One of my earliest memories is of me 4 or 5 years old sitting on my father’s knee while I sang along to an ABBA song “Money, money, money, must be funny, in the rich man's world.” This memory came to mind recently after a mentor encouraged me to reflect on my beliefs and conditioning around money in this life. The ABBA lyrics begin “I work all night I work all day, to pay the bills I have to pay.”
Like many of you, I imagine, I have lived month to month for most of my adult life. Although earning just enough to cover the month’s bills hasn’t felt like being rich, there’s no doubt that globally speaking I’m living in the rich man’s world. Over 70% of human beings on this planet still live on less than $10 a day. And even here in California, in the richest nation on earth, anyone can see the tragic increase in numbers of extreme poor and homeless.
At the age of 20, I went to study with meditation masters in India and stayed for a year and a half on $1000 by living at street level rather than being on the tourist track. Surrounded by families living in abject poverty, I often found myself wondering if I should just take the remaining dollars out of my pocket and set one of them up with a street food cart that could provide a livelihood for them and their children. I knew I’d be fine if I ran out of money and had to leave India, while a family in poverty could have the trajectory of their lives forever changed by a simple act of kindness. And yet…it never felt true to do it. Somehow I determined it was OK for me to keep most of the money for myself to stay because I believed my spiritual training was sincere and could ultimately give back to others. I was never sure if that was clear listening on my part or just a story that helped me feel ok to do what I wanted to do.
Ghandi famously once said that “the world has enough for everyone’s need but not everyone’s greed.” Evidence of this is all around: roughly 40% of all food in the US is wasted and ends up in landfills, and yet almost a billion people in the world go hungry. All around we bear witness to the impact on our planet and her creatures of a feeding frenzy of over-consumption.
Viewed through the lens of social equity and the state of the earth it’s possible that many of my seemingly reasonable lifestyle choices are greedy. While I like to think I use my energy to support many benevolent pathways forward for humanity and the earth, I notice how deeply woven into the problem I am. Maybe we’re so far off course in terms of right relationship with the earth that this is true for all or most of us living a modern life, embedded as we all are in ways of being that have colossal downsides for planetary health.
During my 20s I didn’t own a car, was vegetarian and then vegan, and refused to buy clothes unless they were used or organic cotton or hemp. By my mid 20s I was feeling distrustful of a flavor of disassociation and spiritual bypass I witnessed in myself and many others on the serious meditation path. Given what seemed to me to be the immediate 3D need to turn things around on this planet, I pivoted from my training and instead dedicated my energies as an activist for social justice and the earth. I was inspired by leaders like Joanna Macey who taught that “the relationship between self and world is reciprocal, it is not a matter of first getting enlightened or saved and then acting. As we work to heal the Earth, the Earth heals us. No need to wait. As we care enough to take risks, we loosen the grip of ego and begin to come home to our true nature.”
Almost all of my work for over a decade was unpaid and I lived on donations from individuals and non-profits that believed in what I was doing. I barely thought about money but stayed focused on my task and somehow always seemed to have just enough. That was how it was for me until my early 30s. As long as I was showing up for life, I found that life seemed to support me, one step at a time.
The thing is, when I believed I was more righteous I was often also more of an asshole. Thinking that everyone around me should do x, y or z (urgently) sometimes made me a bit of a nightmare in terms of how I showed up in human relationships. And there was a deep shadow that lived in me amidst the distress of perceiving modern humanity as having largely become a parasitic force on the earth. It amplified a wound of never being enough, never being good enough, being fundamentally wrong. That belief ended up inevitably manifesting a lot of relational distress. As I look back on those times, I see how deep my agony was, and how out of balance I was. I scoffed at the idea of having a life outside of my activism and I did the exact same thing I accused capitalism of doing, I mined and depleted my deep resources and burned myself out.
At the heart of it all, I was still dealing with the impact of my early years of Christian conditioning. I remember asking someone about hell when I was about five years old and being told that the soul was like a white plate and every time you sinned it placed a black mark on it. If the plate got covered in black marks from bad deeds then you went to hell. That was a really scary thought.
I was sent to an all-boys Christian boarding school in England at the age of 7, and there I attempted to make sense of the trauma of being separated from home. In the absence of anyone there to relate with about my inner world, and no-one to bring my emotional need to, I leant heavily on an internal relationship with my childish imagination of God. Some of this really seemed to help, and felt true and nourishing. Much of it was profoundly confused, conditioned as it was by patriarchal colonizer heaven-over-earth religious thinking, in which the tender animal feeling nature of our sensitivity was to be conquered and dominated, all in the name of goodness. Even at that age the martyr archetype seemed like a thing to aspire to, a vision of ultimate selflessness.
