The Spirit of the Gift
Come out of the circle of time and into the circle of love — Rumi
Chapter Four explained how the conceptual objectification of the world results in an all-consuming regime of money and property. Accordingly, reversing this objectification will bring us back to the economic system that preceded the present compulsion of getting and keeping. I call it the society of the gift.
In the realm of human exchange, the demurrage system embodies that basic principle Lewis Hyde identifies with a gift, that it must be passed on or it will stagnate and eventually become a curse. However, gift mentality extends beyond the human realm. It defines a different relationship to nature as well, to the world at large.
It is no coincidence that many of the rituals that pervaded Stone Age culture were conceived in the form of gifts: gifts to the land, to the water, the fish, the trees. When Native American herbalists go to gather herbs, they will typically bring a bit of tobacco or corn meal as an offering, a ceremonial gift to the plants and land from which they have received. Among humans, too, ritual usually accompanies gift-giving—think of Christmas morning. We instinctively recognize gift-giving as a sacred occasion, from which ritual grows irrepressibly.
The coming fusion of science and religion, so deeply related to the sacred purpose of the human species, can also be understood in terms of the spirit of the gift. For if science is to seek the fulfillment of our role within a greater whole, then how are we to understand that fulfillment except according to the question, “What have we to give to the world?” Ecology is itself a gift network, in which each organism and each species contributes far more to the environment than the limited Darwinian calculus of “fitness” would permit. If we are no longer to see nature as an object, but to participate in it as ecological beings, then we must join that gift-giving network. No species in nature is redundant and no capability is superfluous. Surely the uniquely human capabilities that we have turned toward world conquest have their purpose too.
I wonder if some readers may be impatient for a more specific statement of human purpose. I have written of a role and function that humanity, no less than any other species, has in the maintenance and evolution of the planetary ecosystem. I have been vague about what that function might be. What I am offering is not so much a program but a different way of thinking. We will create and discover our true role through play. It is not necessary to know at the outset what that role is; what is important is the mentality, the relationship that springs from being in gift consciousness. It is like going shopping for a gift, not having any idea what you will buy, but knowing that you’ll find “just the right thing” and that you’ll know it when you see it.
The ascent of humanity loses its connotations of domination and separation when we think in terms of “What is our unique gift to the world?” That question will come to define future science and technology. How can we participate in the unfolding beauty of the universe? When the illusion of separation is healed, we will come to define our collective purpose in terms of beauty. Just as individuals will approach work in the spirit of art, so also we will measure a new technology not by whether it will save labor, cut costs, or generate profits, but whether it will contribute to a more beautiful world. And this will not be a salve to the conscience in service of profit; it will imbue the fundamental motivations of science.
Fine, sounds like a nice future, but what about right now? Living in a society based on taking and keeping, is it possible to live today in the spirit of the gift, which is the spirit of abundance, which ultimately means the dissolution of boundaries within the gift-giving circle?
Remember, separation is an illusion. We can choose to live in that illusion or to deny it, but the basic reality that life and the universe is fundamentally provident cannot change. Life itself—our human lives—is a gift. Our lives, our talents, our abilities, our privilege to be human are given to us, and like all gifts they are not to be hoarded. They are not to be devoted, like the capital of classical economics, to the endless increase of me and mine, but must be passed on lest they stagnate and decay. In the ancient circles of gift-giving that defined an identity greater than the skin-encapsulated ego, each individual knew that his or her gifts would be reciprocated someday, in some way. The circle—really a gift web—takes care of its own, just as the ecological web of nature sustains every species within it. In other words, each gift eventually finds it way, usually in some altered form, back to the giver. “Our generosity may leave us empty, but our emptiness then pulls gently at the whole until the thing in motion returns to replenish us.”
Who then is the Giver of our own personal gifts of life, health, talent and fortune? And how might we reciprocate? What are our gifts for, if not to survive and reproduce, if not for the doomed increase of a delusionary self? The Christian answer to this question is “to glorify God”; unfortunately these days, to glorify God is often interpreted along the lines of singing songs about Jesus. No. To glorify God is to honor and participate in God’s most glorious manifestation. God is known, after all, as the Creator, and so to glorify God is to revere and participate in that Creation. Our gifts are creative gifts. The gifts of mind and hand that make us human, the gift of life itself, enable us to participate uniquely in the ongoing process of creation. Unfortunately, for a long time now we have used them with the opposite intent—to fight Creation, to impose uniformity and linearity upon a world that is neither. That struggle, which since its prehistoric origin in language, number, and time has exacted an escalating price, is almost over. The resources to maintain it are nearly exhausted. Soon we will begin to simply accept nature’s gifts rather than try to seize them, to pass them on rather than try to hoard them.
