Updated: May 31
Dear Sensei: How can we have a mindful relationship to money? This is David. Hi David- This is a question that I, unfortunately, do not get very often. I believe it betrays a very basic disconnect that folks have between spirituality and economics, similar to the disconnect that many have between sex and spirituality. There is an unfortunate dualism that occurs around these two very common human needs. With regard to money, it stems from the belief that a desire for wealth is profane and that money is somehow stained. In western civilization this has been largely shaped by the Christian tradition and timeless tales about the folly of greed, such as A Christmas Carol, written by Charles Dickens. But this view that wealth is inherently bad is simply unclear and has led to some very confusing and unhelpful positions. Even the biblical injunction about money is usually misquoted (as above); the quote actually is this: “The love of money is the root of all evil.” This seems to indicate that an excessive attachment to material wealth is the cause of all evil. But is this true?
My own opinion is that the root of all evil actions taken by humans is the delusion of separation. This delusory condition is a mental myopia that makes us unable to see the bigger reality of Oneness. The result of this sense of separation is an unconscious desire for connection which we will seek through hateful and controlling relations if we cannot realize it through love and freely given companionship. This domination and abuse of power can assume many manifestations and is not limited to those that involve economics. Greed is a poison of the mind, not an inherent function of money. It is not our desire for things that is wrong, it is the exaggerated expectation we have around the object of desire. If we clarify the limits of what an object can provide us and we realize that all objects are mostly carrying the projection of our own minds, we can learn to enjoy the things we desire without expecting them to bring us happiness or peace.
Personal contentment can be enjoyed when we learn to recognize and appreciate that which is “enough.” A study carried out in 2018 indicated that, after a certain level of income, more money did not necessarily equate to more happiness. A family in the US making an income of $102,000 is at the average satiation point. Furthermore, a family making $120,000 per year was not less psychologically sated then the one making $200,000. So what does this tell us? It tells us that after a certain point, personal satisfaction is no longer really connected to wealth. Although much maligned by Marxist theory, the so called “bourgeois” middle class is very close to a ‘middle way’ with regard to the study on wealth. We can learn for ourselves by undertaking a personal study of history to discover what economic approaches actually offer an individual the greatest opportunity to achieve satisfaction.
Does all of this mean that we need to have a certain amount of income to be happy? No, because happiness is the fruit of mindfulness and does not come from without but from within. It is my experience that the satisfaction point is easier to experience when this is realized. Economic stress can be very destructive. Historically, in Buddhism, prosperity was actually encouraged. The poor man was not held up as virtuous and the rich man was not disdained. Both could succumb to the poisons of the mind. Rather, it was clearly understood that either aversion or attachment to money could bring suffering.
Throughout Buddhist history wealthy patrons were often the important supporters of the early Mindfulness movement. Many Buddhist communities engaged in creative entrepreneurial practices. In various sutras, the Buddha Shakyamuni emphasized a practical and creative approach to money. He advised that we do work that was in harmony with our deepest beliefs. That we set aside funds for our needs and wants, for building up our careers or businesses, and for times when we may have economic challenges. That we avoid gambling, greed and idleness, and that we avoid too much debt and realize how important work is for our well being. Finally he advised us to find ways to creatively use our wealth to help others. One can mindfully create wealth or intentionally live on less. Neither way is inferior.
So in summary, how do we do this? This is my simple recipe:
Learn to really focus on and enjoy the simple pleasures of life.
Don’t take on debt for things you do not really need.
Regardless of how you support yourself, do so from a place of service to others.
When possible, aid those who are sick and unable to work.
Let go of the idea of retirement and embrace an attitude of life-long giving.
I hope this helps!