Imagine a restaurant where there are no prices on the menu and where the check reads $0.00 with only this footnote: "Your meal was a gift from someone who came before you. We hope you will pay-it-forward however you wish."
That's the tagline for Karma Kitchen, a concept that's been around for quite a while, but is being slowly repopularized by the gift economy culture. Modeled after Karma Kitchen Berkeley, the one in DC is located in the heart of the city, and the opening weekend was a smash. Shephali and I took the bus down to help with the festivities, and as usual, we received more than we could possibly give.
I'm sure the CF blog will have something amazing up on it shortly, but from a personal perspective, it was quite a moving experience to turn a restaurant experience into a family experience.
Many wonderful stories came out from the day, and we heard of multiple instances where people needed a couple reiterations to follow the concept. The Kindness Table was overflowing with gifted items and the day ended with even more items anonymously gifted to future guests.
The night before the opening, a group of us were sitting around thinking about the spirit of KarmaKitchen, and I started thinking about how it broke down traditional economics, which is based on trade-offs. When we operate in the gift-economy, we are effectively cutting the cord connecting happiness and personal gain. Here's an example: if i volunteer at KarmaKitchen it would be a 4 hour activity. an economist would look at this activity as a trade-off, that is, that I am doing this because this provides me more personal gain than any other activity i could do at that time. Furthermore, if there was an option that was more compelling as far as personal return, I would do it. So if the day I volunteered I had another opportunity that enabled me to make $1M, I would ditch Karma Kitchen and pocket the cash.
However, the very act of volunteering at Karma Kitchen infuses the individual with other-orientation - we are not there for ourselves, or i should say we are trying to redefine 'self' to include more than our bodies/minds. if volunteering teaches me to think less about how others can give to me and more about how i can give to others, that economic pricepoint at which i can be 'bought' to do something else, rises and rises and rises, until my thought is eventually, it cannot be done. I look at Viral and Pavi, the founders of Karma Kitchen. I don't think there is any amount of personal gain that would keep them from serving on Sundays. They have effectively cut the cord as there is no amount of gain, monetary or otherwise, that would keep them from serving.
While I am still in the early stages of the cord-cutting process, I'm so grateful that spaces like Karma Kitchen exist to provide both guests and volunteers with constant opportunities to decouple personal gain and happiness..