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.
When 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.
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