#46: The ABC of money, part 11: what meditation is
2nd August, 2021
Welcome to the Idiot Money newsletter. The newsletter that’s a distraction from distraction.
This week: becoming wiser with money by understanding that looking at your relationship with money is the way to see through it better.
This is part 11 of our series on using Axiomatic Buddhist Concepts as a practical means to help us live better with money. See the series menu here.
After last week’s ‘what meditation isn’t’, this week: what it is.
You see the world through your relationship with money. Therefore, if you want an easy, flowing life rather than to be swept along by a flow of easy distractions, there are few more valuable things you can do than look at your relationship with money.
Meditation isn’t paying attention. But it is paying attention to how you pay attention.
Think of the difference between making a conscious spending decision and being conscious of how you make spending decisions. The difference, in the context of your life – which is probably the context in which you want to think about life choices – is huge.
A common complaint when I talk of using a relationship with money as a means of living an examined life is that being so conscious every time you whip out your credit card is unrealistic. No one’s got the capacity for such constant cognitive vigilance.
But to agree isn’t to endorse dashing to the other extreme, where so many chase more money in order to not have to think about it at all… despite that leaving the effectiveness of their money decisions in improving their lives completely to chance.
The neuroscience agrees.
If you want to make better decisions by default, the answer isn’t to pay greater attention to every decision. It’s not even to make your decision-making better, e.g. by carrying around a checklist that you crack out on special decision-making occasions. It’s to make your decision-making machinery better. To develop flexibility of attentional scaling, to zoom in and zoom out at the same time, to enable you to better remember what you actually care about and continually refresh your attention on it, and your intention to align your resources with it.
Just as a child learns a language less by formal language lessons and more by living in a world shaped by that language, you improve your decision-making machinery less by specifically training your brain and more by living in a world shaped to do the training for you.
Fortunately, the shaping of your world is far more of a choice than just about anybody believes.
To make better decisions by default, in a way that more readily accounts for each decision in the proper perspective of your relationship with it requires a more ready awareness for that perspective.
Without awareness of the life-context in which it sits, paying attention may improve your knowledge, and your know-how, but it’s not going to do much for your wisdom.
We want insight. Specifically, we want insight when it’s needed. We want the right solution to pop up when we’re tackling the right problems.
Better insight = better problem formulation and better problem solving = better life choices = better life.
Mindfulness is training a flexibility of attentional scaling so we can intervene effectively in how we are framing our problems and increase our chances of insight when insight is needed.
Because all of life is threatened by self-deception, and because every decision is a vote for living in one world over another, in a way that maps that world in your brain, and because the deceptive forces and their societal support are forging unhelpful pathways all the goddamn time, I would argue pretty darn strongly that if you want to live a better life, insight is needed every time you make a decision that shapes who you are, the world in which you live, and the interaction between the two.
And because of its unique role in our decisions and the thoughts that drive them, there’s no better conduit to conscious, examined-life, world-construction than money.
‘Being present’ – the poster-child of living meditatively – trains you to be more insightful. But it doesn’t work by you toddling off into nature and Instagramming the shit out of some sun-splashed woodland; #shinrinyoku.
It works because when you scale down your attention, you train your mind to be less representational and inferential – i.e. to jump to fewer conclusions in a way that means you are paying less attention to everything.
Just as we saw when we looked at the noble truths, the machinery that makes us wise also leads us astray. If you keep breaking stuff down, you’ll never make anything. If you keep zooming out, you’ll jump to conclusions.
For example, when you’re playing sport, whether it’s running, or swinging a tennis racquet, or taking a penalty, the most sure-fire way to screw it up is to think in that moment about what you’re doing – what part of your foot you’re landing on, the angle of your elbow, the rotation of your hips, etc.
All that jumping to conclusions is a necessary cognitive labour-saving device, without which you would die from indecision with a burnt-out brain.
But just because it’s helpful at allowing you to function at all, that doesn’t mean it isn’t also unhelpful when it comes to gaining mastery over your problem-framing processes, and therefore the quality of your default decision-making machinery.
Half of this series of posts so far was spent understanding Buddhism’s Four Noble Truths. Because understanding the framework of these ‘ennobling provocations’ enables us to understand both ‘suffering’ (by which we mean self-deceptive, self-destructive behaviour) and how to dissolve it.
We learn to live better lives when we understand the problem is not the ‘suffering’, but the fact our lives are constantly threatened by it regardless of our circumstances (because it is self-deception). Fail to see that, and you’ll waste your life focused on trying to change your external circumstances, despite this not really making a damn bit of difference to its quality.
As Thich Nhat Hanh wrote:
Mindfulness can only help reduce our stress and tension if it provides us with insight. Meditation isn’t just a temporary place of refuge to help you stop suffering for a while. It’s much more than that. Your spiritual practice has the power to transform the roots of your suffering and transform the way you live your daily life. It is insight that helps us calm our restlessness, stress, and craving.
Yes, meditation can help you calm down, destress, relax, and temporarily get you into a state where you’re less likely to medicate with your chosen poison, but viewing it as such is ultimately pointless compared to becoming calm and in control of your decision-making.
Insights arise when we break the frames through which we’re so used to seeing the world we forget we’re even looking through them, and look through new ones. If you’re looking how you’ve always looked, you’ll see what you’ve always seen.
This is both how therapy works and how wisdom grows.
As Vervaeke explains:
Insights appear when we free an event from the meaning we attach to it, which we do by foregrounding and backgrounding different aspects of our attention, not turning them on and off. […] When we talk about wisdom, we’re not talking about an individual insight, but a systematic set of insights that are mutually related to a fundamental transformation of the person’s existential mode.
You don’t get insights from contemplation or meditation. You get them from dancing between the two. Breaking the old frame is meditation – scaling down your attention. Building a new one is contemplation – scaling it back up.
With that foundation in place, next time we’ll look at what living meditatively with money looks like in real life… and what all that attention-paying, awareness, problem-formulation, problem-solving, and insight-generation means for our grand neuroplastic and philosophical adventure.