There is no way to happiness, happiness is the way. - Buddha

 

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Christmas - the Minefield of Giving and Receiving, or should that be Mindfield?

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In various other articles I have banged the drum for a greater emphasis on developing greater compassion for self, greater appreciation of self and meeting our own emotional needs. It feels like it is going against the cultural grain of the teachings of society and religions that tell us that we should focus on others and develop compassion, tolerance and generosity of spirit etc. I will explain why I have adopted this view.
Developing selflessness and service to others requires us to not need anything from those we give to. It starts with us feeding our own hearts, minds, emotions. Many of us regard ourselves as givers to others. It is something we are conditioned to and encouraged to do. It is an essential part of spirituality but the reason is often misunderstood. Some see giving service to others as a way of demonstrating what good people they are or somehow buying their place in heaven. My feeling is that the real reason that we need to develop true selflessness is in order to grasp the concept that there is no self as such. We are all one, literally. We are all connected and part of consciousness. If we give to others we give to all including ourselves.

Now that’s all well and good but most of us live life almost exclusively from the human point of view. If we tried to adopt the spiritual concept of oneness and selflessness in one go we would most likely end struggling with a lot of human resistance over time. Resentment may come up when those we give to don’t react in the way we think they should. Alternatively, if we suppress the resentment because it’s uncomfortable to admit to, we may find our health suffers instead. This is because our human needs and unresolved emotions get in the way. I have seen people struggle with spirituality because they have focussed on aspect of service to others without balancing themselves sufficiently first. When we have healed and found our own peace we can much more easily let go of the self.

This is why I advocate a gradual step by step approach to things. The best way to deal with change and minimise resistance is gradual evolution. Learning how to give to ourselves has a big effect on developing selflessness because we don’t need so much from our interactions with others. I would argue that it is simply not possible to be truly selfless unless one has done a lot of self-healing and is very self-aware. We need to turn inwards before we can look outwards again.

Many of us do not understand our motivations for doing what we do because we do not appreciate the role of mind and ego in our lives. What may seem like selfless giving is actually giving with a hidden self-serving component. It is done in order to get something back. If we do not learn self-love and appreciation and heal our hurts from the past it is inevitable that our giving will have an element of wanting a return. It might be that we need to be thanked or given love or appreciation in return. It might be that our gift has to be used by the recipient in the way we want them to use it otherwise it feels as if our generosity has been abused or not fully appreciated.

There is also the sport of Competitive Giving where we have to give more than the person giving back to us so we don’t feel we can be seen to have spent the least and be labelled a cheapskate. We may give in order to be the best or most generous giver amongst our social group. We can dress all this up as politeness and what is or isn’t the done thing but it’s our minds and egos doing it all and nothing more. We chose to give and the recipient doesn’t have to do anything or be anything in return. If we have any expectations of them then we have given conditionally. It will be largely unconscious i.e. out of our awareness, but true nonetheless. How vain and self-centred is that?

We may vehemently deny it, but unless we are meeting our own needs of love, approval, validation, safety and power and so on we have to get them (or the best approximation of them we can achieve) from somewhere else. Our behaviours will be aligned with feeling better about ourselves, proving we are good people (to ourselves and others), getting love and approval from other people or putting others down with judgements. Unless we learn to validate, love and approve of ourselves and release the pain of past rejections, abandonments and hurts we have to act in ways to suppress or tranquilise these feelings and fill our void inside. This means we have to get from others what we are missing inside or unable to give to ourselves.

These needs may be out of immediate awareness and buried deeply, lost in the mists of time and hidden beneath a layer of apparent selflessness, but there they are nonetheless. True selflessness is rare.
Christmas is fast approaching as I write this; the time of giving. Not to ourselves (we let other do that for us) but to everyone else. A chance to show how selfless we are (if that isn’t a contradictory statement anyway).

When it comes to giving this Christmas, it doesn’t hurt to examine why we are giving (especially when money is tight). It could be argued that giving at Christmas is wildly out of control (so much so that many of our businesses depend on us giving to excess at this time of year in order to survive). Giving to excess at Christmas may also be used to assuage guilt for not having given much for the rest of year.
So why are we giving so much? In fact, why are we giving in the way we do at all? It turns out to be a complex ego minefield for a lot of us. We give because of what we will get in return. We give to keep the peace or avoid something negative such as disapproval or comments from a family member. We give because of our hidden programmes about giving born from the pain of childhood. This means that giving to excess is seen as worthiness or a sign of how good we are. Spending more is seen as a sign of how successful we have been in accumulating wealth. We give to meet the expectations of others and what society says one should give to a wife, husband or child etc. The list goes on and on.

