychopath. My grandfather almost certainly was one, and violent at that. It's a fascinating subject. If you have not seen the documentary The Act of Killing about some of the the perpetrators of the 1960s Indonesian genocide, it is difficult to watch but well worth the effort.

Whatever the case, I do believe in at least the possibility of redemption even for those whom we might deem it a statistical unlikelihood. We can calculate probabilities all we want but it always boils down to the binary--either a person will find a path and start walking it or they will not. Who can say what experience might have the power to catalyze transformation in a person? And how much do we as individuals owe the evil-doers in our lives for providing us with the impetus to change ourselves for the better? As William James put it, the world is all the richer for having the devil in it, so long as we keep our foot upon his neck. 

I'm happy to hear you're also getting something out of the experiment. Thanks for taking the bait!