I Got Soul
Updated: Nov 17
After skidding on a patch of ice in the winter of 2016, I totaled my Cobalt. That week, I purchased a 2012 Kia Soul for $8,000. It was the least expensive car on the lot. I usually pay cash for cars, but as the accident was unexpected, I hadn't saved enough. Still, the monthly loan payments were less than my phone bill. I paid it off early. The car note was the last of my debt, save for the mortgage on my duplex- which was paying for itself.
I've gotten a lot of value from that car. It's reliable and gets me where I need to go. There are 165,000 miles on the odometer; I haven't had any serious mechanical issues to date. I was able to squeeze half my home gym into the Soul piecemeal.
I also hauled most of the building materials I needed to remodel a bathroom and 3 bedrooms in it. All of which is to say, it's met my needs. It's got scratches and dings, but I'm keeping it for as long as possible.
Talks on mindfulness usually steer clear of money. Yet, money is often at the root of many of our distresses. Many on the "path" use spirituality to bypass unresolved issues. A true mindfulness practice takes reality as it is and faces hard truths with ruthless honesty, radical accountability, humility, compassion, and courage. I'm an educator. I don't make much. I act my wage. I grew up in the ghetto. My father did not leave us an inheritance. The only financial advice he gave me was to maintain good credit. That's my truth. I learned that if I'm honest and frugal, I can live authentically and below my means; I can save and invest.
My mindfulness practice addresses money squarely. When I drop into stillness, I am content and whole. Peace is an inside job; love is an inside job; happiness is an inside job. It isn't sold at the market. You won't find it on a shelf, a rack, or in a lot. Look outside of yourself and you become like the fabled musk deer who wanders the world in search of a perfume coming from within. If I live in this way, I am vulnerable; I entrust my well-being to the direction of blind guides or unscrupulous charlatans who seek to "make merchandise of [me]." (2 Peter 2:3)
My approach to money was heavily influenced by Joe Dominguez, a financial analyst who retired at age 31. He formulated a strategy and shared his formula in a book:
Your Money or Your Life. It was originally published in 1992. The book would become a primer for Millennials seeking financial independence and early retirement (FIRE movement).
Financial literacy is requisite for financial freedom. To be financially literate demands not only an understanding of money but of one’s values and desires. Our values inform our choices. To understand what we truly value, we must look within and examine the needs behind the desires.
Money, he wrote, is an abstraction, mere paper with an agreed-upon value. Money is something we earn in exchange for something else. That something is our very life, the energy that animates it, and the time that constrains it. “When we go to our jobs, we are exchanging our life energy for money.”
So how much are we earning for our life energy? If we calculate the amount we earn by hours worked, we’d have an hourly wage. This hourly wage is not our true wage, it's a useful starting point. If we tally the hours it takes for us to prepare for work, commute, and decompress, we discover that we're earning less than our purported wage. When we subtract the money we spend on clothes, meals, transportation, vacations, child care, and the costs for outsourcing work we might have done if we had time- like washing our cars, enjoying the morning with our toddlers, or attending to our elderly parents, we get our true hourly wage. This figure is what we work with.
“Money is simply something you trade life energy for.” When we consume, as we have been encouraged to do by those whose interests are advanced when we accept their frame, we exchange our energy, or life force, for their products and services. To the degree that we respect our money, we respect our life energy. For many, there is a great disconnect. They treat their money and life energy with a cavalier disregard. They consume mindlessly. Many "spiritual" people spend hours visualizing the abundance they hope to attract, but less time budgeting, saving, or investing.
“The fact that you may spend, let's say, 88 pieces of paper on magazines does not have any direct relevance to your experience of life. However, remembering that money is something you trade life energy for, you can now translate that $88 into something that is real for you — your life energy. ... Now you can measure your growing pile of all the wonderful (yet unread) magazines in your bathroom against something real — 22 unredeemable hours on your one-way journey from cradle to grave. Those magazines may drain your energy three times over: once in earning the money to buy them, again in staying up late to read them, and finally in feeling guilty when you haven't finished them by the time the next issue arrives (to say nothing of having to store or dispose of them). ... Notice that translating dollars into hours of your life reveals the real trade-offs you are making for your style of living.”
To have a more fulfilling life, we identify and align our work and consumption with our values. Fulfillment and satisfaction from consumption should be proportional to life energy spent. It comes down to choices. I choose independence over hedonism. I choose self-respect over public approval. I chose honesty over pretense. I choose planning over magical thinking and radical responsibility over mindless consumption. I choose simplicity over clutter. I would rather save and grow what I earn than hand the fruits of my labor to others.
