#48: Living mindfully with money (the ABC of money, part 12)
16th August, 2021
Welcome to the Idiot Money newsletter. The newsletter that's best viewed through a wide-angle lens.
This week: becoming wiser with money by understanding that money could be the best catalyst for conscious living, but we choose to make it the worst.
After parts 10 and 11 looked at what meditation is and isn’t, this is an attempt to talk about what living mindfully with money looks like in practice, despite that being completely impossible.
To live well with money requires remembering that you are a human, not a robot – you operate according to a philosophy in an inherently uncertain, impermanent world, not according to an algorithm driven by a simplistic set of numbers. Alas, that the narrow view with which we choose to look at money persuades us otherwise.
To recap: in Idiot Money #45 and #46 we saw how meditation (or mindfulness, or sati, or callitwhatyouwill), if it’s to help us become wiser with money, needs to be a practice of paying attention to how we pay attention… how we generate insights through an awareness of how we know ourselves and the world, and how they dance together.
We saw how mindfulness is a way of life, not an isolated exercise. A conscious means of making better decisions by default, by choosing to construct a world that affords greater opportunities for making meaning, by tuning in, not turning off.
Unfortunately, like sex or psychedelics, this is something too ineffable to fully grok from simply reading about it.
Which is why we have to dance around the core concepts like our propensity to grab for shitty substitutes for what we really want in the hope that one day the penny drops, the eyes pop, and a new, more helpful reality emerges. Somehow.
Money should be the best catalyst for this sort of consciousness. Except the worlds we’ve chosen to construct around it, and which society is only too willing to reinforce, make it nothing of the sort.
Yet because our relationships with money, and the world-building consequences of them, are within our control, we can choose to become wiser with money, rather than blindly hoping that making it, spending it, and investing it with something like blind abandon (largely unconsciously, but sometimes deliberately so) will somehow result in us making the most of it.
A way of life? Building a better brain through conscious choices? Becoming wiser?
For all that mediation is and isn’t, the two most important points to grasp if you’re to do more than escape from the drama of deadlines and diapers for a minute or two are:
1. Living mindfully is philosophy training. If it isn’t improving your life, you’re doing it wrong.
2. Living mindfully is neuroplasticity training. How you do anything is how you do everything. If you don’t instinctively and clearly see the links between your anythings and your everything, you’re playing life on ‘unnecessarily hard’ mode.
We rewire our brains by taking conscious control of the story we tell ourselves and the world about who we are, by shaping our centre of narrative gravity with our thoughtful virtues, rather than letting it be an unthinking slave to other’s vices. We take this conscious control by paying attention in the right way to the right things, by being aware of the building blocks of our stories – our internal and external language – by knowing ourselves, and our environments and the ongoing means by which they interact and influence each other.
Living mindfully – and using your relationship with money as a brilliant means of remembering to do so – is a practice of doing what neuroscience tells us we can, and want to do.
Of internalising the difference between events and their interpretations until it’s instinctive, and instructive.
Of knowing the right thing to do without needing to ‘know’.
Of not examining your life, but of living an examined life.
Living meditatively is a way of remembering the implications of being human in a world set-up to encourage you to believe that where money is involved, you become a robot.
Our relationship with money is shaped with our purchases, our words and our thoughts. There is no standing still. No chance to wait and deal with it when we’re more ready. Our brain doesn’t stop sucking in inputs from the world, and spinning them into a protective, predictive web of stories to conjure a ‘self’, to determine its place in the world, and how to navigate its way around. Amid this incessant dance between environment and response, we can choose to ascend towards real-life monetary enlightenment, or down into a cave of complexity and shadowy illusions.
What the expletive does this have to do with meditation, you may ask?
Money should be a symbol to help us find meaning, but we turn it into a sign of meaning itself, and everything turns to shit.
Money makes claims to fundamental ‘truths’ or ‘answers’ when really it’s always contingent on the circumstances of the life – and indeed, the system of interconnected and interdependent lives – of which it is a part.
In meditation, the breath is a participatory symbol of the impermanence and interconnectedness of things that helps us understand how ‘I’ am impermanent and interconnected. You don’t own pain, for instance, so much as participate in ‘paining’.
