Celebrating the Gifting Economy
It’s the time of year when I think about the healing and transformational act of giving. That’s because it’s time once again for Burning Man, the annual temporary community of some 70,000 people that assembles for a week of wonder in the dusty alkaline black rock desert flats of Nevada. Burning Man has been called indescribable, with as many definitions as attendees, but one thing is for sure, life on
“the playa” as it is referred to operates with a gifting economy. Only coffee and ice can be purchased with dollars, at Center Camp on the playa. Anything else, from hamburgers to candy to freshly baked gluten-free chocolate chip cookies to massages, face painting, or a hair wash at a salon sink (an amazing treat after days of camping)—you name it really—can be found, as individuals and themed camps share their special contributions.
This is gifting, not to be confused with a barter system, where a good or service is offered with an expectation of something of similar value in return. Rather the whole point, the whole economic objective, is to give freely for the experience of giving. And although I won’t be there this year, I can’t help but reflect on the practice of gifting when I think of all my friends and loved ones feverishly preparing to head out for the big event to give and receive freely. And I can’t help but wonder, as so many have before me, what Burning Man has to teach us all, as spiritual activists, about how to remake the world around us.
In addition to the commitment to the gifting economy (over a transactional one) Burning Man goers are also asked to follow one other "rule”—to participate. These two rules form the structure of the Burning Man community. Beyond that anything goes, and the art, creativity, camaraderie, beauty and personal expression present is truly impressive. Life on the playa is so different, people feel the need to ‘decompress’ upon returning to face the challenges of re-assimilating into non-Burning Man culture. When the central cultural fuel is giving, sharing, gifting and receiving, rather than profiting, whole new opportunities emerge for living well or “Buen Vivir” as Amazonian Indigenous Peoples refer to it. (See my blog on this topic from last time!)
The thing about giving and receiving freely is that it feels really good. There is joy in bringing satisfaction and joy to others, and by doing so we feel a greater feeling of abundance ourselves. It is a mysterious riddle but it really works. Try it yourself and see what I mean.
So then it follows to ponder, how many of our social, economic and ecological ills could be healed if these two "rules" of the playa were to become our dominant cultural norms? If we all agreed to participate fully rather than hang back as spectators, and if we all subscribed to a gifting economy, what could our world be like? For a taste of the power of giving check out this incredible activity book or consider planning a gifting gathering in your living room or community to explore the power of an economy based in gifting and receiving with grace. Been to the playa? Share your experiences in the comments section!