For the last few years my friends and I have agreed not to buy each other holiday gifts. At first it was a decision based on simple cash flow (there was none), but it became a way to lessen the frenetic craziness that can overwhelm any joy to the world at this time of year. In lieu of gifts I like to have people over for an annual holiday party. This year it had a bit of a twist.
Last week I hosted my first dana potluck party. Everyone brought some food to share with others and my guests were all invited to take home my stuff.
The idea came to me when I was on a meditation retreat this past September. Sitting in silence, watching my thoughts move in and out of my consciousness, I witnessed all my attachments, all the cravings I cling to as if they are my lifelines to this existence. My Buddhist practice is steeped in examining those cravings, the basis of all our suffering. We suffer by holding on to the past, hoping for a particular future, dropping the reins on our steady steed of the present and allowing it to run us into ditches, over prickly shrubs and out onto an eight-lane highway of endless desire. Craving a new pair of boots, a raise, wishing your Mother would stop calling you by the nickname you’ve hated your entire life are all part of that suffering. Our emotions, our senses, our thoughts, our perceptions, and our consciousness around all of life orchestrate our suffering every moment of every day. It’s only in retaking the reins and stepping fully into presence, watching all the triggers and letting them fall away that we can find true peace in this existence.
Somewhere in the silence of those 10 days I realized the tentacled barbs of attachment had fallen away, at least from some of my possessions. I saw myself giving my things away and it felt so amazingly delicious. All the stuff that a day before I wouldn’t have considered relinquishing now suddenly seemed like so much chaff rather than defining particles of who and what I was.
Once I came home I realized the perfect time to give my goodies away would be at Christmas. What better occasion to practice dana, the Pali word for generosity? Dana is about giving with no attachment to receiving anything in return. It’s a gift of gratitude and letting go of the sense of self that feels the need to acquire more and more in our perpetual scavenger hunt for happiness.
Going through my books and CDs, studying the art around my apartment, opening boxes of Christmas decorations, I found more and more that no longer held a charge for me. I pulled everything out of my bookcase and boxed up what I still wanted to keep (yes, an aesthetic life is not quite in my imminent future), then I filled the bookcase with all the things I was willing to part with at my party. There were the occasional niggles, the questions of whether I needed a certain book, when was the last time I listened to that CD, was that nostalgia I was feeling for a glass ornament that hung from our Christmas tree every year when I was growing up? I acquiesced to some of the niggles, but not many. In the space between the things I was giving away I saw glimmers of peace that reassured me of my path and the steps along the way.
My dana party was a huge success. Delicious food and drink was shared along with stories and catching up with all my wonderful friends. When they left nearly everyone took something from the bookshelves, some took many things. Christmas decorations went home with several young families and also now bedeck the Christmas tree in the lobby of my apartment building. The charm bracelet of my youth caresses the wrist of another little girl who jingles it and blows its whistle and knows the story of every charm. Art I’ve loved and moved for well on 30 years hangs on the walls of someone else who will treasure it in the years to come. In all of it I felt the warm gift of mudita, appreciative joy, gladness for another’s happiness. What I held in the space of letting go of my possessions was a spacious appreciation for emptiness with no need to fill it up again.
What are you giving this holiday season? What are you expecting to receive? If you’re stumped for the perfect gift, how about throwing a dana party? It’s guaranteed people will take home what they truly want and you’ll receive a gift that you’ll never want to return. A gift that’s always the right size, the perfect colour and never needs wrapping. The gift of pure generosity.