Money often substitutes for other things we want. But how to tell the difference? Amalavajra, a banker-turned-Buddhist fundraiser, leads us through the maze
In May 1999, at the age of twenty-five, I was a bond dealer at JP Morgan, a major US investment bank just off Fleet Street. I had always wanted to be, yes, a ‘millionaire’, and was now well on the way. But why did I want that? At the time I couldn’t really have told you, but in retrospect I can see that in my somewhat limited imagination it was a kind of placeholder for life and love. Sounds pretty stupid, right? We all know that money is just a tool that human society created to help us exchange goods and services, and to store and accumulate value. It’s a means not an end. So what was I thinking?
Of course I wasn’t thinking – I was wishing, which arguably is what all of us are doing in our lives most of the time. Money was a powerful symbol for all that I deeply wanted, a kind of totem. Being only a representation of value (‘I promise to pay the bearer…’), money is a blank canvas which we colour with our deepest hopes and desires: for respect, security, freedom – even love. Schopenhauer called it ‘abstract happiness’. For the Buddhist writer David Loy, it is ‘frozen desire’: one that can never be satisfied.
According to Buddhism we all have a deep sense of lack, which springs from an intuition that we don’t really exist in any substantial or permanent sense. Yes, we have real experiences – sensuous, mental, emotional – in relation to ourselves, others and the world around us. However, they are constantly changing and never quite what we want, or if they are, they aren’t for very long. Where in that constantly changing flow of experiences could we possibly find any core, stable ‘me’?
Money, on the other hand, seems solid, permanent (at least in the absence of hyper-inflation) and deeply satisfying: it is ours and we can buy almost anything we want with it. This props up our sense of identity, helps us to feel more real. It helps us feel we’re the kind of guy who uses Apple products, wears SuperDry, drinks flat whites and goes on kite surfing holidays.
This may sound innocent enough – after all, there’s nothing wrong with the flat white in itself. But what if this yearning to secure our sense of self, and to pay for it, compels us to give the best of our life’s energy to meaningless or even harmful work? What if it destroys our relationships with close family or friends? What if it even causes us to commit crimes or acts of violence? One study found that 90% of all crimes in the USA are motivated by money.
So it is worth looking at what money symbolises for us, and to reflect upon whether it is really likely to deliver. We can ask, is wealth really likely to make others love me? Well, it will certainly win me more attention from others, if often of the ingratiating kind, as well as a consistent gale of envy. And I would have to bear the stress and complexity of managing, investing and protecting it, and the possessions I buy with it.
Instead, thanks to years of wise friendship and help in training my mind at the London Buddhist Centre, I did finally begin to find love. But guess what? I haven’t found it outside of me in money and what it can buy, but rather in developing my own heart’s capacity to experience and offer warmth and love to others.
Yes, I have needed money to live while I do this, but not those millions I aimed for as a young man. Actually I have lived very happily on about £1,000 per month – just under the Minimum Wage – or less for the last eighteen years. How have I done this, and in London of all places?! The answer is that I have found simpler ways to meet my needs. True, I don’t visit restaurants, take taxis, wear designer clothes like I used to, but my life is happier, and – wait for it – richer. I don’t need those compensations for a hard week’s work because I am living the life I want to, with friends.
To be clear, I am not advocating minimizing the presence of ‘filthy lucre’ in one’s life: that is just another self-identification. Like manure, money can smell a bit, but it is good wholesome stuff if used well. As Sir Francis Bacon said four centuries ago: ‘Money is like muck, no good except it be spread.’ To put it another way, money is an energy that’s not really mine or yours, which, if we choose to, we can use to reduce suffering in the world.
After leaving banking I became a fundraiser, and have become very interested in the spiritual practice of giving money. How can an act that we all agree is good, feel so instinctively wrong and complex at the decisive moment? Why is there so often an inner battle between the wish to help and the tightening sense that, no, I need that money?
I think it is because when we give, we give away. Money given is money lost forever. We feel that we have given away a part of ourselves, that we have become less real, less potent, less free, lost some of whatever it is money symbolises for us. And yet, perversely, after giving we feel more alive, more connected to others, happier. As a fundraiser I have been struck that sometimes donors thank me after making their gift. So how to explain our strong and persistent ‘No’ to giving away our money?
It comes back to that sense of self, of course. There is a constant tussle in all of our hearts and minds between what one might call the ‘small self’ that worries, hoards, conceals and rationalizes those urges in a hundred and one unlovely ways, and a bigger self that wants to give. One way of looking at the spiritual, or truly human, life is as a gradual siding with this ever bigger self, until eventually the notion of a self falls away altogether. This is what the Buddha called Enlightenment or Awakening.
When I first came along to the London Buddhist Centre I wasn’t a bad man, and I probably wasn’t on my way to becoming one (though I was selling the products that ‘evolved’ into those that caused the 2008 banking crisis!). However, had I simply continued accumulating money in the hope of somehow converting it into happiness later, I may have found myself a disappointed, and perhaps rather dull, older man. Instead, thanks to the LBC, I have exchanged those promissory notes for the real thing. ■