Sacred Reciprocity: The Indigenous Spiritual Principle Of Giving & Receiving

As I referred to in my blog about Sacred Medicine in Thailand, the practice of making offerings as part of any healing journey seems to be a large part of every spiritual tradition. In Thailand, offerings come in two forms. At 6 a.m. every morning, “householders” make offerings to the 300,000 Thai monks who are responsible for chanting blessings and offering spiritual counsel back to those who feed them breakfast. This bewildered me at first. When I saw the tables of food baskets, I assumed these were offerings to be made at the temples, as they are in Bali, where elaborate baskets of food are offered to the gods and goddesses in the temples. During my first encounter with these food baskets, I made the grave error of purchasing an elaborate food basket adorned with flowers for 100 baht, which I then walked off with, planning to take it to the temple I was visiting that morning. The villagers scowled at me, and I didn’t understand why, until someone explained that I was stealing the monk’s breakfast! I had purchased this food basket right in front of an old monk who expected that I would do as the Thai people did and feed it to him rather than cart it off. They probably thought I was making an even graver error and eating the breakfast for myself. Sigh . . . it’s not easy to be respectfully polyamorous in one’s devotion to deities and offering practices!

Upon further reflection, I realized that Buddhism is essentially Godless, with the monks representing mankind’s potential to achieve Buddha-nature in a human body. In essence, the monks are the closest things to Buddha and thereby the closest thing to God. So it makes sense that you feed the monks instead of invisible gods and goddesses or dead prophets, as you do in other religious traditions.

The second way to make offerings in Thailand is to bring objects of meaning, value, and beauty to the temples and offer them on the ubiquitous altars honoring the Buddha. Primarily, such offerings are monetary, with donation boxes adorning every altar. When I asked the Thai people to help me understand the best way to honor the temples, they said, “Pay money.” So I did. It is also acceptable to bring flowers—lotus blossoms, garlands of marigolds, and jasmine—or to light candles and incense. Even the breakfasts you offer to monks are decorated with marigolds and lotus flowers, and giving them money is also welcomed.

Ayni: What Is Sacred Reciprocity?

I first learned about the concept of sacred reciprocity when I was in Peru, studying with Q’eros shamans high up in the Andes. The primary spiritual principle of the Q’eros is what they call “ayni,” which translates to “sacred reciprocity.” They believe that we must give and receive in equal measure, that we cannot take more from nature than we give to nature. If we are greedy and we take more than we give back, they believe we will suffer and perhaps, get sick. Disease is believed to be the result of an interruption in this harmonious relationship with nature, a violation of ayni. Therefore, the first step in treating any illness or adversity is to restore this balance. We are designed to cooperate harmoniously with nature. Just as we breathe the oxygen that is so lovingly made for us by plants and trees and we breathe back carbon dioxide that the plant kingdom needs, we are intended to live as if we are in love with nature, as if nature loves us back. Breathing in, breathing out. Such is the foundation of the world view of the Q’eros.

Ayni isn’t a transactional concept. It’s not that I help you, and then you help me, in a kind of score-keeping way. It’s more of a pay it forward principle, that if we’re always loving and caring and giving—to each other and to nature—and if we’re able to really drink in and receive the blessings bestowed upon us, it’s only natural that we will all get our needs met in a harmonious way and this will fill us with a sense of abundance and gratitude. Ayni is about give and take, about finding the still balance point at the center of giving and receiving. While we might think of giving and receiving as two ends of a vastly different spectrum, ayni is more like a circular flow, just like inhaling and exhaling the breath. Breathe in, breathe out, breathe in, breathe out. If you’re only breathing out, as so many helping professionals do, and if you resist breathing in, you’ll die very quickly. Likewise, if you’re only breathing in, raping nature and taking what you feel entitled to from Pachamama (the female deity of the Q’eros, or Mother Earth) without giving back to Pachamama, the flow of life force will be interrupted. Life force needs to move, to flow, to give and receive in equal measure. Such is the foundation of the spirituality and healing arts of the Q’eros. This is why we include an entire “Heal The Healer” pillar to our Whole Health Medicine Institute training program, which will be opening enrollment for the Class of 2020 very soon. Many healers are comfortable giving, but very uncomfortable receiving. In order to help others restore ayni, we must also be able to model it in our own lives. I’ll be including a whole chapter with more detail about this in my Sacred Medicine book (Sounds True, Fall 2021).

