Filed in Theravada, Generosity

The Power of Receiving

Q & A with Judy Lief

Part of Summer 2003's Special Section on Dana: The Practice of Giving.


When I am given something, I sometimes feel indebtedness, which makes me uncomfortable. What is this discomfort in receiving? Is there a way to receive with grace and generosity?

The practice of true generosity is rare; it is an exchange in which both giver and receiver are enriched. In the Tibetan tradition, the custom of exchanging ceremonial scarves, or khatas, perfectly evokes this spirit of giving and receiving freely. When you offer a scarf to someone, it is received with grace and immediately offered back to you, completing the circle. Today, however, the culture of giving and receiving is often burdened by a complex mix of social obligations and expectations.

To cultivate a practice of graceful giving and receiving, you can begin by examining the patterns and assumptions you bring to the exchange and by becoming more aware of what inhibits your ability to give and receive freely. The next time someone gives you something, pay attention to the memories and associations that arise in your mind. For instance, in the past, you may have experienced receiving as a surrender of power to the giver. As a child, most likely you were taught that it is better to give than to receive; giving is considered to be a virtue, but receiving is seldom regarded as such; rather, it is viewed warily as a potential path toward vanity. In contrast, you may also have been taught to be suspicious of people who offer you gifts, as in the proscription against accepting candy from strangers.

Next, it’s important to work through the expectations and assumptions that such past associations engender. When you give, pay attention to the expectations you place on the gift and on the recipient’s response, and gently let them go. Gift giving can be a way of seeking love and approval. There is tenderness and vulnerability in the moment of offering a gift, and an attempt to communicate one’s intimacy and connection with another person.

For the recipient, there is similarly a kind of vulnerability in accepting a gift from a loved one. If you are disappointed—or even insulted—by the gift, or if you sense that the giver is not really in tune with who you are, how do you respond in a way that is not hurtful? Some people are close enough to each other to see the humor in this vulnerability, so that even failed gifts become occasions for deepening the bonds of affection. However, often people expect their gift to be a success, and if it is not, they take offense. Receiving a gift in that atmosphere puts pressure on the recipient. Not being appropriately enthusiastic could imply a rejection of that person and your relationship. It can also sometimes be tempting to use the act of giving to develop power or influence over the recipient. When you are given a gift, although you may have opinions as to the motivation of the giver, try to accept whatever is given to you simply and directly, with dignity.

Receiving is a powerful—and intimate—practice, for we are actually inviting another person into ourselves. Rather than focusing on our own practice, or on our own virtue, we can focus on providing an opportunity for someone else to develop generosity. In spite of its complexities and entanglements, the moment of exchange is one of simple connection and opening. That moment itself is unsullied. For that reason it is said that generosity is the discipline that produces peace.

Judy Lief is a student of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpocher and an acharya, or senior teacher, in the Shambhala Buddhist tradition. She is the author of Making Friends with Death: A Buddhist Guide to Encountering Mortality.

Share with a Friend

Email to a Friend

Already a member? Log in to share this content.

You must be a Tricycle Community member to use this feature.

1. Join as a Basic Member

Signing up to Tricycle newsletters will enroll you as a free Tricycle Basic Member.You can opt out of our emails at any time from your account screen.

2. Enter Your Message Details

Enter multiple email addresses on separate lines or separate them with commas.
CAPTCHA
This question is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.
robbenwainer@verizon.net's picture

When my father passed away he left me a trust fund which helps me to just squeeze by, and while I am indebted to his generous gift often times I feel it was conditional. Almost his way of saying I had achieved too much already to make him proud, so now it is time to be less proactive and an under achiever. The monthly sum always comes at the right time, but I can't help thinking this allowance was a little bit of a bribe or blackmail to remain an under earner.

jackelope65's picture

As my parents grew older they had less income with which to give gifts. I knew that they had to shop wisely and could not offer as much. However, they had worked very hard all of their lives and they not only enjoyed the smiles from their grandchildren, but a sense of belonging to family and the Christian work ethic which they inherited.

deannies's picture

This is beautifully written. For some, acceptance of a gift is very difficult. One of the complications is if you don't like the gift, can you get rid of it without feeling badly? In the extreme: Some hoarders can never get rid of anything given to them. For others, we are made to feel like there is a "catch" attached to the gift.
I find as I age, the feelings behind the gift are the true gift to me, not the actual item. Just as one gratefully receives good advice, one can gratefully accept a gift and then move forward gracefully. Thank you again.

boiester's picture

So very true, and insightful. Thank you for posting this. For me it is "Perhaps the most overrated virtue in our list of shoddy virtues is that of giving. Giving builds up the ego of the giver, makes him superior and higher and larger than the receiver...It is so easy to give, so exquisitely rewarding. Receiving, on the other hand, if it is well-done, requires a fine balance of self-knowledge and kindness. It requires humility and tact and great understanding of relationships. In receiving, you cannot appear, even to yourself, better or stronger or wiser than the giver, although you must be wiser to do it well. It requires self-esteem to receive--not self-love but just a pleasant acquaintance and liking for oneself."

zootramp's picture

As I read this I was brought to mind of another thoughtful piece about receiving written by John Steinbeck in a eulogy to his close friend Ed Ricketts:

"I have tried to isolate and inspect the great talent that was in Ed Ricketts, that made him so loved and needed and makes him so missed now that he is dead. Certainly he was an interesting and charming man, but there was some other quality that far exceeded these. I have thought that it might be his ability to receive, to receive anything from anyone, to receive gracefully and thankfully, and to make the gift seem very fine. Because of this everyone felt good in giving to Ed--a present, a thought, anything.

Perhaps the most overrated virtue in our list of shoddy virtues is that of giving. Giving builds up the ego of the giver, makes him superior and higher and larger than the receiver...It is so easy to give, so exquisitely rewarding. Receiving, on the other hand, if it is well-done, requires a fine balance of self-knowledge and kindness. It requires humility and tact and great understanding of relationships. In receiving, you cannot appear, even to yourself, better or stronger or wiser than the giver, although you must be wiser to do it well. It requires self-esteem to receive--not self-love but just a pleasant acquaintance and liking for oneself."

John Steinbeck, The Log from the Sea of Cortez, Appendix, ""About Ed Ricketts"", Penguin Books, 1951, pp. 272-3