The action or practice of charity is defined as the “practice of benevolent giving.” The word “benevolent” comes to the English language from the Latin root words—bene which translates to “well” and velle “to wish.” Giving is the action of “bestowing something.” If we combine these definitions, charity becomes the action of “bestowing well wishes,” in other words, “passing a blessing.” The word blessing comes to us from the Old English bledsung—”to consecrate”—which has its roots in the earlier practice of consecrating an altar with an offering of blood. So taken as a whole, we can look at charity as the “action of bestowing a sacred or holy offering.”
To indigenous peoples around the Earth, the making of offerings is indeed a sacred undertaking. It is seen as critical to the well being of all the people and a necessary action that provides for the continuance of Life itself. This is also why offerings are of the finest kind. Whether foodstuffs, cloth, objects, or animals they are most often the very best one can provide. Inherent in an offering is the idea that by giving that which is precious to us, we will be providing benefits to all our relations. In other words, by bestowing blessings we will naturally receive—”by giving, everyone has.” This idea is quite the opposite of the way we do it in our culture, which is “those that already have, may choose to give.“
The indigenous mind-set must stem from the earliest form of human culture—that of the hunter/gatherer. Archeological evidence suggests that up until approximately twelve thousand years ago, all human beings lived this lifestyle. In this form of social organization, all members of the group participate in the ultimate survival of the whole. Recent anthropological research has shown us that women, men, children and the elderly members of the group all worked to gather food and shelter materials, set snares, and worked to sight and bring down game animals. Everyday, the group would leave their sleeping place around the central fire and embark on hunting and gathering that which was essential for survival. The efforts of each person were necessary and this shared participation and responsibility contributed to entire group’s well-being.
In addition, to survive as a hunter/gatherer, you have to depend upon not only the others in your human group or tribe, but on the many other beings that surround you who also contribute to your survival. They are equal partners in the dance of Life. It is therefore easy to see why hunter/gatherer peoples view the world from an animist perspective—that is the belief that every thing in nature is alive. Whether it be the plants, animals and birds or the landscape features such as rivers and mountains or forces such as the wind and the rain—animists believe that each part of the environment has a vital essence or spirit. To survive, one needed not only the efforts of one’s fellow human beings but the continued “participation” of these other beings, as well. One needed the fruiting trees, the flowing waters and healthy game in order to ensure that your own children would thrive. It therefore makes perfect sense to nurture these beings through offerings. This was done not only as a form of paying respect, but to “give so that all will receive.” There is deep wisdom in this way of thinking.
By comparison, Western culture has produced a widening gap between those that have much more than they need and those who do not have enough. In addition, the prevailing culture has created an environmental crisis of staggering proportions as we are greedily paving over wilderness and using up resources with little or no –thought about how others–whether human or other creatures—may live. We are not only ruining the planet for our children’s children, we are digging ourselves into a deeper and deeper hole. We have forgotten that what goes around comes around and truly what we are doing to the body of the Earth will rebound into our own lives.
For instance, in 2005, the United States Centers for Disease Control released the findings of the largest study of chemical exposure ever conducted on human beings. In this study it was found that most American children and adults were carrying in their bodies dozens of pesticides and toxic compounds used in consumer products, many of them linked to potential health threats. The report documented bigger doses in children than in adults of many chemicals, including those found in virtually every household pesticide, nail polish and other beauty products as well as in soft plastics. These classes of chemicals are biodisruptive in that they both interfere with hormonal actions necessary to development and reproduction and cause nervous system damage.
Once more, nearly all of the synthetic or human-made chemicals regularly used in industry today did not exist in the 1940s. Of the 45,000 toxic chemicals listed by the US National Institute of Safety and Health (NIOSH) in 1980, 2,500 were identified as carcinogens--those that cause cancer, 2,700 as mutagens--that is a chemical capable of causing genetic change and 300 as teratogens--those chemicals that cause malformation of an embryo. The study reported that less than 7,000 had been adequately tested and chemical production has only increased since that time.
Many of these chemicals have other nasty attributes. Many are persistent, which means that the compounds do not break down into their less harmful constituents in the environment. Other chemicals and compounds bioaccumulate, which means that they are stored in fatty tissues, such as breast and brain tissues, and are passed up the food chain. In other words, animals and fish pass their chemical load to each animal in the chain that eat them and finally to humans who receive the largest dose.
In this and so many other ways, we have set a course toward disaster and we seem to keep ignoring these truths we think of as “inconvenient.” Benjamin Franklin once remarked, “The definition of insanity is repeating the same action over and over and expecting different results.” I am inclined to believe that since indigenous thinking has been around for millennia and our culture’s way of thinking is just a few thousand years old, we may want to reconsider the insanity of our faulty thought processes. Perhaps, if we began to think like our ancient ancestors, we might produce far better outcomes and turn ourselves back from the brink. After all, if our ultimate survival depends on the health and well being of the Earth, then perhaps we need to set about bestowing our blessings on Her!
