Shadow, Ritual, and Relationship in the Gift

Posted on Dec 8, 2014
Shadow, Ritual, and Relationship in the Gift

This essay has been translated into Portuguese.


A friend recently asked me a question I get a lot: “How do you manage payment for your time and workshops?” by which she also meant, “How can I do that in a way that works practically and feels right too?” I would like to answer that question publicly, both to puncture the misperception that I am some kind of pure, selfless being who doesn’t sully his hands with money, and also to sober those who, invoking my name in association with simplistic ideals of what “living in the gift” is, adopt unrealistic practices that are doomed to fail.

Most of the people who ask such a question are doing healing work, art, music, or something else that is sacred to them. For various reasons, they don’t want to charge a fee for their services. For one thing, they are not fundamentally doing it for the money, and don’t want to withhold service to someone who needs it simply because they don’t have the ability to pay. Even for those who can pay, boxing the work into conventional categories of fee-for-service seems to cheapen and reduce it. After all, what is the right price for something sacred? Any amount is both too much and too little.

Many of these people also feel frustrated with the limitations that money imposes over the free exercise of their work. They just want to do their work; they don’t want to have to be bothered with money.

Please, don’t diagnose the situation as, “She is reluctant to charge what her services are worth because she feels unworthy, believes she is undeserving, has difficulty in opening to receive, is in scarcity mentality, etc. etc.” It isn’t like we who are grappling with this issue haven’t looked at that, and indeed sometimes it is true. We who do edgy work might internalize society’s implicit devaluing of that work, which often doesn’t fit into existing professional categories. More often than not, though, the difficulty is not psychological, but systemic. After all, many people who are drawn to explore gift-based business models are people who have been successful in the old model and have grown uncomfortable with it.

The systemic dimension to the problem is highlighted by the fact that so many of these artists, healers, permaculturists, etc. have not been successful in the old model. One interpretation of why is that, sorry, their offerings are either second-rate or not useful to society That is why no one wants to pay for them. That could be – sometimes, when the world seems to reject your gifts, it is a message that it is time to develop them further, to be more sensitive to what is actually needed, or to transition into something else. We must also recognize, however, that the relative valuing of services depends on the context of social values; second-rate could actually mean, “Doesn’t conform to what society has institutionalized as valuable.” If you go through medical school and get a degree in psychiatry, you earn rewards of hundreds of dollars an hour, because on some level society has decided that this is more valuable than the services of someone who has gone through four years of training in energy healing or soil regeneration. But that doesn’t mean that these latter services are actually less valuable.

In general, those vocations that society rewards most highly are those that contribute to the world as we have known it, for it is from this world that the institutions that define value have arisen. It is no surprise that activities that contribute to the world-devouring machine – that grease its wheels or camouflage its ugliness – are rewarded by that machine, of which the money system is a key component. Therefore, any work that defies it, that contributes to the healing of the planet and the reclaiming of sovereignty over our lives, or that disrupts systems of exploitation, is unlikely to be highly paid or valued as a professional service. There are of course many exceptions to this, but not enough exceptions to accommodate everyone who wishes to do such work – a paucity built into the system on a deep level.

Thus it is that the aspiring edge-worker is in the same boat as the person who had been successful in the old model and is looking for a different way. Simplistically ascribing their difficulties to their own psychology neglects larger sociological issues and bypasses serious concrete issues that need to be addressed. Practically speaking, what are the alternatives to the customary fee-for-services or for-profit business model?

Rather than describe these alternatives, I would like to explain the motivating paradigm that they come from. If the motivation is partially grounded in the values of what I sometimes call the old story, the results will reveal hidden inconsistencies that will take the form of it “not working.”

As I describe some of these “shadow motivations,” please do not feel ashamed if you notice any of them operating within yourself. They’re just an old programming that is everywhere in the dominant culture. Besides, I myself am able to describe them only because I have personal experience with each and every one!

