“When one is out of touch with oneself, one cannot touch others.”
— Anne Morrow Lindbergh
“I am good when I give to others. It’s better to give than to receive.” Myth or magic?
Although many of us have grown up believing that it is our solemn duty to give, give, and keep on giving to others, that is only half-truth—a myth that prevents us from living joyfully and giving fully. Instead, consider what the world’s great sages say: You have a duty to give to others and to give to yourself. When you are in need, you must also receive. This advice sounds obvious, but how many of us are even near the top of our own copious to-do lists?
The principles of giving and receiving that apply to our daily lives are no different than the principles that operate in nature all around us. “A field that has rested gives a bountiful crop,” said the Roman poet Ovid. The earth must receive enough sunshine, water, and nutrients before it can produce a bountiful harvest from the seeds we plant. After the earth has given birth to the harvest, it must then rest and restore its life force so it can give again. The same is true of your life. How can you give to others if you don’t first nourish and fill yourself?
In a way that you might not have considered before, that question is embedded right inside the first principle we are taught as children—the golden rule. The golden rule is found throughout the world’s traditions. The Mahabharata, the ancient epic of India, says, “Do naught unto others, which would cause you pain if done to you.” Islam affirms that a true believer “desires for his brother that which he desires for himself,” and Christianity teaches, “Love thy neighbour as thyself.” Yet, if we are to love and treat others as [that is, in the same way that] we love and treat ourselves, how does that leave them if we treat ourselves with anything less than love and affection? Put another way, we can’t really honor others if we don’t first honor ourselves.
Myth: It is always my duty to give to others.
Magic: It is my duty to give to myself as well as to others. By giving to myself, I am giving to others.
Here, then, we meet the first paradox of the inner art of giving and receiving—we are able to care for and love others best when we care for and love ourselves first. Like all true paradoxes, the two seeming opposites are not mutually exclusive but mutually inclusive.
There is a season for both giving and receiving. Ecclesiastes, known as “the Teacher,” tells us [in the words made popular in the song by Pete Seeger]: “To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;… A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing.” Our job is to recognize which season we are living in at the moment and honor its call.
Learning to give to yourself
Some of us are awesome givers but not very good receivers. We don’t ask for support. We don’t admit to others or to ourselves that we need any. We don’t even like to accept compliments. We reside on one side of the paradox [“I have a duty to give to others”], but we have forgotten about its complement [“I have a duty to give to myself”]. When that happens, the universe will step in to wake us up, to create balance, and to show us that we must honor ourselves too.
No matter who we are, life automatically apprentices us to the art of giving and receiving, and our lessons often begin with what we can see and touch—our bodies. They start with the questions: Do you love yourself enough to honor your body’s needs? Do you give yourself the nourishment, rest, and recreation you deserve?
If you don’t willingly give that to yourself, your body will eventually make sure you get it. I saw this happen to an acquaintance I would spend time with a few times a year at business meetings. At one meeting, I asked how she was feeling, knowing that she had been recovering from a recent surgery. “I’m good, but busy again,” she said with a frown. “If I don’t get some time off soon, I’m going to have to schedule another visit to the hospital!” My heart skipped a beat as I realized that she might very well fulfil her own prophecy. She hadn’t learned the lesson her body had tried to teach her the first time.
I’m no stranger to these lessons myself. When I was recuperating from my own unexpected trip to the hospital, a friend, who was a nurse, insisted on dropping by a few times a day to make sure I had everything I needed. She could see I was having a hard time sitting still and accepting the fact that I should rest, so she appointed herself my guardian angel for the week. I kept telling her that I felt fine and there was no reason I couldn’t get up. Besides, there were so many things I needed to attend to. She didn’t buy it. Looking me straight in the eye, she said, “Your job now is to sit still and relax.”
If we want to get in touch with our inner potential, we must also care for our bodies
She went on to tell me that she was just passing on a lesson she had learned when she had gotten sick. Like me, she had wanted to bolt from her bed and get going. A mentor of hers, catching her out of bed, sent her right back under the covers. “It’s where you belong,” she had told her. “You’ve been a nurse for so long that you think you should always be giving to others. Now you have to learn to receive.” I could identify with that. I suspected that my tendency to work so hard for so long was partly what put me into the hospital in the first place. After my friend left, I sat back, closed my eyes, and promptly fell asleep. She was right. My body wasn’t quite ready to start giving again.
Although we have been taught to think that spirituality encourages us to turn our attention away from the body and the material world to what is “otherworldly,” there’s a misconception wrapped up in that logic—a misconception that the world’s great teachers have warned us to watch out for. They tell us that if we want to get in touch with our inner potential, we must also care for our bodies.
Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, for example, said, “Strengthen your body before you strengthen your soul.” More than two thousand years earlier, this same realization prompted the founder of Buddhism to develop one of the keystones of his philosophy—the Middle Way. Siddhartha Gautama, an Indian prince, left his wife and young child looking for something more than riches and material pleasure. For six years he was an ascetic, believing that the practice of intense austerities would lead him to his goal of becoming enlightened. Depriving himself of the nourishment he needed, he became so weak that one day he almost died of starvation.
Fortunately, a young girl found Gautama and offered him a bowl of nourishing rice milk. Realizing that his sacrifices and severe practices had not brought him closer to enlightenment, he gratefully ate the meal. Strengthened, he vowed to meditate under a tree until he attained enlightenment. Gautama faced many temptations during the ordeal but, with his strength intact, he succeeded at last in achieving his goal. After his awakening, the first thing he taught was that only when we walk the Middle Way—can we attain enlightenment, indeed any deeply held goal.
That universal principle of the balanced Middle Way applies as much to us today as it did to those who first heard it from the Buddha’s lips. We, too, must examine whether our extreme sacrifices and the habits we think are making us “good” are actually bringing us closer to the fulfilment and meaning we seek in life. Do you sacrifice the needs of your body because you have adopted the myth that “my one and only duty is to give to others”? Do you ignore the warning signs and messengers who are trying to get you back into balance? Do you think of your body as something you must love?
Nora, a biochemistry researcher, found that changing how she looked at her body changed her life. For years, Nora had struggled with all kinds of diets and regimes without any success. When she had a serious health scare, she told herself that this was the last straw. She had to get into shape. It was now or never.
Fast forward three months. That’s when I met a new Nora, with a triumphant smile on her face. She had astounded herself and her friends by losing more weight than she had ever thought possible in so short a time. “I tend to be in my head a lot,” she admitted, “and so I never took much time to pay attention to my body. Once I started doing what was good for me physically, I saw that it wasn’t about losing weight but about loving my body. That made all the difference. Being careful about what I feed myself isn’t hard when I think about it like that.”
The first step to bringing your life back into balance is to be able to recognize when you are out of balance
You don’t have to be overweight to identify with Nora. With the hectic pace of our lives, when something has to give it’s often our bodies that get the short end of the stick, whether that’s reflected in the meals we skip, the fast foods we gobble down on the run, the excessive stimulants we drink, or the exercise we never quite fit in. The problem is that when we don’t keep our body in balance, the rest of us—our mind, our emotions, our spirit, our relationships—suffer as well.
There is a scene in the book Zorba the Greek that sums up the importance of caring for our bodies. The earthy Zorba never does anything without total resilience and passion. Zorba’s boss has yet to learn the joys of his life-affirming lifestyle. When his boss, head buried in a book and in the clouds, claims he’s not hungry and doesn’t want to eat the delicious meal Zorba has just prepared, Zorba exclaims, “But you’ve not had a bite since morning. The body’s got a soul, too, have pity on it. Give it something to eat, boss, give it something; it’s our beast of burden, you know. If you don’t feed it, it’ll leave you stranded in the middle o’ the road.”
Keys to the balancing act
Watch for the warning signs
The first step to bringing your life back into balance is to be able to recognize when you are out of balance. What are the warning signs that consistently appear in your life to tell you that your life is becoming lopsided? Here are a few warning signs that can help you become more aware of the messengers who have entered your life to let you know where you need to make adjustments.
Prolonged tension or anxiety
Tension is not bad. It’s what impels us to act and what creates breakthroughs. Prolonged tension, however, especially when we feel it in our bodies, can be a signal that we have extended ourselves too far—that we aren’t paying attention to our inner needs and are letting our reserves dwindle. Some of us are used to putting ourselves second or third or last, and we have been conditioned to ignore the signals. You can change that habit by noticing when you feel tense or anxious. When you feel a tension, pay attention. Awareness is the first step back to honoring yourself.
Lack of focus
Your mind and emotions will play tricks on you when you don’t meet your own needs. I’ve found that if I don’t take enough time to play or have fun, I sabotage myself. I can’t sit still, I’m distracted, and I procrastinate. I’ve made a decision to deny myself a few moments of playfulness so I can concentrate on the task at hand, but in reality I’ve done just the opposite. I’ve made focusing impossible because my needs aren’t being met. As a result, I find all sorts of excuses not to settle down [the garden needs weeding, the dishes need to be put away, the cats need a massage], and then I criticize myself for my lack of focus. Be sure to regularly refresh and renew so you aren’t subconsciously sabotaging yourself.
