Meditation on Money: Becoming the Wolf at the Door

My wife and I are finally having to face up to the fact that we really haven’t done such a great job of handling our money over the last 10 years.

comingbackWhen we started out, we were just poor graduate students. We were fortunate in that we didn’t have much debt, but on the other hand, our incomes weren’t anything to brag of either. After we left school, and entered the “real” world, our income rose quickly, but unfortunately, for one reason and another, our debt rose as well. Now our income is well above the national average, but the six of us live in a cramped little apartment because of our debt.

Why did this happen? There are two ways to answer the question. From a material-world, proximate-cause standpoint, we made some uninformed decisions and some bad bets. Specifically, we bought a house that was too expensive for us, spent too much money trying to fix it up, took too long to sell it, and lost money on the sale. But, to be honest, I don’t think that’s the whole story. For a long time now, we’ve had a very good income, but simply have not been able to make ends meet. To me, this indicates a deeper problem with money, a subconscious problem that manifests as an inability to spend or save appropriately.

Last week I did a meditation to try to find what the root of the problem was, and see if I could dig it out.

As I counted myself down into the meditative state, I found myself crouching under a birch tree in a snowy wood. It was very cold, and the air was still. At first I thought I was alone, but as I went deeper into the meditation I realized something was behind me.

I turned and saw a wolf. It was extremely large and extremely close — I could have reached out and stroked its fur. In fact, I found myself very much wanting to do this, because its fur was thick and lovely, streaked with grey and white. But I wasn’t keen to get mauled if I could help it, even if this was just a meditation.

The wolf wasn’t looking at me. It was simply standing, staring into the trees, and breathing heavily, as if it had just been running. Around its neck was a halter of some sort, torn to shreds. I began to wonder if this was really a wolf, or instead a very large, half-wild dog that had just broken free.

Either way it was fantasically beautiful. The grey and white of its coat seemed to melt into the snow at its feet, and its open panting mouth was a brilliant blood red.

That was it — that was all the imagery I was going to get. I had no idea what it meant, but I knew that as long as I was still in the meditative state, I could “ask” myself what elements of the imagery represented, and get some good hints. I asked myself, what is this wolf? And I realized it was myself. What, then, was the halter? The halter was money.

Money? I thought. That can’t be right. How is money a halter? Money doesn’t hold you back, it gives you freedom. Right?

Right? But I knew even as I thought this that there was a knot of conflict there.

I was brought up Buddhist; and one of the core values of Buddhism is that money, along with everything else in the material world, is a distraction and a temptation to attachment. This attitude about money — that money is a dangerous tempration and is best avoided — isn’t just confined to Buddhism, of course. While I’m not Buddhist now, I found that the distaste for the idea of gobs of money was still there inside me. There it was, still engraved in my heart: money is a halter that ties you to the material, that brings attachment, and hence suffering.

On top of that, I found fear associated with money, as well. After all, if the universe entrusts you with a pile of money, you can’t just sit on it. Money in the modern world represents accumulated, generalized resources. It’s not really dollars; it’s actually the energy of burned petroleum, the potential livelihoods and homes on a piece of land, the sweat and ingenuity of past generations, compressed into currency. The unused land and its resources, the unused power of the sun, and the unused toil of our ancestors is represented by money in our society. When you have money, you don’t just have access to those resources; you have a terrible responsibility to use them reverentially and wisely.

And it was that responsibility that was the other half of that wolf’s halter. I realized I didn’t want a lot of money because I was afraid of the responsibility that came with it.

But of course, debt is just as great a halter. Without money, your hands are tied — at least when it comes to providing for your children, charity and good works, and freedom from want. Debt constricts you even more than money does.

Even as I thought that, I could almost hear the Buddha’s answer. Yes, but these things money can buy you — they are delusional attachments as well. Providing material things for your children, providing charity, and so on — that isn’t providing them with true riches. Money cannot give the things that are truly important.

So maybe, I thought, it was wrong to want money. Maybe I should congratulate myself on being in debt, because it freed me from the attachments that money creates. Maybe I should focus my efforts on being satisfied with what I had, rather than trying to get more. Yes, we are squeezed into a little apartment, and the kids don’t really have a safe, clean yard to play in, and we’re not as self-sufficient as we could be if we had our own gardens, but is that stuff really important…?

