To Give Is to Strengthen

by Dan Joseph

aspen trees in ColoradoI recently took a trip into the mountains near my home in Colorado. It was a lovely fall day, and the aspen trees were bright gold against the blue sky. For a while, I zipped along at a comfortable pace, enjoying the scenery.

But then, all of sudden I came across a long line of slow-moving cars. The cars were crawling along well below the speed limit. I took my place at the end of the line.

I began to grumble to myself about the delay. Because the mountain roads in Colorado are so curvy, there are few places to pass slow-moving cars; therefore, back-ups like this occur often. Usually the culprit is an out-of-state visitor who doesn't realize that he or she can pull-over and allow the line to pass.

Minutes went by, and we all continued to crawl. I began to grumble louder. Doesn't this person realize that there is a huge line of cars behind him? Why doesn't he pull over at one of the well-marked "slow-moving cars" pull-outs? Is he intentionally being rude? Why is he interfering with my nice scenic drive?

I became more and more impatient. I imagine that many of my fellow drivers were feeling the same. Hey, I thought, driver at the front of the line — you're going 10 mph below the speed limit! Don't you see the sign? I squirmed with irritation.

Finally we emerged into a passing-lane area, and all of us zoomed past the slowpoke. As I passed, I looked over. Sure enough, there were two touristy-looking folks in the car, pointing at various sights and chatting animatedly. They seemed to be completely oblivious to the angry drivers around them.

As I passed them and accelerated up the mountain road, I was struck by how well this situation illustrated an important spiritual idea:

What we give to others bounces right back to us.

Did my impatience, irritation, and anger affect the slow-moving driver? No. Not at all. He had no idea that I — and perhaps the other drivers — were angry at him. He had no idea that we were mumbling nasty words. He had no idea that we considered him rude or clueless or whatever. He was completely unaffected by our thoughts.

We, on the other hand, were intensely affected by our thoughts. Our cars were like greenhouses, trapping the heat that we put out, and bouncing it back upon us. I continued to be irritated for quite a while. And why? Not because of what the slow driver had done. Not really. Instead, I was irritated because I had put out (and thus strengthened) thoughts of anger, irritation, and impatience. Those thoughts remained with me, bouncing around.

This experience reminded me that the thoughts and feelings we "give out" don't really go anywhere. Rather, they stay with us and multiply. In my experience with the slow driver, this dynamic worked against me. But the good news is that the same dynamic can work for us just as easily.

You Get What You Give

One of the most common themes in A Course in Miracles is the idea that giving thoughts is how we strengthen them for ourselves.

This is the exact opposite of how the world usually thinks. Most people believe that when they give away their thoughts, they get rid of them. They believe that by "venting" hostility at someone, they become free of that hostility. By judging other people, they feel less judged themselves. By labeling someone else as guilty (especially politicians!), they feel more innocent by comparison.

But the Course points out that this is completely, utterly backward. What we give to others actually becomes stronger within ourselves. The thoughts we "give" stay with us, bouncing and multiplying. Like my experience in the car, our minds retain the thoughts we "put out," increasing them along the way.

If any of us fully realized this, we would immediately devote the rest of our lives to giving — and thus strengthening — thoughts of kindness, generosity, and love. It would be the only logical thing to do! By giving kindness, we immediately "get" that kindness. By giving love, we multiply it for ourselves. We are always the most immediate recipients of our thoughts.


A Course in Miracles spends a lot of time talking about this idea within the context of forgiveness. You can probably see how this follows.

If we generate thoughts of resentment and hatred toward others, we're really filling our own minds with those thoughts. If we choose to release those thoughts, we're simply engaging in an act of self-respect. Forgiveness has little to do with another person's actions; it's really an act of kindness toward ourselves.

Much has been written about this dynamic. So rather than cover that ground again, I'd like to take a brief look at the flip side of things. What can we can do when someone else has a grievance — or directs hostility — against us?

As a bit of background, let me introduce a concept from science. In physics, there is a dynamic called "entrainment." The idea is that two moving systems will often begin to harmonize — to move in synchrony with each other. Like two partners coming together in a dance, the motions of the systems begin to complement each other.

The mind seems to be built this way as well. It is, after all, how communication happens. Two people may have different thought patterns when they begin a conversation. However, during their conversation, the two people begin to align their thoughts. There is an entrainment, or alignment, that takes place between the minds. (In fact, if this doesn't happen, both people probably feel like they "just didn't connect.")

The problem is that this type of thought-entrainment can create a great deal of pain — especially for very empathetic people. Sensitive, empathetic people tend to "entrain" easily to whomever they are with. If they are surrounded by people who are generating loving, kind thoughts, there can be a beautiful sharing and strengthening of that outflow. But if they are surrounded by people who are "putting out" shaming, attacking thoughts — ouch! The tendency is to "entrain" onto that attacking pattern (often in an internalizing manner.)

I find that a great protection against this is to remember that we are always affected by our own thoughts. As I discussed above, our loving thoughts affect us, as do our unloving thoughts. Regardless of what anyone else is "putting out," we are most immediately affected by what we put out.

That is why it is important to "dis-entrain" from people's thought patterns at times. If someone is generating unkind, shaming, attacking thoughts — and sending them in your direction — you do not have to align with those thoughts. You do not have to "entrain" with their motion. Instead, you can firmly choose to "put out" — and thus strengthen for yourself — whatever thoughts you want.

A Call for Love

A Course in Miracles touches on this dynamic when it encourages us to "see all attack as a call for love." This is another way of describing the process. When someone "sends out" attacking, shaming, hostile thoughts, that person is multiplying those thoughts for himself. He will suffer from his thoughts; there is no way around that.

Understanding this, we can choose to respond to his hostile thoughts with our own loving (kind, compassionate) thoughts. We don't do this because we're being saintly. Not at all. Instead, we do it out of a wonderful sense of self-interest. By refusing to "entrain" with his hostility, and choosing instead to fill our minds with peaceful, loving thoughts, we engage in an act of kindness toward ourselves. We also simultaneously offer the other person an invitation to entrain onto us.

Again, it can sometimes be challenging for highly empathetic people to do this. I myself find this to be a primary challenge in life. Those of us who are sensitive or empathetic are used to automatically entraining with whomever we're with — regardless of the "quality" of the thoughts that are being generated. We tend to "lock on" to other people's patterns.

But it's essential that we learn to be firmly self-respectful, and refuse to entrain with unloving thought patterns. We are most immediately affected by our own thoughts. The thoughts we "give out" stay with us and multiply. This is true regardless of what anyone else around us is doing. It is our responsibility to choose what thoughts we want to strengthen — and multiply.

I think of those tourists on the mountain road. While I and the other drivers "sent out" thoughts of irritation, the tourists filled their minds with thoughts of wonder and appreciation for the splendor of a Colorado fall day. They maintained the flow of their peaceful thoughts.

Now, could they have been more aware of the traffic situation? Sure. Could they have pulled over to let us pass? Of course. But regardless, I'm glad that they chose to fill their minds with appreciative, wonder-filled thoughts, and didn't entrain with our anger and irritation. By doing so, they helped me to see the contrast between what I was multiplying, and what they were.

To subscribe to the Quiet Mind newsletter, in which this article first appeared, please click here.