The fulfilment of giving that wells up within the giver as the gift is being prepared and as the gift is being presented and released, the fulfilment of the expectancy of the receiver or the surprise of the receiver, and the fullness that exists afterwards are all a part of dāna. (1)
A core LJIST value is dāna: the practice of cultivating generosity. When I first heard about dāna, the third Niyama* in yoga philosophy, I was struck by how elegantly it captured what I had learned in my childhood both from my dad and being raised poor: the joy of giving without reward.
Generosity without Thought of Reward
Most poor people don’t have their basic needs met, which is why poverty isn’t rational and must be eliminated. Poverty, as an economic state, only exists because of greed. There are more than enough resources for everyone to have what we need. Maybe not what we want, but definitely what we need.
Both my parents were poor at some point in their childhoods…as was I. Poor people are some of the most generous people I know.
My mom was the bread-winner in my family. Her phone company job provided health insurance, which we needed because of my dad’s disability. Once my dad qualified for Supplemental Security Income (SSI), we received government payments for him and each of his three dependents, me and my two sisters, until we turned 18. SSI was truth in advertising: not enough to live off of, yet a crucial supplement to our family income.
But none of that happened until I started first grade. Before that, the first six years of my life and while my mom was pregnant with me, we were poor—although we would never have described ourselves that way.
Before my dad’s back finally gave out and chronic pain became his other constant companion, he worked a short stint as an assistant to a surveyor. Through the classifieds, my mom found a typing job that turned into a bookkeeping job. Mr. Hook would drop off the papers or ledger he needed typed or bookkept on his way home from the office (my mom didn’t drive at the time). My mom would have them ready for him to pick up on his way back to the office the following morning. During the day she would care for me and my sisters and, when he was bed-bound, my dad as well. I’m pretty sure she didn’t sleep much during those years. I won’t romanticize it: there was a lot of fear and stress.
And yet, that’s when I learned about generosity. The dāna kind.
Poor people know how little we need to live a good life. We know that life is about connection. Being together. And being together is free. We know how to differentiate between a “need” and a “want.” We understand that sharing what we have, no matter how little it is, brings joy. My dad used to say, “Never reject someone’s gift. It takes away the joy of giving it.” The act of sharing, of being generous, is the point.
We wouldn’t visit our neighbors or family with empty hands. And our family and neighbors brought groceries when they knew we didn’t have enough to eat. I remember that time our neighbor Carol showed up at our back door with an “extra” gallon of milk that she didn’t want to “go to waste” in her fridge. We knew her six boys at home, all under 18 years old, would have no difficulty finishing up that milk. Yet none of us contradicted her. She knew how to make a gift of the milk without it becoming charity.
Sometimes when we didn’t have what we needed, my family became the beneficiary of “acts of charity.” And I didn’t like it. I remember knowing enough to feign sufficient gratitude when we were donated hand-me-down clothing, for example. I still remember pulling shirts, pants, jackets, and socks out of garbage bags. The smelled of moth balls or were over-perfumed to cover up stale body odor. To this day, even though I know it makes sense to not purchase new clothing—for the planet, for reducing the use of precious earth’s resources, for preventing the exploitation of workers who make this clothing, for spending less money, for not acquiring more material goods—I still struggle to do clothing exchanges with girlfriends or buy (and wear) used clothing.
Charity came with pity. Carol’s milk didn’t come with pity: the way she gifted it allowed us to keep our dignity. Another sign it wasn’t charity? She gave something she could have used, something her family actually needed: milk. She didn’t discard something that no longer served her. She didn’t unload something on us that we didn’t need but were supposed to be grateful to receive because we were poor. These elements of charity are palpable when you’re on the receiving end.
Charity lets you know someone else has more than you and, by implication, is better than you. Charity let me know that someone else felt “lucky” to not be us. They would give us a little of what they had (and too often what they had no more use for) to remind us and themselves: they weren’t us. They weren’t poor. They were “lucky” which meant we were “unlucky.” Unlucky but also at fault somehow.
Once we moved from poor to working class (again, not distinctions my parents would have made or language we would have used at the time), we got to be “charitable to those who were less fortunate than us.” Now, it was our turn to feel just a bit more superior, a bit “luckier,” because we were, thank goodness, no longer poor. And as much as I hadn’t liked being on the receiving end of charity, I confess I felt some relief on the other side of that equation.
But not my Dad.
When my mom retired, she had saved enough money on her phone company salary and investments to pay cash for their modest 3-bedroom ranch home. And my dad? He collected scrap wood and materials from dumpsters to build a one-bedroom casita in the backyard that resembled his childhood home in Puerto Rico. He was most content there, in his hammock, surrounded by the fruit trees and flowers he tended.
A few years before he died, my dad came to visit me at my seventh floor, ocean-front apartment where I lived in Puerto Rico at the time. As we stood together on the balcony, taking in the expansive ocean view, feeling the breeze off the water and listening to the gentle crash of waves below, he let slip, “Imagine if I owned this…,” and then he quickly interrupted himself, “No, I wouldn’t want to own this.” After a long pause I queried, “Why not?” He said, “Because it would take me away from what really matters: being with people, being in the garden, being with you.” Even though I offered my bed, he preferred to sleep outside, under the stars, on the balcony hammock each night.
