For the last year or so, we’ve hosted travellers from all over the world, offering the use of the garden as a campsite, a warm shower or a spare bed if there happens to be one. It’s a kind of touring cyclist version of couch surfing – a reciprocal arrangement where you are invited to act as both host and guest, giver and recipient.
It’s an interesting experience, particularly if, like me, you’re not the world’s most naturallly sociable person. A cyclist travelling in the area will make contact by email and request somewhere to stay for the night, you then reply, knowing little more than the travellers’ name and nationality and a few hours later, a stranger appears briefly in your life.
It’s been good practice – extending this kind of unfamiliar goodwill to another human, attempting to give him (it’s almost always a “him”) full attention, listening to words, often clumsily articulated, interpreting actions with sympathy and kindness. Sometimes it’s challenging – particularly when I’m running at full stretch, another body in the house, another set of needs to anticipate, it’s a potent mix, inviting resentment and a feeling that all this kindness is simply something I “should” do – a kind of well meaning benevolence, an attempt to act like a good person, that is essentially quite different from real good will.
In Buddhism, kindness and generosity must start with yourself – there’s no encouragement towards martyrdom or blind self sacrifice, but instead the recognition that if you haven’t cleared your own heart and learnt to operate from a stand that doesn’t require some kind of reward for your actions, you’re liable to cultivate a form of kindness to others that’s based upon trying to be a good person, or feeling obliged to forgive and help others. The truth of the matter is that you’re operating from a well-meaning but false basis. You haven’t cleared your own heart – how are you going to clear anyone else’s?
Without self kindness and compassion, interactions with other people are weighted with the need to elicit a certain response, to feel judged in a positive way perhaps, or to feel good about yourself. But real goodwill and generosity is an intention – and one that doesn’t measure who deserves it or what the results should be. It can be messy at times – requiring a tolerance and compassion for oneself and others of the unpleasant, the irritating, the undesirable, as well as an appreciation of all the good stuff.
Living on a small Island, it’s great to be exposed to a wealth of passing experience, a different culture, tales of adventure and small pieces of a life shared over a bottle of wine. There seem to be themes running through these lives, often young men seeking to find something in themselves or the world, perhaps running from difficult relationships or towards imagined new futures.
Some bemoan the weather, the state of the roads, the difficulty finding lodgings, whilst others take what comes, and react with curiosity and openness to the inevitable challenges that such physically challenging and lonely journeys entail. My last guest was a charming Norwegian. Christian had worked as an engineer on oil rigs for a few years before becoming disillusioned with the harsh but lucrative way of life and setting out on a world tour, destined to end when the money he’d accrued from his last job ran out. He appeared genuinely astounded at the offer of a nights accommodation and desperate to help in any way possible. I eschewed his offers but returned home to find he’d mown the lawn and left behind a gift of food and the promise of a boat if we were ever to venture into the Southern Islands of his homeland.
Therein lay another lesson for me: there is a reverse side to all this that is often neglected-the practice of receiving generosity. Many people, myself included are better at giving than receiving. When you’re open to all this it’s amazing what appears in your life and how by being appreciative, vulnerable and humble enough to receive graciously, abundance seems to flow freely.
The Vietnamese Buddhist teacher Thich Naht Hanh often teaches that we “inter-are” and that once we recognise this, kindness and generosity will flow naturally. His poem sums it up beautifully:
You are me, and I am you.
Isn’t it obvious that we “inter-are”?
You cultivate the flower in yourself,
so that I will be beautiful.
I transform the garbage in myself,
so that you will not have to suffer.
I support you;
you support me.
I am in this world to offer you peace;
you are in this world to bring me joy.
– Thich Nhat Hanh