My teacher said, “When you view the workplace as your shrine room, you are being paid to practice.” When I received this instruction I was working as the assistant manager of a 7-11 store. Once it became my shrine room, I took far better care of it. Stocking the shelves mindfully became a joy rather than a chore, and sweeping or scrubbing the floor was an exercise in equal amounts of precision and enthusiasm. Within two weeks, the store began to sparkle and shine, and I discovered that upliftedness is contagious. Regular customers came more frequently and stayed longer. Employees who could not rise to the occasion abruptly quit, and were replaced by people with energy and enthusiasm.
One Sunday morning when I was the only person working, the driver of a Greyhound bus made an unexpected stop at the store and disgorged his fifty passengers. That morning I saw that money was nothing more or less than energy. I watched a particular dollar bill with interest. It came from one customer and went into the cash drawer. The next customer stepped up and I handed it to him as change. He handed it to his son who was standing behind him. The son stepped up with his purchase and the bill went back into the cash drawer. To the next customer, it was given in change. But as she left the store, she gave it to a man panhandling outside the door. The man came in, made his purchase and the bill went back into the cash drawer. To the next customer, it was given in change and did not come back.
In the twelve years since I was given that teaching, I have often wondered about the life of that dollar bill. Whom did it touch? Whom did it benefit or burden? It’s just a little piece of green paper with black writing on it yet it concretizes so many of our hopes and fears that we have forgotten it is a symbol. Yet that bill taught me much about sacred outlook and the interconnectedness of everything.
Wheat Ridge, CO
“Ma’am? Could you help me?” It’s one-thirty I’m coming back from lunch. The questioner is a young woman who begins to tell me that she’s trying to get to a job interview, but she’s lost her purse and doesn’t have bus fare. She asks, could I loan her a dollar twenty-five? I dig in my bag and give her five dollars. She wants to get my name so she can return the money, but I tell her it isn’t necessary and head back to my office.
I practice giving whenever someone asks. According to Pema Chödrön, you don’t have to wait till you’re a bodhisattva to practice the paramitas. She says that if you practice generosity, the biggest benefit goes to you, because each time is an opportunity to see what you cling to and to practice letting go. What do I cling to and try to let go of? I let go of the notion that the money is mine. I let go of the notion that I’m better than she is. I let go of wondering if the woman’s story is true. I let go of the notion that having given her the money I have a right to something in return—not to be lied to, to be respected, to be thanked. I let go of my guesses about what she will do with the money.
Letting go of one attachment, often I see the one below it. I imagine saying to her, “I’m not giving you this money because of your story or because I feel guilty about my comfortable life. I’m giving it because you asked, because I want you to be well.” I realize I want her to appreciate me and my selflessness. And that desire is the biggest thing that I must let go of. It occurs to me that she could’ve been a bodhisattva, giving me a chance to practice generosity, accrue merit, and practice letting go. And I try to let go of that.
The Buddha said that life is suffering, and I don’t know anyone who hasn’t had his or her share of personal tragedy. Still, everywhere people seek out the perfect life—a life full of happiness, health and wealth. As a financial planner, I have plenty of ideas on how to help people reach goals and achieve a happy life. But before one steps on that path, it is important to believe that your life is whole, perfect and healthy, right now. There is nothing wrong with trying to improve your life or increase your net worth—everyone wants something better for themselves and their loved ones. But in bringing about an intentional life (that is, one that you design), it’s important to realize and celebrate the success and joy that you have now. For every milestone that my clients meet—a target reached, an estate plan completed, a child’s education finally funded—I try to freeze the moment and bring their attention to it. Because if you cannot stop for a moment and taste the sweetness that exists in your life right now, then you will not be able to fully appreciate your financial success. It will be a fleeting shadow that you will chase after over and over again. As Suzuki Roshi once said, “When it is cold, be a cold Buddha, and when it is hot, be a hot Buddha.” As a financial advisor, I say, when you are poor, experience your poverty and when you are wealthy, experience your wealth. That is the experience of our lives just as it is—whole and perfect right now.
Fern Alix LaRocca
San Mateo, CA
For me, money has been a source of high drama. I felt tortured by money, by whether I had it and whether I had enough of it. I worried myself to sleep about the rent, the bill and insurance payments. My money situation reflected my confusion about what I was worth as a person. I got a speeding ticket in Pasadena and I read it as a message of failure. In fact, I cried when the cop gave me the ticket and all day a dark mood settled on me because I had to pay it and spend several hundred dollars for traffic school.
But after many years of mindfulness practice, little by little, meditation changed my view. Money stopped being a reference point for my failures. It was as if a window opened in a stuffy room and a breeze relaxed me. I didn’t realize how far I had traveled until a recent car accident. As I stood in the street looking at the damage, I noticed the perfect morning. The sky was softened by early morning fog and the hills looked like a Japanese painting. I could hear the birds singing in the distance and the din of rush-hour traffic on the freeway. I took a deep breath and calmly called the insurance company on my cell phone. I brought my mind to the details and got on with it. And the money? It was just part of the energy of the situation. Good or bad, the money was part of the exchange and not an ultimate judgment on my worth. “My,” I thought later that day, “it’s been a long journey.”
As a pre-Zen student I was impatient. I always wanted to make more money and if I didn’t get more from an employer through raises then I would just switch employers. As my salary increased so did my needs. Instead of fifty cents for a cup of coffee, it became $4.50 for a Starbuck’s latte, and I couldn’t understand how I used to drink that horrible-tasting, hot brown water. Like a shadow on a sunny day, the needs and attachments just followed me around; I was rarely aware of their presence.
After ten years of sitting zazen, I began to look at cutting back. The simpler life has such appeal: no worrying about high mortgages, multiple car payments, impressing people with gadgets. But that simpler lifestyle is a hard path to stay on, full of diversions and suffering, and sometimes I feel like a drug addict in withdrawal. I tell myself, open your eyes, see the attachments, stay on the path. Some days I feel that things are really going well—and then I look down and see that shadow still following me around.