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.