The Marginalian
The Marginalian

The Art of Not-Having-to-Ask, from Buddhist Monks to Amanda Palmer by Way of Thoreau

In the fall of 2014, I sat down with friend, collaborator, and kindred spirit Amanda Palmer for a conversation about what Thoreau can teach us about accepting love.

That conversation evolved into an essay titled “The Art of Not-Having-to-Ask,” which I wrote as the postscript to the paperback edition of Amanda’s wonderful, life-expanding book The Art of Asking: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Let People Help (public library | IndieBound).

Please enjoy.

We are embodied spirits who need raw material, both physical and spiritual, to create. But we forget that we are also social beasts who need not slash through the bramble of those needs alone.

In Buddhism and other ancient Eastern traditions, there is a beautiful concept connoted by the Pali word dana (pronounced DAH-nah), often translated as the virtue of generosity. But at its heart is something far more expansive — a certain quality of open-handedness in dynamic dialogue with need and organically responsive to it. The practice of dana has sustained the Buddhist tradition for two and a half millennia — monks give their teachings freely, and the lay people who benefit from them give back to the monks by making sure their sustenance needs are met.

In a sense, dana is the art of not-having-to-ask — a natural and intuitive recognition that the energies poured into creating meaning (and what is art if not the making of meaning?) must be replenished in order for that stuff of substance to continue flowing through and fertilizing the ecosystem of interconnectedness in which all beings are entwined.

In the modern West, governed by the invisible hand of tit-for-tat mentality long before Adam Smith articulated its grasp, we’ve had to master the art of asking as a coping mechanism making up for our intuitive but atrophied mastery of the art of not-having-to-ask.

It is always the artists who crack open society’s self-imposed shackles and return us, over and over, to the naked truth of the human spirit, to the intuitive knowledge sold short by the ideologies we’ve bought into — something Henry Miller did beautifully in one of his love letters to Anaïs Nin, penned in the thick of WWII, in which he contemplated precisely this atrophied understanding of the natural osmosis of giving and receiving. Arguing that asking and receiving require at least as much grace and generosity as giving, Miller wrote to Nin:

“By receiving from others, by letting them help you, you really aid them to become bigger, more generous, more magnanimous. You do them a service… It’s only because giving is so much associated with material things that receiving looks bad. It would be a terrible calamity for the world if we eliminated the beggar. The beggar is just as important in the scheme of things as the giver. If begging were ever eliminated God help us if there should no longer be a need to appeal to some other human being…”

Shortly after Nin herself rejoiced in her diary “JOY. JOY. JOY. JOY. JOY. JOY. JOY. JOY. JOY.” upon receiving news of the Liberation of Paris, which ended the Nazi occupation, another great creative spirit of the era contemplated the art of asking. With her unmistakably modernist prose, Gertrude Stein wrote in a 1945 letter to a friend as Paris was slowly recovering from the war:

“These days one asks for what one wants, since you cannot buy you have to ask and asking works such is the way of life.”

Such is the way of life indeed, but only if we are nursed on an early and steadfast security in asking: The hallmark of great parenting is unconditional love, in the warm embrace of which the child’s needs are met, often without having to even ask; and when she does ask, the parent doesn’t shame her for asking. Thoreau (per Amanda’s anecdote [in the book]) seems to have been the product of such parenting, for he clearly had no reservations about accepting the Sunday donuts his mother brought him — she simply assumed that this was what her son needed, and he simply received them. Thoreau was unashamed to devour the donuts in his cabin while he honed his spiritually enlightened, unmaterialistic definition of success:

“If the day and the night are such that you greet them with joy, and life emits a fragrance like flowers and sweet-scented herbs, is more elastic, more starry, more immortal — that is your success.”

In our judgmental black-and-white culture increasingly incapable of nuance, we might be tempted to dismiss this duality as a special form of hypocrisy that discredits Thoreau’s creative legacy. But make no mistake: It was, in fact, a special form of wisdom that only adds to his genius — the wisdom of recognizing that the art of giving and the art of receiving are compatriots in the kingdom of creative culture, absolutely vital to each other’s survival.

The magic of our own era — 2,500 years after the dawn of dana and a century and a half after Thoreau and many decades after Miller and Nin and Stein — is that the average person probably interacts with more people in a single week, online and off, than the average Buddhist monk or transcendentalist philosopher or even socialite writer did over the course of a lifetime. In a sense, we are being constantly reparented by one another, our needs incubated in the collective nest of culture. It’s magical, and also scary, but mostly magical to be able to ask complete strangers for those soul-nourishing donuts — and to be able to offer one another these allegorical donuts of dana as we unlearn everything our transactionalist culture has taught us about “the market,” relearn our natural open-handed generosity, and slowly remaster the art of not-having-to-ask.

Send some dana Amanda’s way by grabbing a copy of The Art of Asking for yourself or your favorite creative rebel and by joining me in supporting her art on Patreon, then revisit her beautiful and rather contextually appropriate reading of Polish Nobel laureate Wislawa Szymborska’s poem “Possibilities.”

Published October 21, 2015




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