Symbols help us temporarily inhabit expanded versions of ourselves, by offering us a hint of what the world could look and feel like if we possessed skills which we don’t yet possess, but which, partly because we don’t possess them, we may well not be able to see we even want.
By consciously looking at our relationship with money, rather than blindly looking through it, we can get a better glimpse of what our worlds are like, and more importantly could be like if we lived them in a more examined them.
Tell people this, however, and chances are they’ll reply with something about how they have to make it first, and how pretty much any sacrifice, be it time, energy, relationships, or morals, is justified because of how incredibly awesome ‘the future’ will be once the money has been made.
Such silly slowly suicidal sacrificial living is a result, not of the unfairness of existence, but because of the unhelpful stories we tell ourselves about existence.
Living more mindfully is a process of editing these stories. Get this right, and your relationship with money – and consequently your ability to use it more wisely (i.e. in a way that more reliably makes your life better) – improves as a happy side effect.
This is a meditative process. A process of deconstructing unhelpful narrative experiences into sensory ones and subjective views into objective ones, before building back up a more conscious and enlightened whole. As the meditator translates their river of thoughts into the coming and going of bodily sensations, so must we see the stories that subconsciously determine who we are as mere transitory drafts, ready for refinement. You inescapably are a narrative; you can consciously choose to be its author.
Living mindfully, or living philosophically (or whatever label you prefer) is to live in a way dedicated to seeing reality more clearly, on the understanding that we live better when we align more closely with reality than deceptive, delusional, takes on it.
Those that have made a stack of cash often end up wondering why it didn’t leave them feeling like they were dancing on a rainbow.
Because despite all the hints along the way, making the stack is often the only way it becomes impossible to ignore the fact that the numbers-based belief system that had been guiding their life choices was false.
If there’s one thing I would love to magically extract from the heads of millionaires and share with the world, it’s probably this.
It’s so sad that it often takes making millions for people to stop and really think about what they’re making it for (and most don’t stop even then).
As Thich Nhat Hanh wrote in The Art of Living:
Sitting in stillness like this allows us to see things as they truly are. When the body is relaxed and the mind comes to rest, we can see clearly. […] As long as we’re restless and the mind is unsettled, we won’t be able to see reality clearly. We’ll be like the lake on a windy day, its surface troubled, reflecting a distorted view of the sky. But as soon as we restore our stillness, we can look deeply and begin to see the truth.
As we saw way back when we started with the four noble truths, seeing more clearly is about dissolving our self-deceptions, for it is these that are our ‘suffering’, (almost) regardless of our circumstances.
As Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche wrote in Joyful Wisdom:
To meditate is to look deeply and see the things that others cannot see, including the wrong views that lie at the base of our suffering. When we can break free from these wrong views, we can master the art of living happily in peace and freedom.
Seeing more clearly involves breaking old frames and building back better ones.
This is why, behind the many layers of bullshit that usually accompany such statements, going to India (say) to ‘find oneself’ actually sort of works. Or at least has a chance of working.
To the extent it does work, it’s because you break the link between your circumstances and your predictions of what contributes to the quality of your life. When you take yourself out of that old story, you allow a better story to come through.
Living mindfully is a constant challenging of these stories – the ones that survive are better for it, and the ones that don’t are better for being discarded.
But constant challenge of the role of incidental circumstances in the formation of the integral parts of your identity isn’t everybody’s idea of a fun way to spend a weekend, so it often gets more comfortably rolled up into a ‘retreat’.
There’s a special kind of awareness that happens (perhaps only) when you sit in what’s probably thought of as ‘formal’ meditation, but it’s not necessary for the bulk of the benefits.
As the cognitive science demonstrates, paying attention to how you pay attention is the key.
As Matthieu Ricard wrote in Happiness:
Rather than distinguishing between emotions and thoughts, Buddhism is more concerned with understanding which types of mental activity are conducive to one’s own and others’ well-being, and which are harmful, especially in the long run. This is actually quite consistent with what cognitive science tells us about the brain and emotion. Every region in the brain that has been identified with some aspect of emotion has also been identified with aspects of cognition.
Mental activity and money are inescapably intertwined. It makes no sense to pretend otherwise.