There are two types of intentional circles that have the word “gift” in them: “gift circles,” and “gifting circles.” I have experienced both. My own experience with a women’s gifting circle took place back in the ’90s. Following the fervent persuasion of a woman who is still my good friend, I convinced my late husband to throw in $5000 to a far flung group that I did not know personally and would never meet. And even though I knew that its structure was pyramidal (what we now call a ponzi scheme), I tried to shrug that knowledge off. After all, if the gift kept on giving, and new recruits kept coming in; if, in other words, our gifting circle became a perpetually circling machine that kept magnetizing new people as those who had already got the gold ring were spit out, well then, fine. It would work. I knew it wouldn’t work, but I wanted to save my friendship. That’s how skewed my value system, then.
Last year, a group of people, many of them young “burners” (as in the burning man culture) and most of whom I did not know beforehand, experimented with a gift circle. And though circumstances changed, so that our circle only met a few times, each meeting was intense, vulnerable, and revelatory. And the gift economy that we inculcated inside ourselves there, simmers on. Brian still offers his tai chi classes, free. Lucy still does animal care, free. I still offer astrology consultations, free. Moreover, we now know each other personally. This is the real gift.
I started our gift circle because I was, and am still, inspired by the writings of Charles Eisenstein. Here’s a new piece by him which speaks to the difference between the two circles, despite having in common that word “gift.”
August 21, 2013
One aspect of the monetization of life that is proceeding nearly to totality in our time is that someone finds a way to commoditize nearly any movement or concept, even those that were explicitly anti-commercial in their conception. This was the fate of “cool”: what was once an emblem of African-American and Beatnik rejection of bourgeois values became a potent marketing device: buy this car, this sneaker, this album, and you will be cool, too.
The monetization of everything is profoundly dispiriting, because it reinforces the suspicion that, in the end, “It’s all about the money.” We encounter someone espousing inspiring concepts about healing, transformation, or compassion, only to find that those concepts have been copyrighted and packaged into some kind of expensive program. We wonder whether maybe the whole thing is about the money and not the healing. Maybe these were just sales gimmicks. And so we develop a wariness and a cynicism that taints our view of life and, indeed, urges us to join the sell-athon.
The concept of gifting, and the spiritual value of generosity, is not exempt from cooptation in the service of profit. I remember as a teenager listening to televangelist called Pastor Mike who, invoking Mark 10:31, promised that God would repay any gifts to his ministry a hundred-fold. “Give till it hurts!” he said, and surely many people did, as he became a wealthy man. I once heard a story on Snap Judgment (my favorite radio show) from a man who had been childhood friends with Reverend Mike’s son, and once come across boxes and boxes of old jewelry that people had sent him with heartrending notes to the effect, “This is all I have to give, we can’t make ends meet…”
Odious as Pastor Mike’s methods may be, they would not be so effective if they were not invoking (and then redirecting) a truth with deep psychological resonance. We all desire – and fear – to enter fully into the gift, to let go of how our gifts will come back to us. When a person feels deeply supported by the universe, that person also feels at ease to be generous. Echoing Pastor Mike, New Age teachings claim the converse is also true: that by practicing generosity, one will receive the experience of being deeply supported by the universe; that is, one will experience abundance.
It would be a trivial exercise to criticize this idea on skeptical materialist grounds – the “experience of abundance” comes through hard work, thrift, smart investments, socioeconomic privilege, natural talent, and good luck, not through giving away your money or time in hopes it will magically “change your reality.” But that critique gets nowhere with someone who doesn’t agree with its basic worldview. I prefer to address New Age teachings with New Age logic, to see whether an internally consistent, coherent, and useful metaphysics might emerge.
One problem with many of the “abundance” teachings is that for the generosity to have its intended effect, it must be genuine. It must reflect a genuine belief in life’s abundance. If it is intended, even unconsciously, as a way to manipulate God or the universe, then it is actually an embodiment of scarcity thinking. It is avarice in disguise. Related motives might include:
- A desire for absolution from selfish or greedy behavior;
- A desperate cry for relief from economic oppression (similar to buying a lottery ticket)
- Acceptance by a church, “gifting circle,” or other in-group;
- A desire for self-approval as a pure, giving person;
- A desire for approval or solicitude from others.
None of these motive embody the spirit of abundance; therefore, even accepting New Age principles, no one should be surprised when any “gifting” tainted with these motives doesn’t bring the hoped-for return. But that doesn’t mean that the metaphysics is invalid. Generosity and abundance are two facets of a single state of being. Yes, real generosity will draw abundance to you, but in order to be authentically generous, you must already be in a perception of abundance – the feeling, however momentary, of, “It’s all right to give.” You may have noticed, in your episodes of generosity, a feeling of unconcern about your own well-being. That is natural when you are other-focused. “I’ll be fine,” you think. Any giving that has instead as its backdrop one or more of the above motives will – by the very logic that Pastor Mike or gifting “circles” invoke – bring on the experience of further scarcity. One should not be surprised if one’s gifts to Pastor Mike, tuition at the prosperity programming seminar, or membership in a pyramid gifting “circle” brings precisely that: further scarcity.
