On our way to enlightenment, we still need to deal with money.
For years, I have struggled with what seems like two worlds: the dharma world and the money world. I still struggle today. I am fascinated by how money affects our actions, our behavior and our relationships without our knowing it. Like other things in life that I fear and don’t quite understand—such as death—I decided to make money part of my meditation practice. That was twenty years ago, when I started one of the first investment management companies specializing in socially and environmentally responsible investing. The illusion of money’s power has a strong hold on our culture, and I wanted to find a way to see through the illusion to the reality of money, to expose some of the myths that have been passed down to us generation after generation.
What is money? The value of money was once defined according to the value of the gold or other metal used to mint coins. Later, paper money was created for convenience; gold bars stored in government vaults supported its value. Today, a currency’s value derives merely from our societal agreement to buy into an illusion. There is no underlying gold to support currency, and paper even has been exchanged for numbers on computer screens. As long as we all honor this agreement, the monetary system remains held together by faith. “It is well enough that the people of the nation do not understand our banking and monetary system, for if they did, I believe there would be a revolution before tomorrow morning,” wrote William Greider in Secrets of the Temple: How the Federal Reserve System Runs the Country.
We have many such shared agreements in our society, supporting illusions and blurring reality. The mind’s illusion of the self, or ego, is the ultimate shared agreement. I’ll agree that your ego exists, and you agree that mine exists. I’ll agree that this green piece of paper represents enormous value if you also agree. It would be quite a different reality if we didn’t believe so strongly in these illusions.
To begin my personal exploration of money, I looked first to my childhood. Most of what I knew or felt about money had come from my parents and their attitudes toward money. For many of us, our parents may not have been the best role models for a healthy money view. Mine used money to communicate their love, and they withheld it to communicate their displeasure. Money was a behavior modification tool. My parents also used money to “protect” me from the difficulties of life.
In her book Everything You Know about Money Is Wrong, Karen Ramsey categorizes four types of money attitudes, often learned from our parents. The Saver can never save enough. The Spender needs to constantly buy something new to derive momentary happiness from spending. The Worrier awaits a disaster like losing a job or wakes up in the night worrying that they won’t have “enough.” Finally, the Avoider lives in denial and avoids talking about or dealing with money, which often leads to financial mismanagement.
In the end, these attitudes aren’t really about money but about how we perceive reality. The Saver may view everything as scarce, while the Spender may view life as abundant. Some might also try to blame money for their character flaws and dysfunctions or use it as a tool to express feelings or desires. When my daughter asks me to buy her the latest Beanie Baby (she already has more than I can count), I may say it is too expensive, but what I’m really objecting to is its orchestrated status as a “collectible.” When siblings argue about the inequities of their inheritance, they usually are not fighting over money but are addressing lifelong fairness issues with each other.
For a couple I know, the trouble began when one of them inherited one million dollars and they decided to build their dream house on Maui. They hired well-known architects and designers, and the costs soon exceeded the estimates. By the time the house was complete, they had run out of money and were forced to sell it. In the process, their loving relationship came apart. They lost sight of their ability to manage their needs and desires, which had become exaggerated by inheriting the money. The moment when we understand that a conflict is not really about money is the turning point; it’s an opportunity for opening our hearts and practicing compassion in our relationships.
Constantly asking ourselves what is of true value not only helps us make better choices in using our money, it also helps limit the distractions that lead us further away from mindfulness. As Buddhists, our lives are not about making, gathering, spending and investing money. Our lives are about practicing the dharma and cultivating awareness. That can be a real struggle in our culture. The pursuit of money has become its central theme—and how we spend the majority of our time. Time is money. Many of us might even say we are renting or leasing our time to our employers.
The book Your Money or Your Life, by Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin, describes a simple calculation to help us understand the value of our time in relation to the stuff we buy. For example, earlier this year I decided to get laser eye surgery to correct the terrible vision I have lived with for more than forty years. The cost was $3,500. Based on my after-tax hourly earnings, that’s about fifty-eight working hours—in exchange for perfect eyesight for the rest of my life. Not a bad deal. I would have paid two to three times as much. At the end of the month, I can add up the number of hours of my life that I’ve exchanged for the ability to buy stuff; this helps me redefine what is of true value and what is a waste of my time. In today’s world, how we spend money often determines how we spend our lives. By questioning our money actions, we are reminded of what really matters, whom we love, and the dharma.
