#45: The ABC of money, part 10: what meditation isn’t

26th July, 2021

Welcome to the Idiot Money newsletter. The newsletter that tunes in, not turns off.

This week: becoming wiser with money by understanding that better financial decisions, and even better financial decision-making is of negligible value relative to better decision-making machinery.

This is part 10 of our series on using Axiomatic Buddhist Concepts as a practical means to help us live better with money. See the series menu here.

Meditation, or mindfulness, is the bridge between the theoretical framework of the Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path and the practice of living better with money by channelling the miracle of your neuroplastic potential to your, rather than the advertisers’, advantage. But the way most people think of meditation or mindfulness, for all their other benefits, can enable the very self-deceptive behaviours we’re trying to improve.

If you want to have a better relationship with money, you need a more mindful relationship with the life, and the world, that money is part of. This requires a dance of tuning in, not a fight to turn off.

I ended Idiot Money #41 saying that ‘If you want to become wiser, pay attention more wisely.’ And ‘The practice of meditation is a way to train your attention and improve your brain.’

However, before you rush to your cushion, it’s crucial to know what we mean by meditation (or mindfulness – for our purposes they are interchangeable), especially in the context of how we live with money.

Meditation – as a means of dissolving self-deceptions, seeing your reality more clearly, and generating enlightening insights – is a bridge from the framework we’ve been constructing over the last nine posts in this series to the practicalities of living better with money.

But it’s embarrassingly easy to get trapped by tactics so that rather than seeing more clearly, you double-down on the self-deception with clever-looking but unenlightening crap.

Meditation isn’t an isolated exercise

As Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche, whose delightful book Joyful Wisdom has guided us through this series, wrote:

Many people look at meditation as an exercise, like going to the gym. ‘I’ve gotten that over with! Now I can go on with the rest of my life.’ But meditation isn’t something separate from your life. It is your life.

Lunchtime mindfulness sessions may be all the anti-rage in workaholic-enabling offices, but they reaaaaaaally miss the point.

If your job sponsors your slow suicide by keeping you simmering with stress and sedentary for more than six hours a day, making it a bit easier to stay there for 10 hours a day isn’t a plus point. Padding, whether it’s on a shoe or in a cell, doesn’t treat pain, it incubates it.

Having a salad for lunch on Wednesday in between a catch-up drinks, leaving drinks, Thursday-is-the-new-Friday drinks, Friday drinks, Saturday drinks, and Sunday-lunch-drinks does not a healthy lifestyle make, however much you tell yourself such weeks are one-offs.

Being better with money isn’t about winning decision battles, or even the better decision-making war. It’s about choosing to live in a more peaceful, less war-torn world.

Meditation isn’t relaxation

As Mark Manson wrote in Everything is Fucked: A Book About Hope:

Most modern Westerners know of meditation as a relaxation technique. […] But actual Buddhist meditation is far more intense than just destressing oneself with fancy apps.

There’s nothing wrong with plain old relaxation. You should do it now. Drop your shoulders. Unclench your jaw. Breathe into your hips, not your sternum.

But meditation (for our neuroplastic, better-living, purpose) is different. Not least because if the only time your shoulders are dropped, your jaw unclenched and your breathing deep and horizontal is when you remember to sit on a cushion for ten minutes every now and then, then… well, I shouldn’t need to spell out why that’s perhaps a touch troubling.

Rewiring your world is an active, participatory, process. A constant cascade of choices to remember to live your life in becoming not having mode, to continually refresh your interest and your intention in aligning what you care for with what you care about.

Meditation isn’t contemplation

I’m as big a fan of thinking stuff through as anyone. It’s central to more or less the whole book.

But in our game of generating insights, meditation and contemplation are cognitively opposing processes. They’re not synonyms.

(For the full explanation from your favourite cognitive scientist, see between 18:14 and 25:39 here.)

Contemplation is scaling up your attention. Seeing more deeply into the world. Meditation is scaling it down. Seeing more deeply into yourself.

You contemplate the world by looking through your mind. The way your mind frames things determines the world in which you live. Like someone who wears glasses sees the world as constructed through the lenses in them. Distorted or unclear lenses, distorted or unclear vision.

Meditation is looking at the lenses – looking not through the way your mind is framing things, but looking at the framing. It’s getting a better grip on how you make sense of and indeed contribute to constructing your world, to become better at constructing it more consciously.

To build a better brain through living mindfully is to optimise the flexibility of your attentional scaling – your ability to zoom in and out, to see both things and the things you’re seeing them through at the same time.

It’s like seeing words and letters and their emergent meaning at the same time. You automatically read in context. Vervaeke’s ‘the cat’ example from the pic at the top of this article is illustrative here.

You instantly know the first of the indistinct letters is an H and the second is an A. Because of the words in which they sit. Yet the words are formed of those letters. Hmm.

You cultivate your ability to see more clearly and deeply into the big bad world by finding patterns in the small things within it and being conscious enough to integrate the two. By bringing into consciousness that which is normally unconscious, breaking it down, taking it apart, having a good look at it, and seeing if it’s helpful or not.

This is a process of de-automatising your cognition, and it’s helpful because so much of the automaticity comes from completely crappy places.

This framing is worth holding in your mind when you think about the role of money and the supposedly ‘one off’ financial decisions you make, and the passive absorption of all the money messages you encounter every day.

We’ll come back to the distinction between meditation and contemplation next time, when looking at the interacting role of each in generating insights.

Meditation isn’t paying attention

You can get really good at paying attention. But if what you’re paying attention to is pointless, then so what?

There’s a reason the Eightfold Path contains not ‘concentration’, but ‘right concentration’ (and why it’s distinct from ‘right mindfulness’).

‘Mindfulness,’ as Vervaeke teaches here, ‘isn’t about concentration; it’s about getting the right kind of concentration. It’s about constantly renewing your interest and refreshing your intention.’

Mindfulness is a purposeful act, in a way that attention need not be. […] Mindfulness in this sense is calling to mind the right things at the right time, which is the core of all effective behaviour change techniques.

Living an examined life obviously requires paying attention. But just as the key to meditation is returning to (renewing your interest in and refreshing your intention on) the breath, rather than focusing on the breath itself, it’s the process of examining, not the fixation on arriving at a conclusion, that makes the examined life the one most worth living.

Meditation isn’t turning off, it’s tuning in

In summary, it’s a common error to think of meditation as a ‘turning off’… What we really want is to tune in.

Turning off from what’s irrelevant can help us tune in to what’s not, but if the focus is the turning off rather than the tuning in, you’re most likely to simply replace one irrelevance with another, in a doom-laden spiral of passively-absorbed distractions.

page#46: The ABC of money, part 11: what meditation is

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