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Open Hands, Open Heart:
The Art of Receiving

During a visit to Paris, my mother bought me a gift and dropped it in the mail. I didn’t receive it very well. I tore away the brown paper packaging and, at the first sign of pink, let the package fall to the floor. She had sent me a gray cotton scarf with pink flowers. Pink.

When I told my friend Anna about the scarf, she squinted and curled her lips.  “Doesn’t she know you don’t wear pink?”

Anna is a 70-year-old painter from Switzerland, tall and long-fingered, practical and willowy. She usually dresses in black and white, or the occasional beige. I met her only a year ago, but she seemed to know something about me that my mother didn’t.

In her gray, granite kitchen, waiting for tea water to boil, we discussed possible responses to the scarf, including: accepting it with false appreciation, accepting it but not speaking much about it, or returning it so my mother might learn my taste. As we spoke, I felt, in turn, disappointment, indignation, anger, loneliness.

Anna sympathized. “I’m a terrible receiver,” she said, passing me a bowl of organic cacao beans. “The chances that someone’s going to give me something I want or need are just too slim, and I don’t like feeling trapped between the obligatory ‘Thank you’ and the instinctive “Take it back!’ So, I just told people to stop giving me things, even on holidays.”

I carried the bowl onto the sun-warmed patio, and placed it on her picnic table—white aluminum covered with an old kilim rug that provided a red-and-brown backdrop to a plate of home-made frosted sugar cookies, a bowl of Turkish candy, nut bread, and oversized cream-colored porcelain tea cups. All the cups and bowls were hand-thrown; everything was created with care and style. Anna followed me out and stared at the table, wondering where to place the teapot in the crowd of offerings. “I might be a terrible receiver, but I’m a pretty good giver!” she said, putting voice to my thoughts.

Giving and receiving are fundamental aspects of experience, connecting all life together in an interdependent whole. Just as many of us long to experience moments of pure altruism, where we offer our heart with no strings attached, we also long to receive deeply and freely, fully experiencing what it means to be given to – touched, nourished, and even transformed by life.

Unfortunately, such moments are rare in our ‘quid-pro-quo’ world where ‘there is no such thing as a free lunch.’ But we all need help at times, whether it comes in the form of love, care, physical or financial assistance. Being part of a community in which we can give and receive free of stigma, guilt, and power dynamics is key to an enriching and balanced life. Recognizing the distinction between receiving and taking is also important, especially now during a financial crisis caused in large part by greed, driving people to take too much for too long, and when the same kind of rapaciousness has wreaked havoc on our ecosystem.

Receiving isn’t easy. If it was, more of us would do it with grace and gratitude. Is there a way to change that? Can we learn to receive so we can be nourished and empowered by others and by life? These are crucial questions, not just because the holiday season is a time when giving and receiving are part of our daily experience. The ability to receive is, in fact, essential to physical health, psychological balance, and spiritual engagement. Before we can enhance our receptivity, though, it is helpful to first take a look at the reasons we fail to receive.

Giving is Better so Why Bother?

In the Sutta Nipata, the Buddha says: “Happiness never decreases by being shared.” The Koran (3:92) declares: “Whatever you give to charity, God is fully aware thereof.” And the New Testament (Acts 20:35) makes clear: “It’s better to give than to receive.” The extolling of giving has become conventional wisdom and a moral touchstone around the world. No wonder we do not value receiving. Who wants to embrace the lesser part?

Even science seems to bear out this lesson. Jordon Grafman, a senior investigator at The National Institutes of Health in Washington, D.C., led a team that monitored the brain activity of volunteers while they played computer games in which they could win cash rewards as well as donate their winnings to charity. Both receiving money and giving it away increased levels of dopamine, a hormone related to feeling good. But giving away money caused more activity, and also released oxytocin, another ‘feel good’ hormone associated with emotional closeness. The pre-frontal cortex, an area involved in moral reasoning, was also activated when giving included a sacrifice of one’s own resources. The study led Grafman to conclude, “It definitely seems like you’re going to get more pleasure, if these brain activations can be any guide, when you’re giving than when you’re simply receiving.”

The study suggests that giving is hardwired into our brains, making us feel good about doing good. But does that mean it’s really better than receiving? After all, cash rewards in a computer game can’t replicate the most meaningful experiences of receiving, when we receive love or life-changing opportunities, for example. Working for money “might not be the same as love, care, or touch,” Grafman concedes in an email to me. “But those are hard to control for in the laboratory.”

It might be more fruitful, then, to examine receiving in its natural habitat: daily life.

