"The Universe is a Gift Economy" Talk and Summary

Before listening to this talk, we suggest you do the Appreciating Everything Meditation.

The Universe is a gift economy, yet the ego-influenced money economy, often obscures and hides this fact to the detriment of our joy, connection, and abundance. Here is how to be mindful, and enjoy the benefits of living in a gift economy now.

The Words That Come Before All Else

The Haudenosaunee (pronounced: who-DIN-oh-show-nee) people have generously graced the people of the world by giving us their beautiful ritual of appreciation known as “The Words That Come Before All Else.” It is so named because the ritual is done to greet each day, start a meeting, or before any negotiations are to be done. This ritual reveals our shared values, helps us see the good in everything, and sets the stage for cooperative and skillful action. The ritual also reveals our oneness with all of life; how our the quality of our lives are inextricably woven into the lives of plants, animals, water, sun, stars, other people, and all of the natural world.

If we are alive right now, it is because the entire universe is conspiring to make that happen. We are not in this alone. We never have been, and we never will be. This body of ours is completely dependent on the sun, air, water, plants, animals, and other people to survive and thrive in this lifetime. Thankfully, the Universe is here to support us, freely giving of its abundance that we may thrive.

The universe operates as a gift economy

The universe supports us in this way because it runs as a gift economy. Wikipedia defines a gift economy as, “a mode of exchange where valuables are not traded or sold, but rather given without an explicit agreement for immediate or future rewards.” In other words, a gift economy is based on unconditional (and often joyous) giving for the benefit of those who receive.

Hafiz, a Persian poet and Sufi Muslim who lived during the 14th century, gives an example of the universe’s unconditional giving, in this poem about the sun:

All this time
The Sun never says to the Earth,
"You owe me."

What happens
With a love like that,
It lights the whole sky.

The sun is the ultimate source of all life on our planet. Without the sun providing energy for plants to grow, there would be no plants. Without plants, there would be no animals, no us. Yet the sun gives freely of its abundance expecting nothing in return. Similarly, water, air, plants, and the rest of the natural world do the same.

Gift economies drive away delusional states

Being a part of a gift economy provides many benefits. Firstly, it encourages open-hearted giving and appreciative receiving. We know both of these heal us by driving out the delusions of greed, aversion, and self-view. They also build relationships by showing care and support and creating trust and respect. They promote collaboration and community. Moreover, they create tremendous joy for both the giver and receiver.

Gift economies inspire love

Secondly, gift economies inspire interactions based on love, care, and respect. Aboriginal people closely observe and learn from the ways of nature, so it is no surprise that most of them live in a gift economy. Their study of nature reveals all the gifts that nature provides them, inspiring much love and respect for the natural world. As a result, most native cultures live by a code called the honorable harvest.

The honorable harvest

An example of this code is that if we are to harvest Juneberry berries, first we must ask the tree’s permission to harvest her fruit. To Western ears, this may sound strange, but by directly seeing things as they are, aboriginal people can gain lots of information: is the tree sick and diseased? Is this species of tree abundant or declining? Are the berries ripe yet? Are other species of wildlife dependent on this tree and needing the berries for their survival? As well as other considerations. Based on what they know from their observations, by asking permission from the tree, they get an intuitive understanding of if the tree freely gives of her fruit or not, or, put another way, if it would be wise to harvest these fruits or not.

If we are given permission to harvest, then afterwards the honorable harvest requires us to show appreciation to the Juneberry tree. We may do this through offering prayers of thanks, blessings of goodwill, planting some of her fruits in appropriate habitats where her offspring may flourish, or hauling water to her throughout the season when she is parched. In other words we both wish the tree well, and do what we can to ensure that her and her species thrives.

Gift economies provide for all

A third benefit of living within a gift economy is that it provides for the needs of all. In aboriginal and native cultures wealth circulated, gravitating towards those with the greatest need. It would be a great dishonor if any member of the community was caught hoarding food, while others in the community were hungry and starving. Through feast and famine, they celebrated and suffered together.

To summarize, the gift economy benefits all who live within it. By encouraging open-hearted giving and receiving, we feel loved, cared for, supported, and a part of something larger than ourselves. The giving and receiving we do is less about the objects given, and more about the relationship, intimacy, love, and respect created between ourselvesand all of life. When we know our interdependence, our oneness with life, it is clear that our happiness is directly tied to the happiness of all life, so we naturally and joyfully behave in ways that allow all life to thrive.