I learned as best I could how to disregard my need, and I remember coaching my younger brother Tom how to do the same when he was sent to the school two years later. The headmaster called me into his office because my brother had spent most of his first week crying. “Luke could you speak to your brother please? He needs to pull himself together.” I found Tom later that day after dinner and stepped outside with him. I looked in his eyes and with all the authority of a 9 year old elder brother with two years of boarding school under my belt told him “You just can’t feel those things here.”
Even now, after thirty years of therapy and indigenous medicine work, I can find myself surprised by how deep that early conditioning runs, and how much weight it still has in the psyche. How do I trust the listening place, the discernment between need and greed when there has been so much confusion around the essential worthiness of healthy need itself? This inquiry is made even more complicated by the fact that we really are living in a time where the stakes of our relationship to this question of need versus greed are indescribably high – as individuals and as a society. We live in a time when greed and the apparent freedom to do whatever we think we want is celebrated and glorified as emblematic of what it means to ‘be in our power’ or to have ‘succeeded.’ And we live in a time when more than one in four species on the earth are threatened with extinction, and animal populations worldwide have declined by 70% over the last 50 years, largely due to the excesses of human consumption.
As I continue in my contemplation around money, I’m not sure that I’m supposed to have an easy answer for the distinction between need and greed, especially in these times that we are living in. I sense it’s possible that this inquiry is better held like one of the koans I was trained with by my zen teachers back in the day, an inquiry to hold close in all its discomfort, to live into, not giving into the temptation of a premature answer from the mind… an inquiry to sit with like a seed and allow to incubate in the darkness of unknowing, to sprout in its own time an organic wisdom that responds in each moment according to its need. Perhaps this is how healthy need is revealed? Not as a preconception, but as a living moment, a listening responsiveness.
I wonder if we sometimes unconsciously limit our expression of power in the world until we have developed enough integrity to trust ourselves. I think I have done this in the past, including with money. It’s possible my distress about the shadow of money is part of why I have so often only managed to earn enough to keep my life afloat month to month, no matter how successful my work has been. Maybe a familiar pattern of running on fumes once a month and only just making it by the skin of my teeth financially, as uncomfortable as it has been, has actually been unconsciously attractive to me because it has helped me to feel OK about all my privilege, and facilitated some kind of uneasy truce with an inner voice of judgment.
Even as I acknowledge this, however, I notice I no longer feel the draw. I find myself in a different chapter of life now than the younger man who could walk the tightrope with an empty wallet trusting that the next moment will take care of itself. It’s not that I judge the faith and trust place, that is welcome to stay. While I appreciate the beauty of the “as long as I’m doing good work then life will show up to support me” operating system I inhabited for so long, it feels like a stage of development, and no longer feels like a mature relationship with creative agency.
My current life is filled with many layers of responsibilities to be in right relation to – responsibilities to land, home, family, and a community of people and visions that I’m in service to. I choose to bring through healing and beauty into this world, and I choose to do that in a way that is grounded, sustainable and impactful. This is clear to me, and it has been calling me into an evolution in my relationship with worth and resource.
The shadow of money is all around, with an almost infinite variety of potential ways to be caught up in greed and perpetuate systems of oppression. But of course that’s not all that money is. Money can also be an expression of benevolent creative power aligned with discerning intelligence. Having money sustains my life force, enables me to give, and to have meaningful and deep impact in ways that matter. Having more money coming from one direction in my work enables me to offer more scholarships in another. Money can be placed in service to health, in service to earth, and in service to balance. Money can protect ways of being that need to be protected. Money can change things that need to be changed.
In my experience, learning to trust myself has been a long journey, and has not come from any grand victory over my shadow, but rather from the willingness to know myself all the way through. This has included bringing trustworthy people into my reality with different perspectives to give me feedback and help me examine places I have been blind. Learning to trust myself has included exploring my cultural and personal conditioning and how it lives within me.
Learning to trust myself has included a willingness to drop beneath all stories of self and look out at the world as the no-thing of pure potential, realizing myself as one essence that appears as sun and moon, trees and worms, joy and pain, temples and battlefields, realizing that I am not separate from my neighbors, from the oceans and the deserts, from the creative intelligence that moves earth and sky. Learning to trust myself has required acknowledging that any of the horror and ignorance I bear witness to on the so-called outside also lives within me as a potential expression. Whether I channel my life force toward good or ill is a moment-to-moment reckoning that calls me into deeper awareness and alignment with the living choice to be love.
At a time when so much in human society and the earth is in deep peril, I choose to place all the energies of my life, including money, in service to the weaving of the good dream for our world. I believe that this choosing is an act of creation that belongs to each one of us, each moment of our lives, and the dreaming into being of a just, harmonious, loving world is our collective opportunity. I don’t believe it requires our perfection or purity for us to learn to serve and cooperate with the incoming tide of this evolutionary momentum. I believe what is required is that we open our eyes and ears, turn for direction to the wild, clear and vital, and stay close to the sincerity of our deepest heart's yearning. I believe wealth is ultimately defined by what we share.