Looking In the Mirror of Money

Like many Americans post-recession, I decided to take a closer look at my relationship to money. To my surprise, what started as an exercise in fiscal responsibility turned into a deeply instructive philosophical journey.


I’d been ignoring the task of addressing my ideas about money for years, hiding behind an image of myself as Bohemian, an artist, a spiritual aspirant. Money seemed something too concrete to factor into my flights of fancy. Even as an entrepreneur I never stopped to think much about money. I worried when I wasn’t making it and was jubilant when I was…it was a roller coaster.


It was my daughter’s birth that unexpectedly initiated a shift in my approach to money. Her presence forced me to imagine the future, to plan ahead, when I’d always been happy to leave things to chance. One day, exiting the subway on my way home from work, I caught myself with a furrowed brow, worrying once again about the numbers in our bank account…this time with no regard for my own needs, but for hers alone. I heard a steely voice of resolve somewhere deep inside say,


“I never want her to suffer the burden of financial strain.”


From that moment, I became more directed. I began to take small steps towards a more secure financial position. All of it seemed very academic and rational–I wrote up a simple budget, stopped spending on non-essential items, and considered the implications of giving up my hard-earned consulting lifestyle to take a more stable job. As sensible as these actions were, they seemed like quick fixes to a more systemic problem. While they might improve our situation slightly, they weren’t doing anything to change the feelings money provoked in me. Money was still–somehow–in command of me, rather than the other way around. I was bending my will to it.


For several months, I worked harder than I had in years, figuring more money would make me feel more secure. It wasn’t until an incident over the summer illuminated my central monetary hang up that I began to understand how deep the tentacles of this question of money in our lives runs.


I was on Block Island with my family for two weeks. Burnt out from my newfound obsession with making money, I was determined to spend the time rekindling the spiritual flame that burns so bright in me. I read books on philosophy, found time for meditation and nature walks…I tapped back into the devotion that is my most prized possession.


On the north side of the island, atop a hill with views of the lighthouse and the ocean on two sides, there is a sacred labyrinth. It is made of stones and sand with grass and wildflowers growing in between the paths. Over the years, it has become an icon of the island and is a place where locals and tourists go for a moment of prayer or peace. As part of my rekindling effort, I’d resolved to walk the labyrinth every morning. Each time I started out on the path, I’d set an intention or ask a question and was finding that it would be resolved or somewhat settled by the time I exited. After a few days I’d developed a faith in the power of this labyrinth to instruct me.


Then, one day it did just that in an unexpected way. Walking slowly over the sandy ground with bare feet and my baby on my back, I reached the center of the labyrinth and kneeled at the rustic altar in the middle, covered with shells, rocks and offerings of all kinds from other seekers. From the pile of objects, one card caught my attention. It was a business card for a financial advisor. I imagined someone had left the card as a prayer for financial success and I felt the hot rush of righteousness flood my system. Just then, my daughter, standing next to me grabbed a small pile of shiny plastic coins someone else had left on the altar, also presumably a call for financial wellbeing. Her single-minded focus on the plastic coins in the presence of so many other interesting natural objects, fanned the flames. As I wrenched them from her grip, I found myself angry.


My indignation was specific and clear and the stories running through my mind were all about how right I was to be seeking “God” in this place while others were wrong, deluded in their slavery to Mammon. How sanctimonious I was as I scooped up my child and turned to trace our path back from the center to the exit.But, as I walked I cooled down, which allowed a different thought to enter my mind with less heat and more force: But, why? Why is it wrong to want financial security? Why is it unholy to think about money in a “sacred” place? Indeed, why not? Why not ask for money…the money needed for a new home? For an expensive treatment or important journey? For a good school? For a future free from worry?


Suddenly, I saw what a jerk I’d been stewing in my judgment, and I decided to try asking for money myself–really for the first time in my life with genuine heart. Summoning my deepest sense of gratitude and faith, I asked for financial security for my family. I recalled my vow to myself regarding my daughter’s future: she will not suffer this burden I have carried for too long. I imagined myself wealthy materially and spiritually. And it felt wonderful.By the time I left the labyrinth that day I understood how deep was my prejudice against money as something antithetical to all things worthy and holy. No wonder I was having trouble attracting it into my life. In my search for meaning, I’d made money an obstacle, not a means. I saw I had some healing to do and I set out to understand the entirety of my relationship to money. As it turns out, I ended up learning a lot about my relationship to myself, to others, and to God in the process.


At the end of that trip I wrote in my journal:


“I’ve initiated an intense self study related to money.”


My first move was to formulate the right questions. For me–and I suspect most people–the investigation wasn’t going to be as simple as the questions posed in financial advertising: “What is the right type of investment for you?” or, “What kinds of fees are you paying your bank?” or even, “When will I be able to retire?” I’d tried to take this kind of rational approach to personal wealth management in the past and had ended up discouraged and overwhelmed by too much information and not a lot of insight.


