Challenges Of Giftivism
--Vasco Gaspar
19 minute read
Jul 30, 2019


[Below is an edited transcript of a delightful conversation with Nipun and some spiritual elders of the Heartfulness ecosystem .]

Victor: Our institutional culture ethos is to give all the teachings for free, but we do have some material costs. Brian, in particular, is holding this edge at the Ohio center that he runs. When we asked Daaji, he said he's been thinking about Giftivism and pay-forward. So we thought we'd ask you about it.

Nipun: Thank you. What a joy to know that Daaji is resonant with these ideals. There are various ways to think about it.

Let’s consider reciprocity -- giving and receiving. Most of us are typically engaged in three kinds of reciprocity -- direct, indirect and infinite. Direct reciprocity is linear and transactional. I do this for you and you do this for me in return; money is a technology that supports this process. Practically all of our current world is rooted in this. Indirect reciprocity is circular and relational, and hence more multi-dimensional. I do something for someone in front of me, they do it for the person in front of them, and as the circle goes around, someone behind me does something for me. Everyone receives, but their experience is rooted in giving. Karma Kitchen is a great example of this. And beyond that, there is infinite reciprocity. Here the size of the circle and direction of giving and receiving is so large that is almost beyond comprehension. We just operate with universal values like compassion, and understand that it ripples into the entire conscious web that binds all of us together. I think of this as grace.

When we are rooted in the ego, it is natural for that ego to want to shoulder the burden of existence. We find safety in narrow feedback loops and things become transactional. It's a low-bandwidth engagement with life, until we learn to upgrade from that fear. As we arrive at indirect reciprocity, we find a deeper sense of refuge in our interconnection with others. Yet, relationships are messy, mindsets aren't always congruent, and the premium is on our inner capacity for equanimity. If we can learn to be equanimous, we can reap the benefit of a circle. This offers us much more resiliency. While this is more fulfilling, at some point, your heart feels into other circles -- concentric circles, nested circles, spirals, unnameable connection. Instead of just looking at a fruit on a branch tip, we now see the all the leaves, branches, and trunk -- and more importantly, sense into the roots and the interconnection of the roots to some many others roots. It feels ungraspable, but a quieter mind -- without fear and with equanimity -- no longer asks the question. Now it's not just a circle, but we are guided by the collective intelligence of those connections. We embrace the grace.

As designers and architects, the question we hold is -- what kind of social systems will allow us to engage all kinds of reciprocity, but is optimized for grace? Most of our systems are optimized for transaction, and this is not surprising because most of our tools are similarly inclined.

Vasco: For the last year, particularly inspired by our experience at Gandhi 3.0, Maria and I have been running a Deep U program on a gift basis. Priceless pricing. After some initial hiccups, it's now not only been sustainable but it’s allowed us to sponsor a few other activities. Even more importantly, it’s been very meaningful and rewarding personally and we're continuing to learn many lessons as we go.

What we first discovered is that we fully need to be ourselves, and that the success of our outer designs is proportional to our inner commitment to these values. In gift-based pricing, who we are seems to factor into the eventual outcome. As a result, there isn’t a set formula. It depends on the physical context, and how that touches our internal context. In that sense, the implementers need to less of managers who can deliver a prescription and more of curious explorers in a dynamically alive ecosystem of relationships.

One big lesson was transparency. In one of our early experiences, we didn't put any price tags and that got a bad reaction. So then, we started sharing all our costs transparently upfront and that helped everyone relate to the context more clearly.

Also, it was very important that people give from a place of abundance, in place of guilt and other such motivations. So we opened up our offerings to “multiple forms of wealth.” Now, everyone could give in whatever way they wanted to. In place of financial sustainability, the focus shifted on giving. And that changed how everyone related to each other, and in fact, generated more gratitude and more giving. What also helped is that we made it clear that if people aren’t inspired to give, they don’t need to. No strings attached spirit also, paradoxically, inspires more giving.

Victor: From all the experiments you’ve seen and supported around the world, what would you cite as some of the challenges to expand from transactions?

