There’s a lot of neurosis around the subject of money. Financial expert Spencer Sherman on four states of mind we can cultivate to improve our relationship with it.
When was the last time you had a positive attitude toward money? For millions of Americans, financial troubles are real and difficult. Particularly in this time of pandemic and economic contraction, many people are struggling with job loss, reduced income, fear of eviction, loss of business, and health care worries. For them, money is a painful topic because of the very real suffering it is causing them.
But even for those of us who are doing well, or who are not struggling, money is a challenging topic often relegated to a dark, hushed corner of our life. It’s something we don’t want to, don’t know how to, or are unwilling to discuss—it’s as taboo to ask friends how much money they earn or how much debt they have as it is to ask them who they’re voting for.
Loving-kindness practice cultivates a generous heart toward all beings. Then we can use our money as a tool for benefiting others.
So why bring the mind states of the divine abodes, the brahmaviharas, to such a forbidden topic? Isn’t it better to simply focus on their virtues like benevolence and compassion and leave money out of this beautiful picture? But what if bringing these four highest emotions to our money behaviors could bring these boundless positive qualities to how we behave with money? How might that change our relationship to money?
What I appreciate about Buddhist practices, especially the four brahmaviharas, is that they foster acceptance of all that life presents. My tendency, like many of us, is to see difficulties—pandemics, political upheavals, financial problems—as things merely to survive, to get through. But what about viewing financial hardship and negative attitudes as opportunities to grow and change, to improve our lives?
As human beings, we have that built-in, cave-dweller bias toward fleeing in the face of threats. Instead, why not focus on things that upend our conditioning so we can respond to crisis, or scary and uncomfortable topics like money, in a more effective and transformative way?
When I started applying the four brahmaviharas to money, I found that a sense of universal love or metta, was the natural culmination of working with the other three. For that reason, I am beginning this meditation with equanimity (upekkha), since it is the foundation for applying the other three brahmaviharas to our relationship with money. It is equanimity, the ability to find space within all the ups and downs of our money life, that allows us to access our sympathetic joy, compassion, and loving-kindness toward others.
If you have equanimity, would you check the stock market each day, or what the virus is doing to housing prices and rental markets, or indulge in worst case scenarios for your finances and your local economy? Would you give up hope of finding another job, or stop seeking creative solutions to your business that’s been upended by Covid? Equanimity means taking a longer view so you’re not swayed by the micromovements of life.
I’ve been a financial advisor for three decades, and I’ve seen clients experience gain and loss, success and failure. Those who recognize the inevitability of financial ups and downs, regardless of whether they have money or not, have an easier time staying balanced, content, and wise. Equanimity is actually the foundation of your financial plan. It’s the source of wisdom, resilience, appreciative joy, compassion, and generosity.
Take three minutes now and journal: write down what would it be like to have an equanimous relationship with money—with debt, with spending, with your job or business, with investing, with giving and receiving. Try writing from the perspective of having already achieved this mind state of equanimity. I recommend writing without stopping until the timer sounds. Now, read over your written words and discern what feels most true.
Now ask yourself: if I were to receive a significant windfall, how would my life stay the same and how would it change? Then ask: if my finances worsen because of the pandemic or a recession, how might I be at least as well off, if not better off? Journal your responses for three to five minutes without stopping.
Here is a contemplation you can recite to cultivate equanimity:
I have enough money and resources.
I do enough for myself and others.
I am enough just as I am.
I can and am responding wisely to whatever the winds of change bring.
This brings us to mudita, or sympathetic joy. Do you ever feel jealous of someone who seems successful with money, who seems to be in the flow with earning, spending, and giving? Does their success make you feel angry or inferior or fill you with self-pity?
To reach a less conditioned and reactive relationship with money, to reach my highest aspirations, I had to accept and learn to transform my jealousy of others. This is a counterintuitive practice and it might be challenging in the first few days, but stay with it!
Visualize a person whose financial success you are jealous of, feel the meaning of these words, and repeat:
May your financial success continue to expand.
May your happiness never cease.
May you never have money worries.
I did this twice daily for a week, and my feelings of jealousy toward such a person started to change. I felt different in my body, and the strain of jealousy on my mind began to ease. I actually started feeling joy when I heard about this person’s successes. I recognized that my jealousy had been restricting my creative energy and limiting my own well-being.
Now that we have practiced how to be with those who have more than we do, let’s cultivate compassion, karuna, for those who have less. Our freedom lies in our ability to be at peace with all money matters. So how do we turn toward economic and racial injustice without tipping into anger or pity or denial?
We begin with self-compassion and forgiveness for our own money conditioning and past money decisions. This strengthens us to witness the suffering of others, keep our hearts open, and develop the energies of kindness and equanimity. Karuna practice invites us to remove the space that separates us from those who have less (or more) than we have. Through compassion for ourselves we open to the suffering of others.
Finally, this brings us to metta—loving-kindness, benevolence, generosity—which is traditionally listed as the first of the brahmaviharas.
Metta practice cultivates a generous heart toward all beings. With metta, we can use our money as a tool for benefiting others as well as ourselves. Ask yourself: How can my investments and spending habits express more loving-kindness for the earth? How can my earning and giving be more aligned with my ethical values? How can I share my money with a more open heart? How can I speak about money more openly and transparently with my family members, friends, and clients so they feel relaxed and honest about money?
All this starts with cultivating a welcoming attitude toward all aspects of our own current and past financial situation or background. As I have applied the brahmaviharas to my own attitudes toward money, I have seen a reduction of fear and an acceptance of the money decisions I have made. In this more relaxed place, I have tripled my charitable giving this year.
This dark time can be the source of greater freedom. Let us aspire to feel more peace, compassion, loving-kindness, and joy in all of our money interactions. This is an opportunity to test the dharma and cultivate calm within the storm of uncertainty. May the results be boundless and immeasurable—beyond any amount of money.