147 - Loving-Kindness (Metta) Practice as an Antidote to Fear and Anxiety
149 - Understanding People's Actions Through the Six Realms Teaching

To create a generous life in a crazy world, I suggest a recipe for practice containing three essential ingredients. A skillful balance of these ingredients helps you sustain energy, motivation, positivity, and equanimity even when so many things are falling apart, corrupt, unjust, discouraging, even frightening. It helps you maintain compassion and take responsibility as a citizen of the world without being overwhelmed and disheartened by the scale of the suffering, and helps you take joy in your precious life without denying or ignoring suffering and injustice.



Quicklinks to Article Content:
The Questions We Face in a Crazy World
A Generous Life: The Bodhisattva Vows
A Generous Life: The Benefit of Self and Other are Not Two
Crafting a Good Life Out of the Three Ingredients
The How of the Three Ingredients for a Generous Life
Curing Cognitive Dissonance with a Well-Crafted Life


The Questions We Face in a Crazy World

How do you live a generous life in such a crazy world? How do you sustain your energy, motivation, positivity, equanimity when so many things in the world are falling apart, corrupt, unjust, discouraging, even frightening? How do you open your heart to compassion and take responsibility as a citizen of the world without being overwhelmed and disheartened by the scale of the suffering? How do you take joy in your precious life without denying or ignoring suffering and injustice, without compartmentalizing the horrors of this world into a box marked, someone else’s problem, if you have that option?

How do you live a generous life in such a crazy world? How do you sustain your energy, motivation, positivity, equanimity when so many things in the world are falling apart, corrupt, unjust, discouraging, even frightening? How do you open your heart to compassion and take responsibility as a citizen of the world without being overwhelmed and disheartened by the scale of the suffering? How do you take joy in your precious life without denying or ignoring suffering and injustice, without compartmentalizing the horrors of this world into a box marked, someone else’s problem, if you have that option?

As I’ve talked about before on the podcast (Episodes 126 – Crisis Buddhism: Sustainable Bodhisattva Practice in a World on Fire, 127 – Bearing Witness: Exposing Ourselves to the Suffering in the World, 128 – Taking Action: Getting Out of the House and Helping Others), I suggest a recipe for practice (for life) containing three ingredients:

The first ingredient is Bearing Witness, which means attending to and learning about the suffering of the world in all its forms. We do this for many reasons, in part to be able to make wise decisions, to activate our natural compassion, to awaken a sense of urgency. I talked, in one of those previous episodes, about how bearing witness is a value in and of itself, that it has an effect in the world, that we are not alone in our suffering if there are others who are also bearing witness.

The second ingredient is Taking Care. which means engaging in activities, relationships, and practices that sustain us.

The third ingredient, Taking Action, means participating in a tangible way to help alleviate or prevent the suffering we witness, and work for positive change in the world.

The critical aspect of practice, if we think about it this way, with these three ingredients, becomes balance. We try to include all three ingredients, but understand that over the course of, heck, even our day or year, certainly our life, the proportions of each will need to change over time.


A Generous Life: The Bodhisattva Vows

The background for this approach to practice is the Bodhisattva vow, the aspiration that we share in Mahayana Buddhism to something greater than just our own salvation. More accurately, we don’t see our own salvation as a separate matter from the salvation of all beings, of all life, that we cannot actually be liberated all by ourselves and neglect the sufferings of others. In operating to help liberate other beings, we also end up liberating ourselves. This is reflected in our fourfold Bodhisattva vow:

Beings are numberless; I vow to free them.

Delusions are inexhaustible; I vow to end them.

Dharma gates are boundless; I vow to enter them.

The buddha way is unsurpassable; I vow to embody it.

Buddha, which is our ideal, is not just an awakened being, but also a skilled, dedicated, and selfless teacher of others, helping them to awaken and become liberated as well.

We also vow to follow our bodhisattva precepts, which begin with these Three Pure Precepts:

Cease from harm – release all self-­attachment. This is the house of all the ways of buddha; this is the source of all the laws of buddhahood.

Do only good – take selfless action. The dharma of perfect enlightenment is the dharma of all existence, never apart from the present moment.

Do good for others – embrace all things and conditions. Leap beyond the holy and the unholy.  Let us rescue ourselves together with all beings.

