The Joy of Receiving

As we round the solstice today, I’m mulling the idea of receiving. Sure, it’s not the first thing that comes to mind when you think about health or the holiday season, but bear with me here. First off, I’m not talking about the massive, gimme-gimme materialistic free for all that too often edges out any genuine meaning to the holidays. Honestly, that’s one of the reasons I tend to gravitate toward observing solstice. You don’t get 483 emails the week before reminding you that stores are now open 24 hours a day until the longest night of the year. (Most people couldn’t care less, in fact.) There’s something kind of appropriate to it really: the original mid-winter holiday remains the sparest and most unadulterated of the December celebrations. I’m talking about the nudge toward contemplativeness and a spirit of hospitality that I think most of us enjoy about this time of year. When we’re not rushing around harried by the compulsion to make this the most Martha Stewart worthy event ever, the holidays can call us to take stock, reach out, live it up in a way that’s good for body and soul.

Traditionally, midwinter celebrations (at least in some climates) were probably the last celebratory stop between harvest and spring. It was the feast before long months of relative scarcity. In some ways, it was a leap of faith, a last hurrah, a carpe diem made manifest event – because you could never be quite sure who would be around to welcome spring.

In the modern world, we’re good about earning things and dutiful about giving things, but what about receiving? Do we approach life as a string of responsibilities to be fulfilled? Is life this month organized by a gargantuan master list of schedules and shopping to-dos? Forget about putting ourselves last on the list. Do we even fit into the scheme at all? It’s like the mother who spent weeks planning a birthday party and every ounce of energy making sure everyone there had fun only to look back and realize she never even got a real moment with, let alone a picture of herself with the child that day.

There have been movies and novels – and likely many entertaining blog posts – written about chucking it all and “quitting” the holidays to sit on a beach or hide in a dirt hole just to avoid listening to Feliz Navidad one more time on the radio. In all seriousness, however, what can we do to make these weeks ones we feel nourished by, grateful for? Will we get the chance to reflect on the year, to take stock of what we’ve “received” this year – better health, more free time, a great vacation, joy in a rediscovered hobby, great family memories, etc. Will we get to enjoy what I consider the best of winter – the natural, seasonal call to slow down, turn inward, and nurture one’s own mental health? How are we going to look back on this month when it’s all said and done?

One winter afternoon a few years ago I met up with a group of acquaintances. We somehow got on the subject of unexpected gifts and receiving. Of all the stories, one gracious and amazing woman’s has stuck with me to this day. She’d been put on bed rest, she explained, for four months including the holidays during her third pregnancy. Although she was allowed to live at home during these months, she said it drove her up the wall some days to be stuck on the couch unable to get up and do simple things like make dinner, run errands, or take the kids out to play. At the time, she felt frustrated with the imposed restrictions and the effects they had on the efficiency of home life. She tried to make the best of it by setting up shop on the sofa with books and projects she could do with her two young boys. It was the best way, she thought, to pass the time and to at least give them her time and company. In our conversation that day, she explained that those months turned out to be the greatest gift she’d ever received. Just a few months after the baby was born, her middle child was diagnosed with cancer and died within a year’s time. Those months on bed rest when she was simply able to offer her undivided attention, to read, to listen, to cuddle with her boys were suddenly priceless. She would always be grateful, she said, for life taking her off course those months because it helped her find peace later.

However dramatic this mother’s example, it’s a reminder, I think, that gifts come in varying – perhaps deceptive but often simply modest – guises. We may not understand the value of one until much later. Sure, sometimes it really is a thoughtful gesture boxed and tied with a bow. Other times, it’s an invitation to share food and good company. Maybe it’s a stranger’s random act of generosity or our own discovery of a beautiful night. Maybe it’s just time – to think, to love, to be together. It’s less about the shape of the gift than the receptiveness we bring to it. Are we willing to receive what life is showing us, what people we know and care for want to give us at this moment? Are we driven to discover the sun – or the snow – outside our window and spend the day celebrating either? Do we even see it in front of us? How about directing our attention toward receiving? We might be surprised by what and who is waiting there.

