Back at the end of June, I posted a piece called “Charging Money for the Truth.” It generated 47 comments, which are really worth taking the time to read. This is a hot topic, a juicy topic, and one which opens up all kinds of important questions. Over the last couple of months, I’ve been able to go much deeper into these questions with some fascinating people.
Marc Gafni, for example, has been an ordained rabbi most of his adult life. Until a few years ago, he was living and practicing in Israel. Now that he’s teaching in the United States in a more “secular way,” he finds himself dealing much more with questions of making the books balance. He had some fascinating observations about the relationship between money and “dharma.”
Diane Hamilton was a “starving artist” and a single mother for much of her life. She took Zen Buddhist vows under Genpo Roshi, and is now a widely recognized Zen teacher, as well as one of the senior instructors in Ken Wilber’s Integral Institute.
Sally Kempton started out as a professional journalist and a writer for Esquire, the New York Times, New York magazine, and the Village Voice. She was an early voice in the second wave feminist movement. Spirituality was the last thing on her agenda. After a powerful spiritual opening, however, she became a “sadhu” monk, and was known for many years as Swami Durgananda.
Together, Marc, Sally, and Diane host the Integral Spiritual Experience conference in Asilomar, California. I’ve invited all three of them to join me for what I know will be an important and fascinating discussion about money and dharma on Thursday, September 2nd at 6pm PST. Register here.
Why do you suppose it is that money is such a confusing topic for so many people, creating such diverse varieties of points of view? People don’t get so upset about which spiritual teachers are wearing a hat. People only get mildly upset about teachers who eat meat, or drink alcohol, or smoke cigarettes. But when it comes to money, everyone has a strong position. A big part of this has to do with the way that money was created and has evolved in our culture.
Long ago, our ancestors didn’t know money. Even just a few hundred years ago, the first pioneers who settled in America found ways to get along before the creation of the dollar. In any pre-currency culture, commerce works though the exchange of gifts. Imagine that one of your ancestors was really expert at creating thatch roofs for houses. He might enter into an agreement with his neighbor, who has a bunch of chickens and a leaky roof. “Look, I’ll thatch your roof, which will last you many years, if you could keep me supplied in eggs for the next, say, three years.” It’s a deal, a mutual exchange of gifts.
Your same ancestor could go to his other neighbor, who makes leather boots and also has a leaky roof. “Sure I’ll thatch your roof, dear friend, and I’d love a pair of those fine boots. But you know, thatching a roof is worth a whole lot more than a pair of boots.”
As soon as we use the word “worth,” we’ve started to introduce the possibility of currency.
“I’ll tell you what. I’ll thatch your roof. Give me a pair of boots now, and a credit note good for ten more pairs. I might use them myself over time, but it’s more likely that I’ll pass them on to someone else.”
The next week, your ancestor might go to get some new tools from the iron smith, who, by coincidence, has a very well-repaired roof.
“Sorry,” says the iron smith. “I don’t need a new roof, so I can’t barter with you for tools.”
“No problem,” says your ancestor. “I’ve got something else. I’ve got a credit note from the boot maker. How about we exchange a pair of boots for some tools?”
Another deal. You can imagine that in a society like that, it wouldn’t take more than a few years before everyone agreed upon some mutually convenient currency, so everything could be allotted a value, and then you could just exchange the currency instead of an endlessly accumulating collection of credit notes. Our ancestors from various cultures have used salt as currency, gold, and even various kinds of exotic spices. As long as currency is used in this way, it is still an accurate reflection of the exchange of gifts: The thatcher makes his roofs, the boot maker makes his boots, the chicken farmer cultivates eggs, and the vegetable farmer grows vegetables.
Things only got much more complicated a few centuries ago with the wide-spread introduction of usury and the invention of modern banking. Usury is really a function of the human tendency for greed beyond our willingness to simply give our gifts. Maybe you’ve accumulated a whole lot of the mutually agreed currency (gold, salt, or frankincense) and you meet someone who really needs a new pair of boots, but just spent all their currency on burying a relative. So, you make an agreement to lend some of your currency, with the understanding that it will be paid back later with “extra.” That “extra” is of course called interest. Over time fortunes get passed on from one generation to the other. And so the people who have extra currency accumulate more and more and more, and the people who don’t have currency get deeper into debt.
I know, dear friends, I’m sorry. I sound like I’m talking to a fifth grade class. Or even a third grade class. I don’t mean to be condescending, but it’s really important for all of us to sometimes remember these obvious facts. We’re dealing with an economic system that is completely made-up. Artificial. Based only on mutual agreements. Today, the United States is in debt for almost 14 trillion dollars. Consumer debt in the US now stands at 11.7 trillion dollars. Bankruptcy filings rose 20% in the last twelve months. But all of this is based on mutual agreement. Every single debt in the world could, THEORETICALLY, be wiped out tomorrow, if we mutually agreed that we’d be happier that way.
This is one of the many reasons why money is so confusing. When we bring money (a concept that is made up in the mind of human beings, something that doesn’t actually exist at all) in connection with awakening (with its pristine focus of what is absolutely true and real) of course we have confusion. As you’ll see on the comments on my earlier blog, many people feel very suspicious of anyone charging money for spiritually oriented services. Other feel that it’s legitimate as long as the cost only covers expenses. Others feel that people only value what they pay for, so if you want to create value, you’d better charge money.
We’ll be exploring these, and many other dimensions of this conversation, in a powerful and exciting FREE tele-seminar on Thursday, September 2nd at 6pm PST.
You can register HERE for the tele-seminar, and then either participate in the live call or listen to the replay.