My questions–when I really thought about them–were more abstract. So abstract, I was having trouble framing them at all. They were feelings more than thoughts. Eventually, I determined I wanted to know why I was intimidated by money. Why I disdained it even as I desired it. I wanted to know how much is too much. Whether living a spiritual life and making loads of money are at odds. And if so, why? I wanted to know why a money- wise friend had counseled me–when I asked about ways to improve my business–to move my office out of the Lower East Side and into Midtown.


Does money prefer certain zip codes?


These kinds of questions don’t have the same simple access points as the rational ones the banks want you to ask. You can’t just Talk To Chuck about the meaning of money. So, I began my journey like any student in the pursuit of knowledge…I cracked a book. Fortunately, for me it was the right one.


Money and the Meaning of Life was the book that fell into my hands. In it Jacob Needleman unravels a story, from ancient times to present, of money as the primary tool available to man for negotiating his dual nature as a transcendent being of spirit and a earthly denizen of the material world. Money, he says, is a sacred object, originally intended to knit communities together through the concept of interdependence; teaching men to lean on one another, to perfect the quintessentially human acts of giving and receiving, to live in relationship with each other. As Needleman says,


Money is “an instrument for broadening the passage of help between human beings.” It can be a daily reminder of the fundamental truth that we are one. But, money is also the chief servant of man’s animal nature, the sustenance for his material self… “a technology to organize our lives in hell.”


This is quite a dichotomy to reconcile. No wonder I felt conflicted.


On a very practical level, money is a means of keeping the body–the house of the spirit–happy, well fed, clothed, taken care of…satisfied. A problem arises when money is acquired and applied to the pursuit of unnecessary needs, whims, and desires. When this happens, money becomes a tool for over-indulging the body, for feeding it more and more of the sensual pleasures it thrives on. Or it becomes a safety net, something we use to insulate ourselves from life’s constant threats to our comfort and security. It becomes our candy, our crutch, our illusion of control.


Because money has this dual nature itself as something both sacred and profane, it acts as a primary key to the reconciliation of our own dual nature. We can understand ourselves through the mirror that is money. Needleman says,


“The challenge of our lives is to face the money question without disappearing into it or running away from it.”


Needleman’s books planted the seeds of a deeper truth about money that felt right to me. His words resonated and began to dispel the confusion I’d felt in the labyrinth about whether or not money was something related to God or antithetical…it was both. But this still didn’t answer the questions I had about the place of money in my own life. I felt I was gaining a better understanding of something that had been a pure abstraction before, but I needed to know where I stood in relation to this powerful energy.


So, taking the good student’s next step I put down the book and began feeling my way forward into the knowledge that comes only through direct experience. I decided not to fix anything, but simply to observe. My focus was on myself in the act of transaction. For several weeks, I proceeded through even the smallest purchases with great attention. And taking Needleman’s words to heart, I resolved not to run away from what I might find.


At first, I had a hard time noticing anything about my relationship to money. So deep were my habits and so ingrained were my views about spending, saving and earning, I was on autopilot most of the time. Even when an insight started to glimmer on the edges of my consciousness, some aspect of my self-preserving ego would erase it or color it over in washed out tones of self-soothing… “Oh, don’t worry. Everyone feels stress around tax time,” or “You’re not angry about the money, it’s the principle…” Such justifications for the emotions I was feeling around money were enough to keep me in the dark, for a while. But with persistence, I started to catch myself in the act of exchange, in direct relationship with money, in ways that surprised me.

One day, I found my toddler rifling through my wallet (not an uncommon occurrence). When I reprimanded her, she threw a handful of bills and change on the floor petulantly. The action set off some kind of alarm inside me and I immediately assumed the eye level parental squat I like to use for teachable moments. I looked at her sternly and said, “We don’t throw money. Money is very precious. It’s special and must be treated with respect…”


Even as the words exited my lips I heard two voices inside my head. I stopped speaking mid-sentence, so sharp was the contrast between the two points of view. One was egging me on, telling me this was an important lesson to impart. The other, which had a stronger and wiser tone, told me I was wrong. This voice said clearly, “No it’s not. Money is just money. Those are just pieces of metal and paper. How is it precious? You’re making the material intimidating.” In that voice I could see how I’d always felt money was a rare bird, an enigma, something too hot to handle. Ignoring my maternal instinct to address the situation as it was happening, I shelved the matter.


