#54: The ABC of money, part 13: financial enlightenment

27th September, 2021

Welcome to the Idiot Money newsletter. This week, becoming wiser with money by understanding that financial enlightenment isn’t about getting better at seeing in the dark, it’s about bothering to look for the light switch, including:

  • why financial enlightenment trumps financial freedom;

  • why we remain unenlightened… why we do stuff to make and spend money that drags us down at the expense of more energising endeavours, with no evidence of learning from our mistakes; and

  • what financial enlightenment looks like to your brain… and therefore how to work towards it.

This is part 13 of our series on using Axiomatic Buddhist Concepts as a practical means to help us live better with money. See the series menu here.

For such a common dream, the reality of financial freedom is poorly understood. Thinking instead of financial enlightenment can help correct this error.

However often you reiterate that you’re not running a monk-recruitment school but borrowing its deception-defeating, decision-making framework (and however well it’s almost spookily supported by the brain science) there is resistance to learning lessons from Buddhist philosophy.

Part of this resistance, I think, comes from the fact that we’re not sure where it all leads: what the bollocks is ‘enlightenment’ anyway?

Even when we get that ‘enlightenment’ is something about waking up to a clearer vision of reality, and (sort of) thinking our way to a better life, this is deeply unpopular.

No one wants to be told they’re sleepwalking through life, and that waking up is something they’re in control of. We much prefer the idea of a heavenly after-life.

And while you’re perfectly welcome to suggest to someone there’s a better way of investing money, don’t you dare suggest there’s a better way of spending it.

There’s a weird kind of comfort in believing that, even if you feel you’re the victim of a gross cosmic injustice, at least there’s no other game in town. It’s why we love a scapegoat, attach faces to our fears, and buy snake-oil from unscrupulous salesmen.

It’s also key to understanding why every day we do stuff to make and spend money that drags us down at the expense of more energising endeavours… why, in Buddhist-philosophy speak, we are constantly prone to self-deceptive, self-destructive behaviours.

It’s because so many of those behaviours are driven by and enabled by money that cultivating a better relationship with money – becoming more financially enlightened – is so damn important.

Enlightenment isn’t about eradicating the dark forces that keep us from our potential. Not even the Buddha did that, as Thich Nhat Hanh notes:

Even after his enlightenment, the Buddha experienced suffering. From his teachings and stories about his life, we know that he suffered. But the key point is that he knew how to suffer. His awakening came from suffering: he knew how to make good use of his afflictions in order to experience awakening. And because of this, he suffered much less than most of us.

To believe otherwise is to live in the same world that believes quality of living is about arriving at a number in your bank account.

You don’t need to eradicate ‘suffering’ if every time it creeps up you recognise it and use it as a stepping stone, rather than an obstacle.

Enlightenment isn’t a state; it’s a process. This is bad news for those betting their lives on the bingo-board collection of mansion, job title, and private jet, but it’s good news for the less short-sighted among us, that want to build better brains, not bigger houses.

The brain is a prediction machine, and when it comes to predicting how to live with money, the machine is malfunctioning.

Brain power-up

In Power Up Your Brain: The Neuroscience of Enlightenment, David Perlmutter and Alberto Villoldo explain that:

In the language of neuroscience, enlightenment is the condition of optimal mitochondrial and brain functioning that allows us to experience both wellbeing and inner peace and the urge to create and innovate.

Which sounds an awful lot like most people’s aims for ‘financial freedom’. Free from worry, and with time to write the memoirs.

We’ll return to the dumbassery of the traditional model of financial freedom next time. For now, we need only to acknowledge that we’re too busy worrying about fake financial freedom to work towards the enlightening kind.

Regardless of the possible number of computations our brain is capable of, the truth of the matter is that most people use most of their computational ability to dwell on everyday problems. This waste of a good brain leaves hardly any computational power for innovation, creative problem solving, and enlightenment.

For ‘waste of a good brain’, see also ‘waste of precious resources’.

It’s not that we’re incapable of being creative and enlightened. We’ve just got no space to flourish when we’re faffing around dedicating our resources to self-deceptive, self-destructive behaviours and failing to understand how to tackle them.

‘Financial enlightenment’ is, in short, about becoming less of an idiot with money. It’s what *this* [waves arms around the newsletter archives] is all about (though calling this newsletter ‘financial enlightenment’ felt a bit too pompous, even for me).

Enlightenment isn’t relief from pain. It’s freedom from being trapped by your own idiotic way of viewing the world, a way that seeks to deal with internal pains by changing external circumstances, rather than the bonkers belief system that made those external circumstances the scapegoat in the first place.

There is only one cause of unhappiness,’ wrote Anthony de Mello,

the false beliefs you have in your head, beliefs so widespread, so commonly held, that it never occurs to you to question them. Because of these false beliefs you see the world and yourself in a distorted way. Your programming is so strong and the pressure of society so intense that you are literally trapped into perceiving the world in this distorted kind of way.

To free ourselves from this trap we need to learn a new language. Luckily, this new language contains exactly the same words as the language we already use. All we need to do is see, think about, and use them differently. Slowly at first, but shortly with so much ease that we’ll wonder how we ever did it differently.

Taking conscious control of your thoughts and your decisions around money isn’t any more impossible than learning a language is to the child living in that language.

Enlightenment and emotional maturity

Immanuel Kant defined Enlightenment as ‘the liberation of man from his self-imposed minority’, adding that this minority lies ‘not in lack of understanding, but in a lack of determination and courage to use it without the assistance of another’.

To remain unenlightened about something is to remain, in an important psychological sense, a child.

For Kant, the motto of the Enlightenment (i.e. the intellectual movement) was ‘Have the courage to use your own understanding’.

Courage, as this part of the book explains, is the antidote to anxiety. The courage to challenge shitty self-deceptive beliefs is how we become comfortable with increasing levels of complexity – how we grow up.

Nowhere is this more important for each of us than in how we think about money.

Because nowhere do we react to our anxieties in such an unhelpful way.

Nothing so inspires us to grab for the simplistic ‘solution’ and so tricks us into failing to understand why those solutions never work, thereby tempting us to try them over and over again… until you end up sitting in a financial-planning meeting as a middle-aged millionaire wondering why you’re not nearly so free of misery as you were so damn sure you would be.

While we want to avoid complicating things, we don’t want to make everything simple. We want to make ourselves wiser, increasingly capable of mastering complex things.

Out of the darkness

‘Perhaps the most remarkable achievement of the Buddha,’ wrote Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche, ‘is his delivery of the message that we’ve become so used to walking in the dark that we’ve forgotten how to turn on the light.’

This isn’t an exclusively Eastern idea. It’s the same message of Plato’s analogy of the cave, and innumerable other myths of self-transcendence.

The basic concept is one of coming into greater contact with reality. We climb through a cycle of ascent – each enlightening step changes us, our comfort with the reality of the world, and the possibilities we can see in front of us… which enables us to take another step towards our potential, and so on.

We gradually become more ourselves as we become more at peace as we become more aware of the patterns of reality.

From child to adult to sage. We become more human when let go of our grasping for simplicity and certainty in a complex, uncertain world. Like challenging ourselves each time we find ourselves believing that ‘more money’ is ‘the answer’ when we haven’t even tried to properly define the question.

#58: The ABC of money, part 14: the secret shackles of financial freedom

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