This Bodhisattva vow is why our life includes more than just taking care of ourselves or our immediate sphere of responsibility, like our personal jobs and lives, families, and such as that, and this means taking care physically, emotionally, spiritually.

This is why I made two golden rules in order to keep your practice balanced and vital in this crazy world—two principles that you use when cooking your practice according to this three-ingredient recipe, and one is—always be motivated by goodwill, and two—extend your sphere of care and responsibility as far as possible: 

  1. Always be motivated by goodwill.
  2. Extend your sphere of care and responsibility as far as possible.


A Generous Life: The Benefit of Self and Other are Not Two

Common sense would say we would benefit most if we primarily take care of ourselves instead of extending our concern out as far as we can, opening ourselves up to the suffering of others, and spreading our resources more thinly, but that’s not actually the way it turns out.

As Dogen said in Bodaisatta Shishobo (The Four Ways Bodhisattvas Embrace Living Beings):

“Foolish people think that if they help others first, their own benefit will be lost, but this is not so. Beneficial action is an act of oneness, benefiting self and others together.”[i]

This may sound just philosophical, but I think most of us, if we reflect on examples where we have acted selflessly, we have acted on behalf of others without a concern for ourselves, or what we’re going to get out of it, or what it’s going to do for our reputation, or etcetera, we’re just really sincerely reaching out to help other beings, there’s generally a sense that we are benefiting as well, if not more than the beings that we are supposedly helping.

How do you personally benefit when you practice the bodhisattva vow?


Crafting a Good Life Out of the Three Ingredients

generous lifeThere’s several things to keep in mind as we’re trying to craft a generous life out of these three ingredients. Of course, as I said, we’re trying to skillfully and sustainably balance the three ingredients to include all three, but recognizing as our circumstances change, the proportions of these different ingredients in our lives may change. For instance, if we are overcome by illness, or lose our job, or become responsible for a dependent family member, or something like that, perhaps that taking care part of our practice is going to become more predominant. We may not have as much time or energy to spend bearing witness or taking action.

We need to attend to our own life and practice with these other tools that we cultivate in Buddhism—mindfulness, self-awareness, honesty, and ask ourselves: At any given time, what is the state of these three ingredients in our practice? How am I bearing witness? How am I taking care? How am I taking action? How much time and energy am I devoting to each of these different areas? Another thing is, this way of approaching practice incorporates taking care into our Bodhisattva vow. All three of these ingredients are part of cooking a Bodhisattva’s life. Taking care in the context of Buddhist practice is not a selfish act. It’s in service to our ability to bear witness and take action, and of course, we ourselves are included. I found this kind of helpful to think of it this way because then when I am just taking care, or relaxing, or doing something to regenerate, if I’m going away to a retreat, there’s no need to feel guilty or useless or out of touch with the bodhisattva vow because for the time being, this is what is called for.

There’s also no denying that we’re challenged to include bearing witness and taking action. These are generally more challenging. They take more energy, time, creativity, stepping outside of our zones of familiarity depending on the kind of person we are, the kind of life we’ve led. There’s a natural inclination to stay with what’s pleasant and easy and enjoyable.

No matter how much work we have to do, it seems to expand to fill the time that we have. Of course, you know, when we have an option, we would like to do something that’s pleasant, enjoyable, entertaining. Besides, bearing witness and taking action are sometimes upsetting or emotionally exhausting, discouraging. If we’re bearing witness and taking action and we are getting exhausted or discouraged, then we balance them with taking care.

Our practice and life are always our own responsibility. This is an important thing to remember, that we’re not comparing ourselves to others or to some kind of ideal. You’re not listening to this podcast and then coming up with a new set of ideas to which you need to measure up. We don’t need to defend our practice to others, but at the same time, are we being honest with ourselves? Are we fulfilling our own aspirations? If you faced the end of your life tomorrow and had time to reflect on how you have been living, would you see missed opportunities to learn, to grow, to practice generosity?

If so, then maybe it’s time to expand the bearing witness, or taking action parts of your life.


The How of the Three Ingredients for a Generous Life

Sometimes the main challenge in balancing these different ingredients in our life isn’t so much the intention to balance, but just how are we supposed to manifest these different things?