This, I’d say, is the point I’ve been turning over in my head today. What can happen when we let go of our attachment to a particular outcome (or set of outcomes) this holiday season and just enjoy the ride? I think it behooves us to loosen our grip on expectations but to relish the present – the moment and just maybe that wrapped box – with more abandon.

What could this day be? What’s out there for the taking – the receiving – if you direct your attention to it? Grab it, my friends. That’s my plan for the day.

Happy solstice, everyone, and thanks for reading today. Be sure to share your thoughts on what you’ve received this year.

About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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62 thoughts on “The Joy of Receiving”

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  1. Excellent post Mark. We all could take some lessons from this and step back reflect and relax and enjoy the season. I’m guilty of trying to do it all. A recent knee injury has forced me too slow down and now after reading this I can now look at it as a blessing instead of a hinderence. Thank you God Bless and Merry Christmas.

  2. What a beautiful post, Mark!

    I have been experiencing a little of this myself lately. My daughter’s public school was driving me crazy in many ways, so I decided to take her out and homeschool her a couple of months ago. I am a very busy woman so at first it was stressful to have her around all the time. Then I found out that I’m pregnant and now, with a baby just about to absorb so much more of my time, I am so thankful that my daughter and I are getting to spend so much time together each and every day.

    You never know in what way you will need the things that are offered to you.

  3. Beautiful post!

    We celebrate Solstice, too and chose to make charitable donations instead of more unnecessary toys for our nieces & nephews.

    So nice to step out of the consumer culture a bit and enjoy the other gifts of the season!

  4. I sat in the darkness last night while letting go of everything that was not working for me. I then began to light candles as I welcomed in the new me and the promise of the light of the coming season.
    I love those contemplative moments. Great post!!!

  5. Wonderful post, Mark! Taking a moment to step back and be thankful seems to be more rare than ever these days; this is a well-timed gentle reminder.

      1. Awww, don’t be that way Sammy! It’s called permission advertising, you don’t have to click through to his blog if you don’t want to. But because you made YOUR comment I just had to click through! I have a blog too, please feel free to call me out for commenting on articles!

        1. I went to Mr. James’ blog and to yours, and enjoyed both.

          Thanks for posting.

  6. I’m grateful right now for the gift of this post (and everything else you do, Mark). Beautifully said.

  7. I so appreciate your holistic approach to health. Very timely post. Thank you.

  8. Thank you for this – I am continually impressed by your approach and your thoughtful writing.

  9. My father-in-law is being tested today to evaluate how well treatments for brain cancer have been going. He had cancer that was successfully treated before, but with the brain cancer he was given 3-6 months to live, and that was in October. Needless to say, the idea of getting caught up in the webs of commercialism, scheduling frenzy, or anxiety over whether every little holiday detail is Martha-perfect has taken a back seat to far more fulfilling wish to spend time with family and friends, and to enjoy our time together while we can.

    Mark, I enjoy all your posts but this one was especially meaningful.

    1. Just to update this, the tests showed that one tumor shrank 40% and the other shrank 50%.

      Everything else is icing on the proverbial cake for us this year.

      1. Here’s hoping for more progress! Best to you and your family this season.

        1. Thank you, Jen. We’ve gotten our Christmas gift early, and I’m hoping Tom is well enough to get out and play 18 holes again this spring!

  10. “There have been movies and novels – and likely many entertaining blog posts – written about chucking it all and “quitting” the holidays to sit on a beach or hide in a dirt hole just to avoid listening to Feliz Navidad one more time on the radio.”

    -Christmas with the Kranks comes to mind! One of my favorite Christmas movies!

  11. Rode an elevator today with two suits eagerly discussing how much money they would need to retire.

    It’s so easy to get caught up in the paper chase, while real life passes unnoticed into oblivion, day by irreplaceable day.

