We all know that Christmas is a time for giving and receiving but, unfortunately, for some this expectation is a burden or a prompt to contemplate the absence of loved ones and the sort of friends you feel drawn to exchange gifts with. Like many of you, I have friends who find Christmas a particularly challenging and potentially painful event as it highlights lost close relationships or the absence of a loving family to spend time with.
I started writing this blog in the week before Christmas but unfortunately got diverted and Christmas day has now passed. However, the Christmas holiday period will be with us for quite a while yet and, anyway, the time for focussing on giving and receiving should never be limited. It is just that in every culture certain times or events are particularly strongly associated with celebration and gift giving.
So thinking of those people for whom Christmas evokes a sense of loss or painful lack, I am moved to share this sticky teaching on “the greatest gift you can give is your interest”. My precious teacher, Namgyal Rinpoche, who introduced and guided me in Buddhadharma for many years before he died, frequently spoke about generosity of heart and the power of giving undivided attention, permeated by loving kindness.
A warm smile to friend or stranger transfers the gift of love and warms the heart of giver and receiver. Paying attention to whoever is in front of us simultaneously honours their uniqueness and our interdependence. It transforms the hypnotic spell of isolation that mesmerises many of us. Even modern science now talks about how mirror neurons in our brains transfer emotional states from one to the other. We do not have to be in a close relationship for these mirror neurons to do their mirroring work! The genuine warm smile to the young man at the supermarket checkout can still lift his spirits through this mirroring process, even though the shopkeeper’s automatic enquiry, “how are you today?” fails to transfer a sense of connection because it feels repetitive and phoney. The interest behind the question is often absent.
Back to Christmas and the long tradition of gift giving to mark the birth of Christ. I hear many critiques today of the consumerising of this Christian feast day and the diminishing of traditional spiritual meaning. If one is not a regular church-goer – and even if one does attend church regularly – one way we can counterbalance the dominant materialist interpretation of celebratory gift giving is to determine that, around this holiday period, we will focus on giving our full attention to whoever is in front of us and to imbue this attention with loving kindness and the wish for them to experience love, peace and contentment.
The beauty of giving the gift of interest is that one does not need to have a loving family or group of friends in order to practice this kind of generosity. One does not have to be clever, witty, funny or even have an interesting story to tell. Every single one of us has the capacity to give our interest and to wish others well. And when we are really present to the other we break the spell of perceived isolation and encourage awareness of our interdependence and the power of love.