How to ride the horse of money instead of it riding you
Talking about money can be as taboo as talking about sex. We all tend to maintain a certain secrecy about our relationship with money. We are likely to keep its darkest corners hidden even from ourselves. Nevertheless, money leaves a visible trail. As money flows in and out of our pockets, it follows the many patterns that make up our lives. Whether it’s small change or big paychecks, money mirrors back to us the most intimate knowledge of ourselves and those with whom we interact.
Imagine looking at your home as though through the eyes of an intruder: there is ample evidence of your personal priorities, attitudes and indulgences. Did your money go into books and degrees, clothing and furniture, CDs and sporting equipment? What is the quality and age of your belongings? Are there more pill bottles in the medicine cabinet than cans of food on the shelf? How is your closet arranged? What adorns the walls? What objects represent your values and well-being? What is hidden, what is displayed?
To begin an accurate assessment of ourselves, we need to identify our personal style of working with money: our attitudes, fears, desires, and most importantly, our personal deceptions. There is a certain amount of irony in this process, for despite all the emotional investment we’ve made in our livelihood and finances, we probably don’t have all that accurate a view. The irony is all the greater if we review some of the many different ways in which we apply a “businesslike mindset” to our everyday activities.
As we navigate through our day, we are constantly measuring and calculating. Each meal and snack has an invisible tally of calories and grams of fat. Each chore has a scorecard. This mindset influences our approach to the spiritual path as well. We rank our teachers by their accomplishments. We say that So-and-so spent seventeen years on retreat; So-and-so has established more than twenty practice centers all over the world. Our practice sessions are influenced by a similar mentality. We are forever bargaining with ourselves. We tell ourselves, “If I sit for three hours today, I can skip the next two days.”
The effect of this calculating watcher is a state of mind that is constantly comparing and measuring, thus furthering our sense of separation from the inherent richness of our world, and from spiritual teachings. This results in a mentality of poverty, a sense of incompleteness, inadequacy, and hunger. Buddhist writings describe this psychology as the realm of the hungry ghost, a state where everything that appears in one’s life is regarded as something to be consumed or collected.
The hungry ghost in all of us brings up a question: How much wealth should we possess? But the more important question may be: What constitutes wealth? The late Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche taught that the logic of wealth is based on one’s presence, on having a good “head and shoulders,” both literally and psychologically. Wealth is expressed through the qualities of basic dignity, confidence, and awareness - the full potential of one’s inherent “worth.” Being “rich” in this sense means projecting an “enriching” presence, which is not a matter of material extravagance but the possession of basic sanity and radiance.
This innate wealth is not something that we manufacture through practice, but rather something that is already present. The goal is to uncover what we already possess. Once this begins to happen, we are able to appreciate and enjoy the richness of the world, without forming the conditional attachments associated with an impoverished, measuring mind.
This principle of inherent wealth provides the basis or “ground” for the journey. Learning to tame and ride our wild horse of money is the essence of the “path.” But in order to successfully join our dharma teachings and practices with our everyday economic life, we need first to overcome the deeply embedded biases and habitual patterns that mark our day-to-day relationship with dollars and cents. Traditionally, Buddhism identifies these root biases as the kleshas, conflicting emotions of pride, jealousy, anger, passion and ignorance.
The Shambhala teachings of Trungpa Rinpoche describe these biases as two poles of emotional energy: fear and hope. Fear is the basic anxiety that creates separation and fixation. Fear keeps us bound to the past, to our cozy, habitual way of doing things. For example, we may have developed a lazy habit of not balancing our checkbook regularly. But at the root of this neglect, there is probably a deeper level of anxiety about what we might see, a fear of looking in the most ordinary mirror of our bank balances. Rather than face the immediate reality of being overdrawn, we postpone the pain until a much uglier situation forces us to pay attention at a later date.
The other pole of emotional energy, hope, is a more subtle force in our lives and is related to our personal desires, ambitions, and attachments. While fear keeps us bound to the past, “hope” seduces us into solidifying our future. For example, people who earn their living in sales positions often end up spending money long before the deal is completed. The slightest prospect of a windfall can cause wild speculations about future possibilities. Whenever we have our resources invested in a situation, even a tiny bit of confirmation can cause a disproportionate response due to our hope for success. We may have just begun a part-time job (one for which we still lack skills), but simply because the situation is new and fresh, our minds leap ahead, and we dream about the benefits of this great new occupation we’ve discovered. How many projects or new jobs have failed to ripen due to these deceptive and paralyzing expectations?
Fear and hope create a series of ruts and ravines in the terrain of our makeup. The effect of these energies on us is such that, even if we are blessed with a downpour of new resources, the fresh rainfall will follow the same old routes embedded in the landscape. Creating a new landscape for our resources, one that is not worn and ravaged by old patterns of fear and hope, requires us to dig deeply into the bedrock of our habitual thoughts and actions. To help accomplish this, we need to draw a detailed map of our personal economic landscape, which is done by reconstructing our financial history.
The initial exercise you should undertake is to evaluate the net worth of your belongings. This is done by first making a list of major possessions and assets - your house and car, or your bicycle and TV set, or your life insurance policy - and determining their value (if you“had”to sell them). Next, make a list of all of your liabilities: all of your debts and unpaid obligations. After subtracting your debts from the resale value of your possessions, you have a dollar value for your tangible assets. This simple exercise provides us with a realistic, undeniable starting point: we are worth this particular amount of money.
The next exercise is to analyze the flow of your income and expenses over a period of one or several years. This is done by first listing all of your income and then reconstructing where all that money went. This can be accomplished rather quickly by approximating your average monthly expenses, including as many categories as possible, from dry cleaning to housing costs.