Practicing Generosity

Everything we think of as ours, our bodies and minds and all the material things that make up our lives, has been given to us. The air we breathe and the water we drink are gifts. Everything we do in our work has been taught to us or given to us by someone else. All work, all business, is centered around giving – we give food, goods, services, and comfort.

The Zen tradition offers several different views and practices regarding generosity. Vietnamese teacher Thich Nhat Hanh says, “the greatest gift we can offer is our presence.” He goes on to explain that we can also offer our stability, our freedom, our happiness, our freshness and our peace. Here’s how:

Presence. Just being present to those we work with, just listening fully as a human being, is perhaps the greatest gift we can offer at work. So often we are caught up in our tasks and our busyness. Just stopping and being present can transform our environment and open us in unexpected ways.

Stability. We offer our stability by bringing a calm and clear mind to our work. We offer stability by staying out of the dramas, by not taking sides, by not wobbling. We offer our stability by just being ourselves, moment after moment.

Freedom. Offering our freedom is encouraging others by acting from our own independence, our own ability to make choices. We offer freedom by not being afraid to speak and act for what we deeply believe.

Happiness. Allowing ourselves to feel happy at work can be a tremendous act of generosity to ourselves and to those around us. Our own happiness is perhaps our dearest birthright, not to be ignored or sacrificed at work.

Freshness. Imagine coming to work, fresh and renewed, as if it were a new day, like no other day. Isn’t that a fact?

Peace. Our workplace is where peace can begin. Peace is not something that just happens but a moment-to-moment act, a practice of generosity.

The Zen teacher Dogen (7th century Japan) said, “When we understand completely, being born and dying are both forms of giving. All productive labor is fundamentally giving. Giving is to transform the mind of living beings. One should not calculate the greatness or smallness of the mind, nor the greatness or smallness of the thing. Nevertheless, there is a time when the mind transforms things, and there is giving in which things transform the mind.”

How often in our work lives are we so focused on tasks that we forget the importance of being present to our colleagues? At work we have many opportunities to be generous with our time, knowledge, and understanding. We can give others our trust and confidence.

The practice of generosity is giving ourselves over to what we are doing. The first step in Zen practice is to start where you are, to fully accept your strengths and weakness, your talents and your limitations. This is an act of generosity with yourself. Generosity is a vital ingredient in moving toward doing good and avoiding harm.

Decide to perform an act of generosity each week. Do something generous that is anonymous, without feeling pride. Just do it. Choose an act of generosity to practice – presence, stability, freedom, and so forth. Write it down. Notice what draws you to this practice as well as what hinders you from it. Notice how others practice or don’t practice generosity in your workplace.

Questions for Daily Practice
How do you practice generosity at work?
What prevents you from being generous at work?
Notice how it feels to give and to receive.
Are you more comfortable giving or receiving?
What parts of giving and receiving feel like hindrances? What opens you?

Adapted from Z.B.A. Zen of Business Administration. How Zen Practice Can Transform Your Work And Your Life


William C
William C10 months ago

Thank you for the article.

Emma Rose
Emma Rose4 years ago

yes I balance being generous and selfish at the same time......

Elisa F.
Elisa F4 years ago

A Beautiful Reminder...Thanks for Sharing.

Patricia H.
Patricia H5 years ago

great piece

J.L. A.
JL A5 years ago

good to remember

Sarah B.
Sarah B6 years ago


Robert Shelby
Robert Shelby7 years ago

Wrongly stated, Mr. Lesser. It implies a religious premise, not an objective one. Objectively, our world and ourselves have not been given to us (by X?). They are as "givens" in problem of Euclidean geometry. They are conditions of our existence, not "gifts" from some supernatural source (unless, of course, you subscribe to the superstitious mystifications of a "religion" instead of state-of-the-art-&-science of elemental philosophy.) Religions are rhetorical devices.)

Nwabueze Nwokolo
Nwabueze Nwokolo7 years ago

Very good-thank you.

Tori W.
Past Member 7 years ago

thanks...fascinating....especially the practice in the work place....

Rhonda Conway
Rhonda Conway7 years ago

giving.. by being