Sacred Economics: "We’ve all been given a gift, a gift of life. What we do with our lives is our gift back"

The komorebi in the church back-yard
Readings: From a short film about Charles Eisenstein’s book “Sacred Economics 

The film begins with a epigraph by Edo: “We’ve all been given a gift, a gift of life. What we do with our lives is our gift back.”

Charles Eisenstein: Any time you want to understand something, why such and such happened. Why is there a biodiversity crisis, or why are we drilling for more oil when it’s polluting the atmosphere and causing oil spills? And you ask why—down a couple of levels you always get to money. 
I talk a lot about the idea of self that every culture has, and answers the question what are you, what is it to be human? So it says that your this separate being amongst other separate beings, a universe that is separate from yourself, like, you’re not me, that plant is not me, that’s something separate. And, this story of self really creates our world. If you’re a separate self and there’s other separate selves out there, and other species in the universe and the universe is fundamentally indifferent to you, or even hostile, then you definitely want to control, you want to be able to have power over other beings and over these whimsical, arbitrary forces of nature that could extinguish you at any time.
This story is becoming obsolete. It’s becoming no longer true. We don’t resonate with it any more and it’s actually generating crises that are insoluble. And that’s what’s clearing space to step into a new story of self, a new story of the people. 

From publisher’s blurb: Sacred Economics traces the history of money from ancient gift economies to modern capitalism, revealing how the money system has contributed to alienation, competition, and scarcity, destroyed community, and necessitated endless growth. 
Today, these trends have reached their extreme—but in the wake of their collapse, we may find great opportunity to transition to a more connected, ecological, and sustainable way of being.

In all this Eisenstein points out that: 

“We didn’t earn air, we didn’t earn being born, we didn’t earn our conception, we didn’t earn a planet that could provide food, we didn’t earn the sun” 

In other words, all the important things in life are gifts and, therefore, our own economic systems need to acknowledge this truth at every level.

My mother and I debate:
we could sell
the black walnut tree
to the lumberman,
and pay off the mortgage.
Likely some storm anyway
will churn down its dark boughs,
smashing the house. We talk
slowly, two women trying
in a difficult time to be wise.
Roots in the cellar drains,
I say, and she replies
that the leaves are getting heavier
every year, and the fruit
harder to gather away.
But something brighter than money
moves in our blood–an edge
sharp and quick as a trowel
that wants us to dig and sow.
So we talk, but we don’t do
anything. That night I dream
of my fathers out of Bohemia
filling the blue fields
of fresh and generous Ohio
with leaves and vines and orchards.
What my mother and I both know
is that we’d crawl with shame
in the emptiness we’d made
in our own and our fathers’ backyard.
So the black walnut tree
swings through another year
of sun and leaping winds,
of leaves and bounding fruit,
and, month after month, the whip-
crack of the mortgage.

A poem by William Stafford from “The Way It Is: New and Selected Poems”, Graywolf Press, 1998)     

A flavor like wild honey begins 
when you cross the river. On a sandbar 
sunlight stretches out its limbs, or is it 
a sycamore, so brazen, so clean and bold? 
You forget about gold. You stare — and a flavor 
is rising all the time from the trees. 
Back from the river, over by a thick 
forest, you feel the tide of wild honey 
flooding your plans, flooding the hours 
till they waver forward looking back. They can’t 
return: that river divides more than 
two sides of your life. The only way 
is farther, breathing that country, becoming 
wise in its flavor, a native of the sun. 



Two of the "gargoyles"
Behind the church hall is the back-yard in which you will find the shed, the bins and the raised flower-bed which, at times, has been “the children’s garden” with it’s back, boundary-wall decorated with humorous, gargoyle-esque faces that the children made one summer Sunday morning. Some of them are reputed to be depictions of me; I’ll leave you to decide which, if any of them, really are!  

Over-arching the yard are the wonderful branches of an old walnut tree growing in next door’s garden and which, from spring to early autumn, provides the most beautiful, dappled light of sunlight; something for which the Japanese have a delightful, single word, “komorebi”. 

The back yard, bins, garden and the "komorebi"
Most days of the week I spend some time there doing my Tai Chi and, on the odd occasion, I even take a desk out there to work. 

As I have spent time thinking about this tree particularly during this year I realise how much I owe to it’s latent capacity to aid me in the development of my own thinking about how things are and what things matter. Indeed, I find that working, thinking, meditating, listen to music, moving and simply being in the presence of this tree becomes more and more important to me as I grow older. 

