Pilgrimage Prep: Gift Ecology and Financial Transparency

Of all that I have learned over the past two years, one of the most important is Gift Ecology. Thus, a key intention of the upcoming pilgrimage (of bicycling around the globe, hereafter referred to as "Pilgrimage") is to deepen into the experiments of Gift Ecology.

Our dear friend and teacher, Nipun, has courageously lived and thoroughly reflected on Gift Ecology for decades. As a toddler on this path, I will just quote that Gift Ecology is "a shift from consumption to contribution, transaction to trust, scarcity to abundance, and isolation to community." Gift Ecology recognizes that there are many forms of "capital", beyond the familiar financial value.

Below, I would like to follow a particular line of inquiry around "financial transparency", within the vast and unfolding world of Gift Ecology, in order the lay the foundation for further living that truth.

Financial transparency: subversive and revolutionary

I believe, a precondition for a healthy Gift Ecology is coming to terms with the elephant in the room -- Money (financial capital) -- and healing our collective wound around it.

A first step toward healing our relationship with money -- and with each other -- is financial transparency.

Money casts a dark and troublesome shadow on the collective psyche of the industrial societies. They say, "Follow the money", because Money contains the secret source code of capitalism, and reveals the hidden dynamics of our relationships.

Before coming to the US, I was warned by wise ones, "In America, don't ask a woman's age, or a man's income." Underneath this social spellbind, lurks the denial and fear of aging, and the confusion of net-worth with true wealth. (In comparison, nosy aunties -- and even strangers -- in China would often ask you how much money you make, within the first few minutes of meeting you for the first time. And you basically have no other choice but to confess.)

I have come to suspect that the collective silence around money that's imposed by a capitalist society, is one of the tactics that the Matrix employs to exploit people. For example, in the white-collar salt mine, an employee of a company is never supposed to know the salaries of his/her peers. Oftentimes, it is even written to the employment contract that one will not discuss salary with colleagues.

In that case, an employee is left alone in the salary negotiation with "the management", hoping to somehow one-up the colleagues by cultivating favor from the boss. One is left to keep guessing: "Is that guy making more money than me?" It creates a culture of separation, suspicion, and negative competition.

Also, your salary never feels "quite right" -- it is either too high or too low. You feel shame and indignation, if you suspect you are earning less than you deserve. You feel guilty and protective, if you suspect that you are taking home more than your due share. Either way, you are not supposed to compare notes or know what's fair.

Such a culture of secrecy -- disguised in the rhetoric of individualism and privacy -- keeps all of us in the dark, pitted against one another, and enables the boss to exploit the information asymmetry to extract the most out of the workers. The secrecy makes room for paying men more than women, and many other discriminations. A perfect case of "divide and conquer".

As an antidote, financial transparency could shine the much-needed sunlight into the black box of money. Thus, during my Pilgrimage, I will adopt financial transparency as much as possible, for my own healing and growth, and to provide a reference point for others.

By "adopting financial transparency", I mean, when it comes to money-related information, I will set my default setting as "share it, as long as doing so would not cause harm", instead of the usual default setting of "hide it, as long as there's no pressure to share." I believe that the more information that's available to all, the better chance we would have to come out of the collective spell of Money. In that sense, financial transparency is indeed subversive and revolutionary :)

Meeting the material needs of the Pilgrimage

When it comes to meeting the material needs of the Pilgrimage, at a deeper level, my ultimate "provider" is the generosity and kindness in every person's heart; and its underwriter -- the abundance of the universe.

At the apparent level, I will stay open to people's contribution of money, resources, and other material help.

I am conflicted on the million-dollar question: "to ask, or not to ask". On one hand, I admire those who live by the principle of "never solicit or fundraise". On the other hand, I see the value in practicing "trusting that my needs matter, make my needs known, have the courage to ask, without attachment to the outcome". To not ask, is to set a higher bar in trusting the universe and remaining equanimous with whatever comes. To ask, is to make it easy for others to know exactly what I need, and how they could support, without putting the burden of guessing on the giver.

I will continue to hold this question, perhaps till long after the pilgrimage. But for now, I feel I will hold a hybrid model of making my needs and situation (actual expenses) known and fully transparent, and leave it to nature to respond.

Benchmarking against prior journey

My current guess is that the upcoming pilgrimage will generate enough flow of gifts to cover all the expenses. This has been my experience two years ago, when I bicycled solo across the US, in 75 days and over 3,400 miles. As a point of reference, and to put things in perspective, here is a rundown of the expenses of that journey:

- Capital (fixed) expenses: $3,500, including biking gears (bike, pannier bags, cycling clothing, etc), camping gears (tent, sleeping bag, water purifier, etc), and other items (website domain registration, MP3 player, etc)

- Operating (variable) expenses: $2,400 (on average $30 per day), including food, maps, supplies, bike repair and maintenance, insurance, cell phone, etc.

That journey was made possible by donations from many people, totaling around $5,200. I actively reached out to fundraise (emailing people I know with an direct appeal for donation) for about 2/3 of all contributions. The rest were offered without me asking, along the way, often by strangers or people I newly met. At the end of the journey, my bank account was just a few hundred dollars lower than when I started -- essentially "breaking even".

