Practicing the art of accepting a gift—be it a material item or something less tangible like a compliment, favor, or piece of wisdom—can help us live, and give, with more meaning.
My generous mother could never accept a gift. On Christmas and birthdays, my brothers and I would each offer her something we thought she'd like—a sweater, a piece of jewelry, a certificate for a massage. She'd say "thank you," of course. But she'd put the sweater in the bottom drawer, bag the jewelry, never call the massage therapist. The same thing happened when we tried to tell her something nice about herself. "Oh, come on," she'd say. "That's too much." We used to tease her about how she always had to be the giver. But we also found it frustrating, because we couldn't express our affection for her in ways that she would accept.
I thought about this recently after a friend I'll call Dylan busted me for not acknowledging a compliment. He had called to tell me how much he appreciated something I'd done. Without thinking, I answered, "Oh, it wasn't a big deal. Anyone would have done that." Dylan went quiet for a minute. Then he said, "Do you realize you just rejected my compliment?"
"No, I didn't," I protested. "I just told the truth. What I did really wasn't a big deal."
"Maybe not to you, but it was to me," he retorted. "I was trying to tell you something nice. You basically didn't receive it."
His words stopped me cold. I had just exhibited my own version of my mother's behavior, turning aside a loved one's offering out of false modesty or a kind of reverse pride. And this got me started on what turned out to be a long contemplation on the nuances of receiving. What I finally realized is this: Most of us have never learned how to fully take in a gift.
We know about gratitude, of course. We make gratitude lists and write thank-you notes to friends, teachers, and others who have helped us or inspired us. But even when we're expressing gratitude, we often haven't fully received, taken in, and assimilated the gift we've been given. Receiving is a yoga in itself—one that demands a high degree of sensitivity, awareness, and even skillfulness. For one thing, we need to recognize that we're being given a gift—whether it's a birthday present, a compliment, a teaching, a helpful piece of feedback, a genuine service, a loving gesture, or a blessing from the invisible realms. Second, we need to cultivate enough stillness and openness to take it in. Third, we need to appreciate it, to value it, or, at the very least, to value the giver's intention. Fourth, we need to feel that we deserve it—that the gift is neither too much, too little, or too out of line with who we are. In fact, the word "receive" comes from the Latin word recipere, which means "to take back." This implies that what we receive is already ours in the sense that we do, indeed, deserve it, that it completes something within us, or simply that we've attracted it by the nature of our being.
Of course, one reason we may feel resistant to receiving a gift is that it isn't "meant" for us. Not everyone's energy is a match for ours, and some gifts come with so many strings and expectations that they resemble bribes. So, as you practice learning how to receive, begin by looking at the meaning behind any feelings of resistance. Sometimes they are messages from your discerning Self telling you that it isn't wise to accept the offering. For example, Linda, a popular yoga teacher, gets lots of offers for bodywork from her students. Much of the time, the energy behind the offering is ambiguous—sometimes the students want to get closer to her or want to give her something in return for her teaching. She's learned to listen to her inner "no" when an offering makes her feel uncomfortable and to politely decline.
But if the gift is appropriate—and genuine—then the question becomes, "Can you take it in?" Because, of course, it doesn't matter how many favors and gifts you receive from other people and the universe. What really matters is how much you can receive and assimilate. Think about it: When your digestive system won't assimilate food, you don't receive nourishment, no matter how much you eat or how many supplements you take. In the same way, when you can't (or won't) receive the love and support that a real gift represents, you never quite feel nourished by life. And there's an obvious corollary: If you can't fully receive love and support from other people, you'll probably have a hard time receiving the subtle help being offered to you by the cosmos itself.
The Failed Exchange
An extreme example of the consequences of not receiving a gift is described in the Puranas, the sacred mythology texts of India. Durvasa, a particularly irascible sage, finds a garland that he recognizes as the material embodiment of auspiciousness itself. But when he offers it to Indra, the king of the gods, Indra takes the garland carelessly and flings it over the head of his elephant. Durvasa is so insulted by Indra's inability to receive the offering that he declares that henceforth, good fortune will depart from Indra's worlds. And, voilá, Indra's worlds turn dim and gray. Things come out all right in the end, of course, but not without some superhuman effort on the part of gods and titans.
