#72: The ABC of money, part 19: Denunciation bad, renunciation good

31st January, 2022

Welcome to the Idiot Money newsletter. This week, becoming wiser with money by understanding the difference between denouncing money as bad and evil and simply renouncing the silly games we play with it, including:

  • checking in on whether, if you’re not enjoying playing a game and the only prize is to keep playing, you should keep playing;

  • how we all already live in palaces;

  • and some perhaps overly liberal quoting of the endlessly marvellous modern monk, Matthieu Ricard.

This is part 19 of our series on using Axiomatic Buddhist Concepts as a practical means to help us live better with money. See the series menu here.

The crucial difference between denunciation and renunciation and why playing a different game is a better bet than bemoaning the same one while still ceding control over your life choices to its rules.

All financial advice essentially boils down to one question: how do I best turn my financial resources into a ‘Good Life’ (whatever that may mean to each of us).

This equation has three parts:

1. The left-hand side: your resources (crudely, your money, time, and energy; for why it’s best to both focus on these three, and, within these three, money, see here).

2. The right-hand side: your Good Life (whatever that may look like to you, but essentially something that is flourishing, flowing, and fulfilling, and not something that while it may be stuff-full, is not soulful). Of course, to believe ‘the Good Life’ is an ‘outcome’ to be ‘arrived’ at is to commit the Arrival Fallacy; this isn’t important here: the point is the overriding purpose at which you’re aiming the allocation of your resources.

3. The bit in the middle: your ongoing process for turning one into the other.

The great puzzle of financial planning is why having more on the left-hand side doesn’t reliably lead to a better outcome on the right-hand side.

And to remember in the moments that matter most that real fun comes in the middle bit. How do you engage in the participatory process of living with money in a way that’s focused not on the ‘having’ at either end, but the ‘becoming’ in the ongoing, perennially present middle?

Part of the problem is because the way we commonly ‘know’ money encourages us to believe that having more automatically translates to a better outcome, that more money is, in practice, the definition of a Good Life. Only truly first-rate idiots say this out loud, of course, but as we’ve seen so often, the most costly dangers are the ones we don’t see.

Over the last couple of posts in this series, with the help of Marcus Aurelius’ notion that it’s possible to live well, even in a palace, and how this relates to the origin story of the Buddha, we’ve looked at how denouncing the notion that the Goodness of a life is measured in monetary terms is to play the same silly game as those that swear it is.

Those believing that the Good Life is the expensive life and those believing money is bad and evil, and that therefore aestheticism is noble and virtuous have a shared worldview: judge everything in numbers terms. They ask themselves: ‘How well am I living?’ and look to their paycheque, their bank balance, or their savings rate for the answer. As if they were a machine.

We introduced the idea that to actually live with money more effectively, the answer was not to denounce anything, but to renounce (a la Socrates) living in an unexamined way, and to renounce (a la the Buddha) living while looking through self-deceptive lenses.

To renounce playing a game just because everybody else is... because what’s the point of playing a game you’re not really enjoying if the only prize is to keep playing?

To remember, per Idiot Money #67, that it’s not the particular in-vogue object of attachment that’s important, but the way in which you become attached.

To remember that you jump to conclusions, however silly, when you see no saner alternative. That narrowing of vision is what addiction is about (recall that it’s not, as commonly thought about, and therefore poorly treated, about compulsive desire).

Renunciation of the silly game is the saner alternative. So what does it mean and what are its implications?

Renunciation good

As Stephen Batchelor wrote in Alone With Others, we can get a lot more out of the Buddha’s origin story, and, indeed, of Marcus Aurelius’s quip about being able to live well even in a palace, when we use them to question whether living life in ‘having’ mode is always so smart.

The essential element involved in ‘renunciation’ is our forsaking the values of having and awakening to the consciousness of being. […] Genuine renunciation is not a partial or conditional transformation of certain attitudes or beliefs; it involves a radical change of the entire personality.

The final departure from the palace, which is also referred to as the ‘renunciation’, is thus a symbol for the radical shift from the dimension of having to that of being.

A radical change such as this is precisely what we’re aiming for by all this looking AT our relationship with money, rather than merely looking THROUGH it.

A Batchelor continues:

It would be stretching the imagination too far to suppose that [the Buddha's] father's attempts at concealment had caused him to literally have never seen or heard of old-age, sickness, and death. The point is that, in having his attention constantly diverted to possibilities within the sphere of having, he had never realized the deeper existential meaning of these phenomena. From this moment onwards he could no longer be contented with a pursuit of numerous particular achievements, for he was now confronted with the question of the meaning of life as a whole.

‘Having mode’ and ‘being (or becoming) mode’ aren’t good and bad, but problems arise when we get mixed up and have modal confusion – when we try to meet becoming needs with having things. Most of marketing is manipulating modal confusion: buy a Ferrari and be loved! Buy a house, be mature!

