The Man Who Doesn’t Ask for Money
for his workshops. He accepts whatever people want to pay. He trusts the
universe to provide for him. Here he is, in his own words
It was during a period of self-chosen exile when it finally hit me.
February 2008. Two weeks at home quietly thinking, writing and
sketching, limiting my interactions with people. An idea that had been
trying to form itself for a while arrived unexpectedly out of the murky
depths of confusion, aglow with promise. It was an invitation into the
Gift Economy way of life - an invitation to offer my time, my talents,
my energy and most importantly, my undivided attention, as a gift to
people. No expectations about money or any other kind of value in
return. I accepted right away.
But first, some context
about what I do. Having experienced firsthand the oxymoron called
‘college education’ during my BCom degree, I made a rapid and happy exit
from the world of academics. The next decade was spent productively. I
composed music for the ad industry in Bombay and co-founded a social
enterprise with friends where we worked on a variety of social issues.
Today, I focus mostly on two things. The first; helping people access
their self-awareness better so that they can live their lives more
consciously and lovingly. And the second; sharing earth-friendly ideas
and ways of living with people so that our planet continues to stay
healthy and alive. Workshops, Journeys With Meaning across India, music composing, writing and photography are the mediums through which I express myself best today.
the lull, comes the storm”. And boy, did it come? After the initial
high of feeling noble subsided, the questions started to rush in. Why on
earth would I want to do that? How would I make a living now? SLAP - sound of palm hitting forehead.
Was I not making myself vulnerable to exploitation? But no matter how
much or how long I focused on the apparent absurdity of the idea, it
just continued to feel right. Nearly three years on and it still feels
very right. But when I look back, I wonder. Was it about feeling noble?
Or having the approval of the world? After all, there is a certain
novelty value in such a choice which surprises people and sometimes
evokes their admiration.
My desire, however, stemmed from
something more immediate. I was tired of what money was doing to me and
to my relationships. Money had begun to dominate even if it meant
accepting work projects that didn’t have any heart. Holding back my best
ideas became second nature. Until the money showed up, of course.
of what use is a song that is not sung? Of what use is creativity if it
lies unused? Creativity is also spontaneity. And spontaneity cannot be
wrapped up and saved for a rainy day. It is what arises in the moment.
If it isn’t acknowledged, it is gone… perhaps forever.
back to the story, that initial rush of optimism surprisingly lasted a
while. My first big work project was coming up - organizing an
ecological visit to Ladakh for a group of 15 people. I was frenetically
busy with the logistics the next two months. This was also the first
time I was openly connecting the Gift Economy with my work, in front of
people. To their credit, no one in the group looked at me as if I was
mad. At least not to my face. I think they found the idea rather
curious. Twenty five days later, with a bunch of memorable experiences
behind us, we returned home from Ladakh quite happily. It was time to
assess my takings.
I’d made about Rs.700/-. YAY... I was
excited!! My very first gift economy earnings. But wait a second. Hmm.
This was clearly not what I’d expected. It would barely cover a couple
of taxi rides and a cold coffee at the local Barista. Things were bad...
this wouldn’t do at all. I was in a quandary. Somewhere inside, I could
sense disappointment lurking around sulkily. But I also knew I wasn’t
supposed to be feeling this way. Where was that darned noble feeling
when I needed it? And where was all the generosity I was expecting?
SMACK! It hit me hard.
why had I expected anything at all? What a hypocrite I was! Confident
claims on the one hand that I was now offering my time and efforts as a
gift, and here I was continuing to practice the profit-seeking ways of
my earlier life. There was clearly a long way to go.
forward to Winter 2008. Project number 2 had just materialized -
co-facilitating a workshop that my friends were organizing. This time I
was better prepared when the inevitable question came - “What would you like as your fee for the workshop?” Ha ha! Nice try. “No no, we really want to pay you for this workshop.” Sure thing. I’m not saying no. “So... what would you like as your fee...?”
He he! This was getting better and better. I could vividly visualize my
friends struggling to deal with this. How much should they offer me?
Would it be too much or too little? What if I got offended with their
offer and judged them?
But apart from sporting an
enigmatic smile, I wasn’t letting the slightest peep out. No reference
points for them to work with. They would just have to move past their
initial discomfort and figure out what value they were receiving and
were willing to support. This was fun. Finally, after what I imagine was
a couple of days spent tossing and turning, they called back with an
offer... spoken in a rather tentative tone. And it was a very good one
too. There was no question of rejecting it, of course. I really wanted
to be a part of this workshop, money or no money. With greater alignment
between my words and actions, hidden expectations were passe`. The gift
economy roller coaster ride was becoming increasingly enjoyable.
With three years of gift economy living tucked
away under my belt, I’m often asked whether i’ve been exploited. It’s
quite the contrary actually. Getting cheated was a constant worry and a
reasonably frequent experience earlier. Now one of two things happen.
People are mostly generous in supporting me. The amounts I’ve received
for my work easily equal and sometimes out-value current ‘market rates’
even when my work is clearly offered as a gift. Or if people are unable
to offer me much or anything at all, I take the attitude that they must
have good reasons for not being able to do so.
the first to admit it though. Seen from the outside in, the gift economy
can be a confusing place. It turns the values of the market economy
radically around on their head. Transactional relationships and the idea
that one has to compete for scarce resources are jettisoned. Instead,
our gifts of material goods, skills and time are freely circulated so
that an ever-expanding circle of paying-it-forward is created in which
the giver in turn becomes the receiver. So, how do we make this work?
Two words immediately come to mind - unconditional trust.
to trust Universe hasn’t been easy but something has clearly changed.
How else do I explain the inexplicable? I’m not one to easily go for
fuzzy New Age explanations for why things are the way they are. But
consider the following.
May 2009 - my bank balance has
just gone below danger level. No one else knows about this. A stressful
two days ensue. And then I’m flooded with immediate and compelling
relief as I remember what I need to - “Give, and you shall receive.” I
let the worry go and focus on work. A few days later, my friend Madhu
calls saying someone has left me a gift as support for my gift-economy
work. But they don’t want me to know who they are. When I go over and
pick it up, it’s an envelope stuffed with cash. And it’s not a small
amount. Money that I need arriving at just the right time and
anonymously at that. From someone who can’t be aware of my need. What
are the chances really? This is definitely not the kind of gift I’m used
November 2010 - I need a digital video
camera for my work. I post a request on Facebook asking if anyone wants
to sell one. A week later, a dear friend who is nominated in an online
competition wins the exact same model that I need and she gifts it to
me. Coincidence? I think not.
These are just two
examples. There are many more. I no longer need empirical evidence - my
undeniable experiences are more than enough for me. I know this in my
bones now... the more I learn to give without holding anything back, the
more good comes flooding into my life. And in entirely unexpected
Practicing the gift economy way is ultimately an
act of faith. Just like Life. Each moment alive is really a precious
gift but we live each day as if we know there is a tomorrow in store.
Belief without proof. I merely extend this to my work. Simple unfettered
- Vinod Sreedhar