#39: The ABC of money, part 8: The Eightfold Path and interdependence

14th June, 2021

Welcome to the Idiot Money newsletter. The newsletter that’s really part of a library.

This week: becoming wiser with money by understanding that nothing evolves in isolation.

This is part eight of our series on using Axiomatic Buddhist Concepts as a practical means to help us live better with money. See the series menu here.

Your money does not exist in isolation from your life. Your life does not exist in isolation from the lives of others. Yours and others’ lives do not exist in isolation from the world. Wise financial decisions are made in accordance with this understanding.

A neuroscientist, a spiritual novelist, a mathematician, a theoretical physicist, and the naturalist-botanist-zoologist-philosopher Father of America’s National Parks walk into a newsletter.

  • Although we typically feel independent, each of our brains operates in a rich web of interaction with one another – so much so that we can plausibly look at the accomplishments of our species as the deeds of a single, shifting mega-organism. […] All of this social glue is generated by specific circuitry in the brain: sprawling networks that monitor other people, communicate with them, feel their pain, judge their intentions, and read their emotions. – David Eagleman

  • It is only when we have renounced our preoccupation with ‘I,’ ‘me,’ ‘mine’ that we can truly possess the world in which we live. – Aldous Huxley

  • This interconnection (or accommodation) of all created things to each other, brings it about that each simple substance has relations that express all the others, and consequently, that each simple substance is a perpetual, living mirror of the universe. – Gottfried Leibniz

  • A human being is part of the whole, called by us ‘Universe’; a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest – a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison. – Albert Einstein

  • When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe. – John Muir

You don’t need to be an Eastern mystic, or even an evolutionary biologist to know that nothing evolves in isolation. Though if my personal and professional experience is any indication, you may, perhaps, here and there, now and then, need a nudge to see why living this truth is crucial to doing less idiotic stuff with your money.

Something I’ve learnt while writing this newsletter is that those that are interested in money are not (save for some surface-level summaries ‘optimised’ into triviality) interested in thinking more clearly (in the ‘enlightenment’ sense); and those that are interested in a more enlightened engagement with life are positively put off by any talk of money (one hopes such aversion is somehow deliberately ironic).

This is frustrating. Because central to becoming wiser are:

  • living an examined life – and what better tool do we have than the unequivocal accounting record of our life choices provided by our credit-card statements?;

  • understanding that everything is connected – both within ourselves, and between ourselves and the world (pull one bit of life in one direction, and the rest will react); and

  • cultivating a way of living that affords caring for what you care about, rather than being blindly led astray by your addictions.

When we treat money as an isolated object, or means of acquiring objects, seeing its value – and by extension our entire worlds – primarily in numbers terms, we counteract all of this.

Stop pursuing the trivial

The trivial version of this newsletter, ‘Eight Secret Steps to Financial Success: Manifest a Million with Mindfulness – number 4 will shock you!’, would run through the eight ‘steps’ of The Eightfold Path and link each one, however tenuously, to an idiotic way we live with money.

Right effort: Don’t waste time reading the finance pages!

Right livelihood: Don’t take a job just for the money!

Right speech: Don’t say ‘better’ when you mean ‘more expensive’!

Like most fortune-cookie ‘wisdom’, such an article wouldn’t be wrong. The last one, for example, is literally my Trigger #1. But it would suffer from The Michael Pollan Problem: on its own, its usefulness would be severely limited.

It’d be like writing about ‘8 steps to lose weight’ and expecting anyone in the world to actually integrate them into their lives (as opposed to something like this encouraging you to examine why diets based on denial not only don’t work, but can’t work).

And in the context of The Eightfold Path, it would work against the exact message being sent. To return to the problem of the ‘path’ metaphor highlighted last time, if you give someone a list of eight things to make their life better, and they reckon they’re doing better than par, they’ll turn their thinking off, not on.

The Eightfold Path is better seen as a bridge between philosophy and your brain.

Neuron nirvana

Recall from last time that ‘the key to the Eightfold Path is that each element is interdependent. It’s a web-like network, or an ecosystem that you cultivate in conjunction with changing circumstances.’ Its value is as a worldview, not a set of tactics. It’s a way of living for a human with a mind, a body, and a soul, not a set of instructions for a robot.

How you choose to earn and spend money both shapes and expresses your ‘centre of narrative gravity’ – the story you tell yourself about yourself that determines what that ‘self’ is. If what you do ‘for a living’ leaves you with poorer physical and mental health and worse relationships, ‘living’ feels like an inappropriate term.

The Eightfold Path is commonly talked about using the sort of Sanskrit terms that can easily make it feel like it’s got zero applicability outside of an ashram. ‘I want to make money, not feel like I’m on a yoga retreat!’ you cry. To put the ecosystem of The Eightfold Path to use in improving our relationships with money we want to put nirvana in the language of neuroscience.

Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche writes:

Samsara may be more accurately understood as a point of view to which we’ve become attached in an effort to define ourselves, others, and the world around us as we travel a realm characterized by impermanence and interdependence. […] Release from this sort of mental and emotional recycling is commonly referred to in Sanskrit as nirvana.

In money terms: we do dumb shit with money because we’re attached to a deceptive, distorted, view of money, which affects the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, others, and the world; these distortions are characterised by wishing money were some sort of ultimate certainty in an uncertain world.

The purpose of the Eightfold Path is to overcome the self-deceptions that keep us locked in this psychological prison. This simply doesn’t happen with ‘nudges’, or amusing anecdotes of people doing silly things with money.

You cannot take the water out of the wave, or the wave out of the water

Difficulties that arise from the reality of uncertainty are better met by living in a way that equips you to fit yourself to the uncertainty, rather than trying to fit the uncertainty to your fixed wishlist.

The reality of impermanence and interdependence means the ‘perfect’ solution to your ‘problems’ is impossible. Because you can’t fix a flow, and when you redirect the flow in one place, it changes it everywhere else.

We think this is a bad thing.

It’s actually a really good one.

Because when you grasp that the ‘perfect’ solution is impossible, you stop wasting your life chasing it. You stop playing unwinnable games of comparison and consumption. You open up from a narrow vision that sees only crappy ways of playing the same silly game, to remembering that there are not only alternative ways of playing, but alternative games. You open up to seeing things in a perspectival and participatory fashion – in context, and in service of meaning.

Dedicating your life to catching something you cannot catch, and that even if you could would turn out to not be what you were after anyway, is no way to live.

When you grasp that everything is connected, you begin to see more clearly how your money connected to your life – and therefore how to make more of it.

And you begin to see how all your choices are connected to each other – that how you do anything is how you do everything.

As noted in Idiot Money #20, this neuroplasticity is the key lesson we can take from neuroscience. It’s also the bridge that links the abstract framework of Buddhist philosophy to the practical wisdom of living better with money. More on that next time.

page#41: Building a better money brain (the ABC of money, part 9: neuroplasticity)

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