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#25: The ABC of money, part 1: the three self-deceptive poisons
8th March, 2021
Welcome to the Idiot Money newsletter. The newsletter that follows teachings, not teachers.
This week: becoming wiser with money by understanding that seeing your real money problems starts with seeing that you don't see them.
In Idiot Money #20, I outlined seven big ideas from seven different disciplines that can help you make sense of living well with money. I also hinted at an eighth that was important enough to get its own post… or rather series of posts. This is part one of that series.
Trigger warning: yes, this is about Buddhism, but NO! this is not about religion. So if you’d be put off by believing this has anything to do with religion, don’t be! This is philosophy and neuroscience set within a highly practical framework, not dogma or social conditioning. This framework is something to look through, not look at.
In the words of another, “All the practices of Buddhism are simply ways of actualizing the potentialities of human existence.” Or, if you prefer, “Fools seek the Buddha and not Mind; wise men seek Mind and not the Buddha.”
Also, I’ve read a lot of things about Buddhism and money, and the majority boil down to bullshit like ‘abundance’ and ‘scarcity’ mindsets, or are designed to either tell you what to spend your money on, or allow you to justify hoarding possessions without feeling bad about it. You won’t get any of that impractical twaddle from me.
To see money more clearly requires a systematic approach to insightful vision, not mental shortcuts.
‘Ignorance, desire, and aversion,’ Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche writes in Joyful Wisdom, ‘are referred to in Buddhist writings as “The Three Poisons,” habits of relating to experience that are so deeply rooted that they cloud or “poison” the mind.’
Ignorance, desire, and aversion are tricky terms. They could be – and Buddhist philosophy in general often is – easily misinterpreted as giving up on passionate fun, just as meditation is often misinterpreted as a lazy giving up on living, rather than a hardcore embracing of it.
On top of that, the very appearance of a ‘Rinpoche’ in a name can be enough to shoot minds towards the conclusion that whatever is being said is inapplicable to circumstances that contain no cave-based sitting or robe-clad chanting.
Such a leap would both entrench the problems we’re seeking to solve, and rob us of a great source of wisdom. So instead, it may help to consider too the terms favoured by clinical psychologist and author of a great book on the neuroscience of meditation, Rick Hanson: ‘delusion, greed, and hatred’.
The point – as ever when concepts aren’t directly translatable – isn’t to pick a side, or to damn it all as impenetrable, but to get a sense of what is going on by using the imperfect angles in combination.
Here, that means whatever gives you a sense of being led astray from wiser choices, whether that’s because you’ve failed to think something through properly, or because you’re addicted to either ‘having’ a thing or denouncing it, despite neither doing anything for the Goodness of your life.
A poisoned mind makes for a badly behaved body. And not in a cool, rebellious way, but a makes-life-worse-than-it-could-be way.
The key problem with mind-poisons is that the tool we use to identify them, let alone do anything about them – the mind – is the very thing that is poisoned. How do you see more clearly if your vision is so caked in mental mud that you can’t even see that you don’t see clearly?
As Stephen Batchelor writes in Alone With Others, a book that draws out the connections between meditating in Indian caves and banging on about existentialism in 1940s French cafes, ‘Deeply enmeshed within the mind, [ignorance] permeates every thought, emotion, and perception, producing an instinctive sense of oneself and the world which is so familiar that it is never noticed.’
The framework of Buddhist philosophy – and it’s very much a philosophy in the old-school sense of ‘set of practices to make life better’ as opposed to an academic or theological exercise – is an antidote to these poisons.
It would be easy – too easy – to link these poisons to our relationships with money in a shallow way. ‘Don’t be delusional!’ ‘Don’t be greedy!’ ‘Don’t spend money on things triggered by hatred, of yourself, or others!’
Outside of an iboga-inspired eradication of cravings, such simplistic chat doesn’t change a damn thing. It’s not like people set out to be delusional, greedy, or hating. But it happens all the same. We need to tackle what makes these arise, not howl into the void in our lives created when they do.
The three poisons are causes of suffering, but they’re symptoms of self-deception. ‘Self-deception,’ writes Chögyam Trungpa, ‘is a constant problem.’ The most insidious self-deception occurs not at the level of isolated and incidental investment things, but at as part of your integral system of living with money. Which is why we need practices, not tactics; clearer vision, not a cleverer app.
The alternative is a constant financial fight; and not only can you not win a war that never ends, but it’s boring as hell.
‘Delusion, the traditional cause of evil in Buddhist thought,’ writes Robert Carter, in his book on the Kyoto School of philosophy, ‘occurs when we mistake the separate objective self for the real or deeper self.’
Recall from here that your ‘self’ is your emergent ‘centre of narrative gravity’. Your story of who you are. A story that should be enhanced by money, but, because of our self-deceptive beliefs, is instead infected by it.
