#32: The idiocy of ignoring impermanence (the ABC of money, part 5)
26th April, 2021
Welcome to the Idiot Money newsletter. The newsletter that keeps digging.
This week: becoming wiser with money by understanding the idiotic implications of ignoring the reality of impermanence.
This is part five of our series on using Axiomatic Buddhist Concepts as a practical means to help us live better with money. See also Parts 1, 2, 3, and 4. This part covers some implications of the Second Noble Truth, including the idiocy of: using cash-flow modelling as an answer to discomfort with uncertainty, buying experiences, and Nassim Taleb.
The choice between moving towards clear-seeing enlightenment or doubling down on blinding addiction is one we all make, all the time. Making better choices starts with seeing the subtler roots of our dumber ones.
Idiot Money #31 concluded that the most common misreading of ‘attachment’ is to believe it’s about compulsive desires, when actually it’s about a narrowing of your vision. If you misunderstand the problem, your solution is bound to fail, and you won’t know why. So you’ll keep trying the same dumb thing over and over again, wasting your money, your time, your energy, and therefore your life, in the process… none the wiser why you never became what you could have become.
The framework of the Noble Truths is so helpful because it provokes us to stop this spiral and spin it the other way. It’s a practical process for seeing more clearly, by channelling the very machinery that can otherwise cause us not to.
Recall that all of life is threatened by self-deceptive, self-destructive behaviour because in order to operate in the world at all, we have to take shortcuts… but that same propensity to take shortcuts means we do all sorts of extremely silly things while remaining blind to both that we’re doing them, and that they’re extremely silly.
The extremely silly stuff can provide great entertainment, usually because ‘extreme’ often means ‘most well-funded’, and who doesn’t feel better for pointing out the poor life choices of a bazillionaire? Just as we learn best from history when we recognise that the people being manipulated by fascists were as ordinary as us, but caught in extraordinary circumstances, we learn best about money when we see that those doing the dumbest stuff with it are playing the same deceptive, destructive game as the rest of us, only on a bigger screen and with faster Wi-Fi.
However, reflecting on the Second Noble Truth reveals that the most dangerous mistakes are the deeper ones we can’t see because we’re blinded by the halo we’ve plonked atop our heads for spotting their surface-level expressions.
Is the bored Qatari kid whose life feels just as flat after purchasing his fifth Ferrari as it did his fourth really psychologically different than the everyday retail-therapy patient with a closet so joyless it’d make Marie Kondo cry? The opportunity-cost-laden consequences to the world of the former are worse, of course, but that’s about the perpetrator’s circumstances, not their core values.
The compulsive-desire model suggests that the answer to avoiding being suckered by attachments is impulse control. This cons us into thinking that we can ‘quit whenever we want’. Which of course always works so marvellously well that you definitely didn’t just get a vision of a smoker in denial, or the serial ‘starting Monday’ dieter.
The narrowing-of-vision model, by contrast, recognises that the very machinery that helps you make sense of the world by filtering the infinite possibilities of every moment into something more manageable also leads you to bugger stuff up. The myriad expressions of this have a common root: channelling your craving for certainty to persuade you that there is no alternative to the solution for sale.
Making you believe there is no alternative is the dark art of attachment, just as it is of the unscrupulous salesperson. The darkest version of this dark art is the one that says there is no alternative, not because of the limited range of products available, but because of the limited range of your own being: the more you believe something is fundamentally how you are, the harder it is to stop it screwing you around.
As John Vervaeke explains here (watch it all, it’s phenomenally insightful), the key insight of the Second Noble Truth is that suffering (self-deception) can be understood; that it is caused not by ‘having attachments’ but by the way in which you become attached.
The difference is crucial.
And the implications affect you, and the world of financial advice, in myriad ways.
When we fail to acknowledge that all of life is threatened by self-deceptive, self-destructive behaviour, caused, not by craving ‘extravagant’ objects, but by a desperate, subtler, craving for an impossible certainty in an inherently uncertain world, we fail to see the subtle dehumanisation at the heart of financial advice.
The peril of being attached to objects (both material things, and seeing money as an objective good) isn’t about a fear of being robbed. It’s about being blind to the existential decay caused by substituting stuff for soul. You cannot fill an existential void from outside. As Paul Tillich wrote:
The assuredly empty self is filled with contents which enslave it just because it does not know or accept them as contents. […] The man-created world of objects has drawn into itself him who created it and who now loses his subjectivity in it. He has sacrificed himself to his own productions. But man still is aware of what he has lost or is continuously losing. He is still man enough to experience his dehumanization as despair. He does not know a way out but he tries to save his humanity by expressing the situation as without an ‘exit.’