Whether you conceive of the Giver as God or the Universe (and in a wholly enspirited universe, what’s the difference?) our lives are a gift, and the way to pass on that gift is to live that life as beautifully as we are able. It does not matter that modern society appears to have separated itself off from the gift-giving web. This separation is an illusion. Despite the rational-seeming benefits of keeping and hoarding, in actual fact when we choose beauty over ugliness we find our gifts growing, not shrinking.
The hunter-gatherer’s confidence that the forest would always provide is still available to us. “Let us make a feast of all that we have today. Tomorrow we shall eat what tomorrow brings.” But a lot of other beliefs must go along with it. To believe that the world is fundamentally provident, to accept the world as a gift-giving web and to enter that web, is to open the boundaries of self. It is to see through the illusion of ourselves as discrete and separate. It is also to trust rather than to control. To fully receive always means to relinquish control; otherwise it is not receiving but merely manipulating the giver, that is, taking. In the spirit of the gift lies the undoing of every manifestation of the regime of separation. When money transactions replace gift transactions, the circle of self shrinks to eventually become the lonely, mercenary domain of John Calvin and Adam Smith. To live in the gift reverses that process, undoing the bonds of the discrete and separate self and all that goes with it. To live in the gift is to relinquish the compulsion to control, the program to label and number the world, the quest for reductionistic certainty, the drive to convert the world into money and property.
Because separation is an illusion, we can “live in the gift” here and now, no less easily than our Stone Age predecessors. The only barrier to doing this lies in our beliefs. The perception that we “cannot afford to” live like this, the perception that it is unsafe, is no more or less true than it ever was. No doubt a hunter-gatherer sometimes did go hungry the next day, needlessly, for not husbanding his food supply or laying up reserves, for not making more of the world his. I am not saying the world is safe. However, the perception that we make the world more safe through our keeping and hoarding is also an illusion. We are no more secure, no better off than we were ten thousand years ago. Then or now, the attitude of trust is still necessary.
Yet it is equally an illusion to think, “If only ours were a hunter-gatherer society, then I would live in the gift, but in modern society it isn’t practical.” It never was “practical”, not in the sense of maximizing the separate self’s perception of security.
Part of the gift mentality is the belief “I will be provided for”. I will be provided for; therefore it is safe to provide as well. This hunter-gatherer attitude of abundance applies equally today whenever we choose to move into the spirit of the gift, whether in the material, social, or cultural realm. To live in the gift does not require that the whole world change around us first. All anyone need do is to see the world through a different lens. We are so accustomed to thinking in terms of what we can get, how we can benefit, from a given situation. To live in the gift means to approach each person and each choice with the attitude, “What can I create? What can I give?” The modern human, inculcated with survival anxiety, immediately protests, “Well what about me?” When we actually start living in the gift, we find that this protest is founded on an illusion. We find that the universe reciprocates. For example, I urge my students to base their career decisions not on “What career will give me the most money, security, and status?” which is the mentality of taking (and ultimately of agriculture), but rather “What would I most love to give to the world?” Build a career around that and you will be successful in ways you can hardly imagine.
This way of thinking follows naturally when we recognize all of our talents, fortune, and indeed life itself as gifts as well, fostering an attitude of gratitude that impels us to pass on those gifts in whatever form we can. As it was given to me, so shall I give it to the world. In contrast, modern ideology encourages us to see all of our resources not as gifts but as possessions, things that are fundamentally ours, devoid of any obligation. Gifts, remember, generate obligation, whether we are speaking of a traditional gift-giving social network, or the gifts of life, fortune, and talent. When we use these gifts otherwise, we experience a disquiet, an ambient anxiety that, completing the vicious circle, fuels even more acquiring, taking, and owning. Unacknowledged obligations weigh on the spirit.
The psychodynamics of living in the gift are particularly apparent in the realm of art and music. The improvisational theater pioneer Keith Johnstone observes that the fountainhead of artistic creativity lies beyond the controlling, rational, planning ego self. To act in improvisational theater, to create a story, to clown around requires that that part get out of the way so that we might become a clear channel for the gift.