One of the shadow motives for doing work by gift is a desire for exculpation from the crimes that a money-driven society has perpetrated on human beings and the planet. No longer can anyone accuse you, nor need you accuse yourself, of greed, profiteering, or exploiting others. You get to be blameless. Unfortunately, guilt avoidance is not real generosity; it is a kind of narcissism that motivates only the trivial levels of action sufficient to alleviate one’s personal guilt. Moreover, it expresses a kind of scarcity thinking: a conditionality of self-acceptance. It leaves a subtle stink of self-righteousness, and it results in the gift business model not working, since the goal of guilt absolution is best served by being the innocent martyr.

Now, I am not saying that such a motive dominates anyone who is attracted to gift-based business practices. It is rather a shadow to take note of, endemic to our society due to the near-ubiquity of the “struggle to be good.” It provides relief from the discomfort both of oppressor guilt and of the devastating conditioning to see ourselves as fundamentally sinful, selfish, or self-interested. If a gift-based practice is “not working,” it might be because that shadow is present in the background.

Another shadow motivation is the desire to simply wash one’s hands of the whole fuss-and-bother around money, to avoid the complicated and uncomfortable issues that come up when it is confronted. We are all familiar with the discomfort that arises when the time comes to “talk about the money”; we have all noticed how the cost for various events or products is kept hidden until the last moment or hidden on the bottom of the page. How nice it would be not to have to deal with it at all! Unfortunately, by doing this we sweep under the rug thorny issues that do not thereby go away. Money can be a means for the negotiation of social relationships, for the defining of roles and boundaries. It comprises, in fact, some of the chief rituals of our culture. To discard it without a substitute leaves both parties in a state of limbo, not understanding what their relationship is supposed to be. Perhaps that is why a homeopathic doctor friend of mine struggled to find clients when she was operating without fees, and why those patients she did have were not compliant, not really seeing her as a doctor. The situation improved when she started charging professional fees. On the other hand, the disappearance of normal means of negotiating role and relationship can be quite fertile, inviting the deconstruction and rethinking of those roles, but eventually some other means must emerge. To let go of conventional money arrangements (such as a set fee for service) is not an exit from the messiness of that negotiation; it is an entry into a new one.

These two shadows emanate from the same basic impulse: to rise above the world, to disengage from full participation in it. Thus, some associate abstinence from commerce with spirituality, and the money realm with the mundane. But I hardly need say that we are evolving away from a spirituality that is unworldly, seeking no longer to transcend the world, but to participate in it differently; no longer to rise above the human drama, but to rewrite its roles. It is this motivation that will inform a successful transition into gift culture.

While I would not dismiss the value in many situations of “just giving it away for free,” the result, if that practice is sourced in any of the shadow motivations I’ve described, is sure to be disappointing. Even if the motivation is pure, all kinds of buried social inequities and personal conflicts rise to the surface when existing money structures are removed, for these encode many of the rules that guide behavior and thought.

Marie Goodwin’s account of the Free Store of Media, Pennsylvania comes to mind as an example. Ordinarily, if you have a lot of money, you can take anything home from a store that you want; if you have no money, you can’t take anything, under threat of force of law. What happens when this deep conditioning is suddenly removed? What do you do? How do you limit yourself in taking? What is the right amount to take if you haven’t given something? Money normally encodes a set of socially reinforced answers to those questions. They may not be ideal answers – indeed they constitute an unjust and ecocidal system – but they are at least a frame of reference, a practical and even moral guide. So, the Free Store inspires a lot of reflection, questioning, and sometimes bewilderment. It also triggers rabid criticism from those who feel threatened by its flouting of convention. And, it exposes social wounds that otherwise remain hidden; to wit, the woman who came in daily, took everything of value, and sold it to sustain her drug habit. This invited impassioned discussion among those running the store. Should they set a boundary(“you can take only if you donate”) to replace the old boundary of “you can take only if you pay”? Should they resist judging the woman and her needs?

These questions exemplify the issues that arise when one alters the rules around money. Let’s add a few more. What happens if you give something away, and the recipient doesn’t value it? Wouldn’t you rather give it to someone who did? What if no one gives to me despite my generous giving? If not money, how else can we decide who wants and needs a thing most? In ancient gift cultures that wasn’t much of a problem, because the needs and desires of all were plain to everyone in the community.