Nipun: At a meta-level, I would say that people have forgotten how to value things without a price tag. Previously, we used to have cost-based pricing, where a sandwich at a mom-and-pop shop is cost + some profit on top. Then we went to value-based pricing, where that sandwich at an airport was a whole lot more, because it had that value for you. At a systems level, though, we biased our design towards spaces like airports where we could extract more profit. With a gift-economy, we turn this around and tell the consumer, “You figure out the value for you and offer what you want.”

As a culture, if we are not trained in valuing the priceless, we can easily get confused with such invitations. Do I benchmark my Karma Kitchen contribution based on what I would typically pay at a restaurant, do I tune into what I’m feeling and give for my experience, do I consider the inequity in the world and pay commensurate to my income, do I respond entirely with gratitude that I feel by this invitation to expand in empathy? And then, how do I mix and match financial capital and non-financial capital? These are not easy questions. A conditioned consumer will likely have loads of blindspots when being honored as a contributor, and like anything else, it takes time and practice to uncondition, unlearn and relearn new rules of engagement.

Conveners of such experiments need a deeply revolutionary heart -- because they will be forced to pay for consequences they didn’t create. And one has to get creative to be able to stay afloat and not get overwhelmed by the burdens of a callous culture we’ve inherited. That’s a huge challenge.

At a broader level, it’s also worth exploring some nuances.

The merits of transaction are precisely that it blocks out our inner ecology; when I'm getting a sandwich at the store, I don't really care to know if the cashier is getting along with his family or not. The cashier is merely the means to an end.

Over a lifetime, this organizing principle leads to rampant disconnection. We get so used to using people and circumstances for some future outcome, that we get in the habit of making up meta and micro destinations. School is a means to get a job; a job is means to get money; money is a means to go on vacation to de-stress from my job; and on and on and on. Rat-race to nowhere, transacting to win at manufactured games, building up an illusionary sense of identity. It’s doesn’t fulfill and leaves us utterly fragmented. This is the state of the world today -- personal, social and system disconnection.

Clearly, we need to deepen engagement. Yet, how many of us are ready to be in relationship with every cashier we engage with? Or even some of them? While we are smart enough to complain about the convenience of the centralized Walmarts of the world, have we cultivated the inner equanimity required to hold the messiness of diverse relationships?

Another challenge is our obsession with speed. If I have to put on a hundred person event this weekend, I will have to take short-cuts. We skip over relationships to get there. That kind of bypassing becomes such a habit, that we do this even with ourselves. We don't have time for ourselves, our own well-being, because we're so busy getting to our imaginary destinations. It sounds so silly when you really think about it, but our minds get trapped in it, we build collective stories that perniciously use social ties to keep us in these devolving loops, and it feels impossible to get out that "Truman Show". It takes a lot of courage to call out the games of the mind.

Similarly, we are addicted to scale. On the face of it, we can make a reasonable argument that we want maximal number of people to benefit from our product or services or insight. But who is it that is wants to take responsibility for the benefit of all? The ego? The collective ego of an organization or a movement? Do we conclusively know the difference between suffering that ought to be alleviated and suffering that is a stepping stone to greater insight? Under more nuanced scrutiny, life feels more like a fractal -- what is true at very nano-level of our cells is just as true at very macro levels of the cosmos, and everywhere in between. In an interconnected world with continuous mirroring, a small act aligned with our collective consciousness can be just as, if not more, potent than a large-scale, coordinated action by our physical system alone. It takes a lot to trust in an intelligence that transcends the densely material realm, an intelligence that includes our inner ecologies.

Expanding from transaction, then, requires us to surrender short-term convenience; requires cultivation of equanimity to hold a multiplicity of views in relationships; requires courage to question our mind games; requires trust in a collective intelligence whose mechanism are, by definition, unknowable by the ego. All of that requires a profound inner transformation. And a HUGE heart. Not so trivial. It's much easier to build glossy innovations that help us swipe left and right to sweep our mess under the rug. It's far more difficult to grow in equanimity, compassion and kindness -- which are the building blocks of indirect reciprocity.

As heartful designers, a core question to hold might be -- what systems can help cultivate inner transformation, and how can a deepening awareness help inform those systems?

