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Mindfulness in a Material World

There are strong emotions and beliefs around money, but the idea that mindfulness and money are incompatible simply isn’t true.

I recently interviewed Michael Keet about his book, Moneyfulness, and there was a quote at the beginning of the book that really struck me.

Leadership expert John C. Maxwell said, “When it comes to money, you can’t win. If you focus on making it, you’re materialistic. If you try to but don’t make any money, you’re a loser. If you make a lot and keep it, you’re a miser. If you make it and spend it, you’re a spendthrift. If you don’t care about making it, you’re unambitious. If you make a lot and still have it when you die, you’re a fool – for trying to take it with you. The only way to really win with money is to hold it loosely – and be generous with it to accomplish things of value.”

I also recently participated in a meeting with fellow mindfulness meditation facilitators where we were asked a challenge question: “What if your job is an attorney and your purpose is to argue and win cases. You’re not being paid to be non-judgmental and kind, so how does mindfulness play into this situation?

What both of these incidents brought to mind was how confused we are about money, career and success. Somewhere in time, we seem to have decided that you can’t be a good person and still enjoy material wealth. If you look at the statistics, teachers, nurses, caretakers, and nonprofit employees are paid lower than their counterparts in the corporate world. The very services that provide the much-needed support society needs are the most under-valued when it comes to pay. The expectation is that wealth doesn’t match good intentions.

That made me wonder, since mindfulness is based on Buddhist traditions, what the attitude about money is in the practice of Buddhism. It turns out, owning wealth is not seen as an issue for Buddhists, but they do believe it can cause dukkha if it is the focus of greed and gained through exploitation. Dukkha is a Pali word most often translated as pain, suffering, stress or disease. In case you’re not familiar, the Buddha was a wealthy prince living a life of high luxury before he joined the ascetics and experienced extreme denial and poverty, even to the point of starvation. He realized that neither of these states worked for him and developed the middle way, living in between denial and self-indulgence.

Buddhism teaches that this middle way or moderation could reduce the economic inequality that exists globally and avoid the problems of poverty. But as for wealth itself, it’s not about how much you own, but about how you made it and what you do with it. Wealth is seen as a great opportunity for generosity in Buddhism, which benefits both the recipient and the giver. This is known as intentional action or karma.

Think about how you feel about money in general. A lot of people don’t like to do that. Money, whether having too little, making too much, or fearing losing it generates more stress for people than almost any other life factor. That leads many to simply avoid focusing on it. If we’re poor, we harshly judge the rich and if we’re rich, we harshly judge the poor. As we have moved from being citizens of countries to consumers in countries, we seem to have shifted more towards spending money than saving it. The statistics are pretty shocking in the US when it comes to savings and retirement accounts and debt has never been higher.

In capitalistic societies, everything is for sale, from our personal information to a gazillion products to a brand name to a human organ to a photo of a piece of art. And as I discussed recently in a podcast on success, a lot of people identify success based on money. While I have to accept that this is simply how capitalism works, it brings up important questions about our own identities, lifestyles and behaviors, and of course, how we can be mindful in such a materialistic world.

The interesting fact about money is that it actually has no real value of its own. It’s an unspoken agreement that we all simply accept. With all of the kerfuffle over cryptocurrency not being real because there’s no exchange of physical money, in fact, those paper bills we exchange also have nothing backing them up. We don’t have trillions of dollars in gold bars sitting a vault somewhere that equals the amount of currency being exchanged every second of every day. The gold standard was abandoned by the US back in 1963. Now money is just specially printed paper, period.

So the value of money is really in what it can be used for and our intentions, ethics and morals in how we make it. But that’s where all of the judgment comes in because intentions, ethics and morals are completely subjective. This circles back to the mindfulness challenge question, which pretty much implies that an attorney can’t be mindful because of how he or she is making a living. But I don’t think that is true. My answer was that an attorney could be practicing mindfulness by staying aware of what is happening in the courtroom, actively listening to what is being said, by being compassionate toward the client and defending someone who could have been treated unjustly. Of course, there are self-indulgent attorneys, too, just as with any field of work and career. The point is, however, that we each need to decide for ourselves what we value in both the earning of money and the spending of it.

