A market economy is based on exchange, how much we owe (based on lack) and are able to earn (based on social judgment). A gift economy is based on faith, how much we share (based on trust) and give away (based on abundance). To me a gift economy has always felt natural. Embodying this Earth Ethos of faith, trust and abundance has been a life-long challenge in a lack-based global market economy. It has taken me many years of barely eking out a living, as well as numerous failed personal and professional relationships, to navigate this philosophical conflict with popular culture. Today, many of the services we call “sharing,” like paying to be in a car pool, are still part of a market economy. Charles Eisenstein is an advocate for a gift economy in modern Western culture, and his description of it is as follows:
Many indigenous cultures embody the philosophy of a gift economy. For the Kwakwaka’wakw people of Canada, the wealthiest people are those who give away resources in a potlatch ceremony, which may be planned a year in advance and last for several days. During the ceremony the host distributes wealth amongst guests, including beaded jewellery, leather clothing, and lavish foods. As Elder Agnes Axu Alfred explains:
“When one’s heart is glad, he gives away gifts. Our Creator gave it to us, to be our way of doing things, to be our way of rejoicing, we who are. Everyone on earth is given something. The potlatch was given to us to be our way of expressing joy.”
In Papa New Guinea, people work for years to be able to give a moka gift to another person, who then works to gather an even bigger moka gift to give, as explained in the following video:
(The full documentary entitled Ongka’s Big Moka is available here.)
While being part of a market economy is currently compulsory for most of us to survive, there are areas of life where we can embody a gift economy. The first principle of abundant giving is that we have to be filled up ourselves and have extra energy to give. We have all experienced someone brimming with kindness so that we feel it in their presence, and another person clearly intending to be kind only able to offer a sheepish smile. Being honest about what we are capable of abundantly giving helps us avoid being in a space of lack. Whether mentally, spiritually, emotionally, or physically, we can only give to another what we ourselves possess. Once we judge/expect ourselves, saying we “should” embody a certain state of being, we have lost the ability to embody what we intend. A strengths-based perspective is the starting point for a gift economy.
Simple acts of kindness without expectation of anything in return (not even a thank-you) embody a gift economy, as do larger acts like doing pro bono work or volunteer projects. Most spiritual traditions enshrine the philosophy of a gift economy into their teachings, such as Christian tithing or Buddhist dana. Some organisations such as Vipassana meditation centres and Brahma Kumaris talks and retreats operate entirely on participant donation. But I have observed an insidious tendency to create expectations for exchange. A “Suggested Donation” of a specific monetary amount carries an expectation of a specific exchange, and trying to prove you are “a good person”, alleviate guilt, or “create good karma” are lack-based intentions. (The image below is from here.)
In my experience, embodying a gift economy in modern Western culture requires firm boundaries, strong skills of discernment, compassion and deep self-knowledge. We need to be willing to receive no money or expressions of gratitude from the person we are serving, and to prevent abuse, we need to know when to say no, to stop giving when it is no longer a gift. I call this spiritual social work, and there are an abundance of opportunities for all of us to practice it daily, such as giving compassion to a person criticising our behaviour, empathising with a leader struggling with narcissism, or giving grace to an erratic driver. Instead of judging and placing someone in lack, which then requires us to forgive, we can practice accepting and holding both of us in abundance. In my life, the person in whose presence I felt the most abundance, who was a subsistence farm woman in rural Guatemala who had a condition causing her skin to change colour and peel off her face and body. She had such a strong, vibrant spirit she was emanating light and to be in her presence felt joyful. Though I have had dinner with billionaires, this lady remains the wealthiest woman I have seen.