Some time ago when my wife Elisabeth suggested that we might join a transformative spiritual circle to talk about money with other people of wealth, I didn’t jump at the chance.
I’d had experience with all sorts of small groups — group therapy, prayer groups, support groups — and I wasn’t eager to join another. After all, participation in such circles involves discomfort. Some people may find it easy or fun to dig deep within themselves to tell uncomfortable truths, but I don’t.
As reluctant as I felt, though, I agreed to join the Harvest Time (now Wisdom & Money) Circle because I knew that I needed it, and we needed it as a couple. We needed a safe space to talk about the way our money didn’t seem to fit well into our lives. And we both knew intuitively that only a spiritual approach could change that situation for the better.
And so, I found myself in a circle sharing with people I barely knew facts and feelings that I instinctively wanted to keep to myself. And they did the same with me. It was difficult at times. But then we would laugh or pray or share a meal together, and it would feel easier.
Over time I not only developed a deep affection for the other members of our circle, but I came to regard them as the people in the world I could most readily approach for loving support, wise guidance and prayerful discernment, whatever the situation I might face. I trust them, and I value the trust that they place in me.
Uncomfortable moments still come up. But I have learned over time that these can be moments that yield insight and growth, if I am willing to stay with them and stay open. In fact I have often found that, the more reluctant I feel to enter a conversation, the more likely I am to learn from it to my own eventual greater ease or freedom.
Some of the most predictably awkward conversations arise when Rose, our Circle’s facilitator, brings up the question of financial support for the organization itself, that is, for Wisdom & Money. While she is always perfectly happy to discuss this with any of us in private, our Circle has a practice of opening up the conversation together. If that feels difficult in the moment — well, all the more beneficial for us it may prove to be!
As a Circle, we understand these conversations (about funding the work of the organization) to be held within Wisdom & Money’s practice of working in the flow of gift. According to that practice, there is no cost or fee for us to participate in our Circle gatherings. The costs of the Circle are borne by Wisdom & Money so that the gathering may be offered as a gift. We members of the Circle receive the hospitality freely. We are then invited to make our own gifts to Wisdom & Money in orders to extend the hospitality to others.
Some of us balked at this. Why couldn’t we simply pay for ourselves? We were perfectly willing to pay whatever Wisdom & Money wanted to charge. In time, however, we came to see that the practice of receiving what was offered as a gift was part of the transformative work of the Circle. We are invited to receive freely and to give freely — all in the flow of gift.
This sense of freedom informs our conversations around financial support for Wisdom & Money. There is no pressure, no manipulation, no guilt-tripping. The questions of whether and how much we give to the organization are treated in the same way that other money questions are treated in the Circle. That is, they are approached from a spiritual perspective as a matter for discernment. Is this a gift that we feel called to make? If so, what amount seems right?
Ideally, we are able to discern the gift and then give it graciously. We look for that sweet spot of joy that accompanies any true gift of love, when the exchange feels like a gift and a benefit to both parties, and the distinction between giving and receiving breaks down. The money becomes simply a means to enter the flow of gift, a movement of grace that flows in all directions at once and increases life for all whom it touches.
Naturally these funding conversations, once fully opened, involve sharing information. Spiritual discernment works best when well- fed with data. What are the purpose, vision and goals of the organization that we are being asked to support — and in which we participate? What are its needs and resources? And what are the needs and resources that we, as potential donors, bring to the table? How do our own purpose, vision and goals align with those of the organization?
The conversation that ensues has the same potential for transformation that any conversation may have within the Circle. It invites all parties to speak honestly; to listen generously; to acknowledge where we are unclear and where we have sight; and to respect one another’s clear yes or no.
A change of consciousness
At the root of this practice of discernment in the flow of gift is the transformational power of what mystics call non-dual consciousness. Briefly, our everyday consciousness, based in the thinking mind, is dualistic: it knows what it knows by perceiving distinctions and separations, beginning with the distinction between subject and object, between the “I” that sees and knows and the world or the other person being seen or known. Whatever I know in dualistic consciousness, I know as a separate self, and whatever I do, I do as an autonomous self.
By contrast, non-dual consciousness, based in the mystical heart, knows what it knows by way of connection and identification with the other and the world. The heart perceives by resonance, that is, by the lively sense of what is shared or held in common with others and with the world. What I know, I know by connection, and what I do, I do out of my participation in a larger whole.
Non-dual consciousness informs the teachings of the gospel at their deepest level. Consider Jesus’ commandment to “love your neighbor as yourself.” To everyday (I.e. dualistic) consciousness this saying suggests a quality of transaction. That is, here is how much I love myself; here is how much I love my neighbor; let me be sure that the values are equivalent so that I am not caught in selfishness. I might further reflect on how important it is rightly to love myself, so that I may all the more truly and generously love my neighbor.
This interpretation of the saying is not wrong, but it does not plumb the depths of Jesus’ teaching. Non-dual consciousness sees something more in the saying, as teachers of Wisdom Christianity point out: Love your neighbor as yourself because, in reality, your neighbor is yourself. The notion that you are isolated parties is an illusion. In truth you are one, without ceasing to be two, fully united while still fully individuated. Your own well-being is inseparable from the well-being of your neighbor, and vice-versa.
I have come to appreciate how truly revolutionary this practice can be. I choose to support the organization because I see that my own flourishing is bound up in its flourishing. I also see that the organization will flourish best when my gift proceeds from an honest discernment of my personal resources and sense of purpose. The gift flows in all directions at once.
How different this is from other fundraising conversations I have!