The spiritual path advocates giving unconditionally; putting oneself after others is the path to enlightenment. Certainly selfishness and an attitude of me, my, mine is not a path to anywhere good but I don’t believe that giving is always equal to loving. Setting boundaries and giving wisely is paramount, saying no can also be a gift.
I’d like to reflect upon a fable I just came across* about giving and love. A large tree is the main character, full of unconditional love for the boy who comes to shelter under its shade and play on its branches. As the boy grows up he visits the tree less and less. The material things in life become important and the boy, now a man, is thinking about making money. As the man revisits the tree he laments over his need for money and the tree suggests he takes the fruit from its branches and sell it. The man does just that. The tree is happy to have given of his fruit even though his branches are now damaged and some leaves torn off. Later the man returns and is in need of a house. The tree offers the wood from his branches so the man might build his house. The tree gave his wood supposedly as an act of unconditional love and is now left as merely a tree trunk. The man returns some years later and wishes to fulfil his desires to travel the world but he needs a boat. So the tree offers the wood of his trunk for the man to build himself a boat. The tree, then left as just a short stump reflects that this man only knows how to take. The moral of the story being that the tree has given of himself and this is unconditional love.
There are many people in the world who only take and only think of their own gain, but there are also very many people who give of themselves to the point that they run their well dry. When our own well runs dry we end up like that tree stump, a complete wreck with no emotional or physical energy left to even take care of our own basic needs. This is burn-out.
The tree gave of himself to the point of his own destruction. Is this love? It certainly is devoid of self love. If we are all one and we should treat others as we would treat ourselves then we should surely also treat ourselves with the same love that we treat others.
‘If your compassion does not include yourself it is incomplete’ ~ Jack Cornfield
Recovering from a burn-out I have learned self love. I have learned how to recognise my needs and find ways to get them met. I have also learned to recognise my boundaries and identify when I need to say no to giving before I run myself dry again. Previously I gave of myself like the tree in the fable, I gave to the point of my own destruction.
Following the spiritual path I can sometimes feel divided when it comes to giving and selflessness versus my needs and boundaries. In my heart though I can often now discern when I am giving through love, when I give unconditionally and freely. I also recognise the pangs of giving when I give with expectation of something in return or out of an ego wishing to be boosted or out of shear guilt. These pangs can be very subtle. I’m also aware of my diligence in explaining away my motives when they are false. Invariably though when I have given for the wrong reasons it eventually bites me in the backside either by way of me feeling depressed, confused, bitter or some other unrest in my psyche.
We need to also remember that not giving can also be a true gift. Giving always, like the tree in the fable, means others don’t have to look elsewhere for answers. The man in the fable got everything he needed from the tree so he didn’t learn how to work for his own living. Giving unwisely perpetuated a taking mentality. He failed to learn the value in friendship, he took the tree for granted he did not even notice that he destroyed his dear friend in the process.
When we say ‘no’ to giving it can cause very much distress for the moment, but in saying ‘no’ when we are not able to give we also put the other on a new course, a course that ultimately can be so much better than if we had said ‘yes’.
‘Remember that sometimes not getting what you want is a wonderful stroke of luck.’ **
~ Dalai Lama
*In the book ‘From Sex to Superconsciousness’ by Osho Rajneesh
** Luck is a word that can cause some controversy. Please understand the essence of the quote rather than the word choice. ‘Stroke of luck’ can also be understood as a blessing.