Last week I asked for suggestions for the Tuesday inquiry, and Rupesh suggested Zen and money. This is of course a huge topic, too much for an inquiry reflection, but I decided to at least begin this conversation. Unfortunately, my reflections didn’t get recorded, although we did manage to capture the questions and responses in the section that followed. You can find these on the website here:

Here’s a reconstruction of my reflections from my mind map. 

Money does not have inherent value; it only has symbolic value. Its only meaning is in use and in our shared agreement about what it means. As such, it is a placeholder for our conditioning: our emotions, thoughts, habits, arguments, stories (for example, “there’s never enough.”), our sense of lack or abundance, our relationships with others. Because money serves as a representative of how our values are held, we can use our Zen practice to explore this important part of our lives, so that we can be awake, see clearly, be compassionate, and be wise. 

It occurred to me that we might use Clare Graves’ research, called Spiral Dynamics, to provide an architecture for understanding not only our own values around money, but those of others as well. In his work he didn’t study people’s attitudes toward money, but rather how they organized their values. In his 30 years of research, he was able to identify levels of psychosocial development in which each stage of development transcends and includes the previous stage. These stages of development apply not only to individuals, but to social systems and whole cultures as well. Here’s how it applies to our relationship to money (and other resources). The levels have since become identified with colors, which is a helpful way to remember them. 

The first level is the beige level. It is the level of basic survival, living like an mammal concerned only with getting bare survival needs met. We see this in infants, the extreme elderly, or people who have lost everything in their lives. Food, shelter, clothing, medical care become absolutely paramount. Survival becomes all-consuming and there is no bandwidth for anything else. This is the condition of genuine, absolute lack. When these basic needs are met, and there begins to be a little more energy in the system, the next level develops:

The second level, or purple level, is the level of magical thinking. To a child or even an adolescent, for example, money is utterly mysterious. Who knows where it comes from or where it goes? There may be great anxiety about its lack, but no understanding of how to shift the situation. It is controlled by unknowable forces or spirits, and the priests or shamans (for example the parents) have some connection to that spirit world. You can also see this way of thinking in extremely poor people who buy lottery tickets, or in chronic gamblers at Las Vegas, and probably some day traders and startup founders. Where does the money come from? Where does it go? Who knows? Because we don’t know, we live in fear. This level gives way ultimately to the next level:

The third level, or red level is about grasping, power, and will. I take what I want no matter what. It is the level of tribes that are governed by the strongest or toughest member, who demands complete loyalty. Strength and power are all that matter; the race is to the swift, and getting and having justify any means. It’s a dog eat dog world at this level. We seek protection and security for all that we have acquired by force, assuming others only exist to take things away from us. Inner city gangs and ruthless corporations function at this level. But sooner or later, there is a realization that something else is possible and an awakening of basic morality,  which leads to the shift to the next level:

The blue level recognizes that you need rules, planning, guidelines. Steady work at a good job and moving up the ladder. It marks the appearance of budgets, retirement funds, planned saving, mutual funds, insurance. it is based on a structured management of resources. There is a hierarchy of importance that includes major goals such as retirement, a new home, or college for the kids, as well as minor goals, such as a family vacation. There is a willingness and commitment to sacrifice in service of these goals. At this level, people study, plan, and organize their resources carefully, monitoring what they earn and spend, and foregoing unnecessary expenses. The system is highly regulated. This is also its limitation, leading to the development of the next level.

The orange level is characterized by creative innovation and energy. Startups and independent ventures are launched, new inventions explode on the scene. Prosperity is the metric and measure of personal value: a big home, a fancy car, a boat, travel to exotic places are ways of showing our worth. Once again the ends seem to justify the means, but here it is less about raw power (as at the red level) and more about using intelligence or activity to generate money. How to Win Friends and Influence People. Other people are basically customers, vendors, stockholders, or prospects. Independence is a value, exclusiveness is a value, high cost of material goods is a value. This level brings online credit cards, bonuses, incentive plans, and angel investors. Status symbols give a sense of personal pride and identity. But they do not provide a sense of connection and community, and the felt sense of this lack leads to development of the next level.

The green level is about community, sharing, and our human bond. There is concern for the environment, for those less fortunate, for those in need. Inclusiveness is a value and self-sacrifice returns, not as a way to create our own financial stability, but in the service of others. There is a sense of larger responsibility for our resources and the way they may make a difference in the world. It is not only money, but our time and effort that we share. Status symbols are rejected. Social services, volunteer work, charitable giving reflect this level, but so too does Kiva, Kickstarter and GoFundMe. Crowdsourcing care for those in need and personalized giving comes online. These efforts create a great deal of expectation and a sense of urgency and overwhelm, because the need far exceeds our capacities. And sometimes our efforts to help actually have negative consequences because we don’t have a clear sense of what we are doing. This strain leads to the development of the next level. 

The yellow level is characterized by “flux and flow.” There is a freedom from anxiety and compulsion around money and other resources. Instead, we just manage on what is available, without complaint or anguish. There is complete independence of activity; we are unconcerned about whether what we are doing will bring financial gain. We are neither grasping for status symbols or repudiating them. We are not trying to save the world. Rather, we are comfortable with or without money and focus on engaging in interesting work, whether it is lucrative or not. We spend our time in ways that interest us, and have a preference for flex time or time control. There is a sense of money as an enabling energy. And there is a profound acceptance of others’ architectures of value as legitimate for them. This very fluid approach to resources brings teams together to work on a project for a while, then disbanding and reconnecting with others for different projects. Corporate structures seem irrelevant; co-working spaces and lofts hum with activity. It’s a life of freedom from being defined by money or its lack, but its very fluid nature means that it is kind of rootless and can represent just drifting without ultimate meaning or purpose. The development of the next level emerges.

The turquoise level is the level of cosmic consciousness. All resources—time, money, energy, space, information—have spiritual values. They are energies transmitted through us. There is no sense of ownership or identification with anything or anyone. The management of resources is fully expressive of a spiritual path. Awareness and mindful care are values. There is neither the self-centeredness nor the self-sacrifice of previous levels because there is no sense of self in it. Yet resources are managed wisely and with compassion in the service of our vow or aspiration. We are awake to our unique place in the universe and the opportunity it provides us for expressing the abundance and exuberance of life itself. We know we must do this within our limited body, mind, heart, and circumstances. This is the realm of fully embodying our absolute freedom and our absolute interdependence with all being. 

I wanted to speak about money in this way because I believe many conflicts—in marriages, in families, in cities and nations— are just about the differences in the way we hold our values. We live in a rainbow. Maybe, with more understanding, we can not only accept and understand these differences, but also foster the evolution of our own relationship with money to a higher level. In this way, I believe we can move toward a more sane and just world. 

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Appamada is not just the occasional mindful thought or attentive state of mind, it’s actually a commitment to being attentive. It’s more than just a meditative state of mind, it’s more than just being mindful. It has to do with that primary ethical or moral orientation we have in life, with which we bring into being whatever activity we’re engaged in. Whether in formal meditation, in our interactions with other people, in our social concerns, or in our political choices, it’s the energetic cherishing of what we regard as good.

—Stephen Batchelor


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