Soon thereafter, I was given another piece of the puzzle. One day as I was walking through the house, a piece of furniture crossed my mind. Weeks earlier I’d intended to buy a crib conversion kit. Suddenly, I couldn’t remember whether I’d bought it or not. As I sat down at the computer to check, I was overcome by a vague feeling of unease. If money is so precious as I’d begun to tell the baby, how could I not know if I’d spent several hundred dollars online? Checking my records, I found that I had made the purchase, which showed me how psychically disengaged I’d been through the whole process. I’d been one-clicking on autopilot.


I started to get the hang of identifying these moments of monetary insight as they were happening. I noticed more and more tiny incidents throughout my days that gave me a pang…not the usual pangs related to spending money I worry we don’t have, or needing money for things I feel we need, but a pang related to my own lack of integrity.


I was sensing deep inconsistencies within my ideas about what money is, how it should be spent, and something I hadn’t suspected…the values I hold.



The next day, something happened that really caused me concern. I didn’t overdraw the bank account, I didn’t lose a credit card, but I felt the sting of money’s power with the same intensity. Walking through Soho, I passed a homeless man asking for change. He was slumped against a building on a quiet street and his plea was to me directly. As I passed, I fortified myself with a nanosecond-long story about how I can’t stop for every homeless person in New York City or I’ll never get where I’m going…I walked a full block before guilt forced a heel turn.


With intention, I walked back towards the man, dollar in hand. Now my mind was spinning a story about how big-hearted I am and how one dollar can make a difference…So busy was my mind glorifying itself, I barely noticed the moment the dollar passed from my hand to his. What woke me from my hypnosis was the sound of my own voice saying curtly, perfunctorily, “Thank you,” as if he’d just handed me the coffee I’d ordered.


I felt the hot flush of embarrassment. Thank you? Thank you for sitting there on the sidewalk in a state of such need? Thank you for offering a kindly lady like myself a chance to feel really good for a few minutes today? In that moment of exchange, I was once again on autopilot and I’d said to him the same ‘thank you’ I say to every cashier, waiter, shopkeeper, or clerk who takes my money out of my hand at any register anywhere. It means nothing. It is a courtesy at best.


From that moment on I began to notice that it’s not just me who is absent at the point of transaction, it’s the other party, too. Whether that party is a digital shopping cart or an actual human behind a cash register, we’re not making contact. The more I sought connection with the people I was giving my money to, the more I noticed how often the transfer of money is met with averted eyes, boredom, shame, nervousness, eagerness…I was overwhelmed by the variety and intensity of emotional states money could provoke in people. Equally unnerving was the recognition that nothing at all is provoked during digital exchanges. Whether exchanged hand-to-hand or digitally, many of our transactions today lack a genuine moment of communion.


There was the young man at the register of the juice bar who missed my hand when he offered my change because he was laughing with his coworker about something else entirely. There was the pat speech of the well-trained woman at the shiny retail emporium. She asked me lovely questions about how my experience had been, but never listened for the answers. And there were numerous late night clicks and data entry fields involved with the bland and numbing purchase of staple items for the household online. Shampoo? Click.


As a tool for self-knowledge, money was proving to be a sledgehammer. What I was learning was that I’m not participating fully in the supremely human concept that defines our contemporary culture more than almost any other pursuit: commerce. In fact, I’m participating reluctantly. Internally, I talk a big game about how precious money is–and I desire it with a force that startles me–but my actions are telling a different story altogether…one tinged with disdain and perhaps a little disappointment about the overpowering presence of mindless commercialism in our daily lives. Shame has led me to resent and resist the culture of my times.


But, what if I could accept it? What if I could begin to accept that money is a tool for organizing our lives in hell, but it isn’t only that. Money isn’t the oppressor or the liberator. It is a medium of exchange. The nature of the exchange is up to us. As in alchemy, we can only change the nature of the material–from lead to gold–by acting from a place of goldenness within ourselves. My experience of money is a direct reflection of my own state of being–I was now seeing clearly my reflection in the mirror of money. Anything I resented or resisted about money was something I resented or resisted about myself, my actions. And my conflicting feelings were a direct result of the conflict between my own words and deeds, as acted out on the stage of life everyday through the medium of commercial exchange.


Precious or base, money is among us. It is one of the ties that bind–one of the strongest these days–and it deserves our notice if not our respect. Every day, money offers me the opportunity to navigate the swells and surges of life with awareness, and until now I’ve ignored the call. It’s made me feel isolated…and I think I’m not alone in that. In this mechanized world, it’s easy to forget that we are still dependent on each other; that we do need each other. This forgetting is deeply lonely.


Here’s the irony: I work in marketing. Like many people who work in marketing, I am a creative person. I’ve mused before that in another era, all of the people I know who apply their beautiful brains and talents to making 30-second spots or delivering insights to big brands, would be painting portraits or illuminating manuscripts or writing epic poems; much more worthwhile pursuits. I’ve mourned the loss of so much creativity to commercialism. But man is a product of the times in which he lives and it’s hard to make a living writing epic poems these days. We contribute our great talents to the times in which we live.