Complaining and nagging can actually be a way of communicating. They are often just a code for “I have unmet needs and you’re not taking notice.” They are another way of saying, “I don’t want to give you the impression that I’m needy, but since you are not picking up my unspoken signals, I’ll have to convey my unhappiness in other ways.” We complain about the clothes on the floor or the dishes in the sink when we are really trying to say that we need help, support, or a break. If you hear yourself or others griping, it’s time to gently ask what’s really making you [or them] unhappy and then to listen closely for the answers.
Physical and emotional symptoms
Your body and your emotions can react in a range of ways when you aren’t giving yourself the attention you need. Watch for the reactions that are unique to you. Is it tight shoulders, frequent sighing, headaches, a knot in your stomach, sleeplessness, tears, outbursts of anger, overeating, or undereating? Remember that these responses are not bad in and of themselves. They serve a function. They are speaking to you. Your job is to find out what they are saying. The real story is always underneath the symptoms. Practice looking for what’s underneath.
The illusion of being full
Another myth that makes it hard to give ourselves the attention we deserve is the myth that busyness is strength—that the more balls we can juggle, the stronger we are. When we seem to have the ability to keep pushing—to go, go, go—we believe that we can do anything. We think that we’re members of that special breed who are built to give and who don’t need to rest and take breaks as much as everyone else. This is, in fact, a trick we play on ourselves. The truth is often that the more driven we are, the less energy we really have.
Brendan Kelly, an acupuncturist and herbalist who specializes in Chinese five-element acupuncture, talked to me about how this works, because, admittedly, I’m one of those who has managed to fool myself. Like all healing traditions, there are many ways of looking at how energy works in the body and in our lives, and what follows is just one interpretation of the classic Chinese view of how the body, mind, and spirit work together. It’s based on the idea that the body naturally needs alternating cycles of activity and rest so that we can replenish our reservoir of strength.
Our modern, fast-paced culture adds to the illusion by encouraging the buzz of busyness
An abundance of activity in our lives creates what Chinese medicine looks at as “heat” in the body. The heat we produce by our constant busyness uses up our body’s “coolant,” which we need in order to maintain our internal resources and reserves. When we use too much of our reserves and have much more heat than coolant, we can start to have a variety of symptoms, anything from anxiety and insomnia to hot flashes, redness, or heat anywhere in the body. “This coolant is what the Chinese call yin energy, and it is one source, though not the exclusive source, for our internal peace as well as deep wisdom,” Brendan explained. “What happens when we burn out this coolant is that we are sacrificing the possibility of deep peace and wisdom for short-term activity and busyness.”
In other words, by keeping our lives full of activity without taking time to reenergize, we create “a lack of internal peace and we don’t have the ability to listen to who we are,” said Brendan. “Without enough ‘coolant,’ we cannot know who we are in our heart or express who we are in a balanced way.”
As you might expect, we can rebuild our yin energy [our coolant] by relaxing and creating a state of stillness, whether by giving ourselves more breaks or more sleep, engaging in prayer or meditation, or using certain healing therapies.
Now, here’s how we trick ourselves. The less strength or resources we have within, the more we may sense an internal inadequacy, as if we just don’t have enough to keep going. None of us likes that feeling, so we tend to push even harder to make up for it. We pump ourselves up with stimulants, fill our days with activity, and create more external busyness. All of that masks the feeling that we’re really running on empty. The busyness, the activity, and the stimulants conceal our internal depletion and create the illusion that we have more energy than we do. Our modern, fast-paced culture adds to the illusion by encouraging the buzz of busyness. We are skilled at creating all sorts of products and elixirs to help us keep on buzzing. But all along, the internal buzz that we label as energy isn’t real energy. Instead, it indicates a lack of real energy.
“The extra heat in the body gives us the impression that we have more energy,” says Brendan, “but we don’t have more energy—just more heat. When you use heat instead of real energy to propel you through the day, what you give up is a sense of internal well-being.” What’s the difference between that and a state where we are truly energized and full? When we have ample inner resources, we don’t rush to and fro. Instead, we are at peace and have inner stability because we feel full and secure. We take care of what needs to be done, but we aren’t consumed by the compulsive need to push beyond what our bodies can handle at the moment because we know that we cannot continue to give to others if we ourselves aren’t full.
Myth: My drive to stay busy and my ability to keep doing more means I am strong.
Magic: Stillness creates strength.
A classic image that is sometimes used as an analogy for this process is that of a fire [heat] burning beneath a bowl [our body] that is holding water [our yin coolant]. The fire heats the water and creates steam, which represents what the Chinese call ch’i, our vital energy or essential life force. The ch’i is the sustaining energy we need to live. When things are in balance, the fire creates a natural warming effect. But if the fire becomes too hot, the water begins to boil. If this goes on too long, the heat literally consumes the water and dissipates the energy we need to bank our inner fire. Once the water is boiled away, we can literally collapse because we are not able to produce any more energy, or ch’i.