How many people have been invited to dinner by new acquaintances and don’t feel they have to return the invitation in a timely manner, whether they really want to or not? In a ‘you scratch my back; I’ll scratch yours’ society, saying yes to a gift or a gesture more often than not means saying yes to a variety of unspoken obligations, not the least of which is to respond in kind. Social theorists call this particular requirement reciprocity.

In his classic 1954 study of reciprocal exchange, The Gift, anthropologist Marcel Mauss examined ancient gift economies and concluded that there really was no such thing as a free gift. He attributed an almost “spiritual” significance to the connection between giver and receiver. “One has no right to refuse a gift,” he wrote. “To act in this way is to show that one is afraid of having to reciprocate.”

Mauss studied ancient cultures in Melanesia, Polynesia and North America, but many modern social theories about giving and receiving align with his early conclusions. While a few hold that the free gift and altruistic giving do exist, evidence like that uncovered by Grafman and his team could show instead that altruism always includes something for the giver, too.

Aafke Komter, a sociologist from the Netherlands, describes gift-giving as “layered” and “complex,” with many different roles in maintaining social ties and relationships. In her Social Solidarity and the Gift, she distinguishes reciprocation as one of several motives for gift giving, only one of which – to express positive feelings – is likely to appeal to a receiver. Other motivations include: to maintain power and prestige, to establish security, to promote self-interest, and to express one’s hostility. “Without reciprocity,” she writes via email, “relationships cannot be maintained.”

Ying, 38, a graphic designer who came from Beijing to Minnesota as a graduate student in the 1993, knows what it means to live in a culture that accentuates reciprocity. “In China, all gifts and invitations are expected to be returned with more gifts and invitations,” she says. The philosophy and practice of reciprocity is so deep that, “To Chinese, reciprocity is the basic rule of being a person,” explains Stella Ting-Toomey and Ge Gao in Communicating Effectively with the Chinese. Ting-Toomey and Ge Gao, who study intercultural communication, explain that Chinese culture includes a “Paramount need to repay one’s gratitude.” Reciprocity is such a strong force, that one saying goes, ‘You honor me a foot; I honor you ten feet.’

One role of reciprocity is to maintain harmony and humbleness, says Ming: “Nobody wants to stand out in China. Being modest is very, very important.” When it comes to receiving gifts or compliments, “Modesty requires that you do not receive something outright,” she says. “Most times, like with a gift or food, you have to refuse it over and over before finally accepting.”

The Price of Receiving

Many of us instinctively resist receiving because we sense the power dynamics involved, which reduce the receiver to the weaker position. We all know how it feels when someone gives us advice for “our sake,” and we know it is really to establish his or her own wisdom. We don’t receive the advice, because we don’t want to confirm our inferiority. Harvard professor Ellen J. Langer puts such power dynamics to good use: “Receiving empowers the giver,” she acknowledges. “That’s why I advise parents to let their kids buy them gifts. When they receive them, it can make the children feel confident and good about themselves.”

Such dynamics might be acceptable in relationships of love and trust, as between parents and children, but they can make us uneasy in other contexts. A friend of mine, Jennifer Crenshaw, worked at an advertising firm in California for five years before she was laid off. She chose not to receive unemployment because of the stigma of having to take government assistance. She had grown up in an upper middle class family in New England with strong Puritan roots. For her, as for anyone influenced by Puritan values, needing help carried the hidden implication that she hadn’t worked hard enough. “Being on unemployment just made me feel like I had failed as an adult,” she remembers. “I felt ashamed at needing help.”

While shame at receiving government assistance might be less prevalent in European countries, where the social welfare system is generally accepted as every citizen’s right, the stigma attached to needing help is often a major stumbling block to accepting what’s given and putting it to good use. This is true in Western cultures, especially in the U.S., which so highly values achievement and earning that when we are actually given something unexpected or unearned we feel guilty.

Guilt is one way our conscience responds to situations in which we feel we don’t deserve the good things that come to us. “Sudden wealth syndrome” is the name attributed to a group of symptoms – including guilt, anxiety, sleep disorders, and fear of losing control – that can disturb those who win the lottery, inherit wealth, or bring in huge rewards from financial investment. “People who inherit large sums of money often feel a disparity between who they are and what they are being given,” says Stephen Goldbart, co-founder of the Money, Meaning, and Choices Institute in California, which addresses the psychological opportunities and challenges that come with great wealth. “Guilt is a way to address the emotional impact of this gap.”