Delusion, or ignorance, in this sense, isn’t only a lack of knowledge. It could be. But it’s most poisonous when we mistakenly believe we know something which we don’t, or when we know it in a limited way, e.g. when we know it only in a propositional or procedural way, not a perspectival and participatory one. Ignorance isn’t such a problem when you know you’re ignorant.
Overcoming craving, or greed, isn’t about denial. Believing it is is why diets don’t work. The problem is one of loss of our agency over our stories. Instead, we need to learn to eschew acquisitiveness for the sake of the acquiring, and to want to acquire only the things that make our lives better and avoid those that don’t. By default. With effortless effort. Because when you can see labels clearly, who (other than perhaps Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man) chooses to swig from the bottle with the skull on it?
The typical approach to overcoming aversion is to either denounce the object of hatred harder, or to suppress it. Yet denunciation is just fanaticism for angry people, and suppression is subconscious superglue. It’s playing the same silly game, only with added sour grapes and throbbing temples. This is the norm wherever we sub in numbers, and the certainty they provide, for facing the fears (and opening ourselves to the opportunities) of an inherently uncertain narrative. We do this to escape the reality we want to embrace. We narrow and dehumanise our view by counting only cash, forgetting that it is character that we count upon.
As we’ll see when we come to the second of the Four Noble Truths, these poisons are part of being human. Because they’re shortcuts. And the whole point of the stories which make up our ‘self’ is that they are means of bringing order to a chaos of environmental inputs.
The same forces that narrow our worldview to write stories at all also lead us to write crap ones. We couldn’t survive without them. But to thrive, we need to be ready to edit the shit out of them. We need to zoom out and see that a narrowing of alternative explanations for what’s going on doesn’t mean the one we happened to settle on at one point in time is the one we need to be stuck with.
The great news is that this is completely within our control, and we know exactly what to do about it.
We want not to simply change our belief, but to stop playing a game based on a belief system in the first place. Buddhism isn’t the comforting but ultimately unhelpful belief system, money is.
This week: Rule #22: Know the difference between a sign and a symbol
The drive to be told what to do when presented with something we don’t immediately understand is so strong that even if you make it the basis of your whole message, like Buddha did, everyone will still go a bit Life of Brian.
It’s been explained in countless places that by the standards of the religions that rolled out after them, the Buddha was no Buddhist, and Christ was no Christian. As Jung wrote: ‘That Buddha should have become a model to be imitated was in itself a weakening of his idea, just as the imitatio Christi was a forerunner of the fateful stasis in the evolution of the Christian idea.’
The mistake was that potentially life-affirming symbols got turned into life-denying signs.
As Stephen Batchelor explains:
Frequently we find glaring discrepancies between the values and aims of the institutionalized religions and the values propounded and lived by their founders. The latter-day protagonists of the religion become more concerned with justifying and defending the particular dogmas and creeds of their faith, than in grasping their existential significance as answers to the basic dilemmas of human life. The true value of any dogma or belief lies in its ability to point beyond itself to a deeper reality which can not be readily articulated in a simple formula or expression.
The same story plays out with money: it should be a symbol to help us find meaning, but we turn it into a sign of meaning, and everything turns to shit.
Symbols help us break past our fixation on beliefs and find, what John Vervaeke described in his masterful Awakening from the Meaning Crisis lecture series (especially episodes 34 and 35) as ‘transformatively relevant truths.’
Vervaeke describes how belief systems (be they traditional religion or a screwy money worldview) ‘are attempts to create meaning, but they fail because a lot of your meaning-making machinery is not occurring at the level of your propositional knowledge.’ I.e. if you try to find meaning in money by thinking of it as incidental to your life, rather than integral to it, as a number, not woven into the narrative, as a thing to have, not part of a participatory process of becoming… then you’re buggered.
Money makes claims to fundamental ‘truths’ or ‘answers’ when really it’s always contingent on the circumstances of the life – and indeed, the system of interconnected and interdependent lives – of which it is a part.
Symbols contain incredible power… if you know how to use them.
Like a sign, a symbol refers to something. But symbols go further, because they also exemplify. They get you to participate in that to which they refer, and thereby provide a bridge between your present and a vision of a possible future.
Symbols, like the most interesting bits of language, are metaphors. Metaphor is itself a metaphor, meaning to carry over, or carry across. A bridge by which we can grasp abstract concepts, or see other people’s points. Symbols allow us to hold things in mind, which allows us to think through hard things properly rather than just emoting or asserting. They are the means by which we can expand our worldview from within the confines of our current worldview (which by definition doesn’t include the expanded worldview… so how can we ever grow?)
In this way, symbols change us. Because they make us better able to see abstract, but nonetheless real, concepts like justice, or what it means to live well with money.
But this doesn’t happen automatically. If you see the symbol as a mere sign, or, worse, see the symbol as the meaning in itself, you lose the benefits. You’re too busy looking the other way or worshipping an inanimate object to see, let alone cross, the bridge.