“A gift is pure when it is given from the heart to the right person at the right time and at the right place, and when we expect nothing in return.” —The Bhagavad Gita

In the details of our days, it’s easy to lose sight of the meaning behind the moments. It’s easy to forget the truth that giving, at its essence, is a creative activity and that every day holds abundant opportunities to surrender to the instincts of the heart.

Not long after I had moved into a new home, I learned that lesson from an unexpected source. That summer day, my almost five-year-old neighbor Sophie cautiously peeked through the trees separating her backyard from mine and introduced herself. After she and I had exchanged some important facts about each other, like how old she and her sister were and the names of my kitties, she suddenly asked, “What’s your favorite color?”

“Well, I like yellow,” I replied. In an instant, she was off, disappearing around the side of her house and calling behind her shoulder, “Stay right there; stay right there!” When she returned, she came bearing gifts. “Here’s a flower from our garden,” she announced, “a yellow flower.” With a smile big enough for the both of us, she stretched her arm toward me. She was carefully holding between her fingers a perfect yellow pansy.

It’s been a few years since Sophie graced me with her pansy and I’m sure she’s forgotten all about it. But I’ll never forget her gift – and the generous smile that leapt from her heart and landed smack in the middle of mine. Sophie knew instinctively what the beloved classic of India, the Bhagavad Gita, has taught for millennia: “He who offers to me [God] with devotion only a leaf, or a flower, or a fruit, or even a little water, this I accept from that yearning soul, because with a pure heart it was offered with love.” Sophie reminded me that it’s not just what we give but how we give that makes all the difference. It’s not the size of the gift but the size of our heart.

Better than Bigger

Today, more than ever, we are showered with media messages vying to convince us that gift-giving is all about buying more and buying bigger. I’ll never forget the sobs that came from a niece of mine one Christmas morning when she had finished unwrapping the two gifts my husband and I had given her, only to see that her sister had an extra package from us to open. She felt cheated, even though we had carefully spent equal amounts of money on them both. As adults, we may still pull out the measuring stick when it’s time to exchange gifts. Not only that, but we tend to think that “giving” happens when we hand over something that is wrapped and tied with a bow and ribbon.

Yet take a moment and think about the times, as a child or adult, when you felt most happy, joyful, or at peace. Were those special times in your life really defined by how much money someone spent on you? Or was it the attention you received or the intimacy and connection you experienced that made you feel exuberant? The wiser we become in the ways of the heart, the more we realize that the biggest and most expensive gifts aren’t necessarily the best ones. Better than bigger is the gift of the heart.

Likewise, the most touching and meaningful gifts are often the ones that come unexpectedly, not just on birthdays or anniversaries or holidays. “It is well to give when asked,” wrote the poet Kahlil Gibran, “but it is better to give unasked, through understanding.”

How often do you stop to appreciate another’s heart and give spontaneously – perhaps a bunch of flowers to celebrate a project well done, a special book to thank someone for her kindness, or a beautiful card with a personal message to cheer up a troubled friend or partner? And, in the midst of an argument, when everything within you wants to shut down, are you willing to open your heart and find out what the person pushing your buttons needs from you?

The people in our lives most need our gifts when they are experiencing difficulty, but, paradoxically, that’s when we are most tempted to withhold them. We take their churlish complaints or temper tantrums personally, when they are really SOS calls for support. Instead of “What’s wrong with you?” they are secretly longing to hear “Why are you hurting, and what can I do to help you?”

In the language of the heart, giving translates as offering a part of yourself to someone who, at that moment, needs it more than you do. By giving in this way, you not only honor others. You also honor yourself because you are allowing your heart to do what it was made to do – to give and receive love.

Surrendering to the Instincts of the Heart

A wonderful story from the Vedanta tradition teaches about giving from the heart to meet another’s unspoken need. A young seeker was severely scolded by his spiritual teacher for failing to complete an errand properly, and he saw the harshness of the reprimand as undeserved. A more advanced student noticed the young man’s dismay and explained to him what was happening. There are three classes of students, he told him. The third-class student merely obeys his teacher’s bidding. The second-class student doesn’t have to be instructed to do something; he intuits his teacher’s need as soon as the thought arises in the teacher’s mind. The first-class student, however, acts even before the teacher has had time to think of his or her need.

Just as an athletic coach pushes his players beyond their comfort zone so that they will become strong and excel at their sport, so the stern teacher in this story was pushing his young pupil to become not only an average giver but a first-class one. He wanted him to learn how essential it is in all relationships to open our hearts and anticipate the gift that others need from us.

Life calls each of us to surrender to that same instinct of the heart; to become so highly attuned to another’s need that we are ready instruments of healing and comfort. These aren’t lofty, unreachable goals. In your own way, you will always have something to give, whether a generous smile of encouragement, words of appreciation, a helping hand, a special perspective or skill, or simply a willingness to listen.

Every one of us has a particular wisdom, too, that we have garnered through our life experiences. You may not realize it, but drawing from your well of wisdom and compassion to help others can be like offering a cool cup of water to someone who has been suffering from a long, agonizing thirst. If you don’t know where to start, think about a challenging experience that taught you a valuable lesson or an insight you gained from reading something new that spurred a transformational moment for you. Look around and you will find someone who needs what you have to share.

You have a unique role to play and a valuable gift to give within your sphere of influence, and your heart will show you what to give, how to give, and when to give. You just have to listen.

Patricia Spadaro is the author of the award-winning book Honor Yourself: The Inner Art of Giving and Receiving. She has coauthored several other books on personal growth, spirituality and world traditions. For more inspiration on giving and receiving and on how to live more fully, deeply and authentically every day, visit Patricia Spadaro at:HowToHonorYourself.com

By Patricia Spadaro