I listened to a lecture on YouTube this morning that talked about Buddhism and money. Like politics and religion, money is a touchy subject that often divides people. If you want to make someone angry, here’s what you do: bring up one of the three preceding topics, then make some judgmental blanket statement such as “Republicans are all homophobes – due to their secret homosexual desires.” Or “All religions are just a crutch for people who can’t cope with real life.” Or “I love money, don’t you?” Then stand back and watch the feathers fly.
But, within spiritual communities, I’ve noticed two different schools of thought. One says (without coming right out and saying it) that you’re better if you have more money; it means that God or Spirit is smiling on you and you’re doing things right. Your thoughts and actions are “higher.” If you’re broke, you are doing something wrong, and we’re kind of embarrassed to have you here, to be honest, but stick around – there’s hope for you. The other mindset says (again, without saying it) that if you care about money, it’s probably because your spiritual life is lacking; you probably don’t meditate or pray, and you don’t know what’s really important in life. You’ve been deceived by the greed of this world, and you are interested in the wrong things. We’re kind of embarrassed to have you here, (except when we need money, of course, which you must fork over pronto, since this is the least you can do to save your old raggedy soul), but stick around – there’s hope for you.
The first mindset has a lot of adherents – this is America, after all. The New Age movement, bolstered by The Secret movie is most famous for it. But, long before The Secret, the prosperity gospel in Christianity was preaching the same things. And, even before the prosperity gospel, the Catholics and some Buddhist sects were selling salvation in various ways. And Jews, unfairly or not, have long been associated with money and greed.
On the other hand, the “God loves me more because I’m broke” idea is probably even more popular. Like sex, money has always been a source of guilt, shame, and fear among the “pure at heart.” It is a fact that both sex and money are powerful; but so is the ocean. If you don’t know what you’re doing, and even if you do know what you’re doing, it is easy to get in over your head. That’s why you should never go into the ocean alone.
Likewise, when it comes to money (and sex), it is good to be accountable to a person or a group. Neither wealth nor poverty is spiritual. Neither health nor illness is spiritual. Neither sex nor abstinence is spiritual. All of these are worldly conditions that will one day pass away when you do. There are certain guidelines that, if we follow them, will bring happiness in the midst of these things. For example, making sufficient money to have all the basics in life, along with leisure time, generosity, and savings, will make your time on earth more pleasant. But, whether one has a lot or a little money, it is good to be accountable to someone else, preferably a group, in order to fight the temptations that come with money.
That means being able to talk openly and honestly about one’s attitudes and habits regarding money. It is unhealthy that in most cultures, talking about money is taboo. Denial is not just a river in Egypt; and not talking about something doesn’t make it go away. Being accountable to your partner, a friend, or a group – especially a spiritual group – can make it easier to avoid the very real temptations that come with having, and not having, money.
Having a lot of money tempts one to be wasteful, greedy, paranoid, and arrogant. Having too little money tempts one to be thieving, stingy, stressed out, and jealous. Being middle class can tempt one in either direction, depending on one’s personality. Some are constantly striving for more – or, worse, trying to look like they have more. Some are perpetually terrified of losing what they have. Some feel superior and smug, and are always trying to remove poor people from their lives through gated communities, gentrification, and charter schools. Others despise the rich. They feel they are morally superior to the wealthy because their own lifestyles are merely “comfortable,” not extravagant.
None of this has anything to do with spirituality. Spirituality is about Love and putting the eternal over the temporal in importance. Everything in our lives, including money, is simply a reflection of our beliefs. For example, being healthy is the optimal state of being. But having a cold does not make you more or less spiritual than anyone else. If you always have a cold, perhaps there is some area in your life that is being neglected. Or maybe you have small children in daycare and frequent colds are just part of the deal! What matters is how you behave when you’re sick. Do you moan and complain? Do you secretly try and give it to others to bring them down? Or do you deal with it patiently, knowing that it is just a temporary condition, like everything else?
Same goes with money. If you’re broke, do you do your best to be generous where you can – perhaps with volunteer time, or a hug to a struggling friend, or sharing your lunch with someone who has even less? If you’re rich, do you think mindfully before you buy something? Are you able to give without ego rewards or strings attached? Do you really value and appreciate what you have instead of taking it all for granted? This is spirituality. The having or the having not is temporary and, in this day and age, constantly shifting. Though rare, it is possible to go from one financial condition to another almost overnight. But, wherever you go, you bring yourself with you. This is what matters when it comes to spiritual practice.
So, let us all do as the Bible says and “Seek first the Kingdom.” Let’s put the Eternal over the Temporary and experience true happiness. This is what I am striving to do in my life. I have had more and, currently, I have less. My goal is to keep smiling, regardless.
Peace and love,