Where does the guilt come from? “In the U.S, but also in tribal cultures, we have a basic belief system that we work for what we are given,” Goldbart explains. “If we are suddenly given to, without work involved or the appropriate degree of work, then our sense of self, our values, and our world view – including our ideas about fairness – are threatened.” In these situations, Goldbart suggests it is helpful have a “flexible sense of self, and a flexible world view. You’re just not going to be the same person afterwards.”
In order to receive, we might need to leave behind the safety net of a ‘work equals reward’ mentality. But this requires acknowledging the existence of forces beyond our control, and also allowing for the possibility that we never had to deserve what we’ve ‘earned’ in the first place. And if there is no deserving, then it means that some things, at least, are simply free.

Another reason behind our resistance to receiving comes from our fear that when we receive, we limit what goes to others. “One of the biggest reasons we don’t receive well is that we think receiving is going to take something away from someone else,” says Sobonfu Some, a teacher from the Dagara tribe in the Burkina Faso region of West Africa. “So we feel guilty accepting what we are given.”
Some, whose first name means ‘keeper of the ritual,’ left her Dagara tribe to bring the spiritual teachings of her people to the West. Based in Sacramento, California, she writes books and leads workshops around the world. She explains that among the Dagara, life is infused with spirit. When we receive deeply we are receiving not just from an individual but from spirit itself. And when we receive from spirit, “We receive from an abundant source that can offer whatever we need.”

“There is always enough for everybody,” Some says, “Everything from spirit is free. There is no price in receiving. We don’t need to earn what we’re given. We just need to turn towards spirit with an attitude of service. So, we can feel grateful, but there is no reason to feel guilty.”

Giving up Control

Receiving may be difficult, and loaded with potential conflicts, but if we don’t learn how to do it we’re going to miss out on a lot. According to Laura Doyle, without receiving we can’t really feel close to others.

Doyle is author of the New York Times bestseller The Surrendered Wife: A Step by Step Guide to Finding Intimacy Passion, and Peace with your Man, which discusses the benefits of accepting what one’s partner gives. “Receiving is very much about intimacy,” she explains. “When we receive a gift, help or compliment, we feel a connection to the giver, and they feel connected to us.” Doyle herself felt distant from her husband before adopting the practice of holding back criticism and accepting what her husband offers, including sex.

Feminists balk at Doyle’s strategy for closeness, seeing it as the same old sacrifice of women’s personal power for matrimonial harmony. But in talking to Doyle, I don’t get the feeling she’s advocating powerlessness. Rather, she’s encouraging an experiment in openness. When I ask her if it’s important to always say yes to sexual advances, she responds: “You are always in charge of your own body, and it is always okay for you to say no ... But for greatest intimacy, consider making it your habit to always say yes.”

Doyle recognizes that reacting defensively to what is offered is often part of an isolating control dynamic that serves no one. “Receiving isn’t easy because it means we’ve given up control,” she says. “But the more you’re willing to make yourself vulnerable, which happens automatically when you’re receiving and giving up that degree of control, the closer you’re both going to feel.”

Some agrees: “To bring our intimacy into a healthy level, it is important to surrender our armor and our feeling that ‘I can do it all!’ and acknowledge our needs. Then we can open to receiving.” But she emphasizes her belief that it is the spirit alive within a relationship, not the other person, from which we truly receive. “There is a spiritual dimension to every relationship, whether to a husband, a community, or the land,” she says. “When we acknowledge this, it makes giving and receiving easier. We don’t think ‘I have to receive from him!’ Instead, we are receiving from spirit!”

Whereas most social scientists focus on the empowerment of the giver in relationships, Doyle speaks to the more hidden power of receiving: “I think it’s true that there is empowerment in saying no to the things that don’t fit for you. But there is also such empowerment in saying yes, even if you’re not totally comfortable with the gift.” And what of you still don’t feel like receiving? “I recommend ‘fake-it-‘till-you-make-it,’” she says. “Take the action of receiving the gift even if you’re not so sure about it. You may not know it, but you’re on your way to being that woman who feels like she deserves good things. And that’s someone we’d all like to be.”

Some adds an important dimension to the purpose of receiving: It empowers our contribution to the world. “Receiving heals us individually, and the gifts of that relationship can then be offered back to the community,” she explains. “We have to understand that receiving is a medicine designed to heal and strengthen us. Being seen, loved, and appreciated are just a few of the gifts that one can receive in relationships.”
Harvard’s Langer also puts power back in the hands of the receiver. “The receiver is not at the giver’s mercy,” she says. The receiver, she argues, is always free to interpret or re-interpret any giving/receiving situation: “We can either get stuck in limiting patterns of the past, or be open to new ways of thinking and framing experience.”

When I told Langer about the scarf my mother sent to me, her response was as gravelly as her voice: “Time to grow up! Alternative explanations are always possible. If you look for them, you can find almost anything. One step deeper than,  ‘She is trying to control me by making me wear pink’ is to think, ‘She wants me to be happy.’ She hopes wearing pink will help you feel good!”