That's what my Soul represents. I am willing to work a few months in exchange for the freedom a car provides, but not more. While I could afford a newer car, I choose not to. My Soul gets me from A to B. I don't need a shinier vehicle to impress you on my way to B. I'm not willing to put in the extra hours to buy the favorable opinions of others. I respect the time and engineering and resources that went into building the Soul. I show respect by maintaining it. Preventive maintenance is cheaper than getting another car. I'd rather spend my time and life energy kayaking, cooking, educating my children, making music or traveling the country shooting meditation videos.
Dominguez changed how I approach spending. I don't look at the price of an item, I calculate the exchange. I am willing to work an hour or two for a new pair of shoes or a shirt. I'll work a day or more to feed my music addiction or for a supplement that improves my health or sleep. I'll work a week in exchange for a week of travel. I won't work 160 hours (a month's time) for shoes with a brand logo stitched on the side or for some package that promises to relax or center me. I can do that on my own. I definitely don't want to work years to pay off a car, a house or even a degree that wouldn't pay for itself. I don't need the TV or cable package (I watch my own inner drama); I don't need the expensive gym membership (got my home gym for free) and had my employer comp my gym membership. I don't need new furniture (most of what I own was given). I don't need a kitchen remodel (but I do enjoy working with my hands and build for the pleasure of it).
Mindfulness practice takes us still deeper. Vietnamese Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh addresses consumption regularly in his teachings. Monastics who follow his teachings observe 14 precepts. Several precepts address consumption:
The Fourth Mindfulness Training: Awareness of Suffering
Aware that looking deeply at the nature of suffering can help us develop understanding and compassion, we are determined to come home to ourselves, to recognize, accept, embrace and listen to our own suffering with the energy of mindfulness. We will do our best not to run away from our suffering or cover it up through consumption, but practice conscious breathing and walking to look deeply into the roots of our suffering. We know we can realize the path leading to the transformation of suffering only when we understand deeply the roots of suffering. Once we have understood our own suffering, we will be able to understand the suffering of others.
The Fifth Mindfulness Training: Compassionate, Healthy Living
Aware that true happiness is rooted in peace, solidity, freedom, and compassion, we are determined not to accumulate wealth while millions are hungry and dying nor to take as the aim of our life fame, power, wealth, or sensual pleasure, which can bring much suffering and despair. We will practice looking deeply into how we nourish our body and mind with edible foods, sense impressions, volition, and consciousness. We are committed not to gamble or to use alcohol, drugs, or any other products which bring toxins into our own and the collective body and consciousness such as certain websites, electronic games, music, TV programs, films, magazines, books, and conversations. We will consume in a way that preserves compassion, wellbeing, and joy in our bodies and consciousness and in the collective body and consciousness of our families, our society, and the earth.
The Seventh Mindfulness Training: Dwelling Happily in the Present Moment
Aware that life is available only in the present moment, we are committed to training ourselves to live deeply each moment of daily life. We will try not to lose ourselves in dispersion... We are aware that real happiness depends primarily on our mental attitude and not on external conditions, and that we can live happily in the present moment simply by remembering that we already have more than enough conditions to be happy.
The Eleventh Mindfulness Training: Right Livelihood
Aware that great violence and injustice have been done to our environment and society, we are committed not to live with a vocation that is harmful to humans and nature. We will do our best to select a livelihood that contributes to the wellbeing of all species on earth and helps realize our ideal of understanding and compassion. Aware of economic, political, and social realities around the world, as well as our interrelationship with the ecosystem, we are determined to behave responsibly as consumers and as citizens. We will not invest in or purchase from companies that contribute to the depletion of natural resources, harm the earth, or deprive others of their chance to live.
The Thirteenth Mindfulness Training: Generosity
Aware of the suffering caused by exploitation, social injustice, stealing, and oppression, we are committed to cultivating generosity in our way of thinking, speaking, and acting... We will respect the property of others but will try to prevent others from profiting from human suffering or the suffering of other beings.
Living mindfully takes conscious effort. Yet, I've found that by adhering to these principles, my practice has deepened AND I am much better off financially. I live simply. I have no debt. My children attend good schools. Their needs are met. I save and invest. My investments are aligned with my values. My assets are appreciating. "Be frugal and free," wrote Benjamin Franklin. The advice is still sound.
I am content with what I have and own more than I need. There is still more cutting to do, more letting go, more decluttering. Mine is a simple life, a counterpoint to the modern-day American way of life, but I also don't suffer the pathologies, the anxieties, the stresses, or the insecurities common to those who follow social norms. My needs for purpose and meaning, authenticity and integrity, peace and stability are cultivated within and satisfied.