The older I get the more I see this to be one of the great challenges of life—grasping and accepting the times in which you live to such a degree that you can contribute to them in a meaningful way…move them forward even. This is what visionaries do. They’re able to see the future–yes–but only as it relates to the present moment. They translate invisible potential into something we can all see. They build the bridge for us. So many great ideas die because they have no traction in these times. How many great artists go unnoticed because they cannot communicate their vision in the language we speak now. This is what is really meant by “timing is everything”: being in sync with the times is everything.


And the nature of these times is that commerce is the primary human idea around which we organize and interact. Yes, we are still connected by and moved to action by religion, causes, the environment, friendship, technology–but nothing defines these times more than money…the lack of it, the overabundance of it, the pursuit of it, the abuse of it, the manipulation of it, the accumulation of it. We like to pretend this is not the case, but almost everything that matters to us today is touched by the question of money.


Accepting this takes us to a place where we can start to shape it into something that no longer annihilates the human spirit, but elevates it. If we can bring more consciousness to the exchange of money in our times, we’re on the right track to connecting more and more often with each other and re-awakening that sense of interdependence that money was originally meant to foster. But, doing so is going to be like swimming against the tide.


The energies of consumerism that are key drivers of our culture today are all geared towards speed and ease. We’re constantly seeking ever-easier ways to exchange monies. The beast needs to feed itself and it does so in the name of convenience: one-click shopping, using our smart phones to pay for items without ever pulling out our wallets.


These technologies are making spending easier, but they’re also erasing the sensation of a transaction, desensitizing us from the moment of contact when we enter into a contract, however small, to support or be supported in our wants and needs by another. The more abstract our currency gets, the further we get from feeling its reconciling nature in our lives. Money is no longer money…it’s digits on a screen, electronic exchanges through the ether, plastic, bar codes, nothing to hold on to.


As a cultural analyst I’ve been commenting for years on the trends driving so many people back to basics, back to the earth, back to the farm, back to authentic experiences and objects…I’ve always described the driver behind these trends as being a reaction to the mass market, mass production, to the Coca-Colonization of the planet. And it is, but not in the vague, political sense I’d identified. It’s something much more personal. Now, I see there’s something deeper at play.


People are longing for the connection that can characterize commerce; a connection we’ve nearly erased. People are missing the act of having an exchange of real value between another entity they can identify and feel. If the hand of the maker is in the product, there is a hand to shake when the deal is done.


This ongoing exploration of my relationship to money has led me to the belief that bringing consciousness to our exchanges again is critical to the health and wellbeing of the planet and every individual on it.


You can’t expect to have a healthy body by eating mindlessly. You can’t expect to have healthy relationships in life by ignoring the people you love. You can’t expect to get where you’re going if you don’t pay attention to the map. And you can’t expect to have a vibrant, creative, productive life without a conscious relationship to money and commerce.


In the past decade, we’ve come a long way in healing our relationship with food by simply becoming aware of our direct personal experience with food. We’ve demanded more accountability from our suppliers and taken on a lot of responsibility ourselves for knowing the “who, how, and where” of what we eat. Maybe the same kind of experimentation and attention will heal the way we use and abuse money–and in the process, our neighbors and the planet itself. By demanding more of the moment of exchange, re-learning how to give and receive mindfully, and by exposing ourselves our own habits and hang ups related to money, we can connect more deeply with our real needs and wants, with the community that holds us, and the planet that nourishes us. We must recognize the power of money not as a God itself, but as a gateway to the god that resides in each of us.


Some salmon have already started the journey upstream. Some individuals and businesses are bringing integrity back to the act of transaction. I believe part of the success of big ideas like micro-lending and crowdsourcing is that they humanize and concretize the role of money in the act of creation. I see how my dollars begin to build a farm or a livelihood or a movie and I take part in something bigger than myself. Every act of exchange offers an opportunity to understand ourselves as individuals and as a group.


Does this insight answer the questions I set out with? It certainly gets me closer to finding answers from a place of comfort and security rather than confusion and anxiety. I can be comfortable with the contradictions inherent in money that once plagued me. I understand now how it is at once so integral–as the tie that binds us to others–and so contemptible–in its misuse as a tool for distinguishing ourselves, separating ourselves from others.


Financial independence? There’s no such thing. And there shouldn’t be. Money puts us in relationship to others. Money is complicated because humans are complicated.


We have to think about money not as the ends…not as the means to the end…but as the reflection of our own individual and collective states of consciousness. Most people would say we’re too focused on money, but I say we’re not focused enough on money. Not as an obsession or compulsion, but as a worthy object of contemplation.

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