“When this happens, the results can be dramatic,” says Brendan. “One month you feel that you have a lot of energy and the next month you fall off the cliff—you’re in bed and you can’t move.”
Are you running on full tank or are you running on the illusion of a full tank? Do you let your tank become empty before you fill it up again and therefore run the risk of stalling out? Do you let your light go out because you don’t have enough oil in your inner lamp? In short, where do you put yourself on the list of priorities in your life? Too often we relegate our needs to the bottom of the list, if we’re on the list at all. We take care of our duties and obligations to others first and use the energy that’s left over for ourselves. But, truthfully, how often is there any energy left over?
During the natural ebb and flow of our week, we all need relief
What if we reversed that order? What if we made sure our lamp had enough oil in it first before lighting the way for others? Wouldn’t that help us keep our lamp burning strong so we could give more light to others? To do that, we must learn to recognize our inner needs and then draw healthy boundaries so we have the time and energy to fill those needs. To renew ourselves so that we can continue to give, and give well, we must embrace the paradox that saying no will enable us to say yes.
If the idea of saying no makes you cringe, know that this principle comes straight out of spiritual tradition. The greatest teachers knew how to say no. Like all of us, they needed time alone to recharge and renew. Even an indefatigable missionary of mercy like Mother Teresa taught that renewal is a prerequisite for strength. She said that renewal is what gives us the energy to continue serving others. She observed that “the contemplatives and ascetics of all ages and religions have sought God in the silence and solitude of the desert, forest, and mountain” and said that we, too, are called to withdraw at certain intervals. It is when we are alone with God in silence, she said, that “we accumulate the inward power which we distribute in action.”
She was following the advice of her own teacher. Jesus did the same after he fed the multitudes the loaves and fishes. He told his disciples to go into the boat ahead of him, and “when he had sent the multitudes away, he went up into a mountain apart to pray: and when the evening was come, he was there alone.” With a somewhat lighter touch on the same topic, John Barrymore once joked that “God said it is not good for man to be alone, but sometimes it is a great relief!”
During the natural ebb and flow of our week, we all need relief. That’s when drawing boundaries [saying no politely, of course] is appropriate. When your energy is ebbing, it’s time to shift gears from an active orientation of giving energy to a receptive one of receiving. It’s time to plug back in to your energy source and do what most reenergizes you—whether it’s walking in nature, listening to a favorite piece of music, playing a game, or simply closing your eyes, doing nothing, and taking a long, deep breath.
Getting to know you
Instead of pushing yourself beyond your limits and pumping yourself up with more stimulants so that you can fulfil more commitments to others, honouring yourself calls for a different habit. It asks you to become conscious of what you need, right now, inside and out. In order for you to do what you must to regain balance, and to remember to do it tomorrow and the next day and the next, you first have to know yourself.
“I know myself”—it’s one of the most profound statements we can ever make. Self-knowledge, after all, is the ultimate goal extolled by mystics and masters the world around. Inscribed in the forecourt of Apollo’s temple at Delphi was the famous command “Know thyself.” The Book of Thomas the Contender says, “He who has not known himself has known nothing,” and the Zohar, from the Jewish mystical tradition of the Kabbalah, encourages, “Go to your self, know your self, fulfill your self.”
One of the reasons you may not take specific actions to fill your own needs is simply that you don’t really know yourself at the most basic level. You don’t know how you really feel and what you really need. While “knowing yourself” is a lifelong goal that has deeper and deeper layers of meaning, you can take tiny steps toward that goal every day. Here’s a simple question that can help you refocus on what you need to do to come back into balance: What do I need right now to be happy?
When I’ve asked myself that question, I often answer that to do my most creative work, I need quiet and I need regular doses of fresh air out in nature. Yet awareness alone is not enough. If I don’t care enough to honor myself, to put those needs on my priority list, I won’t remember to turn to those antidotes when I begin to feel cranky and anxious. When things start spinning out of control, unless I make a point of asking myself that question again and again, I forget to fill my lungs with fresh air. I forget to take control and create the quiet I need by turning off the phones, refusing to look at my e-mail, or physically moving myself to a quiet spot to work.
A friend who works out of her home reminded me of how empowering it can be to know yourself and then act on that knowing. One day I asked her when was the best time for us to meet. She immediately replied in a straightforward way, “It’s better for me to meet in the late afternoon. If I go out in the morning, I am tempted to start doing errands. I stop here and there on my way back to my office, and I just don’t get the work done that I need to do.” She knew that much about herself and therefore she could set up a schedule that was best for her. Like many of the methods for honoring yourself, this doesn’t sound difficult, but it takes practice. The change starts with watching yourself, getting to know yourself, and then translating that knowledge into action that honors your needs.
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