When The Posse Comes Together in Palm Springs

Oct 16, 2008

We just came from a truly WOW experience in Palm Springs.  If there ever needed to be a testimony to the power of the collective, this had to be it.

Sometime last year, I got an invitation to speak at conference by Association for Global New Thought.  Knowing a bit about their founder, Michael Beckwith, and the masses at his Agape Sunday services, it was an honor to have the opportunity to spread some ripples of the gift-economy.

In having conversations with their coordinators, I suggested, "Instead of just me keynoting for 45 minutes, how 'bout we get a posse of gift-economy warriors to rock the house together?"  Initially, there was some hesitation.  After all, their other speakers were either NY Times best selling authors or had run as a VP on the Democratic ticket or was a well known musician or had done some seriously remarkable work -- and here they were, taking a risk on a no-namer like me and now, I was talking about bringing more of my no-namer friends to the party. :)   Traditional speakers get a nice stipend, airfare, VIP pickup, hotel and the rest and instead of 5x-ing their costs, we made a counter offer: "Look, we're walk-the-talk kind of gift-economy folks.  Don't worry about the budget.  We'll use the stipend to cover our travel costs, we're happy to crash on the floor, we'll carpool, and whatever else it takes to make it work."  After some back and forth, and surely some "these guys are nuts" thoughts, we agreed to summon the CharityFocus posse.

And not that the ways of abundance needed any proof, but instead of 45 minutes, we were offered a whole 2 hours slot in front of more than five hundred person crowd.

The night before our retreat, five of us -- Silas, Suzanne, Pancho, Sukh and myself -- meet up in the swanky resort (and surely, we fight over who gets the floor, with Sukh finally winning!), take a little tour of the main ball room where we'll be speaking the next day, and talk some smack -- well, actually a lot :) -- before returning back to our rooms.  We all meditate an hour, and then huddle about next day's game plan.  We all had to cover mutually exclusive themes, watch the clock closely, and be in synch at many levels.  Two hours of brainstorming later, we are fired up and ready to roll!

Outside of a couple friends we had randomly made, no one really knew us.  A filmmaker with a fancy film-crew came and got me for an interview -- assuming I was one of these big name people on the roster -- and when I told them that we're a group of five everyday people, he made a polite excuse to exclude us from the clip. :)

Next morning, after our $80 room-service breakfast, :) we take our seats in the front of the ballroom.  Christine Chavez, the grand-daughter of Cesar Chavez, is the opening speaker with some delightful stories about "lessons from my grandfather."  Some soulful vocal music followed.  Kathy Hearn, the leader of the Science of Mind movement and a really polished speaker, is our emcee and she then introduces us with something like, "As much as we'd like, our next generation simply doesn't do things the way we do.  And that's a great thing." :)

I go up first, and open with, "Last night, as my friends and I were discussing our talks, I said -- I've got to go up and present a boring powerpoint while you guys get to tell fun stories. :)  But I'm going to break my own rules and start with a story."  Stories, slides, laughter, pumped-up ambiance.  In my 20 minutes, I give the CharityFocus history, the relevance of the Internet for the gift-economy revival, and a possible blueprint for spreading the good.  The crowd totally takes to it.  Standing ovation.

Music was a big part of this conference.  And they had some serious ringers.  Ed Munter goes on next and he takes that gift-economy vibe and literally amps it up to the next level with some blues music.  Talk about opening.

Silas is next, with a 10 minute slot.  In his usual warrior-like way, he shares his personal story of downsizing into a backpack to make and gift films without any strings attached and how when a major media company CEO is moved to tears and says, "Silas, this needs to go to HBO.  It'll help fund you too," he responds, "I'd love for it to go on HBO but let's give it to them as a gift."  STEP it up.  Standing ovation number 2.  As he walks down on the stage, Michael Beckwith is the first to greet him and puts his forehead to Silas's forehead and starts shaking.

Suzanne is our second speaker.  "While we all can't sleep in basements like Silas, we can all still serve."  Speaking as a mother of two, an author, a founder of a 10-year-old marketing company, she brought in the elements of the "divine feminine" and talked about the simplicity of service, with small Smile Card acts.  Suzanne has suffered like very few women probably have, and yet she responds with unconditional kindness.  Arguably one of the most jovial people you'd ever meet, Suzanne herself is in tears by the time she walks off stage and it feels like there isn't a single dry eye in the crowd.  Standing ovation number 3.

Due to the bright lights on your face, you really can't see much past the first row, but you could surely feel it.  The emotion, if that's the word, was very palpable and visceral.  There was no denying it.

Just then, the event manager, comes up and whispers, "Get this."  She herself can't believe it what she's about to say: "All the musicians outside have decided to offer their music on a gift-economy basis."  WHOOA!  We decide not to make the announcement till the conclusion, but man-o-man, talk about the ripple effect.