But that answer felt wrong, too. I saw again how beautiful the wolf was. Back to the metaphor: should this magnificent animal be satisfied or grateful for a halter? Of course not! It is in the wolf’s nature to be wild and free. To be sure, sometimes that causes pain — in itself and others — but at that moment the pain seemed trivial in comparison with the loveliness of the wolf and the fire of its spirit. And so I could turn the metaphor back on myself: it was in my nature to be free. Yes, I would make mistakes, and yes, I might get too attached to money, and yes, I may sometimes bring myself or others to grief through a misuse of my freedom; but these what-if’s and might-be’s are no reason to bind myself to fear. Doing that would stunt me in ways that would cause more harm to all in the long run.

I know I haven’t purged myself of this fear yet, but it’s happening. Fears have a way of dissolving when they’re found out, like a patch of snow that’s been hiding in the shadow of a tree all morning, and melts away when the sun peeks round in the afternoon.

Comments

  1. Money is an interesting thing. From a practical perspective, I see money as a tool created by man to facilitate trade. It’s admittedly powerful tool, but a tool none the less. And, just like any tool, a chainsaw for example, it can be used correctly or incorrectly. You need to understand its purpose and limitations in order to use it most efficiently.

    From a more abstract perspective, I see money as a manifestation of opportunity in the material world. Regardless of where we want to end up eventually, we’re stuck in the material world for the time being. Money is one tool we can use to accumulate, consolidate, and focus opportunity for purposes of our choosing while here.

    I not sure if that helps or not, but I hope it does.

  2. I hear ya Jeff. I declared bankruptcy back in 2001. I had gotten myself into a lot of credit card debt as a teenager, which, years later after health problems and losing my job, I could no longer pay.

    I am fanatically thrifty now.

  3. Jeff Lilly says:

    Thanks, Kay and Soul. I’ve heard people say that declaring bankruptcy was a very hard step, but ultimately liberating. I don’t think we’re at that point (yet) — our income is finally greater than our outgo — but it will be a long climb out… And in the meantime, it’s our children who will suffer the most for our mistakes. (Ouch!)

  4. You’re talking about one of my least-favorite things in the world here, that being money. It’s not because of the responsibility issue that I detest it so much, it’s because it’s used so often as a means of control. Every dollar you have in your wallet is government property, a promissory note supposedly leading back to gold most of us will never see. We can still use this money to buy things…which can in turn just as easily be taken from us. I tend not to see money as a symbol of what a person owns, but rather a symbol of how much a person is owned. As you point out, when you have gobs of money, you are expected to turn it right back out…you are expected to move into a home that reflects your money-earning, buy all the ‘stuff’ that one would expect someone of your station to buy. I long for the day when we figure out how to make a money-less society work, like they have in Star Trek. Until then, I keep in mind the words from Havamal (stanza 78, Hollander translation), said to be advice from Odin himself, who is associated quite often with wolves:

    A full-stocked farm had some farmer’s sons.
    Now they stoop at the beggar’s staff;
    in a twinkling fleeth trothless wealth,
    it is the ficklest of friends.

    I hope you and your wife figure your way out of your money stretch, and hope that the next time you see the wolf in your meditations, he’s without his harness and bringing fresh meat to his pack 🙂

  5. Jeff Lilly says:

    Thanks, Bernulf!

    My understanding — and maybe you can correct me — is that, in northern Europe back in the days when there was no money, a rich lord was expected to provide freely for his followers — to entertain them regularly at his hall, for example. This, I think, is a good use of wealth: giving it back, in measure. After all, there’s really no such thing as a truly self-made man.

    And I need to check out that Hollander translation. I have a very nice prose version, but — you know — it’s prose. Does Hollander try to follow something like the original poetic form?

  6. No problem, Jeff 😉

    The Hollander translation tries to maintain the poetic form, but in so doing sacrifices precision of word. For me, it’s still the best translation of the Eddas as I prefer to have a greater sense of the poetry involved. For a more precise translation, and it’s the translation I will most often refer to online (since I’ve not found the Hollander translation available anywhere online), I recommend the Bellows translation, found at the Sacred Text Archive.