Robin Wall Kimmerer, of the Potawatomi nation, explained her own lived childhood experience of the gift economy in her book, Braiding Sweetgrass, like this:

“Those fields of my childhood showered us with strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, hickory nuts in the fall, bouquets of wildflowers brought to my mom, and family walks on Sunday afternoon. They were our playground, retreat, wildlife sanctuary, ecology classroom…. All for free. Or so I thought.

“I experienced the world in that time as a gift economy. ‘Goods and services’ not purchased but received as gifts from the earth. Of course I was blissfully unaware of how my parents must have struggled to make ends meet in the wage economy raging far from this field.”

The market economy encourages self-view

Enter egoic delusion, which mistakenly believes that it can “earn” and “own” the gifts that life freely gives us, and we get another kind of economy, known variously as the market economy, moneyed economy, or wage economy. In this economy, goods and services are provided to those who can pay for it.

The harms of the moneyed economy are various:

Firstly, a market economy encourages the delusions of self-view, independence, and separation. When we mistake ourselves to be an independent human being in a “me-against-the-world” situation, we try to hoard possessions in a futile attempt to create security against all of the perceived threats. Cut off from our mutual interdependence, strangers seem dangerous and threatening, nature and wildlife seem unimportant or worthless. We mistakenly believe things such as, “their loss is my gain.” But the result of this self-view is that we feel isolated, alone, disconnected, fearful, anxious, upset, angry, and greedy.

We are all one

In reality, all of the universe is one organism. Think of the universe like a human body. The body has various components: heart, lungs, blood, brain, and so on. All of these parts have their role to play in the healthy functioning of the body. All of them must have their needs met for the body to live and function well. If one organ is sick, the whole body suffers.

The same is true of our planet. Each species of plant, animal, bacteria, and fungus; each kind of rock and mineral; each kind of water form, be it river, ocean, snow-pack, or cloud, all have their role to play. They all must get their needs met for the healthy functioning of the planet. All of these parts are mutually interdependent with each other. If the air is sick, we all suffer. If the water is sick, we all suffer. 

If the idea that “we are all one” doesn’t make sense to you, consider how long a baby survives without air, water, food, and parents. There is no such thing as a “baby” in isolation of these other things. The ego arbitrarily defines a baby to include everything that is encased inside of her skin, including the skin and hair. But the falseness of this is easier to understand with an analogy: You wouldn’t look at an isolated car engine and call it a car, right? To be a car, that engine also needs the car frame, wheels, gas tank, and all the other car parts. The car does not exist without all of these parts. Those parts are essential to the car’s existence. 

In a similar manner, a baby needs parents to give birth to her, oxygen from trees to breathe, water from rivers to drink, and food from her mom to consume. The baby cannot exist without all of these other “parts.” These “parts” are essential to the baby’s existence and thus are also part of the baby.

The conceptual mind of the ego will resist understanding this, and may even find thinking about this uncomfortable. So let go of the conceptual mind and understand this truth directly, with awareness, in a non-conceptual manner. Awareness can both understand and appreciate this truth that we are all one.

Delusions encouraged by the market economy lead to exploitation and cruelty

A second harm that comes from the ego-influenced market economy, is that by encouraging self-view, de facto hierarchy results. In the United States, generally wealthy, white, young, educated, straight, cis-gendered, males are on top. Nature, animals, and wildlife are often seen as mere commodities for human consumption. This is an over-simplification, but the evidence of perceived inequality is all around us.

After hierarchy forms, exploitation, cruelty, mistreatment, and violence typically follows. The needs of those deemed “lesser than,” are less important, no longer acknowledged, or receive active hostility. This is how racism, sexism, ageism, and other prejudices are allowed to flourish in a society that professes equality. This is how climate change continues to worsen even when we have over 50 years of research from various scientific fields showing evidence of how humans are harming the earth’s ability to support life.

The market economy creates scarcity amidst abundance

The market economy encourages the delusion of scarcity and creates the illusion that life is a zero-sum affair, where “less for you, is more for me.” Despite the generous abundance of life that surrounds us, and despite living in one of the wealthiest countries in the world, the ego sees scarcity, generating fear and anxiety about the future. In a never-ending quest to calm our irrational fears, the ego causes us to hoard our wealth and accumulate surpluses. As the wealth of nature is hoarded, it guarantees that others go without their basic needs being met.

