In 2017, I co-led an intensive training at Punto Zero, Chile, a retreat center that aims to restore at least some indigenous ways of being. In response to a question from a participant, these words came to me: “life is arranged to care for all that lives through an endless, interdependent flow of energy and resources.” I felt them coming from Earth itself. I felt her sigh of relief when I named the ways that we can restore flow, even now, so late, even individually, even in small ways. It was a bodily experience of connection with the physical nature of life, fresh, unexpected, and unprecedented. With it came an unmistakable sense of the earth’s commitment to support our work in restoring collaboration and the interdependent, endless flow of gifts called life.
The Loss of Flow
At some point in our human past, for reasons that are well beyond the scope of this article, probably rooted in tragedy, calamity, and desperation, we broke off from the flow. Our biology of love, as Humberto Maturana (1) calls it, relatively new on the evolutionary map, tender, vulnerable, precarious, didn’t have sufficient resilience to integrate all that had happened. We entered states of scarcity and mistrust, which led to separation: from self, other, nature, and life itself.
Scarcity and separation then led us to interfering with the flow through exchange and accumulation. Exchange cuts the flow short: when I give to you and you immediately give back, the flow stops with us. Accumulation removes resources from circulation. Together, exchange and accumulation have converted natural abundance, based on sufficiency and regeneration, into the twin horrors of artificial surplus and manufactured scarcity, where no amount of excess can quench the fear of scarcity.
The flow is now diminished to the point of threatening life, as if the arteries and veins of earth were clogged. And some groups – and, to different degrees, most people – are systemically excluded from access to resources now controlled by the few.
Restoring the flow would invite us to take on both exchange and accumulation. We can transform exchange by uncoupling giving from receiving, as much as we can, so energy and resources travel further along the web of life. We can free up resources from accumulation by keeping only what we need and giving away the rest in support of other needs, beyond our individual lives. Ideas alone aren’t sufficient. We need practices and actions that move us in the direction of flow on the material plane. These practices challenge norms of fair exchange, value, merit, deserving, and obligations and rely on a spiritual discipline of ongoing interdependent engagement with humans and with the rest of life.
Individual Change: the Challenge and PossibilitySince flow happens within a web of relationships, individual acts of coming back into flow require much more inner capacity for those of us who live in contexts where this transgresses the norms of the cultures and institutions within which we live. The most effective personal practice I’ve found is to take on three interrelated disciplines: unconditional receiving, unconditional giving, and shedding excess.
Individual Change: the Challenge and Possibility
Since flow happens within a web of relationships, individual acts of coming back into flow require much more inner capacity for those of us who live in contexts where this transgresses the norms of the cultures and institutions within which we live. The most effective personal practice I’ve found is to take on three interrelated disciplines: unconditional receiving, unconditional giving, and shedding excess.
As Genevieve Vaughan has shown (2), all of us begin our lives sustained by the unilateral giving of those who care for us. By evolutionary unfolding, we are born entirely dependent on others, “a bundle of needs,” as psychologist Alice Miller names it in . Within the context of community and flow, this dependence on others doesn’t make us helpless, even as infants, because our expression of need carries sufficient power. If others give to us just because we have needs, then we have the experience of unconditional receiving, since there is neither an expectation nor capacity for exchange. Why, then, is it so difficult for so many of us to receive without giving, even more than to give without receiving?
Tragically, this is because most of us are raised by people with compromised capacity for unilateral giving. This results from cumulative individual, intergenerational, and societal trauma combined with structural arrangements that place all of our care in the hands of one or two people, an impossible task. Our inborn trust is then shaken. We develop an aversion to being at the mercy of others, and associate receiving, and even having needs, with that kind of dependence, which, when thwarted, we experience as helplessness. As we then encounter the harsh realities of the exchange and accumulation economy, within which, as Genevieve stresses, gifting is devalued, we learn that we receive only by giving, that we “earn” our keep instead of experiencing our needs as the motivator for others’ actions, and that, by receiving, we owe something.
Our innate capacity for receiving is then submerged. Reclaiming it is a journey of recognizing, accepting, and embracing our needs, and re-developing the trust in others and life itself to give us what we need. It means making requests, too, so that others can orient their giving accurately. No small task. Learning to do this while simultaneously caring for others’ needs and for the overall flow of resources that will care for all is a small, individual, revolutionary act.
