The practice and theory of the gift circle

The following essay appeared in our “Open Collaboration Journal :Issue1” and also appeared on the Peer to Peer foundation website


An open collaboration has the qualities of open (vs closed), non-hierarchical (vs hierarchical), non-owned (vs owned), emergent (vs planned), participatory (vs witnessing). {For more on these qualities see our Open Collaboration book}. A well-functioning open collaboration is autopoietic – self-regulating, self-maintaining, and adaptive to different conditions. There are principles of how to create open collaboration projects and guide their evolution. An open collaboration has many stages it can be at. Each higher stage will have greater empathy, non-attachment, non-judgment, synergy; and be more in touch with individuals deeper needs.

One of the projects I have been working in which these open collaboration principles apply is a gift circle we have here in Fairfax,California. The idea of the gift circle is we come together to share our needs and services. People help each other out with our needs, and offer their services without expectation of getting anything in return. It’s a way of creating a gift economy (which is different than a trade, local currency, or money system). There has opened a field of generosity, caring, and community. People have been gifting each other massages, car mechanic help, graphic design services, bean soup, readings, babysitting, computer advice, clothes, veggies, editing, cleaning, places to stay, rides, help moving house, etc.. Over time many people have come through our weekly circle, and a kind of tribe has begun to form centered around the gift circle – with people helping each other during the whole week outside the circle. The vision is to have a whole network of these circles synergizing with each other in a local area to aikido the whole community into the gift economy.

Can the circle self-organize?

At first the gift circle was dependent on mine and my friend Matthew Edward’s energies. I wanted to transition it to become a self-organizing and self-running circle. What that at times required me to do was to let go of being the facilitator and allow others to facilitate. I could see all these things that needed to be looked at in order for the circle to work. So it was sometimes a little hard for me to let go and have someone really new to it facilitate it. But that was necessary in order for others to step up, and it empowered them to guide the circle in directions that they thought were useful, and sometimes they took it to great places that I would not have thought of myself. Over time we gradually had a larger base of different facilitators.

Many open collaborations start out as being more hierarchical or dependent on its founders. At some point comes the critical step where the founders have to let go. If they don’t and keep holding onto the power it’s difficult for the whole system to become a truly non-hierarchical self-organizing open collaboration.

In our circle sometimes we would have little discussions after the meetings to reflect on what worked, and what did not and figure out how better ways to run it. Our gift circle is a learning circle. Its format is emergent over time. As our circle grew and found success in meeting a lot of people’s needs, and began to develop a tribe around it, we wanted to put a little manual together to explain to others how the gift circle worked so they too could start their own circle. I was looking for a genotype for a gift circle (a genotype being the DNA blueprint that guides what an organism grows into) that we could give to others to start their own gift circle. I was thinking the blueprint/genotype for a a set format/schedule. However, what happened was that different people each week would try out different ways to run the circle, and the format was continually evolving, adapting to the circumstances. I have begun to think that genotype of a gift circle is not the format itself, but the circle’s continual process of reflecting on what works and what doesn’t and trying new things each time. A genotype based on process means that the gift circle format has the open collaborative quality of being emergent, not planned from the start. This genotype is useful as the gift circle spreads to different demographics and subcultures, and different formats may be more favorable. It’s not to say a genotype of a set format/schedule is not useful to pass onto others, but that a genotype in the form of a process would be even more powerful; it helps a circle become a complex adaptive system. For those of you who know the spiral dynamics model of system development, a social system that can use different and evolve social structures/formats/worldviews is probably a characteristic of yellow level and higher systems.

During the growth of the gift circle many different people took initiative and helped with various tasks – promoting the circle, cooking the circle meal, putting the email list together, explaining to new comers the gift circle culture etc.. People were stepping up and activating different aspects of the circle. Around week 11 of the gift circle the circle began to feel self-organizing. It did not necessarily need Matthew and I for its survival anymore. It was becoming an autopoietic system. An autopoietic system being a system that is able to self-heal, self-regenerate, self-maintain, and self-regulate; examples of autopoietic systems being cells and organisms.

In a brain the neurons rewire themselves into connective nets. The neural net will then fire in different patterns in response to different situations. In the gift circle people’s connections and ways of relating with each other will grow and change. These person-to-person connections form a kind of autopoietic social neural network that fires in different patterns in response to different social situations and goals. The tribe that forms around a gift circle has a social brain made of these person-to-person neural networks. This social brain figures out how to get people’s needs met in a distributed intelligence way. As the social neural network evolves to a more highly functioning state, it will allow the tribe to satisfy more of its own needs.

Letting go of exchange

In a social system if when a person gives something they expect something in return then there is attachment of emotion to the giving. People may feel upset if there is nothing gotten back. A society may put in laws that make it expected that every gift has an exchange back. In money and trade systems there is often this attachment to an emotion if ones does not getting something in return for what they gave.

