#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.

This is part 18 of our series on using Axiomatic Buddhist Concepts as a practical means to help us live better with money. See the series menu here.

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.

Despite the whole thing being very specifically secular, more lost-faithers followed; each one there for the promises of promised lands, rather than the neuroplasticity training.

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.’

Leaving the palace

What’s this got to do with how well you turn money into a Good Life?

As I wrote right at the start of the book:

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’.

The deeper and more hidden the attachment, the harder it is to remove

In Idiot Money #65, we noted that the problem of being led into dumb life choices by an attachment to money – whether prince or pauper – was not a money problem, but an attachment one.

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.

As we’ve seen (especially in Idiot Money #31 and #32), addiction – regularly allocating your money, time, and energy resources towards stuff that makes your life worse – isn’t about compulsive desire, but about seeing no alternatives to doing these things.

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.’

  • ‘Some sort of middling amount of material goods – “knowing my number” is clearly the answer.’

  • ‘Always say yes!’ ‘Always say no!’ ‘Always say yes in these circumstances, and no in these other ones!’

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.’

The paradox of money

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.

Because it runs through everything we do, money is the best place to focus whatever energy we can muster for behaviour change. Embedded in our lives means embedded in our brains, whether we like it or not. Few things excite our emotions like money, yet because we pretend we become robots in our dealings with it, we get a distorted view of money, ourselves, and how the two interact.

You overcome attachments by seeing the world more clearly, more broadly – becoming aware of alternative views that could be just as true as the narrow one currently governing your short-sighted behaviour.

You do this by expanding the maps of meaning you have constructed in your brain.

You do this by challenging the existing maps; by examining your life choices.

Because money plays a role in more of your decisions than anything else, your credit-card statements are the best place to start living a more examined life.

However, this requires paying attention. And as we saw in Idiot Money #8, one of the main motivations for making a ton of money is to not have to pay attention to it.

It’s often said that we make poor financial decisions – waste money on stuff that doesn’t make our lives better – because we don’t know well enough what actually makes our lives better. This is nonsense. As I wrote in Idiot Money #41, we’re not crap at knowing what we want, as is often claimed. We know what we want when we pay attention. We’re just crap at paying attention.

Mentally reduce your possessions to zero and build back up from scratch. Imagine a choice between some ‘stuff’ and the opportunity to help someone you care about. Is it still that difficult to know what you do that gives you energy rather than leaves you feeling flat? Bollocks is it.

There is no way

The point of the Buddha’s origin story is the understanding that whatever the state of one’s mattress, the state of one’s soul is under constant threat by the self-deceptive forces of attachment. But that there is a way out, and it’s not by either blindly embracing or denouncing material comfort.

It’s not by denouncing anything, but renouncing (a la Socrates) living in an unexamined way, and renouncing (a la the Buddha) living looking through self-deceptive lenses.

And thus did your relationship to money turn out to be a useful bridge for showing that at their core, the OG messages of eastern and western philosophy are essentially identical. Huzzah!

As Stephen Batchelor wrote:

Like the Prince Siddhartha we may have to slip away from the palace at night while everyone is sleeping. However, this should not be naively interpreted as meaning that it is necessary to actually reject our homes, families, social obligations, and so forth; we can easily do all these things without ever undergoing any radical change within ourselves.

Money is the best tool for this radical change. But we use it to build walls – distractions of numbers, stuff to have, and excuses not to examine our lives; rather than to knock them down – to free ourselves from such self-deceptive, self-destructive bullshit.

As I wrote here:

Our daily money engagements are central to determining who we are and the goodness or otherwise of our life. There is nothing more crucial to do consciously. Engaged, conscious choices come from the way we relate with the world. This is the job not of investment analytics, but of philosophy. A better life requires better behaviours, which requires better thinking, which requires better philosophy

We’ll look at what renunciation really means and its implications next time.

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