Updated: May 20, 2022
Mindfulness and money do not often appear together in discourses. Many use meditation to avoid examining their relationships with money. John Welwood called it spiritual bypassing. True mindfulness, however, excludes nothing- certainly nothing so deserving of our attention as money, an abstraction which points to the root of so much suffering, but is not the root itself.
When I began my teaching career in South Central, Los Angeles, it seemed ironic to me that economics was not being taught in public schools. Economics was deserving of my students’ attention and study. But the only school in the ghetto issuing diplomas was the School of Hard Knox. My students were not being taught “the game” or the rules of the game. The game was capitalism. And after the collapse of the Soviet Empire and the failure of centrally planned economies, capitalism remained the only game in town. What existed were variations on the theme: laissez-faire, mixed markets, state capitalism, and capitalism with Chinese characteristics.
Millions of poor children were dependents of the state. Most aspired to be successful and independent. There was an entrepreneurial spirit in the inner cities, but it was largely self-taught and untrained. We respected the game and the hustle. Even perverse forms of this entrepreneurial spirit -drug dealing- were tolerated in the hood. It was capitalism with ghetto characteristics.
For many kids, their role models were the athletes and hip hop artists who leveraged whatever talents they were given. They were our Horatio Algers. Their rags to riches stories resonated in the ‘hood. The hip hop artists created wealth out of wisps of thought and words set to rhyme. Some leveraged their riches to become investors and entrepreneurs. These were the ones whose headphones sold for a premium at Best Buy and whose clothing lines sold on racks at Macy’s. The savvy ones bought franchises and real estate and diversified their portfolios. To the children, they embodied the American Dream.
America was the child of two ideas: democracy and capitalism. Democracy and capitalism were Anglo-Saxon ideas predicated on illusions of freedom. “Capitalism,” wrote Nobel Laureate Milton Friedman, was “a necessary condition for political freedom.” But this “freedom” was limited.
Democracy freed the common man of European descent- itching to be free from the heavy yolk of feudalism- from the fetters of rank and class. Within the ranks of the poor and dispossessed were inventors, innovators, creators, men and women of genius and native intelligence. They were free to charter their own course and to define for themselves who they wanted to be. Capitalism gave them economic freedom and the ability to unleash their creativity and to use their talents to create wealth.
From the beginning, however, capitalism and democracy were exclusive. Capitalism did not free Africans from the fetters of rank and class, but locked them in chains and traded them like chattel in the marketplace. Their descendants were shackled to the lowest ranks of America’s underclass. Native people were not freed from government intrusion, but persecuted by soldiers, their lands seized and privatized by the government, the tribe corralled into reservations. Immigrants were exploited for their labor. Whole nations became banana republics, colonies, or puppet states to supply capitalism with markets, capital, and raw materials to feed the juggernaut.
All of my pupils were the descendants of these conquered peoples.
It seemed imperative to teach economics. The struggle for their generation, I thought at the time, would not be civil rights, but silver rights, as financial literacy activist John Bryant Hope had written. For when the dispossessed were allowed to participate in the marketplace, they too, were able to enjoy the fruits of capitalism and democracy.
For Black History Month, students in one of the upper grades created an exhibit displaying inventions created by African Americans. Walking through the exhibit, I noticed that the dates told a story. After emancipation, uneducated, formerly enslaved people began receiving patents for a host of new inventions and improvements to existing ones: the oil drip cup, the carbon filament for the incandescent light bulb, the streetlight, the gas mask, the potato chip, the street letter drop mailbox, an evaporator for processing sugar, a cotton cultivator, and others. During Reconstruction, those few and fortunate enough to learn to read and write became writers, abolitionists, professors, attorneys and physicians. A handful were elected to office and sat as senators or congressmen. Within the ranks of the poor and dispossessed were inventors, innovators, creators, men and women of genius and native intelligence.
Around 1900, there was a sudden decrease in patents received as Jim Crow laws became more virulent. The political freedoms of Blacks were undermined as economic opportunities were curtailed. Political repression and economic oppression went hand in hand.
Then around the time the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964, a handful of to-be-billionaires, senators, congressmen, professionals, entrepreneurs, CEOs, generals, inventors, bankers, and a future President were born. They would rise from the ranks of the poor and dispossessed to become great. There were always men and women of genius, talent, and ambition in their ranks, but the expression of that potential was inhibited. Political and economic freedom went hand in hand.
While the imperative to teach economics was strong. I did not know where to begin. I was not trained to see the world through the eyes of the capitalist. I was a state employee, a graduate of a state sponsored university, a former soldier in a military organized more like a socialist state where we were trained to look after one another. I was a teacher whose salary was not pegged to effort or talent or value. I pedaled a bicycle to work. I was an ascetic; I owned few possessions and lived spartan-like. I rejected the notion that my value to society was indexed to my net worth or that my pay was a measure of my intelligence, virtue, creativity, or ambition.
My colleagues and I did not teach economics because most of us didn’t understand market economics. Former union president Al Shankar of the American Federation of Teachers said, “It’s time to admit that public education operates like a planned economy... It more resembles a communist economy than our own market economy.”
