On Generosity: Tipping as spiritual practice

Dedicated to all the men and women in our local food industry who rely on the kindness of strangers to earn a living.

On Generosity: Tipping as spiritual practice

Dedicated to all the men and women in our local food industry who rely on the kindness of strangers to earn a living.

"Generosity is a rare and beautiful quality of mind and heart."

My meditation teacher leads retreats – including a day-long in December at Rising Fawn Gardens – and offers classes and individual, one-on-one sessions. Many of you may know her. Janka Livoncova is a long-time Chattanoogan, having taught yoga and mindfulness meditation for many years before serving as a dharma leader of Chattanooga Insight, our city's weekly meditation group.

She's spent decades in devoted practice, training and study, becoming, in my estimation, the wisest and most skilled teacher I know.

Here's the crazy part:

She doesn't charge for her work.

The practice is called dana, a Buddhist (or Pali) term best translated as "generosity" or "free-giving." Since spiritual teachings are priceless, you cannot put a price tag on them in the way you might quantify the value of a gallon of milk or houseboat or pair of high heels.

It plays out like this:

Those of us who benefit from her teaching are given the freedom to offer a response, or payment, that's entirely up to us. Instead of our transaction being defined by a set rate – $25 for this, $750 for that – which bypasses our hearts and goes straight to our wallets, we're given the precious opportunity to call forth our own generous response.

We access our open hearts. We feel so touched for what we've received. Out of that inner gratitude, we give in return.

No sense of obligation. Just a response motivated by deep appreciation.

For Janka, it is an entirely vulnerable way of living. (In older times, monks would receive dana in the form of meals, shelter, clothing.) Janka has no other income. Can you imagine? Placing your financial security in the hands of others in such an unguarded way?

Within American capitalism, I can only think of one other class of laborer whose livelihood – day in, day out – exists in such a vulnerable, trusting and insecure position.


"I speak for a lot of people in the industry," said Elizabeth Odom. "It’s a very unstable and stressful way to live."

Growing up in California, Odom, 36, began working at a pizza place in high school. For 25 years, she worked through the industry – a host at Olive Garden, barbeque joints, then, for most of her career, high-end restaurants: bartending, managing, but mostly serving.

Several years ago, she moved to Chattanooga, entering into our food service industry.

According to federal statistics, the percentage of Chattanooga workforce employed in the "food preparation and serving related" industry is more than 9%, higher than the national average.

"It's very stressful, being dependent on the generosity – or lack thereof – of other people," she said.

Each shift was a whiplash experience. Serving is an art form, an experience not unlike "being on stage," she said. Diners sit down with high expectations; the slightest mistake – perceived or real – can potentially snowball: small tip, bad review, complaint to manager.

At the end of every meal, as diners sign the ticket, Elizabeth remembers her heart flutter-pounding as she reaches for the check — oh please, please, please let it happen – as her eyes immediately scanned the tip line.

"Working off tips means I've seen the very best of people and a lot of judgment and expectation," she said.

In California, where servers are guaranteed an hourly wage of $15.50, she once ended the night with $1000 in her pocket from a six-hour shift.

In Tennessee, where the minimum wage for servers is $2.13, she's lost money at the end of her shift.

"You still have to pay taxes," she said. "You’re actually walking away making nothing."

"Tipping began in the Middle Ages in Europe when people lived under the feudal system ... Servants would perform their duties and be given some pocket change in return," reports NPR.

For some career servers, tipping can be profitable. For others, painful. In 2016, Eater declared: "Tipping encourages racism, sexism, harassment, and exploitation."

  • "As studies ... have shown, some diners let race, gender, and attractiveness impact how much they pay servers: Most dramatically, diners of all races tend to give higher tips to white servers and lower tips to black servers."
  • " ... tipping creates a power dynamic in which servers adopt a mentality that 'the customer is always right.' In a situation in which servers are actually working for diners and their tips, rather than for their employers’ wages, they may be more vulnerable to abuse. 
  •  " ... nearly 80 percent of female restaurant workers reported experiencing some sort of sexual harassment from customers at work. The food service industry accounts for more sexual harassment filings ... than any other industry."

Some restaurant owners like NYC's Danny Meyer attempted to end the tipping system, including in the final bill a built-in gratuity. His idea didn't last. Some servers actually lose money and laws preventing the sharing of tips make the attempt fruitless.

Two years ago, Elizabeth left the food industry, taking a career of skills – active listening, managing a dozen things at once, predicting people's needs, a no-nonsense hustle, kindness – for a stable salaried position as project manager for a local construction firm.

She still goes out, tipping no less than 20% each time. Her own dad?

"Thirty percent" she said.

In her experience, there are generally two types of diners:

"One group of people that very much believe in tipping and service," she said.

And the other?

"It a less-than-feeling," she remembers, as diners send a not-subtle message: You're choosing this, so deal with it. You could be somewhere else making more money.

For Elizabeth, the majority of people she worked alongside were also getting a nursing degree or masters' or GED. They were supporting families. The hours and flexibility of restaurant work allow this.

Chattanooga, we'd love your support and sponsorship. Email david@foodasaverb.com

Do you see the common thread in all of this?

It's us.

Our behavior. The state of our hearts and minds.

When we go out to bars or restaurants or coffeeshops, we go for pleasure. They are our rituals. The taste of the pasta, wine, Pilsner, our morning latte. The uplifting energy of a Friday night bar. The intimacy of a table for two.

None of it happens without servers.

Tipping gives us a rare chance to practice generosity. Every time we go out, we're given a beautiful opportunity to access the quality of our heart that is grateful, thankful, appreciative. This can't happen when the bill is set – pay this, pay that – but within the difficult freedom of being able to leave a generous amount ... or absolutely nothing.

Tipping serves as a mirror, reflecting back onto us how generous or constricted we may feel.

I have undertipped because I felt a fearful sense of lack, as though my mind were saying: I don't have enough, there's not enough to give, hold tightly.

I have tipped generously and felt my heart balloon open, thankful for so much: the art of attentive service, a delicious experience, the simple joy of being human with a full belly and heart.

“Generosity is a rare and beautiful quality of mind and heart. It counteracts a belief that there is not enough or that something is missing," Janka said. "To me, this is enough of a reason to take advantage of every opportunity to express generosity through words and actions.”

Tipping as a spiritual practice allows us to strengthen our generous selves while acting in life-giving ways to others.

"There are way more generous, good and kind people than there are ones that come in and hold their nose up to you," said Elizabeth.

She'll always remember that moment as she cleans up after diners. Heart thumping, her eyes read the last tip line. She sees something thin – 5%, or nothing – then her entire week's budget suddenly gets recalculated in her mind. Can I pay rent? Can I fix the radiator?

When she sees something genuine and a stout 20%, 30%?

"Relief," she said.

All photography by Sarah Unger. Visit SarahCatherinePhoto.com

Story ideas? Interested in sponsorship opportunities + supporting our work? Feedback or questions? Email David Cook at david@foodasaverb.com. This story is 100% human generated; no AI chatbot was used in the creation of this content.

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