We’re all pretty familiar, I think, with how to Take Care of ourselves and our families and our responsibilities. That’s not to say we always do it very well or do it enough, but we kind of know what we should do:

  • Eat well, exercise, get enough sleep, take care of our health
  • Maintain positive relationships, including with Sangha
  • Spend time doing nourishing or relaxing activities – hobbies, time in nature, entertainment, music, reading for enjoyment
  • Creative expression
  • Spiritual practice

Perhaps it’s regenerative for us to do creative expression, and certainly much of our spiritual practice falls into this category as well as just maintaining our own sanity and centeredness, perspective, etcetera, through our meditation, through our Dharma study, through our connection with Sangha.

What about Bearing Witness? This is attending to, exposing ourselves to learning about the suffering in the world in all its forms.

  • Reading/watching the news (this is the first thing most of us think of, but this is only one way of bearing witness, and it’s a way that sometimes skews more toward the sensational or the negative, tends to dramatize crises, and fails to mention a lot of the more positive things going on in the world. It can end up being kind of discouraging, kind of addicting, etc.)
  • Books/movies/documentaries etc. (fiction or nonfiction) that inform, give insight into the experience of others, history, the suffering and injustice in the world.
  • Opening up to our own suffering (reflection, inner work, counseling, etc.)
  • Listening to other people, making space for their pain, experience, honesty
  • Travel, and not just sticking to the beautiful tourist sights but exploring the full range of how people live in a given country or state – perhaps deliberately traveling to visit and help in places that serve the poor or those otherwise in difficult circumstances
  • Service work that exposes us to suffering here and now – food bank, work with the homeless, people with addictions, etc.
  • Metta practice (See Episode 147, call to mind beings who are suffering, and then “send” them goodwill; it’s a nice way to bear witness and mix in a kind of strength and resilience at the same time.)

Just a reminder, in terms of bearing witness, we’re doing all of these things when we are paying attention to the bearing witness ingredient of our practice, in particular, we’re setting aside the taking action part, at least for the time being. We are bearing witness regardless of whether we think there’s something we can do to help. Maybe there’s nothing that we can think of that we can do to help, but bearing witness is nonetheless valuable. It informs. It opens our hearts— suffering beings are not alone.

It helps us if we set aside that need to fix things. I think it helps us absorb more, to witness more without feeling overwhelmed because sometimes the distress comes from a sense of obligation to fix something, and so basically, if you can’t fix it, then you shouldn’t even look. I think there’s a value to bearing witness in and of itself.

What about Taking Action? Some folks are very active in this way, but many of us are not, and so this takes a little more imagination. This takes a little more pushing beyond our comfort zones. This means participating in a tangible way to help alleviate or prevent the suffering we witness and work for positive change in the world.

  • Participating in/volunteering time with an “activist” organization/group that’s trying to make positive change in the world
  • Giving money to causes you believe in
  • Trying to live without doing so much harm (morally, economically, etc.)
  • Interacting with others with kindness and generosity
  • Educating yourself in order to become wiser and more helpful in your behavior
  • Choosing a job/career which benefits others and/or promotes positive change in the world
  • Showing up to demonstrations, protests, actions
  • Working in a positive way within our political system – get out the vote, working for a campaign you believe in, promoting legislation you believe in, working at a polling place

One note about taking action: The last time I talked about this was right before we really locked down because of covid, and I had said taking action means you get out of your house and interact with others. Now, in the age of covid, maybe that’s different. Ideally, it still does mean you get out if you can do so safely, but there are other ways to be involved with others, and many groups and organizations have found ways to continue their work by connecting online.


Curing Cognitive Dissonance with a Well-Crafted Life

Living a vital, full, open-hearted life, the fulfillment of our Bodhisattva vow, in these challenging times is an ever-moving target. We never get to stop cooking our life, never just get to give up trying to skillfully balance our practice. It’s a dynamic situation. It’s a living situation.

I suggest as we are living, as we are practicing, as we are cooking, when we feel cognitive dissonance, something in our practice needs to be adjusted in terms of these three ingredients.

Cognitive dissonance is mental, sometimes even physical. It’s an emotional discomfort when our behavior doesn’t match our beliefs or our values. When this cognitive dissonance arises, we’re acting out of accord with our own aspirations, our own values, our own deeper desires, so it’s not about meeting someone else’s ideals or anything like that. When this cognitive dissonance arises, sometimes we need to recognize that we need to do more to take care.