    Examples like this remind me to stay focused on our ancestral priorities: strengthening our bodies and minds, the better to care for our families, friends, and all human beings. Only these pursuits bring true happiness.

    1. Exactly!

      It’s amazing how important money is in today’s world. I mean, it is… you need it to buy food, provide shelter. But, the rest is just is. The rest is for what one thinks they need to be happy. They think they can buy happiness but they can’t. Enjoying the moment with family and friends beats any material good.

      Tonight I’ll be receiving and giving time with my family. It’s now a holiday tradition (3rd year in a row) that us kids bring our parents out for Dinner. This year we get to welcome a brand new human whom is now my brother-in-law. And, one more brother in law will be added in just 7 weeks!

      Giving and receiving time with each other destroys any other physical gift.

      Enjoy the holidays everyone!4

  12. I think what you were saying about letting go of attachment and expectations is key not only during the holiday season but every season in our lives.

  13. Amen, and perfect timing I might add. It’s a difficult lesson….The Norman Rockwell perfection is just made up fluff. This year I’m going to take it as it comes and be grateful for every minute of it. Thank you Mark for this beautiful reminder of all the real things in life I am thankful for.

  14. Hey I am not anti-christian(married to one) but this Christmas stuff is sure bogus. Enjoy the little things that come by everyday.

  15. Beautiful post! I loved the story about your friend – definitely moving. It just goes to show that everything happens to us for a reason. We might not understand the whys at that moment but God has a plan for us in the end.

  16. Good thoughts. For me, though, the highest joy of this season is that we are every one of us objects of a divine love so vast and full that God came to us in the flesh He assumed from His mother. That He came to us when we could come to Him, and He brought to us a light that no darkness (and there are darknesses far darker than solstice!) will ever be able to destroy. So, at the risk of being horribly politically incorrect, I wish to you and all your readers, a most blessed Christ-Mass! And thank you, Mark, for being one of the unexpected and unlooked for gifts that came my way this year, making Grok my daily companion. Pax!

  17. I really needed to see this. Thanks, Mark. I’ve been a little frustrated because my electricity got cut out in my little house in Chile and I haven’t been able to contact my landlords, who I was planning to have Christmas with. But I decided to just go with the flow and instead will be spending Christmas (my first one away from home) with people at the marine station I’m working at. Your post helped me look at my new situation in a new light and to receive this blessing of sharing the holidays with new friends.

  18. Boy… This is exactly the message I needed to hear today. Thank you!

  19. I’ve spent the solstice day sitting in a hospital waiting for the surgeons to piece together my son’s face – 6 hours of surgery and nine titanium plates to repair the result of taking a knee to the face during a soccer game.

    What I’ve received is a profound reminder that it’s the people in our lives that matter, not the things.

    And also a reminder to be thankful that we live in a time when his injuries can be repaired.

    1. I hope your son’s surgery goes well and that he has as quick and easy a recovery as possible now. Peace!

    2. John:

      What a difficult time for you. I hope today is much better than yesterday, that your son is resting and and reasonably comfortable, and that you and your family are holding up.

      I admire the clarity in your thankfulness – it is indeed extraordinary what surgeons can do. I’ve found that out myself lately.

      Wishing all the best to you, your son, and your family.


    3. God Bless you and your family. I will keep you all in my prayers. Modern medicine does come in handy for the catastrophic. Meanwhile, Grok does perfectly fine.

  20. Great post Mark…Spot on! What do material things really give us? Status? I think not. Family and friendship are the greatest gifts. Enjoy them during these Holiday Times and beyond. Christmas should be every day.

  21. Mark you are a very spiritual person…I think Grok would be proud.

  22. Ah yes, behold: “[w]hat can happen when we let go of our attachment to a particular outcome (or set of outcomes) ….”

    A beautifully written post with a very strong message. It’s one I’ve been working on embracing, especially after watching the TED talks of Tim Harford and Kathryn Schulz, both of whom point out that the outcome of our actions simply isn’t unknowable. We think we’re great predictors of “what will happen,” but we aren’t. We’re almost always wrong.