We all crave living in palaces, especially in the modern, individualistic, West – and we all do! To live in the palace is to live in having mode.

But it’s not bloody working!

If it were, the people I met as clients during my financial planning life would’ve been noticeably living better lives. Reader, they were not. Not worse. Just not better. Despite the fact they damn well should’ve been.

We want to leave this palace.

And we do that not by denouncing anything, but renouncing living in an unexamined way.

Marcus Aurelius, when he wrote ‘One can live well, even in a palace’ understood this. Especially when we remember that he was writing not to an audience (let alone one living two thousand years after his death) but to himself… the ‘palace’ isn’t the point; it was irrelevant to the game he was reminding himself he most wanted to be playing.

To remember that you’re living a human life, not going through mechanistic money-driven motions isn’t about finding a ‘middle way’ between two strategies for playing the same game. The point is to see that if a game is foolish, there’s no damn point playing it in the first place.

Denunciation bad, renunciation good

Denunciation bad, renunciation good. Got it. I’ll put it on a poster and preach about it on Twitter.

But before I do, what, precisely, am I preaching about?

Let’s ask everyone’s favourite compassion-oozing French philosopher-monk Matthieu Ricard:

Renunciation, at least as Buddhists use the term, is a much-misunderstood concept. It is not about giving up what is good and beautiful. How foolish that would be! Rather it is about disentangling oneself from the unsatisfactory and moving with determination toward what matters most. It is about freedom and meaning – freedom from mental confusion and self-centred afflictions, meaning through insight and loving-kindness.

Or, in the language of doing less dumb shit with money: disentangling yourself from wasting money on unsatisfactory stuff, and reallocating it towards what actually matters to you. Stop wasting money to ‘justify’ the sacrifices you made to earn it, and indeed stop earning it in a way that feels sacrificial in the first place. Use money to make your life better instead.

Let’s continue with Ricard, because this is both excellent, and important:

For many people, the idea of renunciation and nonattachment implies a descent into a dank dungeon of asceticism and discipline. The depressing privation of life’s pleasures. A series of injunctions and bans that restrict one’s freedom to enjoy life.

Which is why it’s helpful to use the different labels of denunciation and renunciation.

A Tibetan proverb says: ‘Speaking to someone about renunciation is like hitting a pig on the nose with a stick. He doesn’t like it at all.’

Anyone who’s ever suggested to someone in a financial-planning meeting that maybe their expenditure wasn’t completely and utterly optimal in every single way can confirm this is true.

But true renunciation is more like a bird soaring into the sky when its cage is opened. Suddenly the endless concerns that had oppressed the mind are gone, allowing the free expression of inner potential. We are like weary marchers, carrying heavy bags filled with a combination of provisions and stones. Wouldn’t the smart thing be to set our bag down for a moment to sort it out and lighten our load?

How do we do this, Matthieu?

To [rid ourselves of dependency on the root causes of suffering], we first have to identify and recognize these causes and then become mindful of them in our daily life.

Like, say, training ourselves to catch the words and phrases that are unconsciously constructing a world that’s less pleasant and less encouraging of flowing and flourishing than it could be?

Renunciation, then, does not come down to saying no to all that is pleasant, to giving up strawberry ice cream or a nice hot shower after a long walk in the hills. It comes down to asking ourselves, with respect to certain aspects of our lives: ‘Is this going to make me happier?’ Genuine happiness – as opposed to contrived euphoria – endures through life’s ups and downs. To renounce is to have the daring and intelligence to scrutinize what we usually consider to be pleasures in order to determine if they really enhance our wellbeing.

And, because, as we saw in Idiot Money #41, this is all about brain-training, while it’s tough at first, like sawing a piece of wood, it only gets easier… though beware blindly jumping into ‘renunciation’ as just the next ‘answer’ cab off the rank.

Once you have sampled it, it becomes easier and easier. But there is no question of forcing oneself into renunciation, which would be doomed to failure. First you must clearly see its advantages and aspire to free yourself from that which you want to renounce. Once you’ve done that, renunciation is experienced as an act of liberation.

This last passage is reminiscent of someone at the opposite end of the compassionate spectrum to Ricard, Nassim Taleb: ‘You stand above the rat race and the pecking order, not outside of it, if you do so by choice.’ And of Bertie Russell, when he wrote: ‘There is, of course, no point in deliberately flouting public opinion; this is still to be under its domination, though in a topsy-turvy way. But to be genuinely indifferent to it is both a strength and a source of happiness.’

Next time, we’ll round this off by going one step deeper still, including how to use thinking about this to make more of your money by asking: if ‘The Buddha’ means ‘the awakened one’, what did he awake from?

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