One Spirit Learning Alliance on February 3, 2012
In deeply contemplating the ever increasing, ever more complicated and intertwining crises facing the world today, one can find a common thread: the financial system and the human species’ relationship to money. No matter what the problem, if one looks deeply to the root cause, it’s nearly always money. “What does a money system look like that no longer destroys, but instead heals nature, culture, and the human spirit?” asks Charles Eisenstein, author of Sacred Economics.
This was a rare chance to spend quality time in dialog with the emerging philosopher, writer, teacher and (I would say, he wouldn’t) economist. His book is fast becoming a guiding force in the Occupy Movement, or as it’s more widely known, The Global Awakening. Of the many speakers and gurus highlighting problems and offering solutions today, Eisenstein stands out for his ability to pull it all together and articulate root cause and realistic actionable steps toward rejuvenation. He is in a class all his own.
Charles (and I hope you don’t mind us all remaining on a first-name basis) speaks to the spiritual in a way that shows he has arrived there from deep trial and emerged with intuitive understanding of ageless wisdom. He speaks to our institutions and systems with scholarly depth, worthy of a Yale graduate, which he is. He weaves this insight and knowledge together offering an approach to solving the seemingly unsolvable inviting the listener to a new level of consciousness wherein things don’t seem so bad.
I felt good as soon as I arrived. The room was filling up and Charles was already there. In his tee-shirt and not-so-pressed khakis, he was leaning back in a chair at the front of the room, calm and monk-like, taking it all in. Gilles Herrada was the host for the evening and gave a fantastic introduction, which included a pronunciation of “Charles Eisenstein” in an elegant, liquid-French accent that made Charles smile from ear-to-ear. (My wife and I tried to imitate it the whole way home with little success….Shawls…Shaaawls Eye-shin-shteen. What fun! My Midwestern accent feels so inferior.)
The entire evening lasted just short of 2 1/2 hours and it was equal parts Charles speaking to the room and a Q & A.
Charles is on a book tour for Sacred Economics, but the talk, I think, encompassed all of his work and was not specific to the new book. If there is an over-arching context to his theme, it is this: we modern humans are living in a transitional time and, if there is a main theme, perhaps it is interdependence, inclusiveness and community.
To offer a tight, condensed synopsis of the talk would be futile, as I find his writing and way of speaking reach me in much the same way as a Bob Dylan lyric – it’s poetic. It’s dense, yet very approachable. A few words can open up new worlds of thought. The whole of what Charles offers tells a story, yet each line seems to stand on its own. So I’ll ponder here some of the quotes which jump out of my notebook (if you would like to listen to the entire talk you can do so here).
Charles began by saying, “Enlightenment is a group project in this day and age.” He went on to explain the old model from Descartes where a thinker goes into a room alone, comes up with a brilliant solution, emerges, tries to convince people of its merit and when a critical mass of people are on-board, the change begins to happen. This is a process that may never have really worked. Especially now, community is needed. Deep listening and compassion are paramount. In our flattened, inter-webbed society, a new model is being born and new communities are arising.
“There are two great myths: the story of the self and the story of the people”, says Charles. The story of the self flows from religion, which generally sees individuals as separate souls enclosed in flesh. We can see this story beginning to change in a connected world of instant communication. Humans increasingly understand themselves as integrated into the ecosphere, rather than (as in the old paradigm) as living on the earth and as a separate entity from it. Our money system is a manifestation of this delusion of the separate self. It puts all humanity in an artificial state of competition. It destroys gift. (Charles spoke quite a bit about gift economies, and how they encourage the coming together of love and exchange of goods, thus fostering relationships in which we need each other. In an economy based on money, this is not the case. Money abstracts it so one provider is as good as the next.)
As Charles points out about our system, “It is mathematically impossible for everyone to have abundance.” Our system of money creates debt and interest on that debt, which ensures we are always indebted. There is an “endemic scarcity” built into it. The money system we are locked into perpetually compels us to go into the world to create new wealth by taking away something that was once free and selling it back. To do this we exchange gift for commerce.
There is much to ponder when Charles posits that all money is generated from the extraction of natural resources or the conversion of formerly free human interactions to paid services. One easily understands this system is destroying our psychological and spiritual relationships as well as our natural environment. Grand psychological agreements are in place between us humans. We create powerful institutions and systems that bind our better angels. A more beautiful world is possible, and each of us has a unique gift to give toward the rebirth of that world, but the great “institutions of our time militate against that knowing.” Their demands seem unstoppable.
