#67: The ABC of money, part 18: Addicted to a dream
27th December, 2021
Welcome to the Idiot Money newsletter. This week, becoming wiser with money by understanding that most of the stuff you’re attached to you don’t know you’re attached to, including:
- why money is the ultimate siren call to shoddy substitutes for stuff that’s worth anything;
- while money is the best at leading us astray, it’s also the best tool we have for digging ourselves out of the mess we’ve been led astray into; and
- how your relationship to money turn out to be a useful bridge for showing that the core messages of eastern and western philosophy are essentially identical.
Most of the stuff you’re attached to you don’t know you’re attached to. That’s how being deeply attached to something works. And this is a huge problem… especially when it comes to the common philosophies of money that secretly govern how you make it, use it, and live with it.
You see lots of unusual things on a meditation retreat, especially when your eyes are closed.
Sitting in silence for ten hours a day for ten days, eyes shut, studying your skin and bones and brain and breath and all the fun that’s trapped in or flowing around them can be weirdly hallucinogenic.
You also see lots of unusual things when you finally open your eyes (and your mouth) on the last day.
One that stands out for a lot of people is the number of your fellow retreaters that were drawn to spend 10 days very intensely doing absolutely nothing because they had recently lost a faith. Of the first five people I spoke to when the silence was lifted, two of them had got to the last stage of becoming a priest before they decided it was all bullshit.
While this no doubt offers handy succour in the short-term, it’s pretty dangerous in a ton of other ways: most immediately when challenging a long-held belief becomes rebounding into something equally silly.
Lost a faith? Find another!
Beaten an addiction? Watch another rush in to fill the void.
As Jung explained in The Undiscovered Self: ‘You can take away a man's gods, but only to give him others in return.’ Or, as H.L. Mencken put it rather more pithily: ‘A convert to a good idea is simply a man who confesses that he was formerly an ass – and is probably one still.’
What’s this got to do with how well you turn money into a Good Life?
Just about every way we stray with money can be characterised by succumbing to a substandard substitute – trying to meet a real need with something that makes sense only with a distorted view of reality.
We’re already pretty prone to jumping from one simplistic but shoddy conclusion to another. Money makes this orders of magnitude worse. Because money’s great attraction is that it offers the ultimate easy answer to every question. The trouble with easy answers, however, is that they’re often a good indication that they’re either wrong, or the question wasn’t worth asking. Possibly both.
On the plus side, while money is the best at leading us astray, it’s also the best tool we have for digging ourselves out of the mess we’ve been led astray into.
To understand why, we need to revisit what we mean by ‘attachment’ and ‘addiction’.
We ended by asking: What if the problem wasn’t the object of the belief, but the system of belief that deified the object? We asked too whether there were a better way to live than simply ‘picking the best thing to believe in’?
In answering this question in a way that’s relevant to how well you make, use, and live with money, we have to go a lot deeper than saying ‘don’t be attached, man!’ or even ‘don’t be attached to not being attached, maaaaaan.’
No one sets out to become addicted to anything, and when they are they don’t believe they are, so telling them not to be is as pointless as telling someone who didn’t set out to spend more than they earn to live within their means.
You jump to conclusions, however silly, when you see no saner alternative.
- ‘Yeah, I know smoking’s not great for me, but what else gets me what I (believe) I want?’
- ‘Living in a palace left my soul hungry, so I guess the answer lies in aestheticism.’
- ‘Aestheticism made my stomach hungry, so I guess better to be in a palace after all.’
If there are two things you can count on from the average person’s relationship to money – whether they worship it or denounce it – it’s that they simultaneously say there’s obviously more to life than money, and make the majority of their decisions as if there weren’t.
The problem is never an attachment to money, or stuff. Outside of object-obsessions operating at the psycho-stalker level, money and stuff have plenty of obvious alternatives.
The problem is the shoddy story someone tells themselves about how to live with money in a way that’s faintly meaningful, that affords opportunities for flowing, rather than distractions from floundering.
The problem is being wired for attachment, rather than wisdom, and seeking ‘freedom’ as the ‘prize’ of an unwinnable game, rather than as freedom from the fantasy world in which the game takes place.
As the 9th Karmapa Wangchug Dorje wrote in Mahamudra: The Ocean of True Meaning: ‘Liberation occurs through recognizing just by that which you are bound.’
This is why money is both the strongest siren for succumbing to deceptively simplistic solutions, but also the best tool we have for overcoming our tendency to attachment.