Dave Foreman, founder of the radical environmental group Earth First! once said we needed to... "do something. Pay your rent for the privilege of living on this beautiful, blue-green, living Earth.” While I don’t ascribe to the violent means his organization promoted, I do think there is merit in this idea. I am more inclined to use language like the indigenous people of the Peruvian Andes. They use the idea of being in sacred reciprocity with Pachamama–Mother Earth. That is, since the Earth cares for her children, it is our responsibility to care for her. Once more as we contribute with offerings of right actions as well as objects, we naturally keep the wheel of reciprocity turning. In so doing, we will continue to have what we need. This idea is so ingrained into the culture of the Quechua-speaking natives that they have a word for it—ayni or universal flow. In basic terms it means you don’t give without receiving something in return, and you don’t receive without giving something in return.
For us in our culture, I would add that you also can’t give to the Earth that which you don’t want back! Instead of toxins, we need to be feeding her that which will benefit all beings. Instead of cutting trees, we need to plant them—instead of spoiling her waters, we need to clean and preserve them. The loss of other species eventually spells the end of our own. It is a simple concept we need to embrace.
Each of us can make a difference by treating the Earth, her many creatures and indeed other people with respect and love. History tells us that we can be few in number to start and wind up making a huge difference in the overall population. One of the forefathers of our country, Samuel Adams, said that “...It does not require a majority to prevail, but rather an irate, tireless minority keen to set brush fires in people’s minds.” This is a thought echoed two-hundred years later by anthropologist Margaret Mead who reminded us that we must “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
Here are some actions that will contribute to being in sacred reciprocity with the Earth:
- Change your light bulbs to highly efficient compact fluorescent light bulbs. (CFLs) If every household in the U.S. replaced a burned-out bulb with an energy-efficient, compact fluorescent bulb, it would prevent greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to that from nearly 800,000 cars and save enough energy to light 2.5 million homes for a year.
- Drive your car differently -- or if you can, drive a different car altogether! Cut down on the amount of driving that you do and remember, anything you can do to improve the fuel efficiency of your car will have an impact. This includes proper tire inflation, getting regular tune-ups, shutting off the car if you are going to be stationary for any more than 30 seconds instead of idling and driving at moderate speeds. If you do have the resources, buy a more fuel-efficient vehicle such as a hybrid.
- Keep your home temperature two degrees lower in winter and two degrees higher in summer. Also keep your heating system well tuned. If one in 10 households serviced heating and cooling systems annually, cleaned or replaced filters regularly, used a programmable thermostat and replaced old equipment with more efficient models it would prevent the emissions of more than 17 billion pounds of greenhouse gases.
- Mind your appliances! The refrigerator uses more energy than most other appliances, so it is critical to clean its coils and replace worn door seals. Also, turn the water temperature down on your water heater to 120 degrees. This will save you money, conserve resources and you won’t even notice the difference! Wait until you have a full load to run the dishwasher and wash clothes in warm water, not hot. Use a clothesline or indoor drying rack. In the winter, you’ll also reap the benefit of putting extra moisture in the air.
- Plant native plants that require less water and plant trees to provide shade. Do everything you can in your yard and garden to create ways in which plants use less water. Choose hardier plants, and put in mulch to help keep moisture in. When you mow your grass, do it with sharp blades and only when the grass needs cutting, and make sure you water your lawn sparingly.
- Go organic. Most American farmers still spray a billion pounds of pesticides to protect crops each year that you don’t want it in your body or the bodies of your kids. The more of us that choose organic food, the faster it will become the largest share of the market. Agribusinesses will have to change their methods to satisfy the population! The best organic food to buy is also that which is locally grown and in season. This cuts down on the pollution created by shipping food over long distances.
- Recycle and buy recycled products. This may sound simple, but it takes less energy to manufacture a recycled product than a brand new one. So if you and other consumers buy recycled products, you’ll help create a market, and conserve energy along the way.
- Buy less, and more efficiently. For instance, whenever possible, buy in bulk. It uses less packaging, which translates into less energy. Buy less “stuff” and when you do buy something make it a quality product that lasts longer. While Big Box bargain stores seem like a good deal, their merchandise is often made in factories that have poor sanitary conditions, have poor environmental practices, have poor labor practices, and may include child workers. Here is a web site to help you make more conscious choices: www.newdream.org/consumer.
- Use greener cleaning products and stop using pesticides, fungicides and herbicides around your home and lawn. Find green alternatives at your local health food store!
- Create a Backyard Wildlife Habitat. Information about this may be found at the web site: www.nwf.org/backyard. Gardening practices that help wildlife, like reducing chemicals and conserving water, also help to improve air, water and soil quality throughout your neighborhood.
Start giving back to Mother Earth. Make “sacred offerings” by acting in ways that will contribute to her health and well-being. Give her creatures places to eat, drink and raise young. Take care of her air, her water, and her soil. We need to cherish what remains of the Earth and foster its renewal, as it is our only legitimate hope of survival. Be impeccable in your actions and remember charity does begin at Home!
© 2007 Evelyn C. Rysdyk
Evelyn C. Rysdyk, author of the book, Modern Shamanic Living, is a Teacher of Shamanism, healer & artist in joint practice with C. Allie Knowlton, LCSW, DCSW as Spirit Passages. Since 1991, they have offered workshops across the US and Canada. They also offer a private shamanic healing practice at True North in Falmouth, Maine.
Featured in the book, Traveling Between the Worlds, interviews with 24 of the world’s most influential writers and teachers of shamanism, they may be contacted at: www.spiritpassages.com