Durvasa isn't just being touchy: His reaction points to a truth about the way the cosmos works. When we aren't able to receive a genuine and heartfelt gift, we subtly upset the balance of the cosmos. One of the core Vedic understandings is that life is based on exchange, the dynamic interaction of giving and receiving. In the Bhagavad Gita (a classic yogic text), the interdependence between human beings, the natural world, and the invisible world of spirit is captured in the image of the cosmic sacrifice. In the sacrifice, the earth receives the gift of rain, and crops begin to grow. Moisture evaporates from the earth and is received by the atmosphere. Similarly, as humans, we receive gifts of food, shelter, knowledge, and all sorts of other forms of support from the earth, from our parents and ancestors, from the accumulated wisdom and technology of our culture, and from our fellow humans. We carry these gifts in our genes, and they themselves carry unspoken obligations—most often through all the ways we "pay it forward," helping others materially or energetically by sharing our own gifts, skills, and support.
But if others don't receive our offerings, there's no true exchange. That means we can't give our gifts, or, on a deeper level, repay our implicit obligations. Any teacher knows that, without a receptive student, she can't really teach. A friend can't share intimacy with you if you're not able to be present for it. Even a philanthropist needs an appropriate receiver for his wealth. Whatever gift you want to give is essentially fruitless—like a seed that doesn't germinate and sprout—when it's not fully received, and you can sense this, even on a very subtle level. You might wonder if there was something wrong with the gift. You might feel frustrated or hurt, like my friend Dylan did when I rejected his compliment. If you're energetically sensitive, you will feel the person's hesitancy or resistance to receiving as a wall, a block in the flow between you and that person.
Why Can't We Receive?
There are many reasons why we don't fully receive gifts, favors, and compliments—ranging from feelings of guilt or insecurity ("I don't deserve it") to a sense of entitlement ("I have it coming to me, so what's the big deal?"), a fear that we don't have the wherewithal to reciprocate, or a sneaking suspicion that the gift has hidden strings. Another reason we don't receive help is that, on a subconscious level, it can make us feel inferior. Our culture tells us that a giver is in the power position, while the receiver is making a tacit confession of neediness. Even when we're truly in need, our ego will often resist the discomfort of fully receiving.
One of our biggest problems with receiving has to do with what I like to call the holes in our bucket. If you try to hold water in a container with a hole in it, the water will leak out. In the same way, when we feel chronically needy or deprived, or when we don't take care of what we already have, it can be hard to hold on to or feel happy about the new gifts we are being given. We might want desperately to feel loved, to be offered a thoughtful gift, or to receive a helping hand, but the love and help that come our way never feel like enough love, or the right kind of love.. Someone praises us for being smart, and we wonder why she doesn't appreciate our good looks. A lover gives us a book, and we wonder why he didn't realize that we wanted a sweater.
Practice the Art of Receiving
So, what can we do to become better receivers? There are a few core practices that can help us fully receive, take in, and assimilate whatever gifts our loved ones—and the universe—are offering.
1. Cultivate Presence
When you're feeling rushed, distracted, or preoccupied, you are much less capable of fully receiving a gift. So when someone offers you something—a kind word, a present, a favor—begin by noticing your state of mind. If you're feeling distracted, resistant, or disconnected from them, try a quick, simple yogic practice that can help you bring your energies into the present moment. First, take a deep breath and notice where it lands in your body. Then feel the sensations of the breath meeting your inner body. Another way to cultivate presence is to work with these Five Recognitions of Perfection. The practice is very simple. You say to yourself:
This is the perfect time. Right now.
This is the perfect place. Right here.
This is the perfect person.
This is the perfect gift.
I am the perfect person to receive it.
The first three thoughts will help you enter the present moment. The last two will help you create an internal environment that will help you hold the gift with sincere appreciation.
