Giving and Receiving

“We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.”
Winston Churchill
Your first act as a human being was to breathe in air. Your second act was to breathe out. Your third act was to breathe in again. Inhaling is receiving air and exhaling is giving it back. Once the cycle has started, it never again flows just one way. To breathe in, we must breathe out. To receive, we must be willing to give.

As babies, our inclination is to take. After breathing, our next most natural act is to suck. We take from mother, but we are not just taking milk; we are giving back connectedness, meaning, and  love. The relationship is reciprocal. We receive sustenance and care, but mother in giving those things receives gratifying emotions she could not otherwise know.  At least that is the way the exchange works if nothing interferes.

Initially, our giving back to mother is unintentional. It just happens in the course of unfolding the relationship. Later, giving and receiving becomes a game. The baby gives away a thing, perhaps by throwing it on the floor, and the big person gives it back. The baby gives it away again and it comes back again.

Sometimes, this game gets twisted. The lesson learned is that other people are in the world to satisfy our needs and that our desires must be satisfied. That’s a normal understanding for a child at a certain stage, but we must proceed past that understanding. We must learn that we are not the center of the universe and that others have needs and feelings like we do.

If we continue to experience the rest of the world only as a means to gratify our desires, we generate suffering for ourselves and for others. Here again, giving and receiving are reciprocal. If we give suffering, we can bet we will get back suffering.

When we are young, we are naturally more inclined to receive. As we develop, we learn the importance of giving. As we develop spiritually, we must come to understand that it is only through giving that we gain. The more ego bound we are the more we need to fill up our emptiness with goodies. When we learn to see others as equal to ourselves, we drop the craving. We learn that giving, acts of compassion, allow us to chip away at the negative ego that generates so much suffering. Reducing the suffering of others gives meaning. Compassion is an essential  step on the path to enlightenment.

Meditate on the breath as an act of receiving and giving.

Give away small things as a practice of releasing attachment.

Observe your relationship with gift giving and receiving. Notice when attachment and aversion are activated in the process of giving and receiving.

Practice tithing as an engagement in the universal flow. Give to charity with the understanding that you have lost nothing through your generous act, and that in fact, just as you must exhale in order to inhale, you must be willing to give in order to receive.

Cultivate the practice of giving without attachment to the expectation of getting anything back.

Practice Tonglen, a meditation of giving and receiving.

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© 2008 Tom Barrett