The holiday season is upon us, and it seems as good a time as any to think about miserliness and generosity.
Ebenezer Scrooge: What reason have you got to be merry? You’re poor enough.
Fred: What reason have you got to be miserable? You’re rich enough.
Ebenezer Scrooge: There is no such thing as rich enough; only poor enough.
Self-cherishing is depressing
We’ve looked at how so many problems come from self-cherishing – negative actions, suffering, anxiety, prejudice, disharmony, inequality, an inability to reach out to others with love or compassion, etc. Self-cherishing has so many faults and makes us so miserable. In a chapter called Exchanging Self with Others in How to Transform Your Life, you can read pages and pages about what self-cherishing is and what’s wrong with it. For example, my teacher Geshe Kelsang says:
With self-cherishing we hold our opinions and interests very strongly and are not willing to see a situation from another point of view. As a consequence we easily get angry and wish to harm others verbally or even physically. Self-cherishing makes us feel depressed whenever our wishes are not fulfilled, we fail in our ambitions, or our life does not turn out the way we planned. If we examine all the times we have been miserable…
We can do this, you know, check in our own experience all the times we’ve been miserable and ask, “Who was I thinking about at that time?” We will probably discover that these times are indeed:
…characterized by an excessive concern for our own welfare. If we lose our job, our home, our reputation, or our friends we feel sad, but only because we are so attached to these things. We are not nearly so concerned when other people lose their jobs or are parted from their friends.
Pretty small package
When a man is wrapped up in himself he makes a pretty small package.
One clear example of self-cherishing holding sway is when we feel miserly. With miserliness, we are really wrapped up in ourselves, just trying to hold onto our stuff. And not just material things or people, but our time, our energy, our love. As Scrooge says:
I wish to be left alone, sir! That is what I wish!
We are just holding on, bolstering our sense of self, we don’t want to let go. We don’t want people intruding on us, let alone asking things of us. When we have a miserly mind, we don’t want to share, we just want to hold on with tight fists and a tight mind. Tight-fisted is a great word for it because I think we do physically clench up when we’re miserly.
Yesterday the cat Rousseau had the delusion of miserliness. We have new tenants upstairs and one of them, Pete, was giving Rousseau some of his very favorite salmon treats. Little feral Nelson shyly tried to join in, but Rousseau growled – translated into English he was warning: “It’s mine, go away, go away!” When Nelson did not immediately leave, Rousseau chased him around the garden and under the house. (This happens rather too often.)
We try to teach our kids (and even our cats) how nice it is to share: “Look how much happier that child is because they’re sharing! Look, little Johnny, why don’t you share? Look how nice it is!” Because it is, isn’t it? Cats who share their treats and kids who share their toys are happier – that’s why we encourage them to do it. Cats and kids who play generously with other cats and kids obviously have a lot more fun.
I was thinking I could learn from Rousseau’s behavior, take a big leaf out of that book. Why do I hold tightly onto things? It’s exactly the same childish mentality, isn’t it? “I want this to myself. If I keep it to myself, I’ll have a great time, but if I give it to someone else, I’ve lost something.”
This is miserliness – the feeling that giving or even sharing something will mean losing out. We don’t lose out at all, the opposite is the case. We gain, but we feel we lose out, so why is that? The reason we feel erroneously that we are losing out is because we are under the sway of our ignorant self-cherishing.
As my teacher says:
Controlling our self-cherishing is of great value, even temporarily. All worries, anxiety, and sadness are based on self-cherishing. The moment we let go of our obsessive concern for our own welfare, our mind naturally relaxes and becomes lighter.
Miserliness clearly obstructs our ability to be generous. Geshe Kelsang gives a definition of miserliness that comes from the teachings of Buddha, who was an extraordinary diagnostician of the mind with a clear understanding of which states of mind give rise to happiness or suffering. Buddha explained clear definitions, types and divisions for all types of mind — positive, negative and neutral — and explained how they arise, what faults or benefits they possess, and how to abandon or cultivate them. In a way, the whole practice of meditation is basically just this — learning to identify negative states of mind (called “delusions”) in order to get rid of them and learning to identify positive states of mind in order to cultivate them. Every single person reading this, if they want to, can reduce their miserliness and become more generous. There’s nothing fixed about us at all. If we use our wisdom and our determination, we can definitely change everything about ourselves to become totally, kinder, wiser, and more generous people.
So the definition of miserliness is a deluded mental factor (or state of mind) that, motivated principally by desirous attachment, holds onto things tightly and does not want to part with them.
Giving on the other hand is a virtuous determination to give, motivated for example by love — you want to give things, love, time, encouragement, advice, support and so on — all coming from the wish to help others.
So miserliness is the polar opposite of giving, isn’t it? It is motivated by attachment, which is the delusion that thinks happiness lies “out there” – it inheres in my things, for example, such as my salmon treats, or is to be found in my spare time, or in my best friends. Attachment grasps tightly at the causes of happiness being outside the mind. Motivated by it, we then hold onto things (and people) tightly and don’t want to part with them, which is the opposite of wanting to give them away or share them.
What’s wrong with miserliness? More in the next article… Also, if you have any observations or questions about this subject, please share these in the comments so I can have a go at addressing them!
And please feel free to give this article away to anyone who might like it 🙂