Gift Economy Mission Statement
I offer nearly all my teachings, online content, and live classes & courses on the principle of the “gift economy,” aka on donation.*
To put it another way, this means I give my teachings from a spirit of generosity, without the expectation of return. It is up to the community at large to decide if/when/how they would like to reciprocate the gift.
The gift economy doesn’t mean “free” or something is of “low value,” but instead proposes a radical shift in how we do money, work, life, and determine value.
* to be fully transparent, while about 98% of my livelihood comes through donations, I do a small amount of paid hourly work for Pause Meditation Studio.
Four Reasons I Teach on the Gift Economy
- It keeps me in integrity with my lineage, Theravada Buddhism, which has run on the principle of generosity for 2,600+ years (often called “dāna“).
- I genuinely believe that these teachings are priceless, and want to make them accessible to all, regardless of their financial means.
- I wish to help create a culture of gratitude & generosity, where we bring a spiritual dimension into our financial life, making choices not from how much can I have, but rather, how does my heart move me to act.
- Living from the gift economy gets us to shift from a “transactional mindset” to a “relational mindset,” which strengthens social connections & grows the inner happiness that comes from being connected.
Gift Economy Resources
An alternative to the “Market Economy,” a Gift Economy is a system of exchange based on the principles of gratitude and generosity, where gifts are given freely among a community without expectation of return.
This could be as simple as buying a friend lunch, neighbors helping each other out with basic lawn care, or giving away an old piece of furniture to that college student you know rather than re-selling it. These gifts are given not as one-off transactions, but rather as part of a bigger web of generosity, gratitude, and living with heart.
Whether it starts with our families, friend groups, spiritual communities, Buy Nothing Groups, or society at large, there is something contagious & life-affirming about a system of gift-giving! Here are some helpful resources on how this system works:
- The Gift Economy: A 4-minute TED Talk – by Alex Gendler
- The Gift Economy in Buddhism: A 30-minute Dharma Talk by David Sudar
- The Gift Economy in Ecological Systems & Indigenous Wisdom — by Robin Wall Kimmerer
- The Gift Economy in the Buddhist Monastic Tradition — by Thanissaro Bhikkhu
If you really want to do a deep dive into the Gift Economy, I’d recommend the full-length Sacred Economics book by Charles Eisenstein. For a shorter version, here’s a 12-minute video summarizing the essence of the book.
What is the Appropriate Amount to Give For Gift Economy Offerings?
After having taught on the gift economy for several years, easily the #1 question I get from people is something like, “what is the appropriate amount to give?”
There are many reasons why this question may come up, but the biggest one is that unlike traditional Buddhist countries such as Myanmar or Thailand, we really don’t have a cultural context for how to relate to gift economy offerings. In Western countries, “offered-on-donation” has very strong connotations of “free” or “not-good-enough-to-charge.” In turn, it can feel a little perplexing to step outside of those connotations and enter into “the gift economy mindset.”
Whatever the reason, my most basic answer to the question is that there is no right or wrong amount — it’s all about turning inwards, feeling into the question, and giving whatever you feel moved to give!
However, as one of the core premises of meditation and Buddhism is that true well-being comes more from letting go & giving than from getting more & having, I’d suggest leaning a bit into the following question:
how does my heart move me to act? as opposed to, how much can I have?
Nonetheless, I acknowledge that even this is still a bit confusing for a lot of people who are just trying to figure out what’s appropriate. In turn, below are five frameworks I’ve used over the years that are helpful in deciding “how much to give.”
Five Frameworks To Help Think about How Much to Give
The Market Economy Framework
Culturally, this is probably the most common lens we use to evaluate how much to give. We break everything down to its monetary value. In turn, using this framework on the most simple level, we could ask ourselves questions like, “how much is this worth to me?” “How much do I value it?” or “How bummed would I be if it didn’t happen?”
However, beyond that simple check-in, another helpful way to use this framework is through market comparisons.
For example, if you’re deciding how much to donate for a one-hour donation-based meditation class, consider what would you expect to pay for a one-hour yoga class, dance class, pilates class, breathwork session, knitting class, men’s or women’s group session, or anything else with led by a qualified instructor.