Economics was not part of any teacher development program. In fact, many criticized the economic system which sustained their very way of life. Capitalism fattened the belly of the professor who denounced it in his lectures at the state university. While he railed, capitalism was subsidizing his salary and compounding the interest on his retirement fund.
Our ignorance of economics, however, was undermining our core values. On Earth Day of every year, for example, students would create colorful banners on poster paper: “Save the Earth!” The pulp for the paper was harvested from trees and the marker body, cap, and plugs were formed from petroleum-based plastic resins. Teachers, many of whom opposed environmental degradation, would snap photos of the banners on their smartphones. Inside the phones were electronic components made from raw materials extracted from the most remote corners of the globe: the processor of the phone made from silicon; the battery made from lithium, nickel, cobalt and manganese; the screen made up of indium and tin; the micro-electrical components and wiring in the phone composed mainly of copper, gold, and silver; the capacitors made of platinum and palladium, niobium and tantalum.
The Earth was being mined for these metals to supply us with the material goods we wanted. These raw materials were transported by rail, truck, and ship to factories around the world for processing. The processed material was then transported by rail, truck, or ship to be assembled into recognizable forms like circuit boards. Skies were sooted by CO2 emitting coal plants that provided energy to the mills which processed the raw materials and polluted the rivers. Almost everything we owned, from our cars and phones to our refrigerators and microwave ovens, our TVs and watches, the processed foods in our pantries and the clothes in our closets were part of a complex, man-made ecosystem of which we, as consumers, were an integral part.
Even a sincere wish to go green comes at great cost. Clean energy requires critical minerals like lithium, cobalt, and copper. "Compared to a gas-fired power plant, an onshore wind turbine requires nine times more mineral resources, according to the International Energy Agency. Building an EV requires six times more minerals than a gas-powered car.
But blind to the hidden costs of consumption, with no knowledge of supply chains, most of us remained unaware of the true costs of consumption. We consumed mindlessly. We read about the arrests of members of an Amazonian tribe for “inciting public disorder,” Newspeak for protesting the incursion of a mining company on ancestral lands. Still, we remained disconnected. 400 indigenous protesters locked arm in arm were powerless against the millions of consumers who insisted on getting the best quality at the lowest prices to satisfy needs that would never be met through consumption.
In a recent article published in Verge, the author noted: "The cobalt used in EV batteries, for example, mostly comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo. A majority of the world’s rare earth minerals, used in EV motors and wind turbines, are produced and processed in China. So if anything rattles production in those countries, the whole world might feel the effects. On top of that, the concentration of power over vital resources in specific countries and companies creates the potential for environmental and human rights abuses, which have plagued supply chains for cobalt and rare earth minerals. Investigations into cobalt mines that are essential suppliers to the EV battery industry have already found widespread labor abuses."
Interested in growing our 401Ks, many remained unaware of what they held in their portfolios- stock in the company mining the rainforest for raw materials, stock in the construction company that built the infrastructure from forest to railway to pier, stock in the arms company that supplied the soldiers of the developing state with assault rifles and helicopters to oppress and exploit their own people, stock in the multinational banks that took the dollars we earned and leveraged them to grease the wheels of the juggernaut. All of these companies were created to supply our demands for more stuff.
Looking at history through the eyes of the economist, current events began to make more sense. I taught the children of the dispossessed, the descendants of conquered people whose bodies were used as capital to build wealth for others or whose ancestors were dispossessed of their lands to satisfy the needs of others for happiness, for comfort, for fulfillment, for power, or for inner peace that would never be satisfied by having more or by denying others their happiness.
Hatred and war and oppression grew out of this lust for more. The author of the Book of James railed against this two thousand years ago: “From whence come wars and fightings among you? come they not hence, even of your lusts that war in your members? Ye lust, and have not: ye kill, and desire to have, and cannot obtain: ye fight and war, yet ye have not, because ye ask not. Ye ask, and receive not, because ye ask amiss, that ye may consume it upon your lusts.” For millennia, the desires of the little self to fill a void it could not in its meaningless pursuit of pleasure drove consumption and senseless wars to satisfy our needs for more.
Prejudice, xenophobia, and racism were by-products of this disassociation. To enslave another human being, to kill, to oppress, to humiliate, to harm, required that we first deny our own light. Dehumanizing others quieted the troubled mind. The separated self created laws and structures to justify killing, to institute slavery, to excuse oppression, to promote hatred, to codify cruelty. We recruited the pious to sanctify evil, scientists to sort and rank others by intelligence and worth, attorneys to ratify laws and soldiers to enforce them. We reacted in fear to our own creations. Like a clutch of small children terrified of the illusions that lurked in the dark, there were monsters in the closets of our own darkened minds.
Capitalism was an efficient, but amoral economic system. Was it the problem? In The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Adam Smith, the father of modern capitalism, advocated a balance of self-interest and compassion:
How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortunes of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it, except the pleasure of seeing it. Of this kind is pity or compassion, the emotion we feel for the misery of others, when we either see it, or are made to conceive it in a very lively manner. That we often derive sorrow from the sorrows of others, is a matter of fact too obvious to require any instances to prove it; for this sentiment, like all the other original passions of human nature, is by no means confined to the virtuous or the humane, though they perhaps may feel it with the most exquisite sensibility. The greatest ruffian, the most hardened violator of the laws of society, is not altogether without it.
