My 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. It was the same 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 profoundly frustrating.
I thought about this recently after a friend I’ll call Dylan busted me for not acknowledging a compliment. Dylan 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’d just done my own version of my mother’s behavior, turning aside a friend’s offering out of false modesty or a kind of reverse pride. And this got me started on what has turned out to be a long contemplation on the nuances of receiving. What I 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. 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 the gift is appropriate to who we are. That means that our inner state has to in some way match the gift. 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.
The word “receive” comes from a Latin word recipere, which means “to take back.” This implies that what you receive is already yours, in the sense that you deserve it, or that it completes something in you, or simply that you’ve attracted it by the nature of your being.
In fact, one reason why you may feel resistant to receiving a gift is because it isn’t “meant” for you. Not everyone’s energy is a match for yours, and some gifts come with so many strings and expectations that they resemble bribes. So, as you practice learning how to receive, it’s always good to begin by looking at the meaning behind any feelings of resistance. Sometimes they are messages from your discerning self, telling you not to accept the offering. Linda, a popular yoga teacher, gets lots of offers for bodywork from her students. Much of the time, the energy behind the offering is needy or grasping. She’s learned to listen to her inner “No,” when an offering makes her feel uncomfortable, and 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 the ways that other people give you love and support, you’ll probably have a hard time receiving the subtle help that is being offered to you from the cosmos itself.
The Failed Exchange
An extreme example of the consequences of not receiving a gift is described in the Puranas, the sacred mythological 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 take in [receive?] the offering that he declares that from henceforth, good fortune will depart from Indra’s worlds. And, voila, his worlds turn dim and grey. Things come out alright 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 about life is that it 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 rain, and crops 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 carry unspoken obligations—most often through all the ways we “pay it forward,” helping others materially, energetically, or 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 that, 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 when I “rejected” his compliment. If you’re energetically sensitive, you will feel the person’s hesitancy or resistance to receiving as a subtle wall, a literal 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 entitlement (“I have it coming to me, so what’s the big deal?”) to the fear that we don’t have the wherewithal to reciprocate, or the sneaking suspicion that the gift has hidden strings.
Another reason why we don’t receive help is because on a subconscious level, it can make us feel inferior to the giver. Our culture tells us that the one who gives is in the power position, while the one who receives is making a tacit confession of neediness. Even when we’re truly in need, our ego will often resist the discomfort of receiving.
One of our biggest problems with receiving has to do with the holes in our bucket. If you try to hold water in a container with a hole in it, the water will leak. In the same way, when you feel chronically needy, or deprived, or when you’re careless about taking care of what you have, it can be hard either to hold onto or to feel happy in the gifts you are being given. We might want desperately to feel loved, or offered a thoughtful gift, or lent a helping hand, but the love and help that comes our way never feels like enough love, or the right kind of love. Someone praises us for being smart and we wonder why they don’t appreciate our good looks. Your lover gives you a book and you wonder why he didn’t realize that you wanted a sweater.
So, what can we do to become better receivers? There are a few core practices that can help you fully receive, take in, and assimilate whatever gifts your loved ones—and the universe—are offering to you.
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 yogic practice for bringing your energies into the present moment: take a deep breath and notice where it lands in your body, then feel the inner sensations of the breath meeting your inner body.
Another practice for cultivating presence is to the work with these Five Recognitions of Perfection. It’s 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.
What they are giving me is the perfect gift.
I am the perfect person to receive it.”
The first three thoughts will help you enter the moment. The last two will help you create an internal environment that will help you hold the gift with appreciation.
2. Let go of judgment or expectation
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, on her birthday, came over 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 letting me cook and wash dishes.” To which he replied, “I would, but you’re so compulsive about having the dishes clean 5 minutes after the meal that you don’t give me a chance.” And then they were off on an argument that lasted for half an hour.
When you’re receiving a gift that doesn’t feel like a perfect fit, resist the urge to think about what kind of offering you would have preferred, or to make the “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 blessing
The Sanskrit word prasad typically refers to the food offering that is made during a temple ritual and shared among the people in attendance. But in India, anything offered by a holy being or a devotee is considered 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, however, the gifts were absurd: he once gave me a gigantic pair of foam-filled after-ski booties, made of blue nylon-based outdoor fabric with yellow cloth soles. Not only did they look ridiculous, they were miles too big for me. (And besides, it was high summer, when the last thing I needed was a pair of snow boots.) 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 them, and they always remind me of his kindness.
Try this practice when your friends and family give you presents at Christmas. 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, your parent—is actually a teacher for you, a kind of guru. This will help you look at the gift she is giving you as prasad, which is filled with the energy of blessing. Then notice how different the exchange feels.
4. Consciously open yourself
We said earlier that being receptive is a spiritual practice. This is especially important when what you want 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 the actual grace—the subtle, beneficial energy that pours through the universe. One way to practice this level of receptivity is to take a moment—right now, or any 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 that energy to enter as it will. Another way to practice making space is to try the mudra (hand gesture) of receptivity. (See sidebar on page TK.)
The great power of these four practices is that over time they will begin to seep into your being. By improving your ability to fully receive, you will come 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 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 each other’s partners.
Gestures for Receiving
Just as each yoga posture affects you psychologically as well as physically, these hand and arm gestures, combined with an inner intention to be receptive, can help you entrain yourself into a receptive mode.
Form a cup with your hands, wrists, thumbs and pinky fingers together, while the other fingers splay open.
Place your cupped hands against your mid-chest, over the heart center, with the sides of the thumbs touching the chest.
Close your eyes, and breathe with the sensation that the breath is bringing energy and light into your body through your cupped hands.
Opening Your Arms to the Sky
(A practice for taking in universal energy)
Standing with feet about shoulder width apart, hold your arms at your sides, about six inches from your body, with palms out. Your elbows are relaxed. With an inhalation, gently let your arms float upwards until they form an wide funnel, fingertips pointing at the sky. The arms are relaxed. Your face tips upward.
Let yourself embrace the space , with the sense that you are opening to and welcoming in the energy of the universe.
Slowly draw your arm, with open palms, down the front of your body, keeping them about a foot from your body. Let your arms relax at your sides.
Repeat two more times.