Or, say you have a one-hour donation-based private session with a meditation teacher, what would you expect to pay a plumber, architect, counselor, massage therapist, psychologist, or anyone else who has the “expertise” that would lead to you soliciting an hour of their undivided time? If you’re not sure, you could always google “mindfulness coaching” or “meditation mentorship program” and see what society charges for that.
Or, imagine you were to go on a weeklong, donation-based residential meditation retreat. In taking a look at various retreat centers that do charge money, what is the amount they usually charge that covers lodging, food, and instruction? Even simpler, what does a typical AirBnB charge per night that doesn’t even include food or instruction?
Importantly, the point of the market comparisons isn’t so much to give a cookie-cutter answer to the question of “how much to give?” but rather to serve as one information stream among many.
The Focus-on-other Framework
This framework is all about empathy.
We put ourselves in the shoes of the facilitator and try to see the world through their lens. We might think of the time, energy, and incredible amount of training (and courage) that it took them to be able to make this offering. We might tune into their human needs, and consider how they have bills to pay, perhaps family members to feed, a rainy day fund, and they also probably want to be able to afford to do things in the market economy that surrounds them.
Although, beyond all the “perspective-taking,” we might drop down to a more timeless level, and just tune into our care and appreciation for the other. Instead of doing a big thinking project, we just feel the goodness of having a positive impact on the life of another. We notice that what we do matters, and just as this person is supporting us, we can support them too! It feels good to do nice things for other people!
The Focus-on-self Framework
Basically, focus-on-self gives a real honest look at our own financial situation. If we have an abundance of resources in our lives, it may make sense to give abundantly. Inversely, if we have sparse resources in our lives, it may make sense to give sparsely.
When we’re on the more abundant end of the spectrum, there may certainly be wisdom in building personal wealth or “living life fully,” but if we notice ourselves disinclined to give, it can be a really great time to reflect deeply on “what is enough?”
When we’re on the sparser end of the spectrum, there may certainly be wisdom in leaning into generosity & challenging scarcity thinking, but there’s also foolishness in ignoring our lack of financial resources. These can be great moments to look at “what can I actually give?” and, importantly, to do so without becoming consumed by self-judgment and shame. You are not defined by your finances (I promise!).
The Generosity as a Practice Framework (My Personal Favorite!)
This is the framework I personally draw on most heavily & is featured most prominently in the Buddhist tradition. It treats generosity as a deep human value that when cultivated, creates happiness in all directions. It does this in two primary ways:
- It builds our “letting go” muscle, and we get to see firsthand how our happiness is more correlated with our ability to live contentedly & simply than it is with how much we have.
- It helps us deepen connection with others, strengthening social ties, and, internally, allows us to experience the delight of sharing, even if it’s anonymous and no one knows but us!
Using the generosity-as-a-practice framework, we might consider the market value, the other’s situation, and our own situation, but above all, we’re giving not as an explicit exchange for goods/services but rather for the sake of our own practice. It’s a way of developing beautiful qualities in ourselves and spreading that beauty into the world.
The Creativity Framework
Part of the beauty of the gift economy is that a gift can be reciprocated in any number of ways. It’s not just about money!
In the context of making an exchange with a facilitator, I’ve had participants give me a bag of coffee, homemade bread, a jar of home-blended herbal tea, a professional photography portrait, marketing & admin help, a handwritten gratitude letter, or letting me know the ways they are “paying it forward” in their own lives, among other things. Regardless of your financial situation, there is always room for creativity!
Final Thoughts on Appropriate Amounts
I can’t say enough that there’s no right or wrong when it comes to giving. It’s all about checking in with your heart and tuning into what you feel moved to give. If a facilitator is offering something on the gift economy, it’s helpful to assume that they are genuine in their offering, that it’s coming from their heart without expectations, and that they won’t judge you for what you do or do not give.
While we may be exchanging goods & services on some level, we’re much more so creating a culture of generosity & gratitude!
Offer a Gift
If you would like to support me in being able to teach on the gift economy, consider offering a donation/gift! Monetary donations can be made on this page; and, conversely, if you have a “creative” gift offering, shoot me an email!