Accepting the Gifts of Life

When I was 17, I flew into New York City for the first time and fell for an old con trick, giving away my last $20 to a man pretending to be a cab driver. Standing on the airport sidewalk at night, others coming and going with the security of purpose, I felt terrified and alone. Out of the dark, a cabbie named “Elephant,” pale and bearded wearing an old herringbone suit coat, approached me with an offer to drive me home for free. Feeling the deep and essentially affirming gratitude that came with this gift taught me an important lesson: We have the power to impact each other through kindness. Receiving his help altered forever how I understood and felt about community, society, and our responsibilities to help each other.

It took Alison, a marketing manager at a publishing company in San Francisco, a bout with breast cancer to overcome some of the discomfort of asking for and receiving help, and then to learn how to give. “When I was diagnosed with cancer,” she says, “I did not have a husband or family to help me. So I had to ask for help from my friends to get through surgery and treatment. I couldn’t even lift my arm to get salt from the cupboard. I had never had to ask for help from people at this level before and it was very uncomfortable. It was something about the attention being on me and also about the fear of being disappointed. By not asking, there was no risk of disappointment. This experience made me think about all the times I had not helped my friends, thinking they would ask for help if they really needed it. But the truth is, it is very hard to ask and receive. And I learned that we have to look out for each other.”

Miriam Greenspan, a psychotherapist and author of Healing Through the Dark Emotions: The Wisdom of Grief, Fear, and Despair, believes that receiving is necessary for an enriching life, even when what we receive is painful. “Life is a gift we receive each day,” she says. “But the gift can be terrifying when we don’t get what we want or want what we get, when there is disappointment and even catastrophe. So we close down. And when we’re closed, it’s as though we are asleep to the gift of life.”

Greenspan understands the transformative potential of being open to difficult experiences. She was born in a displaced person’s camp in Germany, where she lived for four years, just after the Holocaust. Her first child was born with a brain injury and died after 66 days. Her third child was born with complex physical and cognitive disabilities. Greenspan’s work focuses on the transformation that takes place when we receive what we are given, and discover the possibilities hidden within and beyond the pain: “The gift in grieving for our losses, for example, is deep gratitude. From fully experiencing despair we go on a journey for new meaning, and find a more resilient faith in life. When we befriend our fear, we discover the joy of living fully.”

Psychological health depends on receiving, and so does physical health, according to Mary Saunders, who has been a practitioner of Chinese medicine for over 20 years. Saunders founded the low-cost Community Acupuncture Clinic in Boulder, Colorado, where her clients include executives, athletes, housewives, and students. “Chinese medicine is about relationship,” Saunders explains. “And the most fundamental relationship is between heaven, earth, and man. Heaven has to do with the masculine qualities of giving, expressing, and achieving. Earth has to do with the feminine qualities of receiving, waiting, and silence. Man has a responsibility to keep heaven and earth in balance.”

Most of Saunders’s clients are people who have lived way too long with an imbalance. Myriad disorders result – including headaches, back, neck, and shoulder pain, exhaustion, allergies, anxiety, severe menstrual cramps, digestive problems. “Health and creativity require equal measures of both giving and receiving,” Saunders says. “How can we really give to life if we haven’t received from life? Giving without receiving, doing without re-generating, is like burning the candle at both ends.”

According to Saunders, we receive during the evening, after the stimulating and draining workday is over. At night, she suggests, we “should rest, listen to our families, take a quiet walk in nature. But instead, we fit in a trip to the gym or our volunteer work.” Seasonally, during fall and winter – times of hibernation – we need to honor and value our receptivity, she says: “We dial down the activity a notch, spend more time indoors, by a fire, cooking, talking.”

But these times of seeming inaction, when nothing appears to be happening, terrify many who are focused on outer indications of success and achievement. At the core of our resistance to receiving, Saunders believes, is our terror of the unknown: “In our culture, we have no relationship with not-knowing. But not-knowing is the essence of receiving.”

During this quiet and inward holiday season, when many of us are engaged so deeply in giving, can we redeem receiving from its murky psychological associations with weakness and neediness? Can we offer it a more enriching place in our lives and help bring balance back into our world? Where do we start? With not knowing, as Saunders suggests. Or, as Harvard’s Langer puts it: “We can’t receive if we think we know everything!”

It makes sense. So I put away my preconceptions and actually tried on the scarf my mother gave me. I was surprised to see that it looked good. “Hmm,” Langer said when I told her, “Maybe your mother knows something about you and pink!”