Pancho is the third speaker.  Just his 30-second intro nearly brings the crowd to their feet.  This man has walked his talk.  He opens a variant of his usual "In Mexico, we hug" greeting and has everyone stand up and hug their neighbors.  And then he knocks 'em out with his real life story of going on 9-day hunger fast, to protest nuclear weapons research at University of California, being physically assaulted by a police officer in a public arena, and him responding with complete and unconditional compassion: "I have nothing against you brother.  I'm doing this for your children, and the children of your children."  Not having had any food for 9 days, he says to the cop who's abusing him:  "Brother, let me guess, you must like Mexican food.  I know a great place in [San Francisco] that serves some of the best carnitas, sopes and quesadillas.  After I get released, why don't you go with me, and I'll break my fast with you, brother."  Ridiculous.  By his own example, he equated Gandhi's "soul force" with the gift-economy and ended with an offering to the crowd of a blue flag that beautifully contained a globe.  Hands down, standing ovation number 4.

You would think that with five speakers, you would have a lull somewhere but everyone kept finding some deep capacity to respond to the exponentially increasing ambiance.

Sukh is our anchor, the closer.  Today, his role is to represent the corporate angle to the gift-economy.  Dressed in slacks and nice shirt, he confidently goes up on stage (and at this point, it's hard to stay balanced with whatever is going on in the room), and without stuttering, flinching or getting caught up, he nails it.  "Markets are all about value, but lot of value just can't be counted," he opened.  Starting with a powerful story from Seva Cafe and ending with an even powerful story about how he came to quit his job, the crowd is just lit up by the end.  Standing ovation NUMBER 5.

Five of us -- as everyone would remark later -- felt like a solid team.  It is the first we were all going up together, but everything is just perfectly in synch, perfectly in synergy.

We made the announcement about all the musicians going gift-economy.  THUNDEROUS applause.  At this point, it was over.  It really felt like anyone could've walked on stage and something brilliant would flow through them.

Breaking the crowd into small "pods", we give a couple of questions for each group to discuss.  All five of us split up into different pods, and everywhere you looked grown men and women, often in suit-and-tie kind of clothing, were in tears.  "I have a huge home and it's not doing much.  I'd like to make use of it."  "I'm a photographer, and maybe I can give the gift of my photos."  "I love to pray.  Perhaps I can pray for others."  Story after story after story, people were reconnecting with their own generosity.

When it is time for conclusion, Christine Chavez herself is blown away saying, "Did you guys know about these Smile Cards?  It's the coolest thing ever.  Let's get them in Spanish as soon as possible."  (And so we did.)  We all speak for a minute to express our gratitude.  And yes, standing ovation number 6.  At this point, anyone could've said anything and it would've received a standing ovation -- the crowd is just showering us in love.  As if that wasn't enough, they all extend their hands out towards all six of us on the stage and say a little prayer to "bless" us.  Right before I close my eyes, I see a huge sea of hands extending out towards us and sending a little goodwill our way.  It's the kind of thing that one could recall with smile on their death bed.

Wow.  We don't even know what to do.  Before we can even get to our gift-economy table, dozens of people immediately sign up on our newsletter lists, Smile Cards are going by the hundreds, works & conversations are gone in no time, Peace Pilgrim books, Global Oneness videos, Tsunamika's, Rev. Heng Sure's CD's all add to the bonanza. 

Our humble, hand-written sign says: "Everything on this table is offered as a gift.  Please pay forward."   There is no donation box, but people start leaving all kinds of bills underneath one of the stacks.  One dollar bills, ten dollar bills, 20 dollar bills, 50 dollar bills, and even couple of 100 dollar bills!  Even some coins.  Literally, hundreds of dollars.  No solicitation, no donation box even. 

Quite honestly, we don't have a clue how to respond to this.  So we follow our own rule -- when in doubt, give.  We grab random amounts of money and start giving it to other musicians.  As Ed Munter, for example, is gifting his CD's, I go up and stuff $150 in his hands.  Faith Rivera, comes up to us and tells us of a time when she had a concert and she gave everyone $5 to pay-it-forward!  Money is so insignificant, at this point.   It is all about love.  We keep the rest of the money on the table.  In a way, even them dollar bills look like gift-economy paper on our table. :)

We have another session in an hour, so we really need to escape the crowds and get some food.  We go in line, and instead of us trying to pay forward for everyone behind us, someone pulls a little insider connection and pays for us!  Not to be outdone, :) we paid for the remainder of the line for the rest of the day.  (We had decided to come home empty-handed, without any our stipend, so we were really feeling like the richest people on the planet -- although the IRS might classify us as the poorest. :))

At this point, none of us can even go to the restroom without being stopped several times.  It is quite a scene.  "You guys were amazing."  "I cried my heart out."  "Hey guys, just wanted to say there's only one kind of mom that can feed you more than an Indian mom -- Italian mom!" :)  "Will you come speak at our Church?"  "How can I help?"  "Can I take a photo of you guys?  It'll be my act of kindness for the day."  It is literally a bottomless pit of gratitude.  Even if we head to the parking lot, people flag us down, "Hey, hey, hey.  I want to tell you something."

