“To stay with that shakiness—to stay with a broken heart, with a rumbling stomach, with the feeling of hopelessness—that is the path of true awakening. Sticking with that uncertainty, getting the knack of relaxing in the midst of chaos, learning not to panic—that is the spiritual path.” ~Pema Chödrön

Sixteen years ago, when everything familiar fell away, I felt desperate for spiritual answers. I bartered with a woman who called herself a quantum healer. When I explained I didn’t have enough money to cover rent, bills, and food, she scoffed, “Well, you have to have money to be spiritual.”…

“To stay with that shakiness—to stay with a broken heart, with a rumbling stomach, with the feeling of hopelessness—that is the path of true awakening. Sticking with that uncertainty, getting the knack of relaxing in the midst of chaos, learning not to panic—that is the spiritual path.” ~Pema Chödrön

Sixteen years ago, when everything familiar fell away, I felt desperate for spiritual answers. I bartered with a woman who called herself a quantum healer. When I explained I didn’t have enough money to cover rent, bills, and food, she scoffed, “Well, you have to have money to be spiritual.”

Say what, now?

In our culture, this myth is pervasive, yet we only have to look at the life of the Buddha (or Jesus or Muhammad) to see that’s untrue. The Buddha left a life of wealth and privilege in order to awaken.

What this woman probably meant was that people need money to attend retreats in exotic locales, or to purchase expensive courses on manifestation, or to hire coaches who promise them seven-figure incomes.

To awaken to our true nature requires nothing. It doesn’t even require a teacher, because life is the teacher.

For many of us, spiritual growth is propelled by a falling away of everything familiar, including income. Admittedly, it’s difficult to focus on spiritual growth when we’re hungry or facing other survival challenges. The paradox is that these can be a crash course in awakening if we allow them to be.

In my experience, these challenges are designed to humble our egos and show us that all our doing and egoic effort aren’t going to work; only surrender can. Begging and taking a victim stance (historically, one of my areas of specialty) doesn’t work either.

The Jedi trick is to find peace despite all this, to discover the freedom of emptiness, or, as it’s called in Christianity, “the peace that passes all understanding.”

Prioritize Inner Peace

“If you get the inside right, the outside will fall into place.” ~Eckhart Tolle

One year, despite sending 200+ emails, I couldn’t find work. If I hadn’t felt so frustrated, the sheer volume would have made it comical.

Then, after listening to many, many hours of Eckhart Tolle’s talks, I decided to stop trying so hard. I began practicing a fierce form of presence, staying only on the razor’s edge of this very moment, because to consider anything other than the present moment brought panic.

I prayed and meditated near-constantly, which helped me become aware of even the smallest signs of grace: seeing the first cherry blossom on a tree, making eye contact with a starling, or receiving a free baguette from a local baker. Each of those moments—and thousands more—brought inexplicable joy.

In those moments, I felt deeply connected to the network of life. I’d believed I needed a baseline of money to feel inner peace, yet without money, I’d found inner peace anyway.

The moments that brought up immense fear in our relative world became expansive in the absolute. When I fully accepted and inhabited each moment, life showed me the next step. And the next.

Life isn’t quid pro quo. Capitalism is. Whatever we put out always comes back, though not always in the same form.

How to Find the Gold When Everything Falls Away

Cultivate joy with a giving practice.

In 2014, amidst a round of financial challenges, I heard about the 29-day Giving Challenge, based on Cami Walker’s book 29 Gifts: How a Month of Giving Can Change Your Life. The book is based on instructions she received from a medicine woman named Mbali Creazzo. The idea is to give something away freely every day for 29 days—and also to pay attention to what flows in.

These gifts don’t have to be material, though it helps to give what you would like to receive. Because I was hungry and behind on rent and bills, for me, that was money.

One day, I was able to purchase a $10 gift card for the local grocery store, and I gave it to a woman I saw frequently on the street. Other times, when I was down to less than $5, I left a dollar coin on a wall where children love to climb.

Being broke had made me feel less than human. Recognizing that I could help someone feel seen and valued again, even briefly, was a revelation. Knowing that a child would find that dollar made me smile all day.

Giving became, and remains, the most euphoric practice I’ve ever had. This isn’t virtue-signaling or bragging; it completely transformed my life, or rather, the way I experience life.

We all need something, and we all have something others need. That’s the definition of interdependence.

Many times, I gave patience, directions, or thanks. Other times, when I could afford it—and this is still one of my favorites—I would leave a chocolate bar on a public bench with a note that read, “Please accept this random act of chocolate.”

Other times, I wrote notes on Post-its with words I needed to hear and placed them in public areas. Things like “You are loved” or “You make a difference in the world.” Writing each of these gave me a hit of dopamine and helped me feel more like a part of the world rather than forgotten.