Sounds simple enough, but it’s really not easy. I wouldn’t feel good if I knew that the shirt I was wearing was made through forced child labor in another country, for example, but most of the time, we don’t know where our stuff comes from or who made it. And even if we did, we don’t typically know the story of the people who make stuff or provide services. If I judge the scam caller who keeps wasting my time and energy as being immoral by making a living that way, I’m assuming I know that this person is intentionally trying to cause harm. But what if it’s the only job this person could find, and he or she needs to feed their family? This clearly provides us with an excellent opportunity to practice nonjudgment and strengthen our mindfulness skills.

The definitions of materialism are the tendency to consider material possessions and physical comfort as more important than spiritual values and the philosophy that nothing exists except matter and its movements and modifications. I don’t believe either of those, but that doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy material things. I think for me, what I purchase or how much money I save or give away is guided by my values and as long as I remember to consider my values before making a decision, I’ll probably live along the Buddha’s middle way, in both how I earn and how I spend. That includes in my business as well as my personal life and I just had a dilemma along these lines last week.

We have been blessed to have enough listeners to qualify for advertising. Just that sentence disturbs me, but again, we live in a capitalistic society, and it costs money to produce the podcast, so any good business person would take advantage of generating at least a little bit of income to offset the costs. I am not a fan of ads anywhere, so it was something I postponed for a long time, but finally gave in to. The most common way advertising works with podcasts is that the host platform drops in ads based on category criteria you give them, like health and fitness, education, and similar themes in our case. As I’m discovering the hard way, what they consider under these categories differs from my definitions, and they make mistakes. We’ve had a penis-enlargement ad, a beer ad and most recently, a Colorado Lottery ad dropped into the show by mistake. As if the disruptive ads aren’t bad enough, promoting products that are completely out of alignment with mindfulness is really, really upsetting. So I had to make a tough decision. Drop the ads.

This is an example of making choices when it comes to money and mindfulness. Yes, I need the income, but I’m not willing to give up the integrity of the mindfulness message, or basically sell out, just to make a buck. I recognize that I’m also privileged to be able to make that choice because not everyone can. I will seek other options or opportunities, but in the meantime, I’ll just have to make do. I know you don’t like ads either and I thank you in advance for your patience, as there are some contractual issues involved here, so it may take a while, but the drop in ads will stop soon.

There’s always a trade off for all of us. When as a country we decided to stop all oil imports from Russia because of their attack on Ukraine, many US citizens applauded the decision. Now that gasoline is $6.12 a gallon here in California, I suspect some people are reconsidering their values. When we demand high quality at a reasonable price, we’re don’t typically spend a lot of time worrying about how that is accomplished. Until millions of baby formula shelves are empty. We may take a job that pays the highest amount of money, only to discover that we’re not proud of what we’re actually doing for a living. We may aim for something noble as a career, only to discover we can’t pay our bills.

When it comes to material goods and the way our world works, mindfulness may look like considering whether a purchase has an environmental impact, reflection on why we want to make the purchase or thinking about where the product is made or who made it. It might also include gratitude for the person who made it or provided a service. If we are able to build wealth, mindfulness may include what we can contribute back to our communities or those less privileged.

Likewise with how we make our money. Consider whether the way you make a living is in line with your values and ethics. If not, is there anything you can do about it? Can you do it with more compassion, for example? More consideration of others? If it’s causing people harm, but you really can’t give it up, can you start working toward changing jobs in the future through study or volunteer work?

I think the most important aspect to our relationship with materialism, including money, is that our past experiences, religion, culture, family history and more all come into play and makes our perspectives quite unique. The only thing that could be said universally is that it might be more mindful to look into our own hearts and homes and businesses instead of judging others as we consider which intentional actions to take. Money isn’t real on its own, it’s our use of it that impacts the world. So again, as John C. Maxwell said,” …the only way to really win with money is to hold it loosely – and be generous with it to accomplish things of value.”

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