The market economy encourages us to takes our blessings and relationships for granted

By encouraging self-view, a market economy also encourages us to take our gifts and relations for granted. Self-view mistakes things to be “me” and “mine.” For example, self-view thinks: “I bought this, I own this, this is mine.” Deluded that we purchased something with “our own hard-earned money,” we no longer see the gift behind it. We no longer see the life that sacrificed itself for our benefit, and show that life appreciation for what it gave us. Self-view obscures the absolute truth that all that comes to us is a gift from life. Self-view keeps us focused on the material object and obtaining the material object, rather than how the object is merely a vehicle for building connection, intimacy, relationship, care, and love with all of life.

By encouraging the delusion of me and mine, the market economy encourages us to take things for granted. The ego sees our exchanges of money for goods or services in a contractual, legalistic manner: “I get this, you get the money. Done deal.” The ego lets the money be the only expression of thanks it shares.

The market economy encourages greedy and aversive intentions

A market economy encourages working with greedy intentions, rather than intentions of love and goodwill for all life. The ego, lost in the delusion of greed, says, “Why do I work? I work for the money. If it wasn’t for the money, I’d have quit this job years ago!”

A market economy encourages working from aversive intentions. The ego, lost in the delusion of aversion, says, “Why do a work? Because I don’t want to be hungry, poor, and homeless, that’s why!”

What can we do?

If the gift economy offers many benefits, and the market economy encourages so much delusion and suffering, what is it that I am asking of you? Am I asking you to join the revolution and overthrow the capitalists? No, I am not asking you to do this. Nor am I asking you to give away all of your material possessions, your 401ks, and live as penniless pauper with faith that nature will provide.

You may know, from the introductory course and our classes together, that when it comes to spiritual matters, the external world is less important than the internal world. If we can purify the internal world of our heart and mind, the external world will reflect this change effortlessly and naturally.

Moreover, the market economy is not bad or wrong, it just makes it easier to fall prey to the delusions of self-view, scarcity, greed, and aversion which leads to unskillfulness. What I am encouraging you to do is be mindful of the [link] absolute realities that all of life is a gift, and that the universe operates as a gift economy.

Embrace the gift economy

Embrace the fact that the universe operates as a gift economy. Let go of the conceptual understanding of gift and market economies and just observe things as they are. See and experience the gift economy at work in nature, when the rains come to water the plants and the sun shines to feed them, and the insects come to pollinate them while feeding themselves with nectar. See the gift economy at work in the libraries, soup kitchens, homeless shelters, open-source software, wiki-sites, and the neighbor who freely offers you several cucumbers grown in her garden.

In addition to mindfully observing the gift economy at work, fully participate in that gift economy. You can do so by following the guidelines of the honorable harvest, which can be summarized like this:

  • Take only what is freely given.
  • Appreciate all of the gifts you receive.
  • Ensure all of your actions benefit (or at least don’t harm) the giver and her community.
  • Lovingly give from your abundance so that all life may thrive.

You can apply these guidelines in countless ways, but here are eight examples of how you can integrate these skillful actions into your daily life.

Take only what is freely given

1. Be mindful of the mental state of greed. Greed is an unpleasant state of mind that is fixated on obtaining a sensory pleasure, object, achievement, or state. Greed convinces you that something you want is far more valuable and necessary for your happiness than it actually is. When greed arises in the mind, be aware of it and its unpleasant nature. As much as possible, be clam and relaxed while observing this unpleasant state, until it goes away on its own, as is its nature to do.

2. Question your purchases. When considering purchasing something, ask yourself, “Can I live without this? Is this something I truly need to thrive? Will this contribute to my or my family’s health and well-being? Was the land where this came from respected and well cared for? Were the producers and workers who made this treated humanely and well compensated for their gifts? Is there another, more-humanely sourced version of this product or an alternative that I could buy? Is this an item I could borrow from a neighbor or rent from somewhere on a trail basis to ensure I will actually use it?”

There is no need for everything you buy to meet all of these criteria, but this activity of mindfully investigating our purchases helps creativity, wisdom, and compassion to arise, allowing us to get our material needs met from more those who “freely give.” Remember to be compassionate to yourself, too. Avoid this activity, when it triggers frustration, apathy, depression, or other negative states to arise. Do it when your mind is calm, peaceful, powerful, and resourceful.

Appreciate all of the gifts you receive

3. Be mindful and appreciative of the gifts and relationships behind every purchase. If you purchase an apple, give appreciation to the soil, sun, air, rain, bacteria, and fungus that allowed the tree to grow strong and healthy. Appreciate the tree for her gift of fruit. Appreciate the farmers, the harvesters, the distributors, the store clerks, the cashiers and all of the hands that allowed you to buy this apple. Mentally, give them all thanks and send them blessings of loving-kindness, and do this verbally with those who you actually interact.