In a world that we experience as based in scarcity, any time we give, we have less. If we insist on an exchange, so the inherited norm goes, then we don’t lose. And yet we’ve lost so much, because the surrender to life that giving without receiving comes from brings with it exuberant joy. This is why Marshall Rosenberg, original developer of Nonviolent Communication, spoke of doing only that which we can do “with the joy of a little child feeding a hungry duck.” (3) Giving is pleasurable because it connects us to life and that mysterious flow that reconstitutes it moment by moment. The pleasure is enhanced when we give in response to a need, because, by evolutionary design, we orient toward needs as we become aware of them.
Accumulation is a strategy born of mistrust, an attempt to control the flow of life to guarantee having enough tomorrow and the day after. Paradoxically, such surplus is not supportive of abundance. Natural abundance expresses the extraordinary capacity of life to regenerate itself – provided we don’t strip away resources faster than life can absorb. Accumulation can only lead to more accumulation, because the more we accumulate the less there is in circulation, and the harder it is to trust natural abundance.
Individually, the antidote to this craze of accumulation includes restoring our capacity to know what is enough, and to release anything beyond that. This is difficult territory, because our collective and internalized fear of scarcity interferes with knowing what we need and recognizing “enoughness.” Research suggests that beyond enough, well-being declines, both individually and societally. Still, releasing control and stepping into the unknown we have restored our trust can easily seem suicidal.
This fear is why the individual practice is so exacting. It involves enumerating the resources that I have access to, and then quantifying the needs I aim to meet using material resources. For the latter, it means choosing how far I want to challenge myself in terms of my attachment to comfort and that elusive notion of security. Once I have done this mapping, I can see whether resources match needs.
If the resources are less than the needs, then I make requests – of myself, of others, of life – to increase my access to resources. In this way, knowing my needs can be a source of empowerment and energy.
If, on the other hand, I have access to more resources than are needed to sustain my life at the level that is in integrity with my vision and values, I am directly responsible for a small part of the blocking of the flow, and I can correct that small part and microscopically increase the flow. My task is to find my way toward shedding. This entails challenging the growing modern preoccupation with stability, comfort, security, and predictability. It means stepping into the unknown, the true nature of impermanence, beyond the incessant attention to what works for me. It means inspiring myself with the intricate interdependence of life, such as the capacity of trees, as documented in by Colin Tudge, to care for individual trees in need through a complex interconnected root system, thereby caring fully for their entire community’s capacity to thrive.
Restoring Flow in Community
It’s both harder and less effective to aim to restore flow individually when it’s collective patterns that are threatening life. Sustaining ourselves and the biosphere requires turning the tide on a collective level and finding our way back and forwards into flow.
Doing this in community rather than individually, in full choice and collaboration, provides visible and invisible webs of support to all community members through consciously designed systems that embed the principles of flow.
Such systems are what we have been aiming to put in place in the community, a co-created project that started in the summer of 2017. Its purpose, still being continually revised, has been to nurture us as practitioners and leaders committed to nonviolence, liberation for all life, and collaborative leadership within a framework that I have developed over many years of practice in collaboration with others. The community is mostly virtual, and most of our activities take place via Zoom calls and through email, with occasional physical gatherings, gradually happening in more locations around the world. An overarching principle is to allow resources to flow from where they are to where they are needed, like the trees. This principle is both similar to and different from the socialist principle “from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs.” The similarity is about flow towards what’s needed. The difference is that we replace “ability” with “willingness.” This change extinguishes the necessity of having central-planning authorities that dictate ability, and then, historically, have also decided what counts as need. Everything flows based on agreements entered freely and on requests being asked without holding back. We are supported by emerging new norms that embrace vulnerability, recognition of limits, requests for support, and conscious generosity while transcending unconscious dynamics born of millennia of accumulation of power.
The result has been breathtaking. Just as predicted, generosity keeps growing, and problems invite creativity. Resentment is almost nonexistent, and our attrition rate is minimal despite not having sufficient financial means to sustain ourselves. The rest of this paper is examples, themselves offered by several members of the community in response to a request from me. Members of the community also offered feedback on the outline and the paper itself, again in response to my request.
Eliciting Generosity through Making Needs Visible
We are relearning, collectively, to know and communicate what we need through making requests. Our experience has been unequivocal: when asking becomes normative, more people ask, and more people give. Asking increases relationship and intimacy, because we know more about each other. We are acutely aware of our freedom to say “no,” which allows for a “yes” to be genuine. So asking and checking our own willingness when we are asked both increase simultaneously.
There are no rigid role responsibilities. Even within teams, we don’t track who has done more or less, because we operate on trust and no one is “expected” to do any specific amount. One team, for example, handles uploading of recordings to our permanent archive. Requests reach the entire team, not this or that individual, and whoever is available and willing does it, regardless of how many they have already done relative to how many have been done by others. This means that some recordings take longer to be uploaded, when no one is willing immediately.