Long back, I remember summarizing my personal process like this: “I meditate to deepen personal awareness, use that to uncover assets in any given situation, gift those assets to create cooperation among involved parties, watch that synergistic (1+1>2) value attract social capital organically, and let those moved by it amplify the work via word-of-mouth stories.”

Brian: I had a somewhat of a revelation in watching some ServiceSpace talks, because I realized that maybe we need to just stop talking about free. Gift and giftivism is so much stronger, and is actually a totally different way of thinking! How do we educate people about understanding this? I’m thinking of putting a huge billboard at the entrance that reads, “This Church operates on giftivism”.

Nipun: To your point on “free”, I totally agree that it should be avoided. In our culture, free is completely co-opted and cheapened by the commercial paradigm. Free, today, is a promotion, sales-y process of lead generation. You get people in the door with free, and then you upsell other products later. As a result, everyone is wary of free. So, in such a context, we have creatively learn to distinguish free versus gift.

Free is benchmarked with a certain market price; what would otherwise cost you X dollars is zero. Gift, on the other hand, is benchmarked with gratitude. When we get a gift at Christmas, it evokes a kind of gratitude. And moreover, with a gift, it is incumbent on the recipient to pay-it-forward. In a narrow circle, like a family, this can even feel like an obligation. But as that circle grows towards infinity, obligation feels more like a responsibility and then ultimately a privilege. You don’t pay-forward a gift because you have to, but rather because you get to. Having received unearned grace, we are moved by gratitude.

When we move from free to gift, we are actually inviting a dramatic u-turn from an entitlement culture of a market to a responsibility culture of a circle towards an even deeper culture of gratitude. At an Ayurveda conference, an elder shared something profound: “It is written in our scriptures, that the healing is incomplete, if we charge for it.” It is incomplete, when that patient-doctor is a transaction or even a responsibility; it is only complete when we see that moment as an act of grace, and gratitude powers entirety of our service.

So how do we start? As producers, we may want to give it out of gratitude -- but how we support communities of consumers in understanding our intent, and then support them in becoming contributors towards that same aim? That’s a good question to hold. :)

If, at your Church, let’s say that you are thinking of financial sustainability for the teachers. At some level, it can come from a centralized place. Sort of like Fed-Ex delivery that goes to a central place and then gets parceled out. But the Internet’s model of delivery and very decentralized and peer-to-peer; when I send you an email, it gets broken up into “packets” and they are transmitted from neighbor to neighbor to neighbor. So this income can come from a centralized place, like your headquarters, or it can be more decentralized to your country headquarters, or just your city or the person alone or ultimately even beyond an ask itself. The more decentralized it is, the stronger the web. And it allows engagement with multiple forms of capital, which is even more powerful. Such a deep web is much more resilient, and will last the longest -- perhaps even thousands of years. This is because it can quickly and more effectively turn consumers of content intro producers of that inspiration.

Brian: I’m also curious how the online world plays into this. I’ve recently started volunteering on Quora, and I’ve noticed that without any agenda, I’m able to create very meaningful connections.

Nipun: Oh yeah, online is its own context. Clearly, it’s not nearly as multi-dimensional as in-person interactions, but you can also control information flows more clearly, so it can be more focused in certain ways. I think it’s overly simplistic to say we cannot trigger compassion online. After so many years of experience with online communities, like KindSpring, I would say that the hybrid of online and offline is most effective. Gary Kasparov is this legendary chess player, and he notes that the best chess today is played not by a machine or a human, but by the combination of the two. That balance, that middle path, is always ideal -- but on the whole, humanity isn’t so good with living into the balance. We typically don’t know when to stop with a good thing, so we probably need to have good creative constraints in place to limit deviance in this hybrid model of online-and-offline solutions that help awaken insight and compassion. A lot more could be said about that, but I’ll leave it at that for now. :)

Naren: One of the recent experiences that Nipun and I went through was an ‘After Mindfulness’ conference at UC Berkeley.