Sure, it's flattering in one way, but what touched us more was that everyone thought we were approachable.  We weren't "unbelievable" or "extra ordinary".  We were just everyday folks, and if we are moved to step up our kindness, so could anyone else.  It was a very anti-hero message and that was powerful.

Christine Chavez comes by and says, "Hey guys, I want to be in your session.  So I'm just going to cancel mine and bring all my people in yours."  With a big smile, Pancho yells, "Collective intelligence, baby!"  And it works out perfectly, because we didn't have a projector to show Silas's movie and now we could use Christine's projector.  Lots of people flock to our session, and we somehow manage to get everyone into a *huge* circle (with another one around it) and did some Q&A.  "How do you pay your bills?"  "How can we inspire this amongst the youth in our schools?"  "What do you think about social entrepreneurship?"  And so on.

People understood that we aren't giving because we have a lot.  We are giving, because we love to give.

Everyone gets that.  "I have a vacation rental in Hawaii.  Any time, you guys want, just let me know."  "I know Pro Tools audio software.  Let me know if I can help."  "We have a huge house but we're not doing anything with it; maybe we can give it out to people doing good things."  "My kids can go on kindness walks and hand out popsicles."  Michael Beckwith also comes up and adds, "When I was young, I would always do things and insist on not being paid."  We go into the bookstore to get audio recordings of our talks, and the woman behind the counter declares, "Oh no,  It's a gift." :)

As we sat down to listen one of the beautiful performances, the facilities volunteer comes up to Pancho points to the globe shimmering on the stage like a hologram: "I put that up with my own hands.  I just wanted you to know that."  The Vietnam Vet was moved to tears the day before.

Barbara Fields, the organizer who originally took the risk of allowing five of us on stage, was equally fired up as she later wrote: "Wow!!! We loved it! What more can I say? It precipitated a real 'revolution of values' in our community and everyone is talking about it."  She manages a group of hundreds of church leaders from around the country, and we are now exploring the idea of having everyone do small acts of kindness and share the stories and highlight one story each week that can be verbally shared from the pulpit at churches across the country!

The potential really felt limitless, and yet, there was a sense of contentment for just having been there and given some fully.

In our session, we had heard from two potters who had a labor-of-love booth for these beautiful,  hand-made pendants that they were selling.  Both of them lived in a yurt, by Joshua Tree, and something about their humble spirit just spoke to all of us.  Right before leaving, Pancho -- our CFO for the trip :) -- alerted us of the money we had left, as we decided to tag the potters.  We walk to their booth and decide to buy 3 of their $36 pendants.  Amara walks up and says, "Oh no.  You guys ... you guys just take a dozen.  Please."  "Oh no.  We can't.  We want to support you."  "No, no, we want to support you."  After some fun back and forth, she gives it to us as their cost.  And right before leaving, we empty out all our remaining cash and leave it on their table.  Baam.  We didn't have much money left, but there was something so powerful about not counting it and just emptying the pockets on their table.

First one of those pendants, we give to Megan(!), the young woman-behind-the-counter-with-an-endless-smile who had been constantly helping everyone.  A week later, her boss wrote, "Megan LOVES you guys and still can't believe you gave her the beautiful gift. She has not taken it off, literally."  As we head out, we remember the hotel business attendant who somehow always waived our printing charges and we tag with another pendant -- before she could recover from the shock of receiving something so beautiful, we left her a Smile Card and left. :)

You can't imagine the satisfaction in our hearts.  A grandmother comes up to Silas: "Can you please mail me your DVD?"  And she hands him a $100 to cover the costs. :)  Many asked about the publication date for Suzanne's upcoming book.  Several people were after Sukh to help them to start their own gift-economy restaurant.  Pancho would bust out in fluent spanish with every other person and immediately make everyone family.  The stories were truly endless, and each of us had so many to share.

And I also had a powerful moment, when a woman came up to me after our talk.  With tears in her eyes, she hugs me and stutters: "Will you please accept an offering from me?"  "Of course!"  "It isn't much, but it is every single penny I have left in my account."  Stunned, I now have a folded check in my hands.  "Hearing you guys I was reminded of a commitment I made to myself when I was young, to always respond to life with generosity.  Thank you for that reminder, and I offer this check with my deepest gratitude."  A forty dollar check like that can last you a lifetime, if not more.

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"Service doesn't start when you have something to give; it blossoms naturally when you have nothing left to take."

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