Spirit Of Gift: Charles Eisenstein
Posted by Audrey Lin on Aug 15, 2012
It is a simple gesture of care. Like an open palm, it is an invitation to connect—an emblem of support, respect, or well wishes for someone else. But can it be more than that? Can gifts restructure our monetary system? What does it mean to live in a gift-economy?
On last Saturday's Forest Call, we got to hear Charles Eisenstein share insights, visions, and stories from his own personal journey with a gift-economy. Not only does he write and speak extensively on the topic, he uses his own life as a fertile ground to walk his talk. While raising three kids, he’s written three books, many essays, gone broke, faced his fears around money, and learned the gifts of receiving.
Throughout it all, Charles is someone who has really walked the edges of his comfort zones, who probes the deeper questions of humanity and existence, and uses his own life as a vessel for the answer.
Experiments with Money
Since his teenage years, Charles has sensed a vague wrongness in the world. “Even though I didn’t know what it was, it prevented me from whole-heartedly participating in what was offered to me as normal.”
This led him on a winding path of exploration—a road of travel, professional work, through crises in health, marriage, and money, to lessons in letting go of a “life of control” and stepping into one of rich connections, with himself, others, and the environment around him.
After writing the Ascent of Humanity, Charles went through a period of financial hardship: “I went broke… There were times I had less than $5 and had to choose between food and gas. And with three kids, too, to make it a bit more real.”
Yet he was never in dire need. He never went hungry. His children never went hungry. They were never cold.
“Nothing bad actually happened,” he explains. “The only thing that happened was that I had to ask for help, which turned out to be what I was really afraid of all along. That humiliating experience of being in need. And going through that just kind of erased all my fears around money.”
During times of need, Charles found himself embraced by generosity.
When he lost his apartment, he just met someone who opened up his home to him. When he no longer could stay there, he informally mentioned it to a chiropractor, who connected him to friends that have a home called the ‘River Sanctuary,’ where they welcome people to stay with them.
“It just kind of worked out with a lot of ease,” he says, as simply as it sounds.
Another time, at a gas station, Charles had dug out change from under the seat in his car. With the couple dollars worth of change he had scrapped up, he went into the station to pay for the gas. When he came back out to the gas pump, a stranger walked up to him, handed him $5 and said, simply, “I’ve been there.”
Psychodynamics of Giving and Receiving
Living in the U.S., Charles learned to tap into resources everywhere. “If I’ve needed a dining room table, someone has one in their basement. The wealth is out there. It’s just a matter of making the connections and entering a state of mind where I wasn’t afraid to receive.”
But in a society with so much material wealth, there is still a prevalent sense of lack. This, he points out, happens because in the psychodynamics of giving and receiving, we keep ourselves separate from each other by being reluctant to give and receive.
“When you receive something, then you’re “in debt”, or in a state of gratitude that you want to give in return. I think that’s universal. And we have these habits of separation where we aspire to be separate from each other, and independent and self-sufficient… There’s also this spiritual pride that says, Well I want to be a giver, not a receiver. I don’t want to take.”
But, Charles explains, that’s a delusion too, because “if you actually think you can give more than you can receive, then you’re saying, ‘The gift comes from me. I’m the source of the gift.’ But if you understand that nobody is the source of their gifts—and that we’re just a channel for gift—then it has to be that giving and receiving must be in balance. Because the source of the gifts have to come as gifts to you, and you give them out as gifts.”
The more he shared, the more the subtleties of gift rose to the surface. For instance, on one level, Charles offers his books and work as gifts. On a subtler level, he views himself as the receiver of the ideas in them:
“I think a lot of artists recognize that their inspiration comes to them as a gift. Which is one reason why I don’t agree with the concept of intellectual property. I don’t see myself as the owner of these ideas, even the ones that I could argue as original. They came to me as a gift, too.”
The Value of Money
Though shifting towards gifting is of tremendous value, it does not necessarily mean that it’s ideal to abandon money all together.
On a recent trip to Europe, Charles spent some time with Mark Boyle, a man who lived without money for two years. Mark went so far as to not touch it at all, and in those two years, he lived very well. Today, he is using money again. The reason? He has projects that he wants to do, and the best way to accomplish them is by using the medium of money.
“The project is right there in front of his face, and he would have to go through all kinds of elaborate work-arounds to do them much less efficiently without money,” Charles explained. On top of that, Mark also felt that being moneyless was becoming a type of fetish for him—that he was doing it to be “pure” and excused from guilt.
In efforts to live consciously, there can be this notion of retreating from society. “Some people—I feel this way sometimes too—just don’t want to have anything to do with money. Just don’t want to participate in any of this. Not be complicit. Not use a car, not use fossil fuels, not use money…”
“But,” Charles points out, “I realize also that even if I went into the woods and never used the internet and lived off fruits and berries, the world is still burning around me. What am I doing this for?”
On one hand, he notes that money is an anonymous medium. It is a currency in which we do not need to know the people who grow our food, make our clothes, build our houses, and so on. And that anonymity leaves us lacking the things that really make life rich—the intimacy, the authenticity, the relationships and human connection.
Yet, on the other hand, “There is a place in the world for anonymous relationships,” he discerns. “I really don’t need to personally know the engineer who designed the circuit boards in the computer I use. And we need some way to channel the flow of human activity across vast social distances. There is a role for money at least…and it’ll continue to evolve that someday it might look so different from money that we won’t even call it money anymore.”
With a Heart of Abundance
With each insight, Charles opens up new levels of perspective. But not only is his mind a window to the future, he acts in the world with an enormous depth of heart.
When asked if he has a spiritual practice, he humbly replies, “My practice—really, if I have any practice—is to try to understand what it’s like to be somebody else.”
When discussing the intentions behind giving, Charles describes our interconnectedness: “There’s many levels of the self. And each of these levels is an arena of love. Because, really, love is the feeling that you are not other. And so your happiness is my happiness too, and your pain is my pain, too. We’re not separate individuals.”
As the call draws to a close, it is clear that a conversation with Charles is like tapping into the rich economics of possibility. One in which we remember that the world is constantly evolving—that our monetary system is fluid, and that real security lies in social abundance, in our acts of generosity towards each other.
In true gift spirit, he remarks, “Our small actions have cosmic significance… What makes me feel safe is when I feel really accepted, really loved. When I’m receiving the experience of abundance from other people. ...Stepping into the knowledge of abundance is not something we can do through self-will. That step is something that we have to receive as a gift. We can’t do it ourselves, but we can help other people do it. You can give someone else the experience that you cannot give yourself.”
Charles Eisenstein is the author of Sacred Economics and Ascent of Humanity. He lives in Harrisburg, PA with his wife and three children. He continues to write and travels the world giving talks and workshops. More information and latest news can be found on his website and blog.