ServiceSpace had piloted a beautiful ‘unTickets’ idea, where participants could get their tickets with a different kind of wealth. You could always pay $108 to get a ticket, but you could also do 7 acts of kindness, or 8 hours of meditation, or create a 5-minute video on the theme of the conference, or volunteer your time for the conference. As a result, the whole conference felt so much more inclusive and had a non-commercial feel, that opened it up to a gentle and persistent undercurrent of love. It was beautiful.

It was a great example of a hybrid model, in that there was an online information flow of stories of kindness, or reflections from meditation, or photos from volunteering, or a video selfie on mindfulness. I believe 300 people submitted unTicket requests, out of 850 total tickets. So that’s a lot of content and relationships, and it was all managed online. And yet, the crescendo of the interactions and the ripples were offline at the conference.

Such kind of experience feels impossible at a commercial conference, or purely in an online space. Moreover, when we offer an offline event on a donation basis, there can be a counter-productive sense of guilt. This changes that feeling altogether.

Nipun: The guilt is an important nuance. How do you shift from guilt to gratitude? All of you know about Karma Kitchen, where everyone is trusted to pay forward for the person after them. At its peak, it became quite popular, and lots of people were replicating it in many contexts -- which is great, and what we encourage. But what many would end up doing is a “pay-what-you-can” pricing model, which is subtly but significantly different from “pay-forward-what you-want”. The former is still a me-oriented experience: what I can afford, what I received, what I am moved by. It has its merits, but paying-forward evokes a far deeper empathy and that expansion is dramatically more likely to yield gratitude. First you accept a gift from someone you don't know, and then, you get to pay-forward for someone who can never thank you. Coupled with the inclusivity of multiple forms of wealth, such an interaction opens up a whole another realm of possibility that transaction of "pay-what-you-want" simply cannot.

All too often, when organizers ask "Did it work out?", the gauge is our financial ledgers. That's a terribly suffocating metric. The purpose of all this isn’t financial at all. I mean, sure, we have to make our costs, but our "return on investment" is most powerful when it is non-financial -- because such capital will have a much stronger ripple effect. So, sure, we can scheme to game gratitude to get more money, but that would be silly. :) The deepest purpose here is to learn about nature’s reciprocity, of grace, of receiving a foot for every inch we give -- of abundance.

I really love this poem by Tagore that illustrates this -- A beggar was awaiting the arrival of the King, to receive alms. And then, the chariot arrives, King walks down and opens his palm to beg from the beggar! Confused, the beggar offers a little grain of corn. But as the poem goes, "At the day's end, I emptied my bag on the floor to find a little grain of gold. I wish I had the heart to give thee my all."

Harpreet: I’ve been connected to ServiceSpace for many years now, ever since I first heard Pavi’s talk. I just love all the principles, and we have been experimenting with it too. For the most part, I would say that we need to get better at our messaging, so everyone can understand these counter-culture ideas more clearly. Still, what I was wondering about was the subtler expectations in giving. For instance, in Heartfulness, when we are offering gifts of wisdom through experience, there is a kind of "giving" that has no expectations whatsoever. So I was wondering if you have debated that -- a gift given with an inadvertent yet inherent expectation of it resulting in pay-forward, and just selfless service with no expectations altogether?

Nipun: May I give more than a speck of gold when the golden chariot arrived? :) Oh, yes, absolutely. With indirect reciprocity of a circle, as we spoke earlier, the feedback loop is larger than transaction, but there is still a feedback loop. A hint of transaction. At some point, we outgrow that and trust in nature’s reciprocity. And with that grace, we don't need to know the outcome because we trust that the universe is organized around compassion and that if we are planting a seed of compassion, it will somewhere somehow complete its loop and do what it needs to do. We have faith in that process.

The challenge lies in our skilfulness. We have to meet each person where they’re at. If I'm giving a talk in China and nobody understands English, it’s gonna be limited, right? So in some sense, in a transactional mindset, like with unTickets for example, you meet people half way. It’s a stepping stone. We gradually expand the conversation from “I paid for my tickets” to “I paid with kindness” to “kindness rocks.” As good designers, it is incumbent on us to create a pathway from direct reciprocity to indirect, and from that to grace. If we don’t have the “high end” pathways of infinite reciprocity, of selfless giving as you said, it would be bad design. But if we just had that high-end paths, it’s not going to be as inclusive.