Sometimes we’ll have been working so hard on a project or trying to take care of our family or whatever it is that we haven’t been taking care of ourselves, we were neglecting our meditation or exercise or our sleep or whatever. Sometimes it means recognizing what we’re doing as taking care and thereby setting aside any sense of guilt or shame about it, recognizing it’s important for us to do this right now, to set our work aside and relax for a little bit or something like that.

Sometimes the cognitive dissonance means we need to spend a little more time bearing witness even when we don’t know what to do to help or we can’t help, and this is a real balancing act. It’s valuable to recognize that bearing witness can take emotional and mental, maybe even physical energy. It’s something that’s valuable to do, but we need to recognize when we’re getting overwhelmed or exhausted and then set it aside and do some taking care or do some taking action. It doesn’t mean that reading the news, or whatever it is that we were doing, is toxic and we should never do it. It just perhaps means that we do it a little bit less, that we take a break, that we balance it with other things.

Then sometimes when we feel cognitive dissonance – and I think this is very common for many of us in modern society – we need to take more action if we’re able. Again, if our job and/or our responsibilities just absolutely fill up our time, perhaps what we can do to take action is very limited.

For many of us, though, we could definitely do more. This is the challenging part of the three-ingredient life because it usually involves the most sacrifice, and requires us to think outside the box and explore new territory. Bearing witness, we can do largely from the comfort of our own homes in many forms. Taking care is usually in the comfort of our own home. Taking action, not so much.

Taking action involves participation and engagement in the larger world. Many people just figure—I’m not an activist, the taking action part, that’s for certain kinds of people, that’s if you’re really into that kind of thing or that’s your hobby or something like that. I question that. Do you want to live a sufficient life, one where you’re good enough, you didn’t do too much harm, you usually helped somebody if they asked? Or do you want to live a generous life, one where people gather at your memorial service after you’re gone, recalling the ways you touched their lives or the lives of others, recalling how you sacrificed and quietly served and reflecting on the good you were doing in the world?

This doesn’t have to be dramatic stuff. I think we can all think of examples of people who were extremely generous in very understated, if you will, ordinary ways. Someone who owned a grocery store and expressed such pride and care in the way the store was run, and how the employees were taken care of, and how the customers were treated, that just permeates, that just touches everyone who interacts with that sphere. There’s many ways of doing good in the world, of living with this kind of generosity.

If you do end up wanting to increase the proportion of taking action in your life, so if you’re trying to cook a generous life and there’s still some cognitive dissonance there, still a little sense that you should do more, perhaps you could do more, but what would it be, etcetera—here’s a few recommendations: Devote more time and energy to it, a larger proportion of your life, it’s just like any other healthy habit, like exercise or whatever, you’ve just got to start doing it.

Start with something doable. Start with something small, one hour a week, two hours a week. Out of the course of your life, out of all the things that you spend time on, the different spheres, bearing witness and taking care, can you do a couple of hours a week that you can really identify as being in this taking action sphere?

The second thing is to have the action that we’re doing involve more of ourselves. Donating money to a cause you believe in is something, it’s a certain kind of action, but it doesn’t involve a whole lot of you. The more we can involve our body, our mind, our speech, our relationships, our passion, our skills, the more of it that you can throw into taking action, the more impactful that action will be, both for others and for yourself, and this ingredient of your life will have more dominance.

Finally, try to approach whatever action you choose to take with the attitude of active hope (Episode 107), which is something I’ve also talked about on the podcast before, which means being active for what you hope for in the world as opposed to having hope for some particular thing to happen.

Ordinary hope means you’re hoping this action you’ve chosen is really going to improve the situation, and it’s really going to succeed or something. You’re hoping for some particular outcome, which may or may not happen and frequently doesn’t, or at least not the way you expect. In that case, taking action can end up seeming very unfulfilling or frustrating. Maybe you’ve tried a certain kind of volunteer activity and it didn’t really do a lot for you, but if we’re approaching the action with an attitude of active hope where we’re focused on, “I am doing this because of what I hope for,” and you have your mind on what it is you hope for – you hope for a more compassionate society, you hope for a restoration of our democracy – that’s the direction you’re going, so even a small action in that direction is worthwhile.



[i] Dogen, Zen Master. Kaz Tanahashi, ed. Treasury of the True Dharma Eye: Zen Master Dogen’s Shobo Genzo. Shambhala. Kindle Edition.


147 - Loving-Kindness (Metta) Practice as an Antidote to Fear and Anxiety
149 - Understanding People's Actions Through the Six Realms Teaching