Try community giving.

For several years, I bartered with an independent coffee shop to be able to eat one meal a day.

Inspired by an Italian trend called caffé sospeso, we created a practice of “suspended coffee.” If a customer was financially able, they could pay ahead for someone else’s coffee. If someone wanted a coffee but couldn’t afford it, they could request a “suspended coffee.”

Being able to co-create a giving practice that benefited everyone in the community made me giddy.

At the same coffee shop, baked goods were typically thrown out after two days. I began taking bags of leftover muffins, scones, and banana bread to a local soup kitchen, where they were a treat for guests more often served soup and stale bread.

On holiday weekends, instead of throwing out food, we gave whatever pre-made salads remained, as well as day-old baked goods, to people in transitional housing.

I was flat broke and trying to pay off a five-figure debt, $10 at a time. These giving practices evoked such joy in me that my anxiety about money all but disappeared (okay, mostly). And when that happened, life stepped in to support me.

Be open to receiving.

What does it mean to be open to receiving? A complete lack of resistance to what is. Many people feel resistant to receiving financial help because there’s a myth in the dominant culture that accumulated wealth equals an individual’s value, and not having money makes someone ‘less than.’ Those are both false human constructs.

It’s important not to give in order to receive, nor to give because you believe you have to. Those cancel out the energy of giving. If you can give freely, though, miracles unfold.

For me, these ranged from a neighbor who spontaneously offered me money to cover rent to an acquaintance who gave me the cash back from her credit card so I could pay down more of the five-figure debt. I saw clearly that flow is always at work in the world. And I stopped feeling ashamed about receiving.

Giving helps me see what I do have: people who care about me, a roof over my head, a meal that day. It gets me out of my head and my ‘poor me’ stories.

To my delight, giving helped me rediscover the feeling of oneness, emptiness, or “the peace that passes all understanding.” Because I felt so peaceful, I felt less resistant to my own situation, and that allowed the situation to change.

We think of items and money as “ours,” but really, we’re just stewards. Indigenous cultures have known for millennia what we settler-descendants need to learn: What we have is to be shared with others, not hoarded.

Money Can Make Us Forget

Once income began flowing in, I was mortified to discover how easily I slid back into wanting to keep what I had (after all, I rationalized, it wasn’t much). I began grasping again and believing in the collective delusion of stability. Awareness—access to the experience of emptiness, oneness, or the “kingdom of heaven”—shrank.

My ego had been so thoroughly humbled, even fractured, during the broke times that it grasped at anything that could help it rebuild a sense of identity—which is antithetical to emptiness and peace.

It’s not just me. Sociologist Paul Piff, Ph.D., of the University of California, Irvine, ran a game-based experiment in which he found that “rich” players hoarded their fake wealth far more than “poor” players, who tended to be more generous. This aligns with research that demonstrates that, on average, wealthier people donate less than their less-affluent counterparts.

By maintaining a giving practice, I can reconnect with that expansive feeling of joy at being able to meet someone else’s need, whether that’s a friend, a stranger, or some random child walking along a wall who finds a dollar coin.

It’s a Process and a Practice

The gold in the title of this post refers to awareness. That is the experience that all spiritual teachings point toward (and which no words can capture).

When things fall away, life is inviting us to awaken. As long as we resist what is, the doorway remains closed. When we prioritize inner peace and then generosity, miracles can happen.

After nearly three years of bartering with the coffee shop, I was offered a contract—out of the blue—that helped me pay off the five-figure debt within six months. This was unusual, though not unheard of.

More typically for me, and probably for many, when we give from what we have, smaller amounts begin to come in that enable small payments or a few days of groceries. It doesn’t always come back as money. Receiving food by bartering with the coffee shop was a complete gift to me. Be open to different ways of receiving.

It’s not easy when things fall away, but it is an opening. If we can learn to prioritize inner peace, let go of our egos, and become part of the flow, we can find peace and even happiness greater than we ever imagined.

If you’re hungry and broke, the apps Too Good to Go (US/Canada), FlashFood (US/Canada), and OLIO (global) may be able to help.

About Sarah Chauncey

Sarah Chauncey is a veteran writer, freelance developmental editor, and the author of the pet-loss gift book P.S. I Love You More Than Tuna. After a spontaneous awakening in 2010, she spent seven years mostly in silence and solitude, listening to life and taking notes. Those notes became the Substack The Counterintuitive Guide to Life, which helps readers find inner peace by developing self-awareness and skillfully navigating life’s paradoxes. She also writes Resonant Storytelling, a newsletter for writers.

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