In some gift cultures if you gift something to someone, you may expect that they may pay back the tribe/group/community at some point in time. There is a loosening of the constraints of the giving, there is less obligation, and it would be hard to create a law around this kind of amorphous giving back. There is less attachment to an emotion if someone does not give back. There is also an increase in gratitude in the system as this kind of gift giving increases. The more there is a sense of community the more giving happens. If a social group is architected in such a way that people can see how the flow of resources happens, how people are contributing, what happens when people contribute this can greatly help the whole gifting process. A gift circle for instance where everyone can hear each others needs and see how people are helping each other can increase the amount of flow a lot.

Then there is yet another state that you give without expecting anything. There is no attachment. In that state there is no underlying emotional attachment associated with the giving. When the attachment is released one can enter into a more pure place of giving. And as you do so, your body and being can more easily access a place of bliss, of pure magic and spirit. If there is attachment to reciprocity then that constrains the system to function with tighter boundaries as only reciprocal exchanges are allowed if the emotional field is not to be triggered into a state of upset. Clearing up the emotional field allows the social system to enter into a collective consciousness state where intuition and inner knowing guide the unfolding of events. A gift circle in these states has a lightness to it. The energy is less dense, with an ethereal quality to it.

One may ask but how do I know I will get taken care of, if I will get what I need if one doesn’t mandate reciprocity? As the group opens up, puts its intentions out there, lets go and trusts, something magical begins to happen. Needs begin to get met in magical ways, you will be helped in ways you had not ever thought of. Its almost like there is a field of grace around the tribe, and things begin to click into place without trying. It’s almost a paradox; first you have to let go of any feeling that you have a right to anything, and then in that nonattached space things will come to you.

One way to look at attachment and exchange is that there is a oneness that everyone is part of. If we are all one when you give to another part you are giving to yourself. And if we are one other parts will give to you because they are the same as you. However, it’s only when we clear away this attachment to emotions and the stories we tell ourselves about exchange, morals, and how society works that we can begin to access this oneness power to get us the needs we are asking for.

What is progress in a social system?

A social system has many levels of functioning. As it progresses to higher stages of functioning it undergoes phase transitions in its behavior, in its values, in its ways of relating to each other. In each new stage there is a paradigm shift in the way things are done, and it can be quite a shock to the people in it that you can do things this new way. In a gift circle at each new stage the social neural network will have different configurations and patterns, and the emotional field and value system shifts.

Here are some laws I propose about social systems and the different phases/stages it evolves through.

LAW OF NONATTACHMENT IN A SYSTEM: A system phase transitions to a higher state when the participants become more nonattached e.g. they do not become attached to getting something in return for what they give.
LAW OF EMPATHY IN A SYSTEM: A system phase transitions to a higher state as the amount of empathy of the participants increases.
LAW OF NONDUALITY IN A SYSTEM: A system phase transitions to a more integrated and cohesive system as it becomes more nondual. Examples of some nondualities that correlate with more highly functioning systems 1. wants=service 2. play=work 3. waste=food 4. you=me.
LAW OF DECENTERING IN A SYSTEM: A system phase transitions to a more transcendent state each time it decenters: A social system decenters when it can become nonjudgementally aware of its own cultural norms, worldviews, social architectures and nonattach from it. A gift circle that can nonjudgmentally decenter from its format, culture, and worldviews, step back and nonattachedly observe itself, is moving to a higher level of development. This nonattachment allows it to evolve new formats and cultures.
LAW OF DIFFERENTIATION AND INTEGRATION: A system phase transitions to higher states where the parts/people are more individuated, and also more integrated and synergized with each other. (This law is basically Ken Wilber’s holonic tenet 12b ) A gift circle at higher levels would have individuals expressing a wide variety of unique needs and perspectives and have the group synergizing well and communicating clearly across values systems and worldviews to help meet those needs.

Spiral Dynamics is a theory that attempts to map out the stages a system can go through. It assigns a color to each of the stages – blue, orange, green, yellow, turquoise,… A gift circle at the orange level will have probably have people looking to directly get back something in return for what they give. A gift circle at the green level will have people acting more from empathy and love directing the flow of services to where people have been expressing their needs. A gift circle at the yellow level will have empathy, an ability to integrate people with different worldviews,and be able to evolve its own format and structure. It will be less judgmental (while still being discerning) of different worldviews. A gift circle at the turquoise level will have empathy and integration of multiple worldviews. It will be able to evolve in its own structure in a less herky jerky fashion than at yellow levels, as at this level it more deeply understands the systems cause and effect chains, sees how everything is influencing everything else, and knows how to integrate emotions, values systems, and worldviews into a coherent system. At turquoise level will have intuition, psychic insight, and a collective consciousness that guides the group. A spirit of gratefulness, grace, and magic flows through the group. There is an effortless in how things unfold. An actual gift circle will be a mixture of stages/colors in the spiral dynamics model.

I’d love to see our gift circle evolve to and stabilize autopoietically at higher levels of functioning. Stay tuned to see how it evolves.


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