The Greatest Gifts are the ones with No Wrapping Paper
Why giving really IS better than receiving + 5 tips for giving selflessly this holiday season
We’ve all heard the old adage, and it’s hard to disagree. This idea, after all, spans multiple traditions and texts—from the Bible to the Bhagavad Gita and beyond.
Early in the spiritual trajectory of American mystic Ram Dass, he asked his teacher, “How do I raise my divine energy?” To which guru Neem Karoli Baba replied simply, “Feed everyone. Serve everybody.” This concept of seva, or selfless service, is a kind of road map for the yogic journey.
But the trick, as it turns out, isn’t so much the giving part.
On some level, you probably already know that generosity feels good. There is evidence that the act of giving activates our brains’ pleasure centers—releasing dopamine (feel-good juice), serotonin (mood-regulating juice) and oxytocin (compassion juice). Can your kombucha do THAT? Didn’t think so. In fact, clinical studies link giving to greater happiness, reduced depression, lower stress levels, higher self-esteem, lower blood pressure and even longer life.
So why don’t we, as a species, give more? Answer: the ego.
When the brain steps in front of the heart, we start to crave recognition for our actions. The ego may want acknowledgement, adulation, validation, reciprocity; any number of actions to complement our own. And suddenly, the good vibes we got from giving vanish—poof! So, as we enter the time of year set aside for giving THINGS, your friends at Sedona Yoga Festival would like to suggest a wonderful alternative: giving of YOURSELF. Here are our top five seva tips!
1) Lazy Seva: Gifts of Donation.
Hey, no judgment! We’re all busy, and this time of year is bananas. That doesn’t mean you can’t make a difference just by opening your wallet. December is a great time to make a donation of any amount to a cause that’s close to your heart. From your local women’s shelter to an international clean-water organization, donating literally takes just a few clicks these days.
Not sure where your money will mean the most? Get a watchdog: Charity Navigator and Charity Watch can help you narrow your recipient by cause, percentage of donations that go to overhead and even how much executives are paid. Or you can purchase anything from PI Yoga Pants where 10% of net profits go back towards sea turtle conservation.
2) Free Seva: Gifts of Service.
Sometimes, the best things in life really ARE free—and there’s always somebody who needs a helping hand. The cool thing about gifts of service, though, is how personalized (or not) you can make them. Got a friend who’s always complaining about the color of their kitchen, or the weeds in their yard? Spend a day helping ‘em out. An elderly neighbor who can’t shovel their walk? Lend a hand; they don’t even need to know it was you. In fact, anonymous volunteering to help those less fortunate may be the purest form of giving there is; you can’t crave acknowledgement if you’re a total ninja about it.
3) Maker Seva: Gifts of Creation.
Listen, not everybody’s crafty. We get that. If you’re one of those people whose “canvas & cocktail” creations never quite look like the example…SAME. But can you write a poem, or follow a recipe? If you’re planning to give actual gifts this year, we hope you’ll consider making something for the special folks in your lives.
Trust us: a week of lovingly prepared freezer meals or a tiny watercolor painting, however “unprofessional” or “imperfect,” will likely be your recipients’ most treasured prezzies—this year or any year.
4) Relationship Seva: Gifts of Sacrifice.
Maybe it’s just us, but there are days—perhaps years—during which all we really want for the holidays is for the members of our household to STOP doing that one thing. And guess what? If you’re having that feeling about somebody else, you can bet your sweet asana that another household member has a similar wish re: you.
So this year, why not make a solemn promise to NOT do that thing your partner, parent or kiddo doesn’t love all that much? Maybe your sweetie would prefer that you stay off your phone during meals, or your teen would prefer that you refrain from referring to things as “straight fire.” Let your recipient choose. No matter what they pick, your loss is their gain.
5) Check Yourself Before…Well, You Know.
What does Ice Cube have to teach us about seva? A few things, actually. If we’re putting a seva filter on our holiday giving, “check yourself” can have multiple meanings.
First: go into the season with some healthy realism. There’s only so much of you to go around, so let’s not burn this temple to the ground over the next 30 days! This will not only enable you to enter the New Year with calm, grounded energy—it will also help to curb the resentment that can build when you’re overextended.
Second: if you do start to feel a pity party coming on, it’s either because
(a) that pesky ego wants recognition for your actions, or
(b) you’re actually filling others’ cups at the expense of your own.
In either case, kindly check thyself and make some healthy adjustments. And finally, third: receive. Say it out loud with me: RECEIVE.
As it turns out, your self-proclaimed seva season is a wonderful time to practice receiving the gifts around you. Whether a holiday traffic jam is ‘bout to teach you some patience, or your office Secret Santa made you some dodgy-looking mystery muffins, there is magic in the surrender. No wrecking required.