Years ago, I set off on a cross-country trip with a friend. Our plan was to camp and hike our way through the National Parks of the western United States.
I had been living in a city for the previous few years, and was starved for natural beauty. And so, as we drove into Yosemite to begin our tour, I was riveted.
The mountains were breathtaking. The alpine fields were touching. I felt like a thirsty man who had stumbled into an oasis — there was beauty everywhere.
My friend and I backpacked for a few days along the waterfalls of Tuolumne Meadows. The landscape was magnificent. Then we moved on to Utah, and moonlit hikes among the spires of Bryce. We waded knee-deep in water up the canyons of Zion. We strolled through the tundra of the Rockies.
It was all stunning. Mountains, waterfalls, flowers — indescribable beauty. There were moments when I felt profoundly close to God. And that, of course, was why I really went to those places – to feel that sense of spiritual connection. To feel that transcendence.
But as the weeks passed, a curious thing happened. It began to be more difficult to get my "high." These mountains were great, of course — but they weren't much different than the ones from last week. That field was beautiful — but so were the others. I began to chase more dramatic scenery, looking for a spiritual lift.
Eventually I got to a point where I just couldn't make it happen. I did my best to extract a spiritual high from what I was seeing – the mountains, the fields — but I just couldn't do it. It was discouraging. Shortly thereafter, we ended the trip and I went back to my city life.
It took me years before I understood what had happened. In this article, I'd like to show how broadly the lesson can be applied.
Getting What You Give
On that trip, I fell into a common trap. I believed that I was getting my spiritual lift from something external — the mountains, the streams. This began a cycle of chasing better mountains, better streams.
In fact, though, my "high" was coming not from what I was getting from the mountains, but from what I was giving to them. Let me explain what I mean.
On the first day of my trip, I looked out at those mountains and said – so quickly I didn't realize it — "My goodness, you are profoundly beautiful. I love you." I was then immediately swept up in the joy of that thought. It seemed like the mountains were making me feel joyful. But it was really my love for the mountains that lifted me up.
If I had seen this, I could have kept the flow going. I could have entered each new park saying, "Ah, what wonderful things can I extend love to today?" But instead, I fell into the trap of trying to extract from externals. "I need better mountains," I thought, "bigger ones, something more dramatic." As I did that, the outflow of my appreciation was blocked — and thus, the sense of transcendence became harder and harder to reach.
I share this story because it illustrates the power of choice. We can choose – at any time, with any thing — to extend copious amounts of love and appreciation. And we will be instantly lifted up by our choice. We are in control of the outflow. There is nothing that prevents us from exercising our right to give.
I didn't realize this on my cross-country trip. I thought that I could only embrace the most dramatic, towering mountains. Or the most delicate, flower-sprinkled fields. But the fact is that I could have chosen a pebble on the path and enfolded it in waves of love and appreciation – and thus been lifted up.
The key is to realize that the power lies with us. We don't need to chase beauty, love, and transcendence; instead, we can give those things, and immediately experience them.
Along these lines, I sometimes engage in a practice that I call "doubling up." If I feel deprived of something — kindness, for example — I decide how much of that thing I'd like. Then I try to give twice that amount to the people in my life. I try to double, in my giving, what I want to receive.
Of course, the "outflow" of kindness creates a simultaneous "inflow" of kindness – and sure enough, I begin to feel it. Although there may be some internal resistance at first, I find that this practice always produces positive results.
The lesson that we receive what we give is an empowering one. Instead of spending our time chasing externals, we can spend our time giving internals – and thus experiencing them. The power is in our hands, because we are always free to give.