The Entitlement Of Modern Culture

The practice of offering is intended to counteract our natural tendency to feel entitled to our blessings. Many of us have made it a practice to bless our food and thank the plants and animals that have sacrificed their life for our nourishment and the farmers who have tended these sources of food. But how often do we pause to express thanks for the soil that nourishes the food or the oxygen these plants give us to breathe? How often do we spend time in thanksgiving for a breath of clean air? The beauty of nature all around us? The minerals our earth makes available for our technology? The oil we use to drive our cars or power our homes?  We don’t tend to spend much time feeling grateful for such things because we feel entitled to them, as if we are owed them. The few indigenous cultures who have been preserved do not take such things for granted.

Ours is a culture of take, take, take, an entitled culture that rests upon the notion that if you can afford something, you’re entitled to have it, even if it means you’re hoarding resources you do not need for survival. By the standards of indigenous cultures, nobody needs a garage full of cars for sure, but really, nobody even needs a room nobody sleeps in, like the guest rooms many American have. We have so many privileges that we just assume we have a right to, without taking the time to do ceremonies of gratitude for luxuries like a guest room or even one car. Everything changes when you realize these are immense blessings and not something you have an automatic right to. As Chief Colleen of the Winnemem Wintu tribe in the Bay Area said, “Spirit, save these white people from the disease of hoarding.”

Now when I’m talking about learning to give and receive in equal measure, I want to make a word of clarification for those of you with co-dependent parts. I’m not suggesting you need to go give more to your loved ones and wring yourself dry until you’re physically, emotionally, and financially depleted. But even the co-dependents among you probably rarely pause to try to restore sacred reciprocity with the earth that provides for you or give thanks for the luxuries you might think you’re entitled to. Whether you’re the type who feels more comfortable giving or the type who receives more easily than you give, offering practice helps us remember to feel and express gratitude for the things we might be inclined to take for granted. And that is always healing. Stargazer Li talks about this way of being that teaches us to orient ourselves around trying to get everything we want in a way that ignores gratitude. She says, “Along with a fair amount of getting (but seemingly never enough) comes a sense of separateness, from ourselves, others, and what we desire. This is a natural consequence of using everything and everyone (including ourselves) to get what we want. Whether subtly or blatantly, whether acknowledged or not, this underlies our very way of life. There’s a profound impact of living this ‘strategic campaign’ approach, on us and those around us, both human and otherwise. We don’t just need to get better at doing this. In meeting the wildly intense demands for change of these times, we need ways of being, of living, that move us beyond trying to get what we want when we want it.” The way I see it, the practice of offering gives us a tool to try to shift our very way of being in a way that makes the body ripe for miracles.

The Balinese Canang

It’s not just South American indigenous cultures that practice offering gifts to the earth or the spirits as part of healing when someone is sick. I had heard that something similar is embedded in everyday life in traditional Balinese culture, so Bali was the next stop on my Sacred Medicine journey. My Sri Lankan friend Casi and I got up early so we could go to the market in Ubud in Bali, where we purchased the banana leaf baskets of flowers that are a ubiquitous offering in Bali. These canang sari are used not just to make offerings to temples, healers, and sacred sites in nature, but to place on every home’s doorstep, in every taxi, on the electricity generators, in the rice fields, and in front of every business. Women wake up every morning, and as an act of sacrifice, they spend a great deal of time and effort, as a kind of prayer, weaving these baskets from banana leaves and preparing the traditional canang. The canang is typically made of four kinds of fragrant flowers, divided into four directions in honor of four different Hindu deities. Each direction symbolizes one of the Hindu gods. Fragrant white flowers that point to the east represent Iswara. Red flowers that point to the south are for Brahma. Yellow flowers that point west honor Mahadeva. Blue, green, or multi-colored flowers that point north are for Vishnu. On top of the canang, a pile of shredded leaves that look like green paper put through a shredder decorates the offering basket. Sometimes money or food is put on top. A typical Balinese family compound makes and offers at least fifteen canang per day, all over their property or their places of business. Extras are given on holidays or when they visit the temples that are everywhere in Bali.

The canang is more than just an offering. The practice comes with a complicated ritual offering of blessings and prayers, complete with incense and a special prayer for each type of flower petal. If you’re at a temple, it also includes being blessed with rice and holy water by the priest. The canang was one of my favorite parts of the two months I spent in Bali as part of my Sacred Medicine research.