Harpreet: Thank you, that’s very clear. What are your thoughts on its reverse -- where we are so obsessed with giving something for free, that we block the reciprocity that is coming from recipient’s gratitude?

Nipun: That’s a real common problem. I often describe the process of giving as “give, receive and dance” -- we first give, then realize that we can’t do that without receiving, and ultimately stop keeping track and start dancing. I remember a woman who came to an Awakin Circle at my parent’s home said she couldn’t have the meal, because there was no donation box to pay for it, and she didn’t want to be a free-loader. But she knew it was being offered with such love, so she went to the side and wept. “Who have I become that I want to turn offerings of love into transactions?” she later reflected. What she did, to become a better receiver, is to practice more giving. Not just more giving, but this time with a deeper awareness.

All too often, our giving becomes a subversive way to keep us on the top of the food chain. Instead of dissolving the ego, its emboldens it. At best, such givers can offer out of sympathy. And in such cases, the giver is disconnected from the receiving. It’s a very low-bandwidth way to give.

If one is caught in that vicious loop, I always recommend doing small acts of kindness with a mindfulness of the process. It is impossible to give without receiving. Like a hug. You can only give a hug while getting a hug. The challenge here, though, is usually our own myopic lens. When we give with a particular form of wealth, we are expecting reciprocity in the same form of wealth. But as we give more, our ego releases its grasp on us, and we can see more clearly and more expansively.

In that sense, “giving without receiving anything in return” is a misnomer. Its nuanced version would be “give with awareness of reciprocity, but without expecting any returns in the same form of wealth.” That way, you are not throwing away offerings of gratitude.

Brian: To plant seeds of this new kind of thinking, what are small steps we can take in our Center? I remember reading about your Smile Cards. Maybe we can have Peace Cards that everyone receives after the meditation.

Harpreet: One thing I particularly remember from our Laddership Circle is the trilogy of "hands, head, heart". I think a lot of our interventions are just head-oriented. But if we include hands and heart also, it creates a very different ripple effect that includes many more kinds of people.

Nipun: Totally agree. I love Smile Cards, because they’re so deceptively simple, and it engages the "hands" and "heart". You do a kind act, leave a Smile Card behind that serves as a reminder for the recipient to pay it forward and keep the chain of kindness going. It can be very helpful because it’s a tangible tool for something that’s intangible, but its greatest strength is the inner transformation that emerges from those kind acts and the resulting affinities that are built along the way.

The challenge here is to make sure it’s not a marketing tool, because people will immediately sniff that out, and also because it creates a narrow feedback loop. So if it’s a way to bring more people to your center, that’s unlikely to work. But if it’s purely based on principle, it could be very powerful. For instance, I experience meditation at the Center, and at the end, I get a reminder card that says, “If you’ve been touched by peace, here are five ways you can pay it forward.” And wider the circle of care, the stronger the act. So, if I say, “bring a friend to next week’s service”, that’s quite narrow. But if I say, “Make an oragami peace dove and silently gift it to a stranger on the street. To share your experience with other community members, write to us here.” That opens up a much wider circle. Over time, that will generate tons of stories, you can amplify the buzz from the dias, and organically, in due time, it will position you as a platform for peace -- as you rightfully are. But if we rush that process, by collapsing the feedback loops and wanting immediate results, we lose out on nature’s backing. Nature want to support peace, kindness, compassion -- we just have to let it. :)

In so many ways, we have lived through that insight with the last 20 years of ServiceSpace. We’ve never marketed or pushed or fundraised. In a world of short cuts, it’s a definite long cut, :) but that sincerity creates a magnetic pull of sorts by the mere propensity of our intrinsic wiring. You aren’t drawn to ServiceSpace because it’s amazing in XYZ ways, but you are drawn to it because it’s sincerely about kindness -- and we’re all drawn to kindness because that’s how we’re wired.


Posted by Vasco Gaspar on Jul 30, 2019

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