2. Avoid Judgment
Often, when someone offers us a gift, our mind judges, evaluates, and summarily approves or rejects it even before we've taken it in. This is what Indra did with the garland. It's what my friend Ellen did recently when her boyfriend came over on her birthday and washed all the dishes in her sink. To him, it was a loving offering. Her reaction was, "Thanks, and you should be doing this every time I cook for you instead of always expecting me to cook and wash dishes afterward." To which he replied, "I would, but you're so compulsive about having the dishes clean five minutes after the meal that you don't give me a chance!" And then, to their dismay, the couple launched into a 30-minute argument instead of celebrating Ellen's birthday.
When you are being given a gift that doesn't feel like a perfect fit, resist the urge to think about what kind of offering you would have preferred and reject the impulse to make a "you never know what I really want" move. Instead, consider that the giver might have had a loving intention—no matter how clueless the gift itself may appear.
3. See the Gift as a Message
The Sanskrit word Prasad typically refers to the food offering that is made to a diety during a temple ritual and then shared among the others present. However, in India, anything offered by a holy being or a devotee is considered to be Prasad.
When I lived with my guru, he would often give us little gifts, which we received with great excitement because we recognized that they were filled with his blessings. Sometimes the gifts were absurd: He once gave me a gigantic pair of foam-filled after-ski booties made of a blue nylon-based outdoor fabric with yellow cloth soles. Not only did they look ridiculous, but they were also miles too big for me. (And besides, it was high summer!) But it didn't occur to me to wonder why he'd given me something so silly because I saw that his gifts were imbued with his unique spiritual energy. Though I didn't exactly walk around wearing them, I do still have the booties, and they always remind me of his kindness.
Try this practice when your friends and family give you presents during the holidays. Take a moment to feel the inherent holiness in the giver. You might even consider the ways in which the giver—your friend, your child, your partner, or your parent—is actually a teacher for you, a kind of guru. These insights will help you look at the gift he or she is giving in a new way, as prasad, which is filled with the energy of blessing. Then notice how different the exchange feels.
We said earlier in this article that being receptive is a spiritual practice—a kind of yoga. This understanding is especially important when the gift you are wanting to receive is wisdom, love, or help from another person or from the subtle world. Sometimes, just reminding yourself to open up to whatever form love takes will let you receive not just the affection that other people are offering you, but also the actual grace that comes with it—the beneficial energy that pours through the universe.
One way to practice this level of receptivity is to take a moment—right now, or at any other time—to breathe in and imagine that you are taking in the subtle energy, tenderness, and grace from the universe. Or imagine that your heart is open like a funnel, so that love and energy can pour into it from the atmosphere. Rather than trying to draw in that energy, simply hold your heart open and allow it to enter as it will.
The power of these simple but highly effective practices is that over time they will begin to seep into your being. By improving your ability to fully receive, you will begin to notice how many gifts are being offered to you at every moment. The wind in the trees, a stranger's smile, the wagging tail of a dog will all feel like personal offerings of affection—gifts of beauty and wisdom. Whatever you give back becomes part of that same dance, the dance of giving and receiving, in which we're all one another's partners.
Just as each yoga posture you practice affects you psychologically as well as physically, these hand and arm gestures, combined with an intention to be receptive, can help you train yourself into a receptive mode.
The Cup: Form a cup with your hands, wrists, thumbs, and pinkie fingers together, letting the other fingers splay open. Place your cupped hands against your chest, over the heart center, with the sides of the thumbs touching the chest. Close your eyes and breathe deeply, with the sensation that the breath is bringing energy and light into your body through your cupped hands.
Arms to the Sky: Standing with your feet about shoulder-width apart, hold your arms at your sides, about 6 inches from your body, with your palms out and your elbows relaxed. With an inhalation, gently let your arms float up until they form a wide funnel, fingertips pointing at the sky. Keep the arms relaxed as your face tips upward slightly.
Let yourself embrace the space, with the sense that you are opening to and welcoming in the energy of the universe. Slowly draw your arms down the front of your body, with your palms open, until your arms are about a foot away from your body. Then let your arms relax at your sides. Repeat 2 times.