‘You’re here in this life to give your gift’

Offering a powerful and holistic foundation for a more life-sustaining society, Charles Eisenstein’s idea of the ‘gift economy’ flips current thinking on its head. Jini Reddy meets the man behind the vision

I have a sneaking suspicion that I am not the only person in the packed hall to heave a sigh of relief on hearing that Charles Eisenstein’s Sacred Economics workshop isn’t actually going to be about economics. At least not the variety of economics guaranteed to alienate people like myself, who know nothing about the subject and find it about as stimulating as sawdust.

“Just forget the word,” says our host, an American writer, speaker, activist and leading thinker on human cultural evolution. “Essentially, today is about looking at other ways of being and exploring the interconnectedness of all things. Put it this way: the old story of the world is the story of separation, of boredom, of pain and discomfort. The new one is about giving and receiving and the enriching connections that come about because of this.”

“The old story of the world is the story of separation… The new one is about giving, receiving, and enriching connections”

As revealed in his most recent book, Sacred Economics, Eisenstein is a passionate advocate of what he calls the ‘gift economy’. He sees it as an alternative to the current growth economy, which much of (but by no means all) the world currently operates under – a model that, as he points out, is bad news for a planet with finite resources.

“The systems we live in are unsustainable, so this is going to be a practical de-programming session,” he says.

The undoing begins and we float the big questions: where are we directing our life energy? How can we change the world if we can’t change ourselves? What are our gifts? How can we use them? And how can we align money with the things that are sacred to us?

Above all, asks Eisenstein, how can we make decisions that are fear-free and not based on self-interest and security? “Ultimately you’re here in this life to give your gift. If you’re not, life becomes intolerable and painful,” he says.

As an ice-breaker, we divide up into small groups and share our reason for being at the workshop. And then, cleverly, we’re asked to share the reason behind our reason for being here. It’s a ploy to encourage us to open up, and it works beautifully.

We rummage around our hearts, identify our gifts, discuss how we’ve shared them in our lives and what blocks us from giving them. The fun and most rewarding bit is describing the gifts we see in the person opposite us – gifts that they themselves may not even be aware of.

As one workshop attendee puts it: “In this short space of time, I’ve forged connections with perfect strangers and been intimate in a way I have yet to achieve with people I’ve known my whole life.”

“From the point of view of the connected self, everything we do matters”

Eisenstein believes that the nourishment and healing we experience in using our gifts – and in having them be seen – is crucial to the shift in society that he envisions: “Anything that invites people to act from a place of service in the smallest of ways is going to have an effect on the cosmos. Because what affects one, affects everyone. From the point of view of the connected self, everything we do matters.”

“The devaluation of small, nurturing acts comes from the mindset of patriarchal civilisation and the logic of separation,” he says. “In the logic of connection, by contrast, everything we do is in alignment: spirit and matter, money and the sacred. My work is about fostering that alignment.”

And how to get there, on a daily personal level, when we feel obstructed or uncertain? Eisenstein points to the value of being receptive to synchronicities: “You can make things happen simply by bringing your new story to your awareness. We need this magic, if we are to make the impossible happen,” he says. “We need to become creators of miracles and fluent in that technology.”

Eisenstein isn’t afraid to acknowledge the challenges facing utopic thinkers: “Currently, acting from a place of love contradicts financial self-interest. In a sane society, healing work and charitable work ought to be the most richly rewarded professions. Instead, it’s those which contribute to the demise of the planet that are.

“We need to become creators of miracles”

“All of the stuff we’re working on is hopelessly radical, but at some stage when our old systems are obviously, transparently falling apart, everybody who is working in the healing and caring professions, in alternative fields or the holistic fringe, will become the new normal,” he says.

“But we can’t change the world by invoking shame and guilt. We can help politicians do the right thing by watching, witnessing, helping and not blaming. We have to let go of our hatred and self-hatred.

“What ties my work together is the transition out of slavery,” he concludes. “Because what we truly want is the freedom to live our own lives, not the ones that artificial scarcity have given us.”