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#27: The ABC of money, part 2: financial nobility, an overview
22nd March, 2021
Welcome to the Idiot Money newsletter. The newsletter that provokes, not panders.
This week: becoming wiser with money by understanding that to see more clearly is the only way to stop the silly game of clamouring for certainty and distraction.
This is part two of our series on using Axiomatic Buddhist Concepts as a practical means to help us live better with money. The first part is here. This part is an introduction to the Four Noble Truths.
Our concurrent series on my favourite simple way to think about investing continues next week.
Photo by Sayan Nath on Unsplash
Our self-deceptions lead us to use money as relief from pain, as opposed to freedom from entrapment, and to succumb to the self-destruction it enables, rather than to embrace the opportunities it creates.
Warning! In case you’re expecting this series to follow a formulaic pattern of: definition, anecdote, and variations on a theme of ‘which is a bit like our relationship with money, if you think about it!’, you will be disappointed.
Not only are such things devoid of meaning, more beloved of Buzzfeed and aspirant bloggers than your brain, but it would be downright crass, and I used up all my crass credits when I did my Kanye West post. Instead, what I want to focus on is the framework, and using it as a means towards practical financial wisdom.
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Before we dive in to each ‘truth’, we should acknowledge that the typical translation of The Four Noble Truths gives rise to two not-so-noble problems.
First, ‘truth’ is a stupid choice of word. It implies a claim to be believed, which, ironically and infuriatingly, works to strengthen the blind-belief-based way of looking at the world that the framework aims at overcoming. We want to see clearly, not to crave certainty. But alas, we’re so addicted to the latter, that even the dominant clear-seeing philosophy for the last 2,500 years has been infected by it.
A better word, suggested by John Vervaeke in episode 13 of his Awakening from the Meaning Crisis lecture series (still, incidentally, The Best Thing on the Internet) is ‘provocations’:
We need to understand the Noble Truths as things not to believe, but to help you re-enact the Buddha’s enlightenment. They should be ‘the four ennobling provocations’.
And as Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche wrote in Joyful Wisdom:
The Buddha didn’t present the Four Noble Truths as a set of concrete practices and beliefs. Instead, he offered the Four Noble Truths as a practical guide for individuals to recognise, in terms of their own lives, their basic situation, the causes of the situation, the possibility that the situation might be transformed, and the means of transformation.
Going back to Vervaeke (and indeed this part of the book) ‘Transformation takes place at the perspectival and participatory levels’ – the levels where your truth is experienced, not where someone else’s is imposed.
Second, ‘suffering’ – the central word of the four provocations, and both the one thing everyone knows about them, and the one thing most likely to put everyone off engaging with them – is also a stupid choice of word.
Not only is ‘suffering’ a bit depressing, but, like ‘truth’, it can inspire the opposite reaction to the one we want. The point of a provocation is to confront reality. People don’t like to confront suffering. It’s too emotionally loaded. ‘Suffering’ inspires resignation. It also frames the whole journey to enlightenment in an unhelpful way. As if enlightenment were relief from pain, as opposed to freedom from entrapment.
As Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche explains:
When people first read or hear [suffering], they tend to think that it refers only to extreme pain or chronic misery. But dukkha, the word used in the sutras, is actually closer in meaning to terms more commonly used throughout the modern world, such as ‘uneasiness’, ‘disease’, ‘discomfort’, and ‘dissatisfaction’.
‘Dissatisfaction’ is better, because it’s more likely to get people to calmly think about how to face it, and overcome it. However, we can do better still.
Because it’s not even really about ‘dissatisfaction’. While ‘dissatisfaction’ can get people to steadily address issues, in a way that ‘suffering’ can’t, it can also get them to substitute in surface-level symptoms for their real issues. Like believing having a new house is the answer to a deeper wanting to become mature. I’m dissatisfied because of this thing, or that set of circumstances, we believe, rather than tracing the feeling to the only place it can really exist: as an emergent property of the connections in our brains.
‘Suffering’ is better read as ‘self-deceptive, self-destructive behaviour’. The actions we choose (consciously or not) to take and the thoughts we choose to think that, because of a distorted worldview, do not make our lives better.
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As an overall framework, The Four Noble Provocations/Truths describe a path, broadly speaking, of:
    diagnosing the problem;
    identifying the underlying causes;
    determining the prognosis; and
    prescribing a course of treatment.
The four elements are, in short:
    1.
    ‘Suffering’ (self-deception) is an inevitable characteristic of humanity.
    2.
    ‘Suffering’ (self-deception) arises from attachment (craving and aversion).
    3.
    ‘Suffering’ (self-deception) can cease by letting go of craving.
    4.
    The path to ceasing ‘suffering’ (self-deception) is The Eightfold Path (we’ll look at this later in the series).
These elements are the spine of a story of humanity responding to anxiety (in the ’core feature of being human’ sense) by either escaping or succumbing. Yet these routes just make things worse. An alternative path is presented, one of looking directly at our self-deceptive suffering, and seeing stepping stones to understanding, and ultimately freedom from being imprisoned by them.
We’ll see what this looks like in practice, using the incessant and universal medium of our interactions with money, next time.
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