Give It Away to Keep It

The title of this post comes from Bill Wilson, co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, who tried repeatedly to get sober and only succeeded when he helped another problem drinker.  “In order to keep it, you have to give it away,” became an AA motto.

The title could have just as well come from Lama Thubten Yeshe who said, “According to Buddhist psychology, unless you dedicate yourself to others, you will never be happy.”

I could have quoted Jesus:  “Whoever tries to keep his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life will preserve it.” (Lk 17:33).

In my previous post, I tried to name something distressing I sense as part of the vibe of our time:  “a miasma of anger and greed, driven by fear and disillusionment.”  When I wrote it, I was recalling a couple of drivers I’d seen playing chicken for parking places earlier that day.  Gotta get mine – there might not be enough to go around.

In psychology, anger is understood as a “secondary emotion.”  The question becomes, what is hidden beneath the anger?  In a lot of cases, I think it is fear, which also drives greed:  it’s a jungle out there; a dog-eat-dog world;  a zero sum game.

Back in the eighties, before the Berlin wall came down, a retired military officer told me that if the Russians prevailed, they would soon “arrive on your doorstep and take all your private property.”  We still operate from that mindset; fill in the blank with the name of your favorite villain(s).

The problem is, fear and scarcity-consciousness often lead to bad decisions, individually and collectively.  During the 30’s, Paramahansa Yogananda taught that generosity creates a “prosperity consciousness” that is one of the keys to surviving difficult times.  He believed we attract what we hold in our minds, and he told a story that illustrates where grasping can lead:

In villages near the jungles in India, farmers used a simple trap to capture monkeys, a favorite source of meat. They would drill a hole in a gourd, just big enough for the monkey’s hand to pass through, then fill the gourd with rice and attach it to a stake.  When a monkey happened along, it would reach in and grab a fist full of rice and find it couldn’t withdraw its fist. The villagers would have it.  The monkey would die because it couldn’t let go of a handful of rice.

With that story in mind, and because everyone I want to emulate comes down on the side of generosity and letting go, perhaps I can trust the universe to provide me a parking place.  And take it from there and see where it leads…

8 thoughts on “Give It Away to Keep It

    • I didn’t go into all the details on the parking space episode. That day, there were plenty of spots – you just had to walk a bit farther, which won’t hurt most of us.

      I remember hearing on some PBS self-improvement show a while ago, that in situations where you are running late and parking is likely to be tight, you should visualize a spot for yourself. I think I’ve tried that on two occasions, and both times it worked.


  1. I have a slightly different angle on anger to offer. While many will respond to fear with irrational behaviors, most anger is in response to being hurt. Both physical and emotional pain. Have you ever seen a child strike out at an object because they just tripped over it and skinned their knee, (got hurt)? Familiar with the saying, “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.”? The next time you get angry, try to figure out how you are hurting.


    • Hurt yes, but more things than that can spark anger. Sadness can do it for me, though perhaps you would call that hurt. Like a few years back when we lost a dog, I really had to bite my tongue at work – I had little tolerance for “business as usual.”

      In terms of fear, I was thinking of the vitriolic tone in our politics over the last few years. Fear of economic hard times. Fear of healthcare changes, “death panels” and the like.


  2. Great thoughtful post. Generosity (i believe) is the key to a good and happy life. It’s a wonder that we have such a hard time hanging on to the truth of it – and I include myself here. Must be just our human animal instinct – but what a difference it makes when we live in a generous mindset.


    • You make a very good point. A spirit of generosity is hard to hang onto. Not only does it feel better than the emotional clenching of scarcity-consciousness, but I think we all have experienced to some degree, that we tend to get what we put out, so it makes pragmatic sense too.

      Hmm. Yet don’t we need to be socialized into it? Mother saying, “Don’t you want to share that candy with your sister?” Me shaking my head…


      • Right – we sure do need to be socialized into it. What worries me, is the current strain which abuses the word “freedom” to excuse every individual desire. Its become the ultra-right answer to everything, without the “whoever cares for the least of these, cares for me” part…we were better off when we had to depend on one another for our survival. (well, we still do, we just don’t quite realize it)


      • In the post, I didn’t mention one statistic I’d heard before and saw again. According to the US Department of Labor, those in the lowest income group give the highest percentage of their income to charity of all of us. Reminds one of the story of the widow’s mite!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s