Money and Meditation
Writings | Life

A question that has long drawn my attention appears at first glance to be quite simple: what is money? I’ve come to the feel that it is a collective thought.

Let’s turn to meditation for a moment. When we sit in meditation, resting the attention with the breath, thoughts come up. Sometimes when they arise, they just disappear without disturbing the attention. Sometimes when they arise, we are distracted and begin to think. Thoughts bounce off each other and we stay in this distracted state for a period of time until it dissipates: “Oh, I’m meant to be meditating!” and we return attention to the breath.

There is a crucial difference between resting with the breath and engaging a thinking process. In the former, we know, without thinking, that we are resting with the breath. In other words, we are mindful. In the latter case, we are not aware that we are thinking until after the distraction has dissipated. In other words, the mind is less clear when we are thinking.

Let’s return to money. As a collective thought, it has a great deal of power.

Consider the involving allure of advertising and store displays. When we are caught up by thought, we lose awareness, we become confused. We could say quite reasonably that we lose touch with ourselves. In this confused state, our habitual patterns have a great deal of power, for there is no strength in our attention or mindfulness and we tend to be reactive and go with whatever impulse arises. This is exactly the kind of confused, reactive state that advertising and store displays are intended to cultivate. As an exercise, try watching a television commercial mindfully or go into a favorite store and experience how it is set up with full mindfulness: the music, the background colors, the items for sale. It’s an interesting experience and makes us much more aware of how much effort is being expended to encourage us to slip into a distracted, reactive state where our conditioned patterns determine our behavior.

Increasingly, money has become the only medium for exchange between people in our culture. The human part of us resists this as we feel that there is more than simply financial value in our interactions. But money is now used to determine the value of time, the value of any material article, the value of culture, the value of social programs, etc. It is this seeming willingness to measure every aspect of life in money that indicates the true extent to which we have engaged this collective thought.

What do we do? The answer, for me, seems to lie in the direction of becoming more mindful (have we heard that word before?) of the role money plays in our lives, to take money much more seriously than we do now. This is the theme of Jacob Needleman’s book Money and the Meaning of Life. He argues strongly that we need to cultivate a deeper awareness to free ourselves from the dull state that this collective thought projects us into. David Bohm echoes similar ideas and urges the use of awareness to cultivate a sense of what is valuable and significant to us that is not measured in monetary terms. Finally, David Loy in a wonderful little essay entitled “Buddhism and Money” notes, “…money has become modern man’s most popular way of accumulating Being, of coping with our gnawing intuition that we don’t really exist.”

The phrase “we don’t really exist” probably needs some explanation. When we ask ourselves, “What am I?” the first moment brings us a total unknowing that we usually quickly retreat from or repress. Our apparent willingness to define every aspect of human experience in terms of money can be regarded as the inevitable result of that repression. But that seeming unknowing is exactly where the awareness that is the core of our being lies. The perspectives and tools of Buddhism instead attempt to bring us to embrace that intuition with full awareness and thus awaken to an experience of the world that is not defined in terms of thought of any kind.