Intention, as related to Money

For the upcoming Pilgrimage, I am choosing not to take on major fundraising, crowdfunding, or seek corporate sponsorship or any sort. Instead, I will use my savings (a current total of $15,000) to get the ball (or wheels) rolling. Through creating wholesome and valuable contents and experiences for people -- tangible and intangible -- and offering them with no strings attached, I have faith that the flow of gifts will start to take care of my needs. Even if it doesn't happen, I am committed to continue the Pilgrimage by drawing on my savings until it runs out. After that, I will keep going somehow :)

I still feel the grip of fear and scarcity, and am yet unable to take my finger off the thermo-nuclear option of "fundraising", however subtle form it might take. (I think of fundraising as a thermo-nuclear option for its radioactive effects on my spiritual body, and for the long-lasting karmic bond it creates.) What I can indeed promise, is to be honest with at least myself, to "not pretend beyond my own evolution", to face the fear and scarcity within, to load up on some inspiration, and to smile at it all :) When in doubt, I will seek guidance from within, and reach for the highest self that is available to me at that moment.

I also commit to be fully transparent about the donations I receive. I will create a publicly accessible Excel sheet, documenting the donations as well as my expenses, so that friends and contributors have a sense of the financial picture. I hope the transparency will create trust, and provide an educational opportunity.

During the Pilgrimage, when it comes to financial capital, my intention is:

- to demonstrate that one does not need a corporate sponsor, or big donor in order to undertake a human-powered pilgrimage around the globe,

- to prove and showcase the abundance of the universe, the generosity of ordinary people, the micro-kindness that weaves together the most secure "safety net", and

- to stretch my muscle of trust and equanimity.

My financial reality, past and present

I think it is valuable to share a bit more about my financial realities up till now. I do so to provide more context, to practice transparency as a way to undo the social programming of secrecy and shame, and to offer a reference point of a 24-year-old, college-educated, white-collar employee. Here we go :)

I graduated from college in Summer 2013, without debt (!), thanks to a full tuition scholarship (covering full tuition and health insurance, at about $45,000 per year for four years) I received from my alma mater, Hampshire College, and to my parents' loving support of my living expenses ($10,000 per year for four years). The $40,000 support from my parents was designated as an interest-free loan, as an incentive for me to develop financial independence after the age of 18.

I started my job in Fall 2013 with less than $1,000 in savings. Over the past two years, I have saved $15,000 from my salary. This amount is also the total balance in my bank account at the start of 2016, as well as my net asset at this point (minus a few possessions).

Most of my savings was generated in 2015, when I had an annual pretax salary of $45,000 (plus full health insurance and a few other perks) from my full time job as an business analyst at a sustainability consulting firm. The year before, in 2014, I was an intern at the same company, receiving a pre-tax income of $2,500 - $3,000 per month, with full health insurance. Living in San Francisco then, although frugal, I was not able to save much money :)

In 2015, after federal and state taxes, I receive a net income of a bit less than $3,000 per month. Of that $3,000, each month, I have about $1,200 of fixed, recurring costs (including rent, food, cell phone, transit, etc), $800 of discretionary spending (workshops and trainings, travels, purchases, donations, big bag of caramel-covered kettle corn, etc), and $1,000 of savings.

I quit my job at the end of October 2015, and have not receiving any income since then. I do not anticipate that I will get a regular-income job during the next two to three years of pilgrimage. Free at last! :)


This post started with Gift Ecology, and quickly narrowed to focus on financial capital. I think this narrow focus is necessary for now, in order to get the Money conversation out in the open, sooner rather than later. Otherwise, its long shadow will haunt me every step along the way :)

Sharing the reflections and information above, I was at first hesitant and uncomfortable, but eventually feeling liberated -- as if a magic spell was broken. Readers might also get uncomfortable, judging that it is TMI ("Too Much Information"). But, I hope the intention has come across, that I only wish be in fuller alignment with my values, and to free myself from the socially-imposed silence and paranoia around money -- and perhaps, in the process, provide a point of reference for others. This is among my first steps toward living in Gift Ecology.

For all practical purposes, the Pilgrimage will be a monastic journey. Renunciation is at the core of it. I will need to renounce the pride and fear, the worries and expectations. I consider the above thinking-out-loud as a small step in that direction. 

In these last hours of 2015, I join my hands, and bow in deep gratitude to the many love warriors in the world, who inspired me every day, through their constant approximation of their deepest values!


Michelle Nguyen said...

Wow, Zilong. This is SUCH an inspiration to read. Thank you for your transparency! I'm glad you're being frank about where your financial support is coming from. Not only does it challenge the common belief that traveling must cost a fortune, but it also provides some very practical insight into how those of us with a limited income and savings might be able to organize a pilgrimage for ourselves. I'm delighted that I get to catch snippets of your journey here. I was very touched by your kindness and hospitality when I visited Casa de Paz--I wish you all the best, spirit friend. ~ Michelle

YVee said...

Dear Zilong - Reading your past posts, I had been thinking of your financial status. When you first posted about your intention to do the pilgrimage, I was worried for you - these are your prime years for climbing the money ladder (jobs, 401K contributions!), what would a 2 year hiatus do to this? And more recently, when I read about your 25 day retreat, I convinced myself you had to be independently wealthy, because how else could you possibly take a month off from work?! This post today has me both bemused and speechless with wonder for your courage in relinquishing the task of self-protection to the universe. Much love to you, thank you for your honesty.

Zilong Wang said...

Dear Michelle, YVee, thank you so much for your kind notes! It means so much to hear from you what I've shared here means to you. They are the greatest encouragement, and Aha for me, too! :) Thank you!

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