“It’s not having what you want, it’s wanting what you’ve got,” sings Sheryl Crow in her latest hit song. But we live in a consumer culture, where too much is just about right. So how much is enough? Maybe we should be asking how little is required. Was it Benjamin Franklin who first said, “Money exaggerates who we really are”? It is easy to find examples of celebrities who have become extremely wealthy but ended up using their money to buy suffering in the form of drug addiction, failed relationships or even suicide. On the other hand, my friend Howard has always been one of the most generous people I know, and as he became wealthy, money exaggerated his generous nature. Howard has created a healthy money world, using his spending to practice generosity every day.
As “consumers” of life, we have a choice of what we buy. We can choose to buy suffering, or we can choose to buy the joy that comes from generosity, lovingkindness and compassion. Money presents us with this choice countless times each day. The actions we take with money both contribute to and reflect who we are as people and how we affect each other. Whether we are in the supermarket or the stock market, observing and being conscious of our use of money is the first step in bringing mindfulness to it. George Kinder writes in The Seven Stages of Money Maturity:
Mindfulness is the best technique for learning to let go of habitual thought patterns, because virtually all meditation techniques build on simply letting go of thoughts. Meditation is also ideal for coming to a heightened awareness of unconscious messages about money. . . . We become like the novice monks of Burma who are sent to meditate in the forest, where the tigers prowl. . . . The world of money is where our tigers are.
Money offers us a wonderful opportunity to practice being alert—alert to the illusions of money and to the reality beyond the illusions.
Since beginning to meditate back in 1980, I have worked on observing my actions and the actions of others through the lens of the dharma. I watch how money influences my everyday behavior and that of my clients. I manage money for people who want to invest in companies that reflect their values—an approach often called socially and environmentally responsible investing. My work gives me the wonderful opportunity to interact with compassionate people who are practicing right livelihood with their money. It also gives me the opportunity to observe their shifting old and new money attitudes. For example, Tony is from a rural Oregon town and was raised in poverty. Despite having built a successful technology company, which he later sold for millions, his old money attitudes sneak up at odd times. When I last saw him, his hair a bit shaggy, he explained that he usually has it cut only every two months in order to save money. He laughed at himself when I pointed out this old money attitude—an illusion with no relationship to his present situation.
We have to constantly replace the old tapes—the old money attitudes that the mind keeps playing over and over again—with new and healthy ones. Beginning to observe the power that money has over our actions and our relationships is the first step in dissolving money’s power over us and transforming our relationship to it. We can see money as a benign tool we can use to further our self-discovery and mindfulness. We can choose to use money to express kindness, love and compassionate rather than anger and hatred. We can see the time we spend getting and keeping money as not separate from the time we spend practicing the dharma. We can bring our vocation into alignment with our values and with the dharma, finding a right livelihood that creates less suffering for ourselves and others. With patience and compassion, we can identify every place in our lives where our finances are not consistent with our values, and we can replace our old money messages with new ones that originate in healthy and conscious money relationships.
Of course, I realize that talking about money and dharma in the same conversation is blasphemy to some. In fact, as I spend time assisting lay sanghas with money issues, I find that it’s a topic not often discussed in such groups. This is somewhat surprising, since other cultural taboos, like sex, are often widely investigated in dharma communities. Perhaps this is another illustration of money’s power of illusion. The topic of money is our culture’s last great taboo because we have learned to base our self-worth and self-respect partly on our perceived wealth or lack of wealth. Money helps us define and measure our egos in relation to the egos of others. Since it’s the rare practitioner who can truly check his or her ego at the door upon entering the dharma hall, we bring with us the taboos, illusions and shared agreements of our culture.
Communication is the key to most issues, and we must learn how to normalize money conversations rather than avoid them. Money is not the “root of all evil.” The root of evil is ignorance. Money is neutral; its merits are determined by how we use it. Bringing money awareness into our personal and communal practice gives us many daily opportunities to observe the mind in action. In his book Money and the Meaning of Life, Jacob Needleman brilliantly uncovers our money illusions:
In our time and culture, the battlefield of life is money. Instead of horses and chariots, guns and fortresses, there are banks, checkbooks, credit cards, mortgages, salaries, the IRS. But the inner enemies remain the same now as they were in ancient India or feudal Japan: fear, self-deception, vanity, egoism, wishful thinking, tension and violence. In the language of the warrior, these are enemies of inner development.
The battlefield we are crossing from mindlessness to mindfulness is full of mind-made obstacles and distractions. Many of these are aggravated by our money-centered culture. By discovering and exposing the illusions of money, we begin to see reality and dharma more clearly. In this way, money actually becomes part of our practice. Money becomes dharma.
Carsten Henningsen began his dharma practice in Sri Lanka in 1980. He is cofounder of the Portland, Oregon, firm Portfolio 21 (“investing for environmental sustainability”).