    Doing (anything) involves classic trial and error, which is the stuff of evolution: What doesn’t work falls away; what does work survives and gets stronger. You know, Darwin and all of that.

    Which is all so … Primal. 🙂

    Great post, Mark.

  23. It seems like this celebratory time would traditionally be a time for those who had more food/goods stored to share the wealth with those less fortunate so that, they too, could see the better days of spring ahead.

    It is reminds me of a gathering that goes on today in the southwest called ‘winter-count’. This was a gathering of all the southwestern tribes so that stories of the year could be shared, goods traded, and, as indicated by the name, people counted. It was a time to measure the wealth of the entire region. In good times there was much celebration, and in hard times, there was time to strategize for survival. Today, it continues as a time for survivalists/traditional craftsmen to share their skills with common folk… so that we might all have a better chance at surviving the great unknowns of the future.

    And with that, I say to you all, good luck in this next year, and thank you for sharing all that you do.

  24. Wonderful post, Mark…I’ve been feeling especially grateful for things big and small in my life. My husband and I have always enjoyed taking time on Solstice (and the Equinoxes, and any other time that gives reason to celebrate!) to appreciate the good. As you say, it’s not as frenzied of fraught with expectations as Christmas, and it’s very peaceful. Thank you for this affirmation.

  25. Wow, of all the days to post this you had to do it today! THANK YOU for that! I was down about not having my Dad around during the holidays (he died 2 years ago just a couple weeks before Christmas so I always get a little down), frustrated at my sweet but very hyper active daughter today (not sure why she was but she was just wired all day), and frustrated at my sweet baby boy who is teething. I was very grouchy to my husband because of all this and after reading this post and other’s comments, realized how grateful I am to have these crazy days. I quit my job to enjoy some quality time with my children and that is exactly what I am determined to do. Even today had MANY great moments that I had overlooked because of my blindness to the bigger picture. Thank you!

  26. In these parts the winter solstice is not very notorious (I live near the equator). But even so, the repugnance (sorry, but that’s the correct word) that I have been accumulating towards Christmas is so strong that I just had to make a counter-celebration: a spiritual, serene, personal acknowledgment of the passing of time.

    So I stood alone in my room, besides a little table with only a candle, a cup of tea and the Dhammapada open at the beginning, the first verses. At the proper time, I lighted up the candle and read quietly the first stanzas, The Pairs…

    “Mind precedes all mental states. Mind is their chief..”

    “…there are those who do not realize that one day we all must die. But those who do realize this settle their quarrels…”

    “…those who mistake the unessential to be essential and the essential to be unessential, dwelling in wrong thoughts, never arrive at the essential

    those who know the essential to be essential and the unessential to be unessential, dwelling in right thoughts, do arrive at the essential…”

    Then I took the cup, raised it, and greeted myself and Time, and the World, saying “this greeting is from me to me, not to any god or gods. From me to the World, to Time, to Everything, and to this solstice, to this cycle.” More things were said. A cycle was remembered, reaffirmed.

    Then I drank the tea, consciously savoring every gulp, thinking that the delight I was feeling was my gift to the Universe: that me, a small, small part of it, blessed with consciousness, return that gift by feeling that soft taste to the utmost of my ability, so that, somehow, the entire Cosmos felt, through me, at least in an infinitesimal way, that delight. If we are all connected (and why not?) perhaps that can be possible, even beyond the poetic.

    Then I went about my day, calm and much happier.

    It is good to be an atheist with buddhist inclinations. 😉

  27. I like to take this time to not only celebrate the solstice, but take stock of my Celtic roots. Autumn celebration of harvesting for me means the making food and other typoes of projects I can use to spend with my close friends and family. Personally I think the best gift to give in this time of the year is just that, time. Time with friends or family to try out a new hobby, explore a new place, or go on a little vacation.

