How do you feel about money?
If you’re like many of us, you might not even know the answer to that question. Like water to a fish, our relationship with money can easily become unconscious—just another part of the ocean we’re swimming in.
Dharma teachers seldom talk about money in an open way, perhaps because some of their students were drawn to Buddhism for its promise of transcendence and they are not always interested in hearing about the worldly aspects of the path. This omission often (unintentionally) leads to the creation of shadowy dynamics around pecuniary matters in Buddhist centers. So how do we make the unconscious, conscious? How do we contemplate money matters?
In my mentoring work with dharma students, I have found that we can use meditation to wake up to our latent financial habits—and that when we do, it empowers us to make conscious choices about what matters to us.
So I’d like to take you through a brief contemplation on money: how you feel about it, what your values are, and how you can act on those values.
Let’s start by coming back to the body.
Since you’re reading this, don’t worry too much about closing your eyes. I mean, you can if you want to, just for a moment or two. Or you could just pause while you’re reading, and take a breath.
Then you could take another breath.
And a third.
Now begin to notice how your body feels, starting with your shoulders. See if you can let them relax a little.
Feel your upper back and your chest. Pay attention to any sensations that might be here, especially in the area of the heart.
Now from this place of being a little bit more in the body, let’s drop into that same question we started with: How do you feel about money?
Notice the kinds of sensations that arise in your chest, in your belly, or even in your hands. These could be pleasant or unpleasant, strong or barely noticeable. You might notice a feeling of inspiration or excitement, a little spike in your pulse. Or maybe you feel a clamping down, a contraction. Or even numbness.
Don’t worry too much about what you feel. Approach whatever you’re feeling with as much friendly attention as you can muster.
When you’re ready, you can also let this friendly attention become aware of your thoughts. What do you think about money? What is your relationship to money? Take a few breaths here, pause, and allow this investigation to sink in.
No need to work it all out or get it all right. Just notice whatever thoughts come up. Let them come, and let them go.
Now, get specific: how are you, really, with money? How do you spend it? What was the last purchase you made? Do you save? What are your money secrets, the stuff you don’t tell other people?
Notice the sensations you’re experiencing in your body.
After you’ve given this a moment, you might want to consider another question: how do you want to be with money? What are your money values?
This can be unique to you. Don’t worry too much for the moment about Buddhist ideas or spiritual ideals. Maybe, for you, saving your money is really important. Or maybe you want to be generous, to donate regularly to a non-profit whose mission you support or to help out a loved one when they’re in need. Or you might be in a stage of life where you love spending your money on new experiences: travel, all-night raves. Whatever it is, don’t be afraid to be honest with yourself.
One final question: what is one small thing you could do today to move the dial just a smidgeon in the direction of your money values?
If you really value saving, could you set up a small monthly contribution to your retirement account? If you like to be generous, but sometimes forget, maybe give a little something today. What about planning a little adventure for yourself, even if it’s just trying a new bakery in your neighborhood?
Nice job. You’ve just completed a brief contemplation on your relationship to money. Don’t worry if you came out of this more confused than you were before. Don’t worry if you feel doubtful or dull or just plain irritated. In fact, just don’t worry.
Instead, see if you can let these questions continue to work on you over the next few days. Track your responses to them as you go about your business in the world, noticing how you feel in your body when you make money, or spend money, or think about money, and noticing all those little moments when you act on your financial values (and those moments when you don’t).
Our relationships to money are shaped by a host of factors, from the systemic to the personal. Your relationship to money will be determined by family values, race, class, income, gender, geography, citizenship, education—all the multifarious influences that make up your particular location in the contested spaces of our economic system.
If you can, let all of that be a part of your explorations, too.
Further reading: “I put a small handful of coins under my zafu. . .Then I sat on it. I just had to sit with the weirdness, the feeling that I was somehow desecrating the seat of meditation—but it was hard.” A long-time Zen practitioner tries to find her middle way with money.