When contemplating the future of this money/growth based paradigm it is easy to imagine all human interactions will one day be commodified and all natural resources will be extracted and sold. But this can’t happen and that is not what is happening. The tyranny of this psychological agreement has reached its apex. The growth rate of our population and the burden of our “debt” have reached a tipping point wherein our ability to find new wealth can’t keep pace with the growing demands of servicing the debt. We are all participating in the “growth of money realm” and we’re positioned at the tipping point. Our planet is finite, and we can only extract natural resources for profit for a finite amount of time. As the cost to extract resources rises faster than the value of the resources extracted, we can already see the shift.
And therein lies a seed of a new story of the people. The story is changing from seeing ourselves as having dominion over the cosmos, our science capable of rising above the constraints of nature, our very “being” objectified and seen as separate from nature, to one of interdependence, integration and consensus.
Charles did not offer many details for new paradigms and systems at this talk, but there are many solutions offered in great detail in his book. One suggestion he did address at length was the idea of negative debt, or negative interest rates. Today interest rates are very low and Charles suggests that if it could be left alone perhaps rates would naturally head where they seem to want to go: below zero. But there are too many legal and systemic barriers preventing this from happening, so it stays above the zero line. However, if we lived in a world of negative interest, where it would make more sense to give money away rather than to keep it, what wonderful changes could happen quickly. For example, imagine if a large holding of money would “decay” or diminish by some percentage over time of holding it. Suddenly it would “pay” to do the things in this world our hearts are calling us to do.
“So why can’t we change course? We know the problems, we even know the solutions. We have known them for 30 years, yet we do not seem to be able to change course.” Money is a story, Charles concludes, and the story of the people is changing and the story of money has not yet changed. “Humanity is in the process of falling in love with Earth.” We are moving through our adolescence and reaching adulthood.
“We are all being born into a larger identity, a full member of the tribe of life on earth.” We are being called to community and cooperation, to a new paradigm that is no longer “more for you is less for me, but more for you is more for me too.” However, the growth machine is doing all it can to stay alive; it’s desperate. But there is a window now to speed the transition into this new era. “So anything we can remove from the growth machine will hasten its demise.” Creating communities wherein we offer each other our true gifts is the beginning of healing ourselves and our world.
Charles has great appeal in his ability to communicate these ideals without being new age-y or “that spiritual guy.” That is what makes him so unique. He can speak to the precepts of Eastern philosophy like an accomplished Dharma teacher or speak to the ravages of the monetary system like Chris Hedges, but his style is all his own. It draws the audience in and moves with such an economy of language that the room all night murmured with “Hmmm… Yes. Right-on.” He tends to say things we are all thinking in a way we would like to have said them.
The evening ended with a Q & A that wonderfully meandered its way into being a conversation. The room felt alive with possibility. What a glorious diversity of people there are at Integral New York. They are young, older, hip, suburban, tall, medium, left, lefter, we seemed to have come from all over. But I would say the common trait was open-heartedness. An uncommon vulnerability mixed with a fierce intellect. Standing in the doorway on my way out I stopped to breathe for a moment and take in the room. I was filled with a feeling of, ‘These are my people. I like these people. We can do this. We got this.”
The book Sacred Economics is available on North Atlantic Books Evolver Editions. The new short film Sacred Economics by Ian MacKenzie, of which I am a co-producer (full disclosure), can be seen here along with Charles’ web site. The new short is the full length version of the YouTube hit “The Revolution is Love”
About the Author
Gregg Hill is an artist, activist and media consultant based in New York. He was a key member of the senior management team that grew Bravo Cable Network and developed and launched IFC and IFC Films. His involvement in social activism is diverse, from traveling with renowned Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh in Vietnam and participating in reconciliation ceremonies throughout the country, to extended periods of insight meditation at IMS and with Quiet Harbor Sangha, to occupying Wall Street, where Gregg was an organizer and one of the first occupiers to march into Liberty Plaza on September 17th.
Gregg’s conceptual and abstract sculpture speaks to deconstruction, transformation and impermanence, and can be found in major galleries around the country including Marcia Wood Gallery in Atlanta, Kenise Barnes in New York and Fouladi Projects in San Francisco.