Most of us are unlikely to achieve true enlightenment in this lifetime. By and large, we will remain ordinary folk striving to make a decent living and extract some meaning from this brief and unpredictable existence. We will have jobs to hold down, mouths to feed, and obligations to meet. Money will naturally loom large in our lives. What importance should we give it?
Over the past two weeks, I have written of the folly of making money our god and the rich our prophets. I have cautioned that the life of the excessively rich person is a narrow and meaningless life, devoid of spirit and filled with stress. Yet a life of abject poverty is often just as undesirable. Having to worry about your next meal, lacking basic creature comforts, looking always with envy at the luxuries seemingly enjoyed by others – this is hardly an existence in which you are likely to find spiritual growth. Plato, writing before Christ, put it thus: “Wealth is the parent of luxury and indolence, and poverty of meanness and viciousness, and both of discontent.”
If we devote ourselves to developing our skills and dedicate ourselves to our calling in life, a certain amount of wealth will naturally follow in our train. If we add value to the world, value is given back to us. But as your material possessions start to grow, how much is too much? One car or two? A bigger, better TV set, or will the old one do? At what point will the burden of possessions add more stress than utility? This is an individual judgement call for each and every one of us to make. The English writer W. Somerset Maugham had his own balance: “It is not wealth one asks for, but just enough to preserve one’s dignity, to work unhampered, to be generous, frank and independent.”
But Maugham was writing in a gentler age, when money madness had not corrupted the world to the extent we see today. We need to learn again the basic ethics of handling wealth. We need a few guiding principles, some stars to navigate by.
The first thing is to understand our own motivations. Do we desire money because we need it, or because other people have it? We must be honest about this. A recent widely reported study done at Harvard University is illuminating. Students were asked whether they would prefer (a) $50,000 per year while others got half that amount, or (b) $100,000 a year while others got twice as much. A majority chose (a). In other words, they were happy with less, as long as they were better off than others!
Consider the implications. The group surveyed was highly educated and presumably highly rational. Yet the participants’ main desire was to keep others down! We all know this to be true: how many of us have taken great pleasure at receiving a healthy pay rise, but have found that this pleasure turns to great resentment and dismay when it is revealed that a colleague may have received an even bigger increment? We allow ourselves to be motivated by envy, and we waste our lives in pointless comparisons. If we could distinguish what we want from what we need, and what we need from what our neighbour has, we could lead much richer lives.
A second principle concerns the nature of possession. To what extent do we actually possess anything? I live in a 70-year old house, and may think that it is, in some way, ‘mine’. But did not 2 or 3 previous generations of occupiers think the same thing, right up to the point of death? You hold something in your hand today in the illusion of ownership; yet both the thing that you hold and the fingers with which you hold it will soon crumble away and be no more. If possession is merely a fleeting illusion, how absurd is it to spend your life chasing after this elusive ghost? Does it make any sense to accumulate, accumulate and accumulate – and then die, taking nothing with you?
The third principle relates to the concept of ‘giving’. To understand this, we must first abandon the idea that we are in any way ‘separate’ from others. A remarkable source of understanding in this area are India’s Vedas – the original scriptures of the Hindu sages, and the world’s oldest known philosophical and scientific tradition. The Vedas tell you that your mind and body – that which you think is your individual ‘self’ – is no more than energy, and it is in constant and dynamic interchange with the energy of the universe. The idea of ‘separateness’ is entirely an illusion, created by the ego.
Once we realise this, we see that there is no such thing as ‘giving’. We are merely a component in a massive energy flow. All things flow into and out of our lives. By hoarding anything – be it love or money – we are stopping the flow of circulation. And just like preventing free circulation of blood in the body leads to disaster, so hoarding causes detriment in our lives.
Wealth is part of this flow. If we hold on to it, we create clots and stagnation. If we understand the flow and do not attach ourselves to the stock of wealth, we are released from worry. But this understanding can only come from practice. We have to overcome our selfish egos and learn to give freely. Much of the money that comes into your life is the result of chance – being in the right place at the right time, impressing the right people. Accept the ‘fluky’ nature of how money enters your life – and you will find it much easier to let it out again.
The Vedic tradition refers to money used for selfish reasons as vitta and wealth that is used for the benefit of others as lakshmi. At the pinnacle is mahalakshmi, divine wealth used in divine work. The good use to which we can put our wealth is indeed immense. Yet we are miserly in our charity. We give out the equivalent of loose change, yet want our name on a plaque. We need to join fancy organisations in order to be charitable, and raise money by organising grotesque banquets where we over-indulge all our appetites – but think we are doing the poor a good turn. Such bizarre self-delusion!
Bill Gates is the world’s richest man. His fortune is conservatively estimated at US$ 45 billion, or four times Kenya’s annual GDP. He recently gave US$ 168 million to fight malaria in Africa. Less than 0.4% of his net worth, you might say, just small change. But Mr Gates is providing vital assistance against a disease that kills 1 million people every year, most of them African children. As his life and thinking has evolved, Mr Gates is seeing the world differently. His stated aim is to give his entire fortune away before he dies.
We wish him well, for he will merely be returning it to the universe from whence it came.