    I should also mention I am a bit materialistic and sent the Primal Blueprint to a few friends and family.

  28. Lovely thought provoking post very timely.

    I’m thanking the time I have with my husband who very nearly popped his clogs on a recent holiday, to Portugal – he had a pulmonary thrombosis and pneumonia.

    Thankfully slowly on the mend now and back in the UK.

    Best wishes


  29. I celebrated the Solstice around a fire outdoors in the snow, surrounded by trees under a winter-dark sky, with hope and song, dancing hand-in-hand to the rhythm of our united voices. It was truly a time to reflect on the year gone by and set intentions for the year ahead. This year, I am going to spend less time worrying about my fears and what people will think and more time living with joyfulness and connection to my community and my environment.

  30. Mark, that is primal poetry.
    I some way I see embedded in your words my own guiding philosophy: life has no other meaning or porpouse than to perpetuate and celebrate life itself. Ever since I conceived this concept I became able to find reasons almost every single day to be happy, enjoy life, and respect Nature, and to stop being worried about false responsabilities such as work and other human creations.
    I think this simple idea could mean a happier and more fulfilling life for a lot of people in our modern, materialistic, crazy world.

    1. “life has no other meaning or porpouse than to perpetuate and celebrate life itself”

      It’s been a while since a single sentence made me stop and contemplate for such a long time. Thanks Juan for putting it that bluntly, yet beautifully.

      Great post from Mark, too. It’s insights like these that enables us (well, at least ‘me’) to lift our gaze up, out of the haze and dirt that we’re mostly thinking about, all year round. Thanks a lot.

      All the best for all of your 2012s.

  31. Just a word of appreciation for this website. I have certainly received a lot from it this year! I am grateful for what I am learning here as I attempt to live out a grain free and sugar free lifestyle.

    I’d also like to say something about the association some commenters are making between commercialism and Christmas. There is nothing inherently commerical about Christmas. If anything, the Gospel warns strongly against storing up treasures on earth. And Christmas itself commemorates the birth of a Child born into poverty but filled with riches of another sort. The commericalism is the result of our culture which turns every beautiful memorial, religious or otherwise, into a Madison Avenue-fueled frenzy of shopping. I’m sure if advertisers see an upswing of Solstice observance, there will soon be ads targeting that as well!

  32. This is my first post to your excellent site/s Mark – been a fan for a year or so now. This really hits home for me at the moment. I’ve a whole heap of troubles to deal with mostly related to my professional life, and, despite my best intentions, it is hard to get these out of the way and just be in the moment. The words above have buoyed me and I will endeavor to share your thoughts and use them wisely. Thanks pal 🙂

  33. Lovely post. I’ve been most grateful for a new job opportunity in the past year, one that I’m very passionate about, and the “in through the back door” gift of a very opinionated, overbearing job share partner. It has given me a much-needed opportunity to work on my advocacy, communication, and seeing the strengths in others more than I have in many other situations. I’m also very glad my brother recently moved back to our city so we can spend more time together!

  34. It’s so true! The story about the mother and her children is so moving.
    Several years ago, I didn’t have any plans to do so, but I suddenly had an urge from out of the blue to go and spend summer vacation with my mother who lived in Florida. As I live in Japan, it’s quite an expense and time-consuming trip for my husband, 2 kids, and me to take. But somehow I just knew I had to go. In Japan, they say that “the bugs sent me a message”. Well, we went and spent a few weeks not doing anything exotic but just being with and enjoying my Mom and family. A year later we went home for her funeral. I’m so grateful those little “bugs” did their little thing for me.
    Thanks, Mark, and Happy Solstice to you and yours.

  35. Great post! Winter holidays have a special vibe. Even though I don’t like the cold weather too much, the atmosphere is wonderful!