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Reciprocity: the art of giving and receiving abundance

Updated: Nov 13, 2021

Reciprocity is a concept that gets a bad wrap, at least in my world it did. Reciprocity loosely means to exchange things under conditions of mutual benefit. If we can truly embrace and excel at reciprocity, success in our lives is guaranteed.

In my career as a fundraiser, reciprocity was an important motivational understanding for a certain type of donor giving. Sometimes we give because it boosts our self image, or the image of our family or business, or our perceived legacy. Sometimes we give for the chance at a raffle prize or because we want to attend that event filled with business associates. The truth is, the act of giving makes you feel good, even if no one ever knows about it. There is a lot of social science behind that and if you’re interested, here’s a place to start.

As a professional fundraiser, you can use this awareness around the human impulse toward reciprocity to close big gifts. Hospitals with floors named for donors and schools with endowed positions or named libraries are great examples of this awareness applied for success.

For two decades I saw this concept in a negative light. I believed that the true gift is one given without any expectation of benefit to self. I conveniently forgot that the mere act of giving benefits the self.

On a deeper level, what I did not understand was the secret law of reciprocity that underlies the universe. The law is well stated by the yoga master Sri Yukteswar when he said, “So long as you breathe the free air of earth, you are under obligation to render grateful service.”

Reciprocity is the perfect circle created by generosity and gratitude. When the flow of the two is in harmony, abundance flourishes. Our very life is a gift we have been given. To express our gratitude for it and offer generously our gifts in return is to truly master the art of living.

My understanding of reciprocity deepened through Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass. In it, Kimmerer shares a beautiful poem called the Thanksgiving Address that the Onondaga Nation’s people practice daily. It is a long and glorious recitation of all the gifts from heaven and earth bestowed upon its people and it’s words are imbued with loving gratitude.

The truth is that life itself is a gift. Everything that is added after birth too is a gift. When we open our minds and hearts to the flow of gratitude, something stirs within us. Something beautiful and precious. It’s why so many of us love this time of year, the season of giving thanks.

But gratitude alone is only half of the circuit. The other half is generosity. Here too Kimmerer shared the indigenous wisdom of generosity practiced in everyday life of a people so profoundly. She explained that when her people harvest from the earth, they first give generously to the earth something that they value, in this case tobacco. They next leave the first of what they find alone, generously offering it back to the earth. Finally, they take no more than half of what they find. This is a perfect example of generosity and gratitude in a harmonious flow.

In our lives too, this can be found. Generosity is, above all, an attitude. It comes from the sincere belief that there is enough for everyone. When we give generously of the gifts we have received, we open the other half of the circuit to flow. This doesn't only mean giving money. This also means our talents, our enthusiasm, our love, our wisdom.

Like mother earth herself though, to fully enter the flow of abundance, our generosity and gratitude must be without attachment to the fruits. The tomato plant cannot decide who gets to eat its fruit anymore than it can determine whether we make pasta sauce or caprese out of it. In the mastery of reciprocity, we learn to give generously and receive gratefully from our hearts and without attachment to how it is received by others. It is our Divine duty and our sincere opportunity. We are filled up by the flow and as we practice and learn the art, we surrender the rest to the Divine.

Reciprocity has moved into an even deeper place of understanding through my work with horses and humans. What I see is a balance of generosity and gratitude. The horse and I give generously the gifts that we have been endowed with to the client. The client chooses what, if anything, to harvest among the gifts we offer and gives, in tern, the gift of a channel for purpose and means of support. The horse and I return the gifts received to others with generosity and loving gratitude. The client gives whatever they have chosen to receive and pays it forward in life.

Here are some thoughts about how to serve others generously and without attachment:

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