Thursday, 5 November 2015

Living In Gratitude: How The Moneyless Challenge Changed Me

Before I started the Moneyless Challenge, I was on a quest for happiness: the relatively lasting and constant type of happiness. At the time I believed that money should play a big part in achieving this form of happiness. Not because I needed to be rich or needed a lot of stuff and luxuries, but because I believed that what I really wanted (freedom) was only achievable if I had a lot of money.

My dream involved buying a big block of land and building an ecohome somewhere in the mountains, to live a quiet life surrounded by nature; far away from 'civilazation' and the pollution that I associated it with, and without the stresses, obligations, constant distractions and tiresome routines of modern life that tend to dull the creative spirit and numb awareness. But in trying to earn enough money to "set myself free" (materially at least), I found this goal to be drifting further and further away from me while I was getting more and more entangled into society's constraining structures. By turning money into my main objective, I had sacrificed my current happiness for a pie in the sky; an uncertain possibility that may or may not happen sometime in the future, all the while postponing my happiness and losing my freedom. I can only say this in hindsight, because at the time I firmly believed that money was the only key to achieving my goal. I also believed that I was relatively happy.

Then a series of unfortunate events happened in about three years time, which forced me to rethink my priorities in life and question my need for money. I lost three jobs in a row. I lost significant amounts of money through bad investments. I lost even more money because several people I trusted did not pay back money they owed me. I even got involved in two lawsuits with people who wanted money (in the end I won, but it was very stressful). Then to top it all off, due to some bureaucratic loopholes I got no unemployment benefits from the government at all for about six months. All my sources of income were cut off and my savings were vanishing swiftly like ice cubes on a barbecue. I became isolated, because I felt like I had nothing to offer (neither financially nor otherwise) and I became depressed. I was living with my parents, because I had no way to sustain myself. And even though they did everything to help me feel loved and appreciated, I felt like I was a burden. I felt useless and worthless. This is when the need to get creative was born. It was either that, or give up completely. And since I hadn't tried everything just yet, I could not give up.

Incidentally, this is when I discovered dumpster diving, and it saved my life. Not because I was in desperate need of food, but because I needed to feel valuable, by somehow enhancing the lives of the people I cared about: my parents, sister and friends. Dumpster diving gave me the opportunity to give back to others again, after having felt like a useless and selfish freeloader for a long time (albeit forced). I also actually enjoyed the diving; it felt like treasure hunting. My mum also loved it and always appreciated my finds. So when I finally found a more stable job (switching careers, from therapist to researcher) I started the moneyless challenge, initially just for fun and to recover some of my savings. This is when a series of epiphanies started to hit me, as I broadened my challenge to cover even more areas of my life.

Without money, everything becomes a gift

Even though I did not start my moneyless challenge in order to attain happiness, it turned out to be the easiest way for me to find it. When you take money out of the experience of the exchange (on purpose; not through necessity), then everything becomes a gift... The food I eat is a gift. The roof over my head is a gift. And the people who are in my life, with whom I can share what I have and who share what they have with me, are a gift too. Now, with every person I meet, I instantly look for the gift. I look for things I appreciate about them. This is what we all have in common. We are all givers. No one is more giving or less giving than another person. There is only a difference in awareness.
At the same time we are also all receivers. We are receiving life's gifts all the time. From others, from the earth, from other beings... Are you paying attention? What gifts are you receiving right now? And what are you giving in this moment? I bet it is more than you think, on both ends. Even if you would not be receiving anything from other people, it would be impossible to stop yourself from receiving the gifts that the earth provides: air to breathe, water to drink, livable temperatures, beautiful scenery, 'musical concerts' given by birds and insects, and so on.

A new perspective on life: Living in gratitude

The most profound effect of the moneyless challenge on my life has been that I gradually started living life with a firm and perpetual sense of gratitude, which was not there previously. It has changed the way I do everything. I am much more aware of my appreciation for life in general. I eat with appreciation for the healthy food that came to me in abundance and which I got to save from going to waste in a landfill. I talk to people with a sense of gratitude because they are in my life. When I help others I realize it is a gift in itself that I am able to be of service to someone. And when others reach out to me I can accept their help wholeheartedly because we both get to experience the joy of sharing. Life is a gift... That is not just a saying. I have experienced it as the truth over the past few years, and life continues to show me more.

So why did all this change for me just by going moneyless? Why is it easier to experience gratitude in the absence of money?

Money tends to give people a sense of entitlement, which is the direct opposite of gratitude. Long-term use of money can get you into a mindset of expectation; focused on what you can get from others instead of what you can contribute. By making money seem like a necessity rather than an option for exchange, money has become a modern method of enslavement. It has led to the anxious pursuit of money above all else and even a worshiping of money. Most people will go through life believing they always need slightly more money than they currently have, which keeps them stuck in jobs they don't enjoy, hanging around people they don't like or supporting societal structures that go against their core values. There seems to be no way out, so people become apathetic and indifferent. It hurts too much to care, if you don't know what to do about it. But living life in this manner is a sure way to become an unhappy person.
Similarly, money creates a sense of obligation: if someone pays you to do something, it can make you feel like you "have to" do it. It doesn't matter anymore whether you want to or not (this is why many people find it difficult to love their job). However, when there is no money involved in an exchange, there is full freedom. This makes it easier to give unconditionally (which is the only way to live in gratitude) and it makes it easier to perceive that which is given as authentic and genuine. This is only the first small step in setting yourself free from a money-dominated-mindset.