Offerings As Preventive Medicine

Every spiritual tradition seems to have its own version of the devotional practice of offering. What we Westerners seem to have lost is the link between offering and healing, the notion that making offering practice a part of daily life—as a practice of sacred reciprocity—prevents illness and potentially treats it when it arises by evoking gratitude and evening out the balance of how much we give and receive from the earth, from nature, and from the Organizing Intelligence that we label with many different names. The only offering practice I learned in the Protestant religion of my childhood was the painful sacrifice of giving my allowance to the offering plate that was passed around the pews instead of spending it on candy at the 7-Eleven. But I never felt the offering the way I have in other spiritual traditions which evoke a devotional kind of heart-opening in me. Even the Catholic tradition of buying a candle and lighting it as an offering to Mother Mary or a departed loved one touches me more than just putting cash in a tray. As someone who did not grow up with my heart connected to the practice of offering, learning to participate in this practice has been an enormous blessing and is now part of my everyday life. At my home in Northern California, which is located in the midst of National Forest parkland, where the mountains and redwoods meet the ocean, I hike on the trails every day and make offerings of food, crystals, flowers, songs, and prayers to trees, rivers, waterfalls, the ocean, or Mt. Tamalpais, the “apu” of my hometown. It is one of the sweetest parts of my day, and I now understand the psychological, spiritual, and physiological basis for it. I sincerely believe this practice is preventive medicine.

Whether your offering is feeding monks or adorning an altar of Buddha with marigolds, performing a Peruvian despacho ceremony, bringing the Balinese “canang” banana leaf basket of flowers, rice and incense to the Hindu temples, offering flowers, prayers, tobacco, or a sacred song to a tree or the ocean, or putting money in a church offering plate or a temple donation box, making a daily practice of offering something tangible as your gesture of gratitude to the earth, the deity of your choice, or the blessings in your life fosters the frequency of thanksgiving. From my research, there is perhaps no emotion more healing than the energetic frequency of gratitude. Gratitude is perhaps only outdone by the full-throttled gratitude experience that we might call awe, bliss, ecstasy, or divine possession. Yet offering practices are a gateway to this state of being, a state that, from what I’m learning, makes your body ripe for miracles.

The Physiology Of Gratitude

Offerings can be done routinely, without involvement of the heart, the way we drop a $20 bill in an offering plate without feeling an ounce of gratitude or connecting to the heart of our spiritual connection to nature or whatever form or formlessness the Divine takes for you. You can deposit marigolds or lotus flowers in a Buddhist temple or offer the Balinese canang or the Q’ero despacho by rote, without ever invoking the healing medicine of gratitude. But when the gratitude is sincere, when your heart pours humbly on the floor in the bow of full prostration, when a breathtaking sunset strikes you with the medical treatment of awe, when your community gathers together, as we do for the holidays, to express sacred reciprocity with our loved ones in the forms of gifts we give from our hearts, we feel gratitude, not as a mental construct, but as a spiritual and emotional experience of the cracked open heart.

This open-hearted gratitude physiologically puts the heart into heart coherence, which we see with sinusoidal heart rate variability patterns on EKG. It also flips the brain into brain coherence and bonds us to others as we entrain each other into heart and brain coherence through our community offering practices, through singing or chanting songs of praise, performing collective offering practices, and bowing in prayer with our minds quietly resonating and our hearts in sync. When we do this, our cells seem to sync up too, and our bodies are flooded with what the queen of psychoneuroimmunology Candace Pert termed “the molecules of emotion.” These neurochemical markers activate healing hormones like endorphins, serotonin, dopamine, and oxytocin, while turning off stress hormones like cortisol, epinephrine, and norepinephrine, thereby flipping on the body’s self-healing mechanisms. Plus, it just feels good. Offering practices can help treat mental and spiritual sickness, as well as what ails us physically.

I’ll be mapping out a series of offering practices you can try for yourself in my Sacred Medicine book, and we’ll be making offerings in person as part of the Level II Whole Health Medicine Institute Class of 2020. But until my book comes out and we open enrollment for WHMI soon, get creative and make up your own offering! As long as it comes from your heart, I don’t think God, Goddess, Buddha, Allah, or objects in nature are fussy about what you offer, as long as your offering is sincere and full of awe and gratitude.

Do you engage in offering practices? If so, please share your practice with the rest of us in the comments below so we can inspire one another.

With a bow of gratitude,



Enjoy this post? Subscribe here so you don’t miss the next one.

Follow Lissa on Facebook

Tweet Lissa on Twitter

Feel free to share the love if you liked this post.