Visionary ideas rarely arrive without a few dark nights of the soul. And so it was for Charles Eisenstein, now a coveted speaker, teacher, and author of several paradigm-changing books, including his latest, "Sacred Economics: Money, Gift & Society in the Age of Transition."

Charles EisensteinAfter graduating from Yale in 1989 with a degree in mathematics and philosophy, Eisenstein — a lifelong searcher and questioner — decided to forgo a “normal” career path in favor of something that would hopefully bring him more fulfillment. He worked in Taiwan as a Chinese translator, taught yoga, learned about herbs, and taught for a while in Penn State’s department of Science, Technology, and Society. During that time, he also devoured books on any subject that gnawed at him — biology, Eastern spiritual traditions, nutrition, globalization, physics — seeking answers to the sweeping questions he’d been asking since childhood (“Where did I come from?” “Why am I here?” and “Where am I going?”).

But it was only after a series of crises, including bankruptcy and a divorce, that everything finally jelled and he found the courage to share his world-altering ideas. “It wasn’t like I made some heroic decision to finally walk the walk,” he says during a phone interview from his home in Harrisburg, Pa. “It’s more like I got ejected from the old world. I thought, ‘This just isn’t working. I might as well just say it all and stop being so careful and afraid.’ There’s nothing more dangerous than a man who has nothing to lose.”

Soft-spoken and unassuming, Eisenstein might not seem like a rabble-rouser or revolutionary. But that’s indeed what he’s become — and in the best possible sense. 

His 2007 book, "The Ascent of Humanity," takes an unflinching look at human history — from hunter-gatherer societies to our complex technological civilization — and shows why we’re now facing so many planetary troubles, from rising violence and poverty to climate change and electronic addiction. He illustrates, one by one, how our technologies, science, medicine, education system, religions, and cultures have led us to what he calls Separation, and how the crises we’re facing will ultimately lead us to a different human sense of self and a more beautiful civilization, the Age of Reunion.

Scary, yes. Change always is. But Eisenstein is surprisingly optimistic. He points to his own personal transformation and predicts a collective transformation that will force us to finally release our need to control the world and instead live in oneness with others and nature. But that doesn’t mean there won’t be bumps along the way.

“We’re like a fetus growing up against the limits of our environment,” he says. “That is stimulating labor, which includes a breakdown in the old systems. But it doesn’t necessarily have to be as bad as we think.”

Just as most babies land in loving families after the trauma of birth, workable alternatives already exist at the fringes of society, including holistic medicine, regenerative agriculture, localism and community currencies. And more are likely to appear, he predicts.

In fact, "Sacred Economics," published in 2011, describes how the financial system could be transformed to a gift economy, better reflecting our emerging sense of interrelatedness. One way is by living in the gift.

Deep down, most of us feel gratitude for the gift of life and want to give something back in appreciation, Eisenstein explains. Instead, we often put aside our creative dreams and opt for soul-sapping careers to earn enough money to buy what society tells us we need for happiness. But each of us can begin freeing ourselves from the money economy right now.

“You might say, ‘Okay, maybe I’m not ready to give up my job or my health benefits, but I do want to be of service,’” notes Eisenstein. “’I know in my heart that I’m here to give something magnificent, to be magnificent.’ When you do that, something usually comes up, and you’ll recognize it. ‘Oh, there it is.’” And, when you contribute your creative gifts freely, he adds, you receive unimaginable gifts in return.

One way Eisenstein lives in the gift is by offering his ideas for free. His books are available online at no cost, and readers can pay what they wish or nothing at all.

His next book, "The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know is Possible," is due out later this year. In part, it explores how our world is defined by the stories we tell. For example, one of our most dominant stories maintains that technology will ultimately solve all our problems. Another claims we live in a dog-eat-dog world; there’s not enough money or resources for everyone, so we all should just grab what we can.

“My work is really about changing the old stories — the defining narratives and myths of our civilization, and therefore the institutions and systems that are built on those myths,” says Eisenstein. “They don’t resonate much anymore. We need new stories. They will change the world."

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Photo courtesy of Charles Eisenstein
Charles Eisenstein's present to the world? A gift economy
Soft-spoken and unassuming, this speaker, teacher, and author might not seem like a rabble-rouser or revolutionary.