In the last two weeks at least 10 women have written me asking me to comment on “Women’s Wisdom Circles” or “Women’s Gifting Circles.” Structurally, they are obvious pyramid schemes – eight women (or more or less, depending on the model) give $5,000 each, and one woman receives $40,000. The givers advance with each recruitment of a new $5,000-paying member toward the center, when they themselves will receive $40,000. This 800% return on investment is testament to her “abundance mentality” and proof to the newcomers of the power of “opening to receive.” A certain kind of faith is needed – quite true when it comes to persuading newcomers. It is the faith of a salesman in his product.
One might say that those who never make it to the center (the top of the pyramid) didn’t have enough faith, that their lack of results betrays their poverty mentality. That might be true in a real circle, but in a pyramid the structure itself, independent of the faith or efforts of the people involved, limits success to just a few. The only way to avoid that is if every winner herself rejoins eight other “circles,” recycling her $40,000 back into the common pot. That’s the only way that some or most women won’t lose their $5,000.
Another way these schemes create scarcity is through social disruption. You may have noticed what happens to friendships when money becomes involved. Imagine what happens when a dear friend of many years asks you to pony up $5,000 to join her circle. Whether you accept or decline, the friendship may have been damaged. Either your friend will be offended, or you may suspect that your friendship is being parlayed into money. Imagine the pressure you would feel if you had paid $5,000 and needed to recruit eight people for that money not to be squandered.
Friendship is not immune to the monetization of everything. Direct marketers has relied on that process for many decades now. While their sales trainings never say, “Play on feelings of trust, obligation, and fear of offending to convert your friends into customers,” that is what ends up happening. Sooner or later, you suspect that the Avon lady isn’t really coming to visit because she likes you. Similarly, women’s “gifting circles” will tear the fabric of community.
In the face of all this, I want to recognize the beautiful aspirations that are struggling to emerge here: to step into generosity and abundance, and to build community with others on the same path. For that is indeed a path of wisdom and a reclamation of the divine feminine. Therefore I’d like to offer some alternatives to Women’s Gifting Circles that truly come from abundance thinking and that build community instead of rending it.
The first is the Gift Circle, initially described to me by Alpha Lo, that has popped up independently in many other places. I’ve written about it here. In brief, 10 or 15 people gather in a circle. No one occupies a privileged position – it is a true circle. Participants take turns naming something they would like to give (anyone in the circle can say, “I would like to receive that,” or “I know someone who needs that,” etc.) On the second round, each person names something he or she would like to receive. In this way, the gifts and needs of everyone in the group become known, people get used to giving and receiving from each other, and, if the group meets repeatedly over time, a community of mutual reliance develops. People experience abundance – both the joy of giving, and the experience of having their needs met.
Another alternative that does involve money might be called a gifting club. A group of people gather, each pledging a certain amount of money. Each person comes with a proposal for whom to give the money, such as a worthy cause or needy person, and the group makes a decision together through a consensus-based process. Such a group could even model itself on the Women’s Gifting Circles, using money as a kind of initiation, except that instead of going to one of the members, the money would go to a charity of some kind. This arrangement excludes that unwelcome visitor that so often plagues our minds: the thought, “She is really just in it for the money.” Yet, it still includes the initiatory element of making a payment, which is part of the power of Women’s Gifting Circles to bring participants into a non-ordinary space. To enter a sacred circle where customary pretense and personae can be dropped is an important unmet need in our society. Why, though, does it have to be wedded to motives of financial gain?
Do you really want to step into abundance and gift? Then do something that offers no direct path to return, something about which you can honestly say, “I’m doing this because it is my pleasure to give,” rather than, “I’m doing this so I will get even more back.” You might end up with more back after all, but if so it will come via mysterious paths. But you won’t be concerned with that, because you will stand confident in the abundance of life, believing that as you care for life, life will care for you.
We in this society are deeply programmed for scarcity. This is not our fault. The whole system conspires to make us feel separate, anxious, and poor. On the deepest level, our cultural mythology holds us as discrete, separate individuals in a world of other, and our technology and social infrastructure reify that mythology, cutting us off from intimate connection with community and nature. Furthermore, the money system operates very much like a pyramid scheme, with all its attendant social dislocation and the constant, nagging feeling that one is constantly being ripped off. Like a “gifting circle,” our economic system concentrates wealth in the hands of just a few, and compels one and all to scurry for more “recruits” – to find some aspect of nature or relationship that is unmonetized, and turn it into a good or a service. That is what we call “economic growth.” Like all pyramid schemes, this can last only as long as there are new recruits available: more atmosphere we can convert into a waste dump, more trees we can convert into buildings, more topsoil we can convert into corn syrup, more skills and relationships we can convert into services.
We are running out of all of these. It is time, past time, to adopt a new mythology and a different model of giving and receiving. Women’s Gifting Circles, though structurally part of the past, illuminate by their very name a way forward – toward the circle not the pyramid, toward the gift and not the transaction. Surely, many women will walk away from the experience cynical and disillusioned. I hope they don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater and dismiss the glimpse they may have had of the sacred power of the circle.