4. Set aside time to give thanks every day. You may give thanks upon rising from bed, before each meal you eat, and before falling asleep at night. Use this time to count your blessings and see the abundance, beauty, and good in your life. Here are some sample words you can use to give thanks. Feel free to adapt it as you see fit:

“Thank you life for the many blessings you share with us.
[List everything you are thankful for here, be they purchased or non-purchased.]
May all we receive be given freely, out of love.
May we fully appreciate all we receive with an open and loving heart.
May we honor these gifts by using them to live skillfully, in a way that allows all people, all beings, and all life to thrive.”

Ensure all of your actions benefit (or at least don’t harm) the giver and her community

5. Consider ways that you can give back to those beings and life forms who serve you. For example, we all eat and there are many ways we can help support farmers. We could buy from them directly at Farmer’s Markets. We could join a Community Supported Agriculture program. We could buy organic foods to lessen the toxic chemicals that harvesters and the earth are exposed to. There are hundreds of ways to give back to farmers, do what makes sense for you given your situation.

6. When you do work, whether at a paid job or elsewhere, have your intentions come from love and a desire to help and serve others. When you work at your paid job, don’t have the intentions behind your work be, “I am working for the money.” Be mindful of how your job serves, uplifts, and inspires others. Let those reasons be the intentions behind why you do your job. Of course, if your job does not serve, uplift, or inspire others, or actively harms others, consider getting a different job.

Lovingly give from your abundance so that all life may thrive

7. Share your abundance! You have many talents and resources at your disposal. Some of these resources are needed to care for your body, family responsibilities, and the lives of your animal companions. The rest is your abundance which you can use to benefit the lives of those around you. Generously share from your spiritual wealth by offering smiles, listening ears, patience, silent blessings of loving-kindness, forgiveness, warm hugs, and so on. If you are blessed with talents, use them to serve others. If you are blessed with material wealth, use that to serve others in need. 

8. Be particularly generous to those who are most in need. Life provides abundantly of itself so that all forms of life may thrive. Unfortunately ego-inspired wars, environmental destruction, and political and economic systems, often prevent those who are most in need from receiving the basics of healthy food, clean water, clean air, shelter, and medicine. Natural disasters can also leave many people without these basic necessities. When sharing of your time and wealth, give generously to those who are most in need.

Slogan Work: What is life asking of me right now?

The Slogan we have been working with is: What is life asking of me right now? (Or a variant of it such as “how may I serve,” or “what can I offer right now?”) This slogan encourages you to be generous to yourself and others. For the next week, let this slogan remind you to be mindful of the gift economy all around us, and to live by the code of the honorable harvest.

Appreciating Everything

By seeing the gift economy everywhere, and by engaging in that gift economy by following the tenants of the honorable harvest, we build relationships and an appreciation for life in all of its many forms. In the Bible, after God created everything, God looked it all over and called it “good.” We need to be more like God. We need to be able to look at everything in the world and see it as good, worthy, and valuable.

We need to even see the good in that which is unpleasant or harmful to us, such as poisonous snakes. We can still appreciate how snakes, like us, simply want to be happy and peaceful. We can appreciate their role in keeping rodent populations down, and show them love and compassion. We can wish that poisonous snakes be happy and peaceful far away from us.

By seeing the gift in everything, and by appreciating everything, we see our oneness with all of life. Knowing our oneness with all life, our delusions of self-view, judgment, and ill-will erode away. Knowing our oneness with all life, we are more actively engaged with this beautiful, ceaseless, and joyful dance of giving and receiving.


Journal Activity

  1. List ten to twenty of the most common, routine activities you do at work or at home.
  2. For each one, write down who or what you serve, by this action. This allows you to be mindful of how that action is an act of love and service to yourself and others.
  3. Then, for several days, when engage in these activities, be mindful of what your intentions are behind the activity, and note the feeling tone. In other words, is it pleasant or unpleasant to do the activity from an intention of love and service? Is it pleasant or unpleasant to do the activity from an intention of greed (i.e. greed of accomplishment), aversion (i.e. fear or punishment if you don’t do it or fear of others judging your work harshly), or self-view (i.e. to improve or enhance your own self image).
  4. After doing part three for several days, write down any insights you have had from this activity.