And as naughty-mouthed novelist Henry Miller identified, we too readily see the object of our attachment as the problem, rather than the wiring that gave rise to it:
Our diseases are our attachments, be they habits, ideologies, ideals, principles, possessions, phobias, gods, cults, religions, what you please. Good wages can be a disease just as much as bad wages, leisure can be just as great a disease as work. Whatever we cling to, even if it be hope or faith, can be the disease which carries us off. Surrender is absolute: if you cling to even the tiniest crumb you nourish the germ which will devour you.
It is the crumbs that are the key. Not craving a yacht is nothing compared to the language that moment by moment reinforces seeing the world through numbers-obsessed eyes.
We may not see this root, but we do see its branches. For example:
1. ‘Goals-based planning’ can be good, but it’s usually useless – Most interpretations of ‘goals-based planning’ see ‘goals’ as ‘spending targets’. This helps fit them into a neat table in a financial-planning report but it forgets the focus on the only goal that really matters. Who cares that a conservatory won’t improve your life? It’s specific and measurable! Cash-flow-centric planning that boils down to ‘spend this much per year’ rather than ‘become this’ lures people into the same trap.
2. Believing the solution is for sale, and that buying is a substitute for growing – Banging on about not craving stuff because you’ll be annoyed when you don’t get it suggests that if you could ‘afford’ everything then the craving doesn’t matter. Crave away! Forget about focusing on flowing and flourishing. Forget about aligning your resources with what you care about! Just accumulate as much as you can!
This fails to see the circulatory in its thinking. We crave objects because we crave an impossible certainty. ‘Becoming’ wants cannot be met with ‘having’ solutions. Recall too the difference in decision-making value between ‘can afford’ and ‘can’t afford’ from Idiot Money #8.
3. The ‘buying experiences’ myth – Our attachment to certainty also lies behind how we bugger up ‘buying experiences’ by doing so in a way that turns them into material goods.
4. Believing simple = best – This manifests in a million ways. Perhaps the most common short-sighted succumbing to simplicity’s siren call is to label things as ‘good’ or ‘bad’, and see neither nuance nor doubt ever again. We label things in an attempt to solidify them and then become attached to these labels to blind ourselves to the myth of this solidity in inevitably changing circumstances. Yet, as Robert E. Carter writes, ‘reality is impermanence, and to ignore change is to foster the suffering that results from not seeing things as they really are.’
As Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche explains, the essential lesson of the Second Noble Truth lies in understanding impermanence, and acknowledging that all conditions are bound to change; for this encourages us to approach each moment with a bit more clarity and confidence, relaxing into it rather than resisting it or being overwhelmed by it. We see this suffering of change with the common conditional view of happiness. I will be happy when… I’ll be happy if… Yet of course you can be happy here and now or not at all. As Rinpoche continues:
No matter how much we’d like to, we can’t stop time or the changes it brings. We can’t ‘rewind’ our lives to an earlier point or ‘fast-forward’ to some future place. But we can learn to accept impermanence, make friends with it, and even begin to consider the possibility of change as a type of mental and emotional bodyguard.
5. The ‘It’s only a problem if you go too far’ mistake – We commonly fall victim to the same mistake Nassim Taleb makes when he writes: ‘Life is about early detection of the reversal point beyond which your own belongings (say, a house, country house, car, or business) start owning you.’ As if it’s good to crave stuff for a bit, as long as you know when to stop.
You’ll never see when to stop when you don’t see that the thing that got you started was never the stuff, but your self-deceptive patterns of thinking. Taleb should learn from Genghis Khan: ‘It will be easy to forget your vision and purpose once you have fine clothes, fast horses, and beautiful women… [in that case] you will be no better than a slave, and you will lose everything.’
The point is not to know what your ‘number’ is, but to forget about the ‘number’ entirely, and cultivate the conditions that provoke you to remember what you care about.
6. Denouncing money is to be as obsessed with it as worshipping it – Denunciation of extravagance, or even ‘finances’ in general is attachment to certainty. Denunciation leads not to detachment, but to a surreptitious strengthening of attachment. To be against something is still to be defined by that something. To denounce money is not to have a healthy relationship with it; it’s a different sort of abusive one. Frugality for the sake of it misses the point. While it may rid someone of the false belief that quality of life equals access to comfort, it is still defined by equating cost of living with standard of living.
If you’re still reading after all that cheeriness, you’ll be glad to hear that there is a positive side to this. If there’s a spiral down, there must be a spiral up. The same forces that mislead us down into addiction and attachment can be channelled to lift us up towards enlightenment. And once we’ve recognised the subtler expressions of our attachments, and the common self-deceptive roots of them, it’s actually pretty easy.