And so, as a kind of harvest-time thank-you letter to the tree, it seems worth bringing you something that has slowly become clear to me in it’s komorebi.

Over and above the komorebi, one of most delightful other things the tree gifts us is, of course, it’s fruit. Each year many of us enjoy thousands of walnuts which we share freely and happily with the many squirrels that live nearby. 

However, along with these obviously desirable gifts there are those which we are inclined to feel are less desirable. So, although the leaves in spring and summer may provide komorebi when they fall they fall in great abundance and are always threatening to block the gutters and drains, as one or two of us are only too well aware. Being an old tree, during windy weather, there is also always in play the worry that it is going to lose a significant branch or two and cause some damage to the roof not to mention the possibility that, one day, it’s roots might spreading into areas deemed undesirable. Both things, of course, Mary Oliver knew about well.

These less than desirable things has meant that, over the years, occasional calls have been made to have the tree taken down. However, I’m glad beyond measure, that this has never happened. 

But I know, were the tree to go, that my grief and sadness would be great and my whole life and working environment would be effected badly and each time the matter has been raised, Mary Oliver’s poem, “The Black Walnut Tree”, which we heard earlier has always come to mind.

Once back in my head her poem always-also reminds me of a daily fact that is relevant to everyone of us. It is that, whatever we feel about the rights and wrongs of it, we live today in a world that has developed a deeply disturbing tendency to bottom out all it’s measuring of the worth and value of everything in monetary and/or financial terms. Oliver’s image of “the whip-crack of the mortgage” stands for me as a reminder of the very real, ever-present, coercive power of capital (and capitalism) over our modern lives.  

But, as the poem reminds us, for all capital’s present power, another deeper, more ancient power thankfully remains still at play at the heart of our being, a power which I’m pleased to say seems quietly, if painfully slowly, to be re-emerging into the general intellect and consciousness. It is a power which helps us see that the meaning and worth of the walnut tree, of any tree, indeed of any entity in our natural world (whether sentient or not), can never be anything like adequately known and understood merely through the medium of money and capital. This walnut tree, whenever it is known solely through this medium, is immediately turned from a living thing completely part of a living ecosystem into a mere, discrete, material cog (called lumber) that is functioning in a machine of production from which a monetary profit can be extracted and which, in turn, can be used in the attempt endlessly to drive up unsustainable growth and to service ever increasing, and also unsustainable, debt.

But even the most causal passing acquaintance with the walnut tree will reveal how much more than mere lumber it always is. True there are always it’s apparently problematic, craggy aspects (leaves, roots and falling branches) but we all know that it is precisely those same things things that help gift us a wonderful harvest, both in terms of it’s nuts and that O so wonderful komorebi. It is a cliché (but it is a cliché because it is true) that as a whole-being the walnut tree can never be adequately measured or understood through the medium of money and capital. 

What I increasingly discover in the presence of the walnut tree is something I really already know but so often forget, choose to ignore, or even hide, namely, that in this tree (and in every natural entity, sentient or not) we sense something shining that is brighter than money, something whose glistering charms should, on this occasion, be responded to.  

A poem that seems to me to speak eloquently about this something brighter than money is that we heard earlier by William Stafford (from “The Way It Is: New and Selected Poems”, Graywolf Press, 1998)     

Like Stafford’s sycamore, looking at the walnut tree as a whole being I, too, sense in it a wonderful flavour “like wild honey”. It is a flavour that, like an incoming tide, increasingly flows into every part of my being, “flooding my plans”, and I realise that the walnut tree stands for me today as a helpful marker in my own life. What the river is for Stafford, the tree is for me and I can see that it divides more than the two sides of my life. I realise there is an aspect about it rather like that found in the terms BC and AD, Before Christ and, after Christ, Anno Domini — literally, “the year of our Lord”. For me there is BWT and AWT, before and after the walnut tree. 

“Before the Walnut Tree”, BWT, I was able to split my life into two sides. I was able, or so I thought, to be both passionate about nature and natural world and yet, somehow, also quite happy to acceded to structuring most of my life wholly by the metrics offered up by the old conceptions of money and capital. But the more and more I look at the walnut  tree, eat it’s fruit and stand consciously and gratefully in it’s komorebi, I realise that, “After the Walnut Tree”, AWT, “The only way is farther, breathing that country, becoming wise in its flavor, a native of the sun.” 