Related to money’s function as an instrument of negotiating social roles, is its function as an implement of ritual. I’ve heard more than a few complaints from healers and artists operating in the gift that when there is no price, the recipients don’t value what they receive. For this reason, I am usually reluctant to offer “free” events, because I find people don’t take them as seriously. They show up late, they schedule something else for part of the day, and they arrive with an attitude of low expectations. Making a payment is a ritual act (involving a prescribed manipulation of symbols in the belief that it will affect reality – that’s a ritual) that signals the subconscious mind, “This is for real. This is valuable.” Absent that ritual, the workshop usually isn’t as powerful – unless there is some other ritual to replace it, some other form of “payment” in a broad sense.

What does this “other ritual” look like? Sometimes it does involve money. For instance, we’ll have a registration process beforehand in which people put down a small deposit, which they can add to or subtract from on the day of the event. Or we might sell tickets at “you choose the price” (which can be zero) for an evening talk. I’ve tried lots of things and I can’t say any of them are without problems; they are an exploration of what is, for many of us, new territory.

I am also interested in exploring payment rituals that don’t involve giving money to me, or don’t involve money at all. Filling out a demanding application form, procuring some natural object, performing a service, taking an emotional risk… all could be ways to construct entry rituals into a space of heightened expectations.

I often cringe a little when someone writes to me and says, “Thanks to your ideas about the gift economy, Charles, I have stopped charging for my healing sessions and have opened up to the abundance of the universe.” I cringe first because they probably have a lot of messiness ahead of them (for which they might blame me), and second because this is not a formula that I advocate. I hasten to add that it is not something I don’t advocate either. For some people, especially those who are free of the aforementioned shadow motives, it could be a perfect step. I receive many stories from people who have done just that – given away their money, quit their salaried jobs, etc. – who have gone on to experience lives that are much richer in every important way. Sometimes they even end up with more money coming to them through unimagined channels. But this is not a guaranteed result. In fact, if one uses giving as a means of obtaining a certain return from other people or the universe itself, that isn’t true generosity, and the results are likely to reflect that.

What I am offering here is not a formula at all, it is an orientation: to understand that to give is a deep purpose of one’s life and work, to contribute to something beautiful to you. The means, the strategies, the models all flow from that, as do the return gifts. For my doctor friend, to charge a traditional fee-for-service was in alignment to her giving. The navigating principle is not really a principle at all, nor an ethics; it is to follow what feels generous, right, and alive.

Tuning into that feeling is no trivial matter, because our cultural programming obscures and distorts it nearly beyond recognition. It isn’t only the shadow motivations; our very language steers us away from it. Consider my friend’s original query, which used the words “pay you for your time.” Implicit here are several toxic assumptions: (1) That some amount of money could ever be equivalent in value to time; that the infinitely precious can be reduced to a finite sum; (2) That I would rather be spending my time doing something else; therefore, I need to be compensated for spending it on you; and, relatedly, (3) that work is something fundamentally objectionable; that it is the contrary to play and to leisure. This tiny little phrase reveals a deep-set oppositionality in our world view, reflecting a narrative of separate selves whose default state is competition.

To truly live in the gift requires that we stand in a different story. Of course, to some extent the story of Separation is built into our language so integrally that it is impossible to escape it, but often we can use different words to give voice to a different posture. I avoid words like “compensation” for that reason; on the other hand, if it is a fee then let’s call it a fee, and avoid the devolution into euphemisms that occurs when we are trying to avoid the plain truth.

The crucial point isn’t what words we use, it is the thinking that they come from, the story that we stand in. The more we stand in the story of the Gift, the more compelled we are to align our actions to it, and the more clear it becomes when it is, and is not, in alignment. Then there follows a long navigation through the social and psychological hazards, the buried wounds and conflicts, that arise as money conditioning is disrupted and our economic relationships re-constellate. As this happens, a new world emerges into view that feeds us on this journey, as we witness more and more generosity, more and more gratitude towards us and around us. That, at least, is the terrain I’ve seen in my halting journey into gift.