We have an idea that art is self-expression—which historically is weird. An artist used to be seen as a medium through which something else operated. He was a servant of God. Maybe a mask-maker would have fasted and prayed for a week before he had a vision of the Mask he was to carve, because no one wanted to see his Mask, they wanted to see the God’s. When Eskimos believed that each piece of bone only had one shape inside it, then the artist didn’t have to “think up” an idea. He had to wait until he knew what was in there—and this is crucial. When he’d finished carving his friends couldn’t say “I’m a bit worried about that Nanook at the third igloo”, but only, “He made a mess getting that out!” or “There are some very odd bits of bone about these days.”
We find that when we try to hold and own the gift, it dries up. To receive we must also be willing to give. Hyde writes, “We are lightened when our gifts rise from pools we cannot fathom. Then we know they are not a solitary egotism and they are inexhaustible. Anything contained within a boundary must contain as well its own exhaustion.” Beautiful!
Medieval tradition has it that a sorcerer’s power dries up if used for selfish or evil purposes; the Brazilian trance surgeon Jaoa de Deus cites the same reason in refusing to accept money for healing. Acting selfishly, we enforce a separation from the universe from whence our gifts actually come. The same thing happens to artists who “sell out”. In trying to keep the fruits of the gift within the limited world of selfish benefit, they exclude from their world the fountainhead of that gift.
Many great artists have recognized that their work comes from a source beyond themselves. The ancient Greeks personified this source as the Muse. The fairy tale of the Elves and the Shoemaker makes the same point: while the shoemaker is asleep (i.e., while his conscious mind is out of the way) magical elves come and make shoes far more beautiful than the shoemaker could himself. Even the word “inspiration” encodes the same understanding, for it literally means take in a spirit. Remember as well the Native American spirit songs, universally claimed to come from an outside source. A similar principle pertains in Eastern traditions. Certain martial arts forms are understood to have been transmitted to human beings from a transhuman source, a phenomenon I witnessed in Taiwan at a Taoist retreat center. There, college students, housewives, and so on would occasionally enter spontaneous, perfectly executed sequences of obscure martial arts forms they had never even seen before. Significantly, people with martial arts training rarely entered this state of receptivity, as if their training got in the way. The same phenomenon is not uncommon in the yoga tradition. The founders of two schools of yoga in the United States, Kripalu and Kali Ray TriYoga, claimed to channel the yoga through their bodies rather than to consciously practice postures, and this spontaneous posture flow is understood to be far more perfect than any conscious approximation of it. Finally, musicians experience the same state when, to paraphrase the Grateful Dead, “the music plays the band.”
For the mystic and the artist, something greater than ourselves flows through us. Breath flows through us, food flows through us, matter flows through us, replacing every cell and atom in our bodies repeatedly over the course of a lifetime. Life flows through us. Life lives us, despite our misperception that it is the other way around. To accept and not fight this is to return to the original affluence of the hunter-gatherer.
To enter the Age of Reunion on a personal level means to start living in the gift. Then boundaries begin to dissolve—social boundaries, to be sure, but more importantly the absolutism of the self-other boundary that separates us from the world. Reunion is happening the same way at the collective level. Our species enters the spirit of the gift and ceases the doomed effort to rise above nature when collectively we begin to ask, “What is our proper role and function in the Gaian whole?” Similarly, an individual reunifies with the world when she seeks no longer to triumph over it or control it, but to give to the world and accept its gifts in the full recognition of gratitude. That is what I call “Living in the gift.” Harking to the hunter-gatherer, it is a state of abundance without control, a state of creativity and growth without domination, a state of ease that yet fosters exquisite mindfulness. It is available right now. Don’t wait until a personal convergence of crises makes the alternative of taking and controlling unbearable.
The entry into the Age of Reunion as individuals is inextricably bound up with our collective entry into that new age. As more of us move more deeply into the spirit of the gift and treat life and the world with gratitude, we will no longer accept the degradation of meaningless work, and no longer choose ever to make the world an uglier place. The results of these choices will eventually reverberate through politics, society, and the economy. Sooner or later it is inevitable that we will reenter the spirit of the gift, if only when disaster forces us to, because that is the nature of reality. The truth will out. Let us stop resisting the truth before it kills us.
 Johnstone, Keith, Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre. Routledge, New York, 1979. pp. 78-9
 Hyde, p. 20