I would like to share an experience with you that may shed some light on what I mean.
As we have grown together my wife and I have become less bothered about accumulating stuff. Some time ago my wife and I agreed one Christmas that buying more shiny things added nothing to our lives. We decided that our gifts to each other would be Oxfam gift donations where we would each decide how the donation from the other would be spent e.g. to build a well or help finance a vaccination programme etc.
We did this and so an appropriate card from the charity was sent to each of us thanking us and acknowledging the gift we had given. At first it felt nice to know that good things had been done with the money.
When it came to me giving my wife the card from Oxfam I found it wholly unsatisfying at one level. Something didn’t feel right. It felt like I hadn’t really given to my wife at all. It wasn’t a shiny thing or book to surprise or delight her.
I pondered on why I felt this way. She was happy with what I had done and I had met her explicit wishes so what was wrong? Why did I feel that my gift to Africa wasn’t giving at all?
Elements of my act of giving were far from selfless and weren’t about giving at all. I realised that my wife being very excited and hugging and thanking me made me feel good and not getting such an excited reaction made me feel “less than” somehow. This was me being insecure and needing to know I was OK and loved (even though I knew I was loved deeply).
I also realised that if the inevitable question was asked “what did you give your wife for Christmas?” I would feel I hadn’t done my bit or been generous enough to prove my love for my wife compared to the chap who gave jewellery to his wife for example. It was about me again. Did I love my wife? Of course, very much. Does she know this? Yes, of course. So what’s the problem? It’s about fitting in with what others think. It’s about being judged. My giving to excess or unnecessary showy gifts is all about me and not selfless giving at all.

The thinking seemed to be “the more I give, the better I am as a person. The more I give the more superior I am because I have given more than others. If I give the right things others will think well of me and accept me (providing I don’t over-do it and show them up by giving her a Ferrari!). Giving shiny things is generous but an Oxfam certificate? That’s not generous is it?
I had given but it hadn’t fulfilled all my attached needs to giving. I needed to feel valid by giving the right things; I needed that reassurance of love and special thanks. I needed to demonstrate to the world that I had done my bit and given the appropriate and acceptable thing. I needed to be safe from reproach from others. The list of things I had attached to giving was huge and a real eye-opener, I can tell you.

There are many other motivations that we can attach to giving without realising it. Having a hard time financially? Should we borrow and create even more debt to give the kids a sack full of toys to show how much we love them or should we live within our means and teach our children a more authentic way of showing love with our time and hearts instead? A sack full of toys could be interpreted by the child as meaning they are especially loved or have been extra good; even the culture of Santa indoctrinates us and by entertaining it we pass our shallowness on to our children who will surely pass it on to theirs.
So, this Christmas, think about giving and why. Is it for you more than the recipient? Is it to avoid being labelled a cheapskate by others or by yourself? Is it to keep someone quiet instead of tackling a deeper issue? Is it simply because you need to get love from someone to fill a hole in you? Do you give to people who don’t need what you give them anyway and will probably end up giving it to a charity shop by Spring?
How many of us would keep giving to someone who didn’t say thank you or seem to appreciate our gifts? Not many. We can justify this reaction as what we expect as politeness or common courtesy but nevertheless, under these terms giving is not selfless but conditional on us or our effort being appreciated in some way no matter how small.

So what would you do if you were completely free to exercise your true desires and free from the constraints of what is regarded as acceptable? Really think about it. Is the giving proportional to your resources or is this an old programme running that will keep going forever until it is stopped by you. Are you giving to excess because giving more means you are a better person? Do children really need 30 toys when 10 would do? They’ll be playing with the box by lunchtime anyway.
Harsh financial times can be wonderful opportunities to save money and find new ways to tell others how we really feel instead. We realise the value of the heart to love instead the wallet’s power to bribe.

Loving ourselves, appreciating who we are (defects, shortcomings and all), and giving time to ourselves, even if it means saying no at times to others means we fill ourselves up with good feelings. Stress comes down, depression lifts, anger subsides, and self-esteem rises. We act with no expectation from others. We need no thanks and love to give us a reward for giving. We get the rosy feelings from giving by simply giving and nothing else. We are in balance with ourselves and so we are in balance with others, too. The more we feel better about ourselves the more can give to others. A gift to ourselves is a gift to the world, too. Without wellbeing, contentment, peace and love inside you what do you have to offer to others anyway?
When we do this it can make receiving a joy no matter what the gift. Thoughts that someone hasn’t spent enough on us or given us what we wanted don’t occur. Instead we can see the gift we have been given for what it is, a gift. We don’t get cross or sullen. Because we are at peace inside we can see the effort that others have gone to for us with no ego need involved. Socks are as valued as an iPad.
Indeed, one finds over time that we want less and less and feel content with less too.
So, true selflessness comes so much more easily when we have a balanced approach to giving (to ourselves and others) when we are as important as anyone else in our lives but no more than anyone else. No deep feelings to override and repress. No resentment when others don’t do what we need them to do in order to fill a void inside us. It’s all gone. We are free and we set others free from our needs too.
It all happens over time by simply turning our attention inwards and developing a proportional, balanced and loving relationship with ourselves.

 

© Phil Grant unless otherwise attributed