Most never read that book.
Through the study of economics, I began to see how interconnected and interdependent we truly were, how harming others we harmed ourselves, how caring for ourselves, we could better care for others. Compassion, not judgment or guilt, seemed the better filter through which to analyze the afflictions of mind and the hellish realms we co-created. Recognizing our interdependence, our commonality, our shared humanity and suffering was the path to compassion. But like capitalism, compassion was not part of any teaching curriculum.
There are many books on economics. Your Money or Your Life by Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin approached the understanding of money I sought. It would become a primer for Millennials seeking financial independence and early retirement. Financial literacy was requisite for financial freedom. To be financially literate, one had not only to grasp the mechanics of finance, but one’s values and desires. Our values informed our choices.
Money, they wrote, was an abstraction, mere paper with an agreed upon value. Money was also something we earned in exchange for something else. That something we exchanged was our life and the energy that animated it. “When we go to our jobs, we are exchanging our life energy for money.”
If we calculated the amount we earned by the hours we worked, we’d have an hourly wage. This hourly wage was not our true wage, however. If we tallied the hours we took to prepare for work, commute, and decompress, we’d discover that we were earning less than our purported wage. When we subtracted the money we spent on clothes, meals, transportation, vacations, and child care, the money we spent 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’d get our true hourly wage.
“Money is simply something you trade life energy for.” When we consumed, as we had been encouraged, we exchanged our energy, or life force, for products and services. To the degree that a woman respected her money, she respected her life force. For many, there was a great disconnect. They treated their money and life energy with a cavalier disregard.
“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.”
That was as good a starting place for a more holistic understanding of money as any I had found. To have a more fulfilling life, work and consumption should be aligned with values. Fulfillment and satisfaction from consumption should be proportional to life energy spent. And ultimately, it came down to choice.
I applied these principles and found them sound, aligning my values and money, indexing my investment portfolio to my core beliefs and the vision I had for a world I wanted to play in. I consumed little and lived below my means. Meditation brought me true peace and true happiness. I eliminated debt, saved, and invested.
Now, comes a storm that threatens the economy.
COVID brings our interdependence into stark relief and exposes the weaknesses of the current iteration of capitalism. The global pandemic also exposes our collective ignorance and complicity. Sadly, most do not recognize this. The first case of coronavirus was traced back to Wuhan Province in China. Blaming the Chinese government for the spread of the virus absolves us of responsibility. “Rampant deforestation, uncontrolled expansion of agriculture, intensive farming, mining and infrastructure development, as well as the exploitation of wild species have created a ‘perfect storm’ for the spillover of diseases,” wrote Dr Peter Daszak in the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. Mother Nature, which birthed all of life, is sending a message sapiens would be wise to heed.
"What befalls the earth befalls all the sons of the earth," Chief Seattle said in a speech. "This we know: the earth does not belong to man, man belongs to the earth. All things are connected like the blood that unites us all. Man did not weave the web of life, he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself. One thing we know: our God is also your God. The earth is precious to him and to harm the earth is to heap contempt on its creator. Your destiny is a mystery to us. What will happen when the buffalo are all slaughtered? The wild horses tamed? What will happen when the secret corners of the forest are heavy with the scent of many men and the view of the ripe hills is blotted with talking wires? Where will the thicket be? Gone! Where will the eagle be? Gone! And what is to say goodbye to the swift pony and then hunt? The end of living and the beginning of survival."
Many indigenous people work the factories and fields while we self-quarantine. And I blog with a touch of hypocrisy on a work-issued laptop, whose components will end up in a poor, remote corner of the world to be recycled. The average American produces 7.1 pounds of trash per day, 102 tons of trash in a lifetime. We produce 25% of the world's waste. Garbage, according to Garbology author Edward Hume, is America's top export. Ironically, the scrap metal and waste paper products we export are recycled, repackaged and sold back to us.
It is time to reflect, learn, and reimagine something more beautiful. It begins with self-examination which we can approach with an attitude the respected meditation teacher Fleet Maul calls radical responsibility.
In meditation, we develop powerful qualities of mind. Practice often begins with stabilizing the mind: attentional regulation, concentration, focus. We integrate the emotional centers of the brain with practices of forgiveness, self-compassion, non-judgment, loving kindness, visualization and other techniques. With a stable mind, we can examine our lives with an attitude of radical responsibility, self-compassion, and ruthless honesty. The deeper we are willing to go, the more insistent the inner injunction to integrate the insights into our daily lives. To live mindfully is itself a practice. We align our values with our actions. What Buddhists call right livelihood is integral to living an authentic, meaningful life. This is not easy. Letting go takes courage and faith- but these are other qualities we cultivate in meditation. Naturally and gradually we become less attached to things. We recognize our commonality with all humanity and all beings. We recognize and respect our connection with nature.