    Chieftains, war leaders, and kings were definitely expected to spread the wealth…but each in different ways. When returning from war, a war leader (be he king, chieftain, or freebooting mercenary captain) was expected to share in the spoils of the expeditions with his warriors…a phrase common to this would be ‘ring-giver’, and the fact that Odin has an arm ring (Draupnir) that reproduces itself eight times every nine days is a sign of his greatness in his war god aspect (although I tend to see it as a fertility symbol, as well).

    Kings and chieftains at home were expected to provide wealth in other ways, too. Peace, fertility of land and people, connection to the gods, and even entertainment were expected. Here, the gods Njord and Freyr would be good examples. Njord is said to be so wealthy that he can bestow wealth on any who ask it of him…the source of this wealth is the bounty of the sea, and the fertility of the coastal areas. Freyr, Njord’s son who is often thought to be one and the same with the legendary King Frodhi, is also known for bestowal of fertility and peace as forms of wealth.

    The chieftain or king’s luck was also to be shared – it’s part of the reason why unlucky leaders didn’t last too long, because no one wanted to be bound by bad luck. This lasted into the time when coins were being struck by Norse kings … and seems to have disappeared around the time these kings became Christian.

  7. Jeff Lilly says:

    Bernulf, some random thoughts…
    * Thanks for the link to the Bellows translation; I will definitely check it out.
    * Eight times in nine days. There is no way that those numbers are random. Are there any theories as to why that’s the pattern? It’s not the moon or the sun, it’s not the female cycle…?
    * I vaguely remember reading about King Frodhi, and wondering about the source of the name, and wondering if Tolkien had been inspired by it.
    * The kings in Celtic lands were similarly honor-bound. The king was expected to provide wealth, protection, and entertainment. A king who didn’t provide these things could be freely deposed. The king was the embodiment of the land itself; so much so that a handicapped man, for example, was thought unfit to rule.

  8. The pattern basically brought the number to nine every ninth morning (the original arm ring, plus the eight it reproduced). Other numbers, like three, eight, twelve and thirteen are significant to Heathens; but nine is the holiest of numbers. Nine days and nights hung Odin on Yggdrasil, nine is the number of worlds in our cosmology, the god Heimdallr was born from nine mothers … as a symbol of renewal, this number would certainly suit Draupnir. Beyond that, I could only speculate as to patterns or whether or not all eight new rings appear on the same morning, or if it’s one ring per day … or if the reproductions of Draupnir maintain Draupnir’s magical ability.

    And I think you’re right – Tolkien was heavily inspired by Germanic lore, and ‘Frodo’ is a form or variant of ‘Frodhi’ … it’s also the name for one of our cats (Calleigh is the other) 🙂

  9. I like your describtion of meditating on this topic, it gives me the tools to try the same thing myself. Although last week, when I tried to meditate and speak to my guides about writing my blog (as you did when you met Apollo)… I wasn’t able to connect with anybody… I feel like I have a block when it comes to visualising a meditation, but I’ll keep working on it and your blogs are highly motivating in this respect.

    You outline some very common blocks to money that we ‘lightworkers’ have… it’s difficult to feel good and attracting money when you think about all those who have so little, and the cost to the planet of generating that wealth…

    But money IS power and freedom, adn can also be used to do great good.

    Much joy,
    Kara-Leah

  10. Jeff Lilly says:

    Kara-Leah, it’s wonderful to hear that you’ve found my posts inspiring. I’m seriously considering providing some podcasts of guided meditations, to help people connect with gods and guides the same way I have; there seems to be a lot of interest in that. Is that something you’d be interested in, yourself?

    I’ve done some further meditating on money, this time with Cernunnos as my guide, and I’ll be posting on that soon.

  11. Wow such a great meditation. I do believe what the Budhist say the money is just Material things, but how can we live without money ? thank you for your blog.

    Janie

  12. Janie, it’s very true — it’s hard to live without money. 🙂 It’s been about six years since I wrote this post, and monetarily I’m in a much better place now. While I agree that money is material things, but I don’t think that means it’s valueless. I am a Druid, not Buddhist, and I think the material world is of value, in the same way that a beautiful painting is of value. I think that learning to work with money, to accumulate it and use it in an ethical way, is a tremendous challenge, but not an insurmountable one.

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