That is to say, it helps me identify a need to go further into the tree’s country, becoming wise in it’s flavour and knowing myself as a native of the sun. It helps me understand explicitly what I know deep in my bones, namely, that I can no longer return to, serve and give loyalty to a world that continues to structure itself solely around the metrics offered up by the old conceptions of money and capital. This thought powerfully reminds me of Jesus’ saying that, “No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth” (Matthew 6:24). [In my case, of course, for “God” I read “Nature”.]

I find I want to serve nature not money and wealth. But the problem with this way of expressing things is that it seems to set up a problematic binary, either-or, situation something about which, these days, I’m very suspicious. What if we could bring nature, money and wealth back together in a healthy way and, therefore, head off the need to decide for one against the other? Charles Eisenstein’s book, “Sacred Economics”, offers us one way we might be able to do this. 

But I rush ahead of myself . . . 

Hearing my discomfiture about serving money and wealth, you may object and say, but we live in a world of money and capital and you may feel my words here simply reveal to you my impractical, delusional flabby idealism. You would not be alone in thinking this. I well remember being told that a friend of mine’s father (a senior executive with a major European financial institution, I might add) once said about me in the early 80s, “Lovely lad, lovely lad, but head in the clouds.”

He wanted, of course, to contrast what he thought was his highly practical money metric oriented mentality with my flabby, highly impractical, alternative, hippy and ecologically inspired way thinking that had at the time just been kicked into life by discovering the work of Henry David Thoreau. He was prepared to admit that some of my thoughts were nice and even attractive but, ultimately, my way of wanting to proceed was impractical, wrong and doomed.

Like many teenagers, I allowed myself to bow somewhat to the pressure of the wisdom of my elders and, in consequence, heeded less than I should have done the wisdom of the walnut tree. The result was that I tried (and like most people generally succeeded) to divide my life artificially into different worlds, the poetic, religious and pastoral on the one hand, and the supposedly practical and monetary on the other. But some important things have changed since my friend’s father opined about my so-called “idealistic” take on life that have shown we can no longer keep these things apart and that our conception of money and economics simply has to start listening to, and be  radically changed by the walnut tree and, of course, the natural world as a whole. 

The first change to occur was that the system upon which my friend’s father based his dismissive words has, since 2008, suffered a seismic shock that continues to reveal it as fatally flawed and failing. The second thing to occur is, as Eisenstein notes, that it is becoming clearer and clearer by the day, month and year, that this same system is continuing powerfully to contribute towards “alienation, competition, and scarcity, destroyed community, and necessitated endless growth“. The recent, outrageous revelations about Volkswagen’s actions are but one perfect example of this tendency at work. The third thing to occur is our growing recognition that our old conception of “the self” as being separate from all other things and selves which, in turn, requires us both to desire and obtain excessive amounts of power and control, is as wrong as wrong can be.

As Eisenstein points out, all these things — and many more besides — mean that increasing numbers of us simply no longer believe the old story about the world and self that our elders told us and we cannot, and will not, go back there because today we know another truth: “We’ve all been given a gift, a gift of life. What we do with our lives is our gift back” (Edo).

Charles Eisenstein is a man who is trying to put into a language that is understandable by old-school economists precisely this recognition of the gift of life. He has a vision of “the more beautiful world our hearts tell us is possible” (the title of another of his works) and his book, "Sacred Economics" is an inspiring first attempt to articulate an economics that takes this recognition with the upmost seriousness. In it he expresses the desire to create a “sacred economics”, i.e., an economics that acknowledges what is truly sacred to us as connected living beings enmeshed in a whole world. 

It was underneath the walnut tree out the back of the church that, over the past two weeks, these long developing ideas have finally reached the point of my pen and my tongue today. 

Eisenstein concludes the short film about this book with the following words, words with which I shall also conclude:

“We have been messing around, playing with our gifts of technology and culture. And developing these gifts. Now we are coming into adulthood. And it’s time to apply them to our true purpose. At the beginning, it’ll be about healing the damage that’s has been done. […] We are in the business of creating a miracle around Earth. […]I’m saying that it is something that’s impossible from an old understanding of reality but possible from a new one. And, in fact it’s necessary. Anything even less than that is not even worth trying.”

I commend his “Sacred Economics” to you.