Discover how to give gifts and receive them with compassion

written by Nick Parkins

daughter surprising mother with flowers at home in the living room

Credit: 123RF

The simple act of relating to others — in families, with friends or as a fleeting interaction between strangers — can be fraught with needless division, angst, self-doubt and confusion. This problem is often couched in goodwill, particularly in times of celebration when, we are told, it’s more important to give than to receive. In fact, the very act of giving is synonymous with selflessness and considered quintessentially good.

Yet is this assumption necessarily healthy, balanced or correct?

Giving presents is fun and traditional, sure, but did you ever stop to ask: what does it mean to give? Take, for example, my reaction to a door-to-door salesperson. I might see their lips move but I don’t hear the words. My mind’s voiceover suspiciously intercedes like a badly dubbed film, asking, “What are you selling?” Most people don’t feel connected to door-knocking salespeople because they have an agenda behind their smiles.

Seen in this context, giving is a state of separation, says Kim Hutchison, a teacher-healer at livingasyoursoul.com and author of How to Live as Your Soul. And it’s from this state that we’re often encouraged to relate to others. “We ask, ‘Am I giving enough?’ or ‘Am I giving too much?’,” says Hutchison.

This agenda-driven behaviour inevitably takes on a life of its own, as it leads us to ask: “How do I give openly and generously and avoid being taken advantage of?” “Am I giving more to them than they are to me?” As Hutchison says, “It’s I, I, I, me, me, me. Where is the other person in this narrative?”

The greatest gift comes when you’re present; when you receive someone, without condition, for who they are.

The greatest gift comes when you’re present; when you receive someone, without condition, for who they are. It’s in this state of being that you are you true self. It’s in this moment — free from any mental chatter that clouds your judgement of others — that another person can also open up and experience their true self.

“Receiving starts with the willingness to receive another,” says Hutchison. “It’s this that creates the energy of connection. When you are present with yourself, you become more open to receiving another and they become more able and open to receiving you, and then clarity of communication is created.”

According to Hutchison, it’s this moment that creates the energy of intimacy. “When you become intimate with another it’s then that you experience a connection with your own soul, your own power and presence,” she says. “And when you experience that connection, it’s then that you are able to experience connection with another’s soul. What’s being communicated is consciousness, not pre-conditioned behaviour. When we communicate through consciousness, we actually receive another and the receiving cycle continues.”

The energy flow is like lines of force connecting two complementary polarities. What you might call magnetic attraction. When you receive, you are feeling into the other person, your surroundings and yourself. When you give in absence of this, you don’t open up.

The stories we tell

The standoff between “giving” and actively receiving another has not occurred simply by chance. If you’re not open, after all, you can’t get hurt. Publicly you may be on the offensive, but inside you’re on the defence. “What would look good in this situation?” you might ask. “Is what I am about to say acceptable?”

Questions like these are common and can lead to an impasse in personal relationships. Internal dialogue like this is based on an imaginary instance or outcome, about an illusive someone. But, again, it is your assumption, ergo it is all about you. Here, you’re less aware of yourself than you are of what you think others think of you.

These unconscious thoughts are very real, especially when you posture about or tiptoe on eggshells to attract or appease others. The result is that you dump it all — your baggage, issues, everything — on them. And not only does this behaviour tell the other person they hold the power over how you feel, says Hutchison, it’s the main reason the giving myth is intentionally perpetuated.

We’re conditioned to give, continues Hutchison, so nobody receives the other. “Nobody is seen, nobody is heard, felt or understood. There’s no connection, no communication and no chance for healing. There’s no energy exchange whatsoever because we aren’t receiving each other.” No attempt is made to connect with a real someone beyond the fictional character you create for that person — or for yourself — inside your head.

To receive another fully, you must remove your thoughts from the equation. This is easier said than done, especially when your brain is in BS mode. “I’ve noticed that a lot of people will just fill in the blanks of a situation based on their own internal map of reality,” says Clay Andrews, a relationship expert and co-founder of the Modern Love Association. “They’ll create these thoughts that are trained on the past or future and judgements of others or themselves.”

Not only does mental chatter check us out of the moment ... it can objectify someone and value them not as they are but as what we perceive them to be.

Not only does mental chatter check us out of the moment, says Andrews, but it can objectify someone and value them not as they are but as what we perceive them to be. “I might say, ‘She’s being stubborn’ or ‘He’s a typical man’, but this approach destroys the connection because you are no longer interacting with a person as a human being. Instead you are labelling them.”

The mind is scarcely present in this mode; it does not receive. Instead, it projects in others the fabricated sense it unknowingly shares of itself. Too often it’s concerned with thinking about what others think, repeating what others repeat and projecting what others project — and that’s when it’s not too busy thinking up what next to say (trying its damnedest not to forget) before the object of its projections can hope to finish a sentence.