Another reason why living in gratitude is easier without money is that money diverts people's attention from real value. People tend to forget that money is a substitute for value (and a frivolous estimation at best), but it doesn't have any inherent value. Money only has the value that it has been given. It is an invention; it is not real. It will never have inherent value, even though it can be used in exchange for something of value, like time, skills, attention, efforts, empathy, food and so on. All of those have tangible value, but it can never be captured into a fixed amount. It is dependent on need. Letting go of fixed values and going back to inherent values allows us to flow with life and be open to whatever shows up: whatever is needed and whatever is provided at any given time. It makes us instantly aware of life's gifts that we so often take for granted. However, as soon as money comes in as a mediator or representation, real value is less likely to be experienced directly and hence the gifts life offers are less likely to be appreciated. Some people may even forget there was any inherent value to begin with and attach all the value directly to the money.

Therefore my conclusion is this: Happiness is free and money not only doesn't add much to finding happiness, but it can even be a huge obstacle in experiencing gratitude and happiness.

The road to living in gratitude

If you are not feeling grateful and happy regularly just yet, or you are stuck in the belief that you have nothing to offer, you can try the following 'road map' which may lead you to a more fulfilling life.

Step 1: Find out what you have in abundance (other than money) so that you can experience giving unconditionally. You can give your time, attention, empathy, dumpster diving treasures, appreciation, skills, support, and so on.
Step 2: Find someone you want to give to: Who would really need it and will appreciate what you have to offer? Who would you like to give to? Choosing someone you care about will make it easier to give unconditionally. It doesn't have to be a human; it can be just as rewarding to give to animals, plants and trees. As long as you care about the receiver of your gift. That is all that matters. You will learn to care more and more as you practice.
Step 3: Practice giving unconditionally (if you can't give unconditionally, then don't give at all. The key is to give from a place of abundance, which is all about your inner experience. Anything you feel you don't need to hold on to for yourself, is something you can give away). Experience the joy of giving. Again, focus on giving gifts of value (non-financial). Remember that only a poor mind wants more money. Be mindful of the need you are fulfilling when you give. Know that you are playing an important part in the universe: your part. With this mindset (an awareness of needs and a focus on being of service) there can be no mistakes.
Step 4: Be open to receive the gift of gratitude from others, even if it is repressed, or expressed silently. This is the most important step, because the people you give to will be your teacher: they will teach you gratitude. Experiencing gratitude through others is the first step to experiencing it for yourself.
Step 5: Notice that you get less and less attached to money and material stuff while getting more and more inclined to give to others. Giving unconditionally and being of service becomes a way of life. Everything you do will become about how to enrich other people's lives, as you realize it is the only way to enrich your own life. You will start to recognize more and more as a gift, until there is nothing else left.

The consequences of living in gratitude

The first thing that changed for me when I started to live moneyless, was that instead of focusing on what I could get out of life, I started paying more attention to what I could contribute to other beings (human and non-human). I realized that giving and receiving are more closely related than I previously thought (as most opposites) and after practicing giving unconditionally for a while, I noticed there is no difference; there is simply the act of sharing. Sometimes it is you initiating the sharing, and sometimes someone else. But in each instance of sharing, both are receivers.
Next it occurred to me that my needs are very different from what I had thought them to be. I did not need nearly as much as I thought I needed. The only thing I really needed was to feel like my life made a difference somehow, for anyone or anything other than myself (friends, family, animals, the earth...). Without this, all else was meaningless.
My idea of what freedom means as a goal has also changed. It used to mean to become completely self-sufficient and independent, and to be able to provide for all my needs without ever needing anyone's help again. Now this seems like a very undesirable goal and perhaps quite a limiting understanding of the word 'freedom'. It would be like building a cave to live as a hermit for the rest of my days. And then what? How could that be a fulfilling life? How would I be able to continue to share with others? So now I see freedom more as a mental state that results in being able to enjoy my life and live it in the way that I choose. This means mainly that my mind is free from previous conditioning and society's expectations. It also means that my contributions to others, society and the world are always voluntary. It goes hand in hand with trust: trust that life will lead me where it needs me.
I could even say that my highest priority is now peace of mind rather than freedom, although peace of mind is rather a consequence of my new state of mind than a goal that I pursue. In fact, it could be said I no longer have a goal that I pursue. I am just aware and have figured out a way to stay almost continuously balanced.
The experience of freedom also comes naturally with gradual detachment, which entails the ability to freely flow with life no matter what happens. Societal structures are the worst obstacles to freedom, if we attach to them too rigidly. Experiencing that it is possible to live without them can be the most enriching experience for that reason. Because to actually feel it is to know freedom. The moneyless challenge has driven me to question and let go of several (mental) constructs and attachments and I feel freer than ever before in my life.
Finding out how I could help others and what I can give, has been the key to many of my other quests in life as well. It has given me peace of mind, happiness, gratitude, and confidence. It taught me how to let go and accept life as it comes. It even restored my faith in humanity and love for humans. And gratitude has now become a state of being for me.

My final realization was that my relationships with others are most important in my life. Everything else is secondary. How I treat other people, other animals, and the earth that is my home is a direct reflection of who I am. I choose love.

What do you choose?

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  1. A very thorough and honest appraisal of life, monetary issues, relationships and our own feelings of self worth. Yes, looking for gratitude in the seemingly inconsequential and reaching out to others that is where true happiness lies.

    Thank you for sharing


  2. Your journey sounds amazing. What exactly is the Moneyless Challenge? It sounds simple enough - don't spend any money - but are there guidelines on how to get started?

    1. Thank you for your comment. A good place to start is this post:
      I came up with the challenge spontaneously because food is so abundantly available here (if you know where to find it) and other types of products too. So I started by no longer buying anything in shops, but then later on I found a free place to live as well. Now I am expanding the idea in more and more directions. This weekend I will be trying to organize a trip to Atlantic Road without spending money. If it works out I will write about it, of course! :)