Even as our family’s financial situation changed and we moved from working class to middle class, my dad’s commitment to live simply, to stay connected with poor people, his people, to see himself as no better, to practice generosity without thought of reward, didn’t.
My dad collected aluminum cans from the nearby park’s trash bins, neighborhood garbage containers, and dumpsters. He’d get up early in the morning to make his rounds. Eventually he’d have enough to sell by weight for cash. Years prior, it was decided the SSI check went into the family bank account—which my mom managed. But the aluminum can salvage money? This was his money. He made about $200 a year doing this. And it gave him such joy to give it all away.
I remember whenever I’d come home to visit, he’d slip me a $20 bill (he would never want to make a big deal of it or draw attention to what he was doing) and say, “Treat yourself to something nice. From me.” And he would smile.
Such joy in the giving. Such dāna. Thank you, Dad.
Once I had a word for the kind of generosity my Dad embodied, I wanted to honor him by making it a core LJIST practice. I call it a practice because I slip up regularly. I am vulnerable to patterns of greed and over-consumption. I’ll be generous but expect something in return. Or my generosity will cross into charity territory: with an edge of superiority or that childhood hurt seeking relief on the other side of that equation. At other times I’ll want recognition or praise for my gift. And other times I dip into fear-based greed, opportunism, or hoarding.
Supporting just me financially, at first, and then others, through LJIST without a safety net (no partner’s income, no pension or retirement from another job, no inheritance, and, for the first few years, without any health insurance) as a single Latina brings up unhealed fears from my childhood. Only in retrospect and with a lot of discharge do I realize now that starting LJIST—being self-employed and not having a regular, reliable income; health insurance; sick pay or paid vacation time (what is that?)—almost perfectly replayed my early years of being poor. In some ways, it was an especially challenging time because of the amount of restimulation I was handling while trying to run a business and lead workshops. Yet in other ways it was my brilliant unconscious mind at work: I had regular and reliable opportunities to heal from these hurts from classism!
Over the years, many people have remarked how brave I was to start my business at 26. Maybe. I don’t think of it that way. It wasn’t like I was walking away from a job to strike out on my own. After grad school I started apprenticing with Lillian Roybal Rose, my then mentor and now friend. There wasn’t anything else I wanted to do with my time: I would have done it whether I got paid or not. And many times, and for a while, as any small business owner will tell you, I didn’t.
Asking for people to practice dāna in your direction, for a service you have provided, is also not dāna. Substituting “dāna” for “donation” also misunderstands this practice. “Donations accepted” in lieu of payment (or actual dāna) have been the closest thing to a practice of generosity many of us in the Economic North have figured out. Like the sliding scale, these are some ways we make experiences more accessible to more people. They are our best attempts at socio-economic inclusion and there is value in each of these. But let’s not confuse them with dāna.
Simply by asking—for someone else to practice dāna, for a donation—there is an expectation of reward—the donation or some payment. Even if none is given, the request itself turns the interaction into one of exchange. Once you have an exchange, dāna is not possible. Dāna is a gift given without reward, without asking, without expecting reciprocity or recognition or donation.
The current economic system confuses us into valuing what we pay for. (And the more we pay, therefore, the more valuable.) It’s been challenging for me to see myself and what I offer as valuable since those aren’t the messages that I internalized about myself as a Mexicana, Boricua, disabled, poor female with pelo chino.** I internalized that I was disposable at best and a drain on precious resources at worst.
At first, it was hard to decide to charge anything and eventually charge more for my work. Doing so, though, has allowed me to not be in debt while doing purposeful work and to provide meaningful work to members of our small but powerful team. I wouldn’t rely on dāna to compensate LJIST since society operates with the same misinformation that I had internalized: that work done by a Latina can’t be valuable because it’s work done by a Latina. Nevertheless, I can continue to practice dāna.
Within Your Means, From Your Heart
A vital part of fulfilling dāna is hospitality. If you’ve attended one of our events, I hope you have been embraced by thoughtfulness and warmth that lets you know you are welcomed and that your presence matters—to me, to the gathering, and to the world. Hospitality can be experienced by the smile and hug that welcomes you; the healthful and bountiful food we provide; the music we play at your request; the colorful, inviting space we create for the experience we will make together!
For the most part, though, LJIST’s dāna is not visible because that would diminish its intention. Yet when I practice dāna, when I remember that “gifts within your means and from your heart are the proper gifts” (1) I feel that incomparable fullness and joy and I smile that smile I learned from my dad. From being poor, yet rich in dāna.
*Niyama is the Sanskrit term for a duty or observance recommended by yogic philosophy and teaching as part of the path of yoga. These inner observances are a way of applying the ethical codes of yoga to the student’s own mind, body and spirit, helping to create a positive internal environment. Practicing the niyamas is said to give the yogi the inner strength, clarity, and discipline needed in order to progress on their spiritual journey.
**Kinky, curly hair
(1) Red Zambala, “Niyama – Giving | Dāna.”
Scribed, “10 Yamas and 10 Niyamas.”
Yogapedia, “Niyama,” June 12, 2018.