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Living the Gift
BUDDHIST IN THE TRENCHES
By Sarah Shifferd
How beautiful can life be? We hardly dare imagine it.” – Charles Eisenstein
I’ve never believed in money. Even though my parents explained the basics of modern economics to me over and over while I was growing up, I wasn’t convinced. Don’t get me wrong. I understood that the vast majority of people believed the economy followed certain rules; I understood our society ran on this obviously artificial system. However, that understanding didn’t make me believe. I told my parents, “Money isn’t real.”
But I lived in a society where most people believed money was real, so sometime in my early twenties, I tucked my discomfort away in a corner of my mind. It surfaced only occasionally: when as a musician, I (politely) refused money for solo concerts or simply left the building before anyone could find me to pay me. I gave cello lessons at a reduced cost that occasionally became zero. The best payment was helping someone discover and learn. Money was entirely irrelevant.
Paying others was strange for me, too. I felt a large disconnect between the price of a concert ticket and the absolute magic that transpired in the performance, between checks I wrote for Feldenkrais lessons and the deeply transformational process that Feldenkrais is. No amount of money could adequately “pay” for that.
I don’t know if my money aversion had anything to do with my decision to become a Buddhist nun, but I did become one for a little while. I suppose I found a glimpse of my solution in Puerto Rico, when the enthusiasm of those around me expressed itself in offerings of food, sacred art, and yes, money.
In the end, I didn’t realize my solution on my own. I had to be told. One spring evening in 2011, a man named Charles Eisenstein came to my city and spoke about his new book, Sacred Economics. I was skeptical going in. After all, I’d heard many explanations about many economic systems and I steadfastly remained a non-believer. But I rode the bus downtown and packed myself into a crowded pew at the Unitarian Church.
After lengthy announcements and introductions, Charles Eisenstein came to the podium. I held back tears as he articulated my lifelong feelings about money. He gently spoke the words I had never been able find: our current economic system, the exchange economy, creates separation and scarcity. It strips the Earth of its resources and devastates its beings, including us humans. The expectation of eternal growth and debt at the root of our economic system is impossible to sustain. This system was artificially created and maintained, and therefore, it can be changed. In fact, it was collapsing and evolving all around us.
The alternative is the gift economy. Where the exchange economy runs on the need to constantly acquire more, the gift economy is fueled by trust and gratitude and generosity. Where the exchange economy creates separation, the gift economy promotes togetherness, a sense of belonging, participation, and respect for all.
The gift economy is part of ancient cultures and modern internet culture. That’s right. It’s open source software and pay-what-you-want music downloads. It’s the crowdsourcing of Kickstarter and Wikipedia. In the physical world, it’s the generosity of Panera Bread and the alternative ecosystem of Burning Man. It’s “by donation” events and the tiny book trade libraries sprouting up in yards all over my neighborhood.
In the gift economy, I offer whatever I have or do, be it a product or a service. I make my offering as a gift, with no expectation of reward or “payment.” Once someone receives my gift, they are free to give to me in return if they like. They give whatever leaves them with a sense of balance and completion in our interaction. I’ve received cash, bodywork, and food. To others, I have given my writing services, knowledge of music, and yes, food. It’s not technically a this-for-that trade. We give to each other out of appreciation, the wish to support each other.
It might sound crazy, but it works. I know, because I started operating my freelance editing business in the gift economy model. And here’s what I love about it (and why I’m writing about it in this Buddhist magazine)…
I get to practice letting go.
In the gift economy, we let go of expectations and hopes and fears and judgment. If we’re not entirely there with those lofty ideals, we’re practicing non-attachment all the time, dissolving our limitations every day.
I get to practice generosity.
Remember the last time you gave something to someone? Remember the pleasure your gift gave to another being? Remember how that felt? The mind of generosity is open and expansive and full of joy. Working in the gift economy, that blissful mind is a daily reality.
Even when I do contract work at a set rate, I consider it a gift. That simple label – “gift” – is like a nuclear bomb on the usual workplace delusions. Self-cherishing simply evaporates. Every moment on the job is a source of freedom and happiness.
I also get to practice accepting the generosity of others, which hasn’t always been easy for me. But somehow, without the trappings of the exchange economy, it’s simple.
The truth is, people are good and they are kind. They want to give back, to express their appreciation for the work of others. They love practicing generosity, too. Allowing them to do so in their own way, as they are best able, creates a tremendous sense of community, of positive participation in each other’s lives. The actual exchange isn’t money or material things; it’s warmth and gratitude, kindness and love. Who could ask for anything more?
Sarah Shifferd is a freelance writer, editor and movie subtitler. She lives in the often bizarre and continually enlightening world of Portland, Oregon, U.S.
Sharon Salzberg’s “Generosity’s Perfection” is available on Shambhala Sun.
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