Not all tasks get done. We have learned to track gaps without resolving them. Sometimes, a request remains hanging until eventually someone responds to the need. For example, we wanted to apply to participate in a particular program, and we almost didn’t make it because no one was available to do the actual application. Then, on the very last day, a couple of people with enthusiasm took it upon themselves to pour a few hours into it, and the application got sent in on time. For the most part, it’s uncommon for no one to step forward in response to a request. There’s an ebb and flow as people come in and out of availability and capacity. So far, 18 months into the experiment, we can say that willingness, within the community, without shaming or obligation, has been sufficient to sustain the tasks necessary for the functioning of the community.
Mutual Care and Support
A consistent obstacle many of us have faced has been internal: a challenge to recognize and honor our limits coupled with shame about “having” to ask for support. We have learned, individually and collectively, that overextending ourselves is fertile breeding ground for conflict, resentment, and burnout. We’ve learned to proactively check in with each other rather than wait for each of us to reach our limits and then initiate requests. We’ve also created pathways to simplify making requests, as well as reflection tools to help us break free from patriarchal modes of operating. Although we are very focused on making things happen and moving our various projects forward, all our team meetings include opportunities for connection, celebration, vulnerable expression, and collaborative decision-making.
Dealing with Money at Our In-Person Gatherings
In our week-long retreats, which are open to the public, we operate on a gift economy basis for everything beyond participants covering their accommodations. (A few times, we have taken on covering someone’s expenses as part of the retreat.) Participants are asked to contribute the lower of two amounts: what they are moved to contribute, and what they can contribute without hardship. In 2018, in our Poland retreat, for example, we collected $35,000 from 60 participants who gave anywhere from $26 to $1,950. People know we want them to be there regardless of their capacity to give money.
The amount we (those of us who put on the retreats) ask for is based entirely on what would be enough to sustain us, not on concepts like “market value” or on how much labor we’ve put in. We then distribute the money received through a process of mutual influencing and dialogue – based, again, on sustainability needs only. We move away from using money for appreciation or recognition; we allow our relationships to do this.
Dealing with Money within the Virtual Community
Beyond the labor we put into sustaining the community, members are invited to make financial contributions as they are able and willing, and to make requests for their own sustainability as needed. So far the needs strongly outstrip the contributions made, by a factor of twenty to one. Some of us have experienced this gap as generative. So far, it has resulted in the elucidation of a new principle, a re-design of the community structure, and a rethinking of what it means to contribute to the community.
- The new principle is that, when the needs are larger than the resources available, we give the resources to where they will make the most impact. For example, a person in acute family crisis received $610, which was much more impactful than if that money had gone to someone else who had a request of $7,000, because this amount wouldn’t have made that much of a dent in their need.
- The re-design, still in process, is to make it possible for far more people to receive from the community and give labor and money without joining as members. While there are other reasons to change the structure, our desire to increase the inflow of resources in response to need has been a key generator of the creativity that resulted in this work.
- New ways of contributing are just beginning to emerge, as we collectively stretch to find non-monetary ways to sustain each other materially, through what are ordinarily called “in-kind” contributions
Restoring flow is about finding, again, our embeddedness within a larger whole, where care for the whole includes and flows within and from all of us. To do this, we need to restore faith in our human communities to attend to all of us within the means of one finite planet, and to co-create social systems organized on these principles. As we learn again to collaborate and release our reliance on control, we rekindle the embers of trusting the mystery of how life organizes itself to care for all that lives through an endless, interdependent flow of energy and resources. May we succeed while we can.
Miki Kashtan is a co-founder of Bay Area Nonviolent Communication (BayNVC). She is inspired by the role of visionary leadership in shaping a livable future, and works toward that vision by sharing the principles and practices of Nonviolent Communication through mediation, meeting facilitation, consulting, retreats, and training for organizations and committed individuals. Miki blogs at The Fearless Heart. She is the author of Reweaving Our Human Fabric: Working together to Create a Nonviolent Future, Spinning Threads of Radical Aliveness: Transcending the Legacy of Separation in Our Individual Lives and The Little Book of Courageous Living.
 Humberto Maturana and Gerda Verden-Zöller, The Origins of Humanness in the Biology of Love, Exeter, UK: Imprint Academic, 2008.
 See, for example, For-giving: a feminist criticism of exchange, Austin, TX: Plain View Press, 1997.
 This phrase was frequently used in workshops, and also appears in Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Love, San Diego: Puddle Dancer Press, 1999 and several editions since.
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