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 in some way to 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 all right in the end, of course, but not without some superhuman effort on the part of gods and titans.