Relationships grow out of shared experience. These relationships form a kind of economy, one that supports us and nourishes us and that is worth valuing as much as we value the cash economy of free-market capitalism.
Years ago when I lived in the Comox Valley on Vancouver Island, I was inspired to get involved in my community. Near my home, a river-front property known as the Quan Chow Lands was slated for development on what was essentially flood-plain. I and others joined up to see if there was another alternative to building seniors’ housing on this fertile patch of land, at one time the site of a successful vegetable farm. Though there was a lot of energy to save the land, the developers won the day and the project, Canterbury Place, went ahead. Ironically, the land flooded even as the foundations of the new houses were being laid.
Returning to Victoria from the Comox Valley this week, I met former co-conspirator Michael Linton, who told me about his work in Vancouver setting up a number of local currencies. “A community currency,” he said, “is an ongoing story, a record of giving and getting. It’s also a patterning.” In the cash economy, he explained, once a transaction for a product or service is complete there is no further relationship between the two parties. The money essentially disappears. In the gift economy (as described by Lewis Hyde in The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property) the gift forges connections, bonds of friendship, as well as bonds of responsibility and obligation. The energy and intention of the gift initiates a flow that continues to be expressed and sustained as it moves through the community. As Michael described it, in the community currency economy, relationships are also continually being developed and renewed through the cycling of the local currency in a limited field.
As a teacher of meditation, in the majority of settings where I offer instruction, I do not charge a fee. This would certainly pose a problem if I relied on donations to pay the rent and basic living expenses, but I don't. However, there are many teachers who do. Over the years of attending meditation retreats, most of them in the Vipassana or Insight tradition of Theravada Buddhism, I continue to learn a lot about the practice of dana, the Pali word for generosity. What does it mean to give freely, without regrets? Does that mean I give only according to my means or does it mean that I equate the value of the instruction I've received with other types of institutional learning and contribute an equivalent amount to what I would be charged in those settings? Also, from the receiving end, what does it mean to receive freely what is offered, whatever it is?
At the beginning of June, I was on Denman Island at the Hermitage for five days, co-teaching with my friend and fellow meditator, Jane Fawkes. We had designed a fairly simple structure for the retreat, which we called "Meditation and Mandalas: Doorways to the Soul." In the mornings, I gave instructions in the temple, which is housed in a yurt filled with Tibetan thangkas and photographs of teachers in the Kagyu lineage. From 9:00 to 12 noon, we practiced in silence. In the afternoons we took out our coloured pencils, wax crayons, felt pens and watercolours, and worked on our mandalas. Before dinner we met again in the temple and shared our work, not as artists, but as fellow wayfarers seeking to understand our own journeys. In the evening I played my drum and told stories. Moving in and out of silence, it felt like we had discovered a new way of integrating practice with daily life, one that is inclusive of many ways of experiencing the world.
On the closing morning we gathered pine cones, daisies, bits of bark and shell, stones and bones, sticks, leaves and bright blossoms to make a community mandala on a raised wooden platform near the yurt. Stepping onto the platform in silence we placed our various finds in a circle of pine cones. The result was a glorious hodge-podge of colour, texture and shape, with one live element – a large snail, slowly making his way off a disc of cedar and heading for the perimeter of the circle.
Following the retreat I met up with my father in Courtenay. The first question he asked me was, “Did they pay you?” My response was, “No.” Then I explained that the participants had made donations and I would likely receive something in the mail in the next week. In thinking about the question, I realized two things: First, the question itself triggers a feeling of confusion. It presupposes a view that any service I might offer is only valuable in monetary terms. If I didn’t get paid then whatever I was doing at the retreat had no value. And yet I know it did have value. Many of those who attended the retreat made an effort to tell me they found it valuable. Hence the confusion: What does it mean to receive no clear financial compensation for something of inestimable worth?
The second insight I had was related to my own attitude. Because there was no set fee for the retreat, either for the teachers or for the accommodation and meals, I felt extraordinarily free to be intuitive about how to do it. I didn’t choose the stories I would tell ahead of time, but allowed my sense of what was happening in the group to guide my choice. Also, I didn’t have a lot of anxiety about making sure people “got their money’s worth.” Instead, I felt that we were co-creating the experience and it was simply my role to provide some guidance.
For me, the retreat was a reminder of the value of relationships--how they are nurtured in the reflective stillness of silent meditation but also in the precarious but exhilarating space of creative expression and community sharing.