Thursday, March 10, 2011

Giving as an Art Form

by Miki Kashtan

Yesterday I visited a magical place where a small miracle has been happening every Wednesday for over 14 years: One family hosts a drop-in meditation group that is unlike any other I remember.

Anyone can come, as information about this group is publicly available on the web at I imagine different people will find different aspects of the evening magical. For me it was the purity and expansiveness of giving that I saw, and most especially around the feeding which took place after the meditation and the circle of sharing that followed it. But I am getting ahead of myself here.

The circle of sharing last night started with a reading from Rabindranath Tagore, Freedom Manifests in Action. Before the circle started someone calculated that with the number of people in the room we would each have 49 seconds. From then on until well past half the circle time I was fully aware of the irony of un-freedom I was living in: I was so preoccupied with the thought that some people were taking much longer than 49 seconds to speak, and so worried about people not getting a chance to be included, that I was not able to be fully present to myself or the circle. Here’s where miracle #1 happened for me: the circle ended exactly at the time designated, and the microphone circulated around the entire room. Somehow this served as metaphor for me of sufficiency. I breathed in deeply, realizing I was learning something significant.

Meanwhile I was wondering how the food was going to work out. This was, after all, just one family’s living room with a family-size counter. Slowly the system, which I imagine was honed through years of trial and error, revealed itself to me. A few volunteers served the food into plates that were then placed on the counter, and one person after another came, took a ready-made plate, and sat down to eat at small folding tables, close to the ground, in silence. The experience of having food be given to me rather than putting it in my plate was exquisite.

Miracle #2 happened in response to my wondering about portion sizes, which I thought were small. I was prepared to leave without eating enough food, because I was so touched and grateful already. And then the extent of the giving became apparent. One after another people came to my little table as well as all the others, and without any words offered more food. Each was carrying a bowl with an abundance of one food item, and simply dished it out to any of us that signaled we wanted more. There was more than enough, and I left in the end with a very satisfied stomach.

This was not all. Awash with gratitude I sought the woman who did all the cooking, who has been doing it for 14 years, having fed tens of thousands of people. I expressed my gratitude and awe at the level of giving. Without ever stopping her attention to the food and the serving, she said very strongly that she receives so much from the giving. Whereupon I had an instant insight I shared with her: only giving that feels like receiving can be sustained over time. She smiled in recognition. We went on talking, and another insight landed on me. This was a model of a different way of allocating resources. First give a basic amount to everyone. Then share the abundance beyond the initial subsistence level with everyone who is still in need. And anyone who had truly had enough will have no issue with someone else getting more. This was miracle #3: a simple and profound understanding that is enriching and deepening my own understanding of and appreciation for the many possibilities that a gift-economy provides.

And the miracles continued. CharityFocus, the gift-economy incubator that Nipun Mehta, son of the family that so humbly and generously hosts these evenings, operates many projects on a completely volunteer basis, without staff or offices. I got to see and participate in a small way in one of their projects. Smile cards are regularly shipped all over the world to support people engaging in acts of kindness and inspiring others to do the same. Every Wednesday whoever is there and willing participates in shipping such cards to places all around the world. I saw a project in the forming, when a scientist showed simple science kits he is creating to distribute, free of charge, to middle school children who don’t usually have opportunities to learn science well. After I left many more conversations, serendipitous ideas, sharing, and simply humans engaging with each other continued into the night.

I want to keep learning from the complete and utter sincerity of unconditional giving I see and experience every time I am in contact with anyone associated with Charity Focus. I know that doing giving with such grace, attention to detail, and intentionality is one of the doorways into a possible future for all of us.