The upshot, according to Kim Hutchison, is that in this moment you aren’t in receipt of yourself or others. Instead, you say things like, “I must give my partner a good time tonight.” When asked, “Well what does your partner want?” you might reply, “That doesn’t matter. I must give him/her the appearance of this and the behaviour of that, and that will keep her/him happy.” This isn’t true or real, says Hutchison, and that’s why, too often, relationships suffer.

This counterfeit mind is too busy giving — or, rather, dealing in —fraudulent goods. Anchored outside of itself, mired in its own stories, it rarely sees beyond how others perceive it. We’re all conditioned this way; we divide our sense of self and connection from others. Yet we get lost in this world of thoughts chasing rainbows, encouraged to compete with and fear all comers (when not escaping into the blessed peace of virtual worlds).

Why seek to turn into your own mind rather than open it to others? Is this how a mind that thirsts for connection reacts to fear and non-nurturing indifference? And, if you try to shut it down, what happens when you disconnect from your own intrinsic value? How can you recognise, accept or hope to receive the intrinsic value in others? It’s as if the unconscious mind asks and answers itself without consent, “If I’m not being me and you aren’t being you, and no one is real, what is the point in receiving?”

How to receive

It wasn’t always this way. When a baby arrives into the world it’s completely fine, says Hutchison. “It’s only when a baby grows up and has psychological experiences that affect its psyche that it requires healing.” She says these issues often stem from harsh social conditioning when we are taught to shut out our feelings. “Once you open up and accept these feelings, you can get to the inherent gifts of love and healing that lie beneath.”

Similarly, animals offer a window onto a world of innate connection. According to distinguished veterinary behaviourist and author Vint Virga, humans are drawn to animals because they are tuned to receive us without judgement, and we them without fear of rejection. “We sense their regard for our thoughts and our feelings and we respond in kind without reserve,” says Virga. “If we choose to, we can do so with each other.”

I can certainly imagine myself in the shoes of another, but is it enough to ask, “How might this person feel, react or think?”

According to Hutchison, you wouldn’t bring yourself into it at all. “That’s another misunderstanding. It’s what people often mistake for empathy. Stuff all that nonsense; it takes us right off track. It’s about compassion and, to have compassion for someone, you need to be able to understand and accept them; you need to be open to receive them.

“When you’re actually focused on listening to what someone is saying, you become unconsciously aware of the energy behind what they are saying.”

“It may be their experience in some way equates to your own but, if that is the only way to genuinely connect with someone, there would be a very limited number of people you could feel compassion for, right?” If that was the case, Hutchison continues, you could only feel compassion for somebody with whom you had common shared experiences, and clearly that’s not true.

The trick is to listen, Hutchison shares. Only then can you feel beyond the content to connect with the context of what someone is saying. “That includes energy because, when you’re actually focused on listening to what someone is saying, you become unconsciously aware of the energy behind what they are saying. A person might say to you that they feel perfectly fine after the death of a friend, but as you really listen to them you can see, feel, sense or know that actually they’re not.”

The tendency, of course, is to over-think how you are being, whether you’re doing it correctly. Yet the most important thing is your willingness to receive. “If [receiving] is your intention, and you set an openness and a willingness to receive, that automatically changes everything,” says Hutchison. “Because, apart from anything else, you stop talking and start really listening — and how many of us actually really listen?”

Animal instincts

Language — and consequently our thoughts — gains most traction in the outside world. Language generalises, objectifies and gives meaning to concepts and things. However, attempts to objectify subjective experience in such a way can lead to a feeling of disconnectedness from oneself and others.

“Animals live in far greater awareness because they don’t depend on verbal language,” says Vint Virga, author of The Soul of All Living Creatures. “An animal’s survival fundamentally depends upon it being more aware of itself and its surroundings. Animals use complex communication systems that we don’t understand at all, yet it’s more experiential. Language is more about thought and cognition, which takes us out of the experience.”

According to Virga, this is where the difference between thinking and knowing lies. We think we know animals, that we can project what we know of ourselves onto animals, and yet we are strangers to ourselves. We ask, do animals feel pain, grief or happiness like we do? When, in fact, what we are doing is translating an animal’s sense of being into our own experience, because that’s all we know.

“We can’t just say, ‘like we do’,” says Virga. “We have no concept of what animals see or feel because it is different from our human experience and, frankly, I feel that is our stumbling block as human beings. We too readily try to translate things into our own experiences and, by doing so, we miss the opportunity of opening up to the possibility that there is so much more that we could experience if we started being a little more receptive.”


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Nick Parkins

Nick Parkins holds a Masters in Philosophy of Mind and likes to live outside the box