Contemplation and Money

“Money, so they say 
Is the root of all evil today”
Pink Floyd lyric

Photo: (cc)

Most people want money.  Many people are obsessed with it – some because they are very poor and their life depends on it.  Some because they are very rich and their identity and sense of self depend on it.

Money is the symbol and container of economic value, the socially accepted value of products, commodities and services.  We value what we care about, and are motivated by what we value.  It is hard to keep money out of this.  We care about money because we care about many things.  Yet, we might feel a little dirtied by this caring, particularly those of us who take spirituality seriously.

Spiritual traditions have largely been at odds with money.  This mistrust of money is perhaps encapsulated in the saying that “the love of money is the root of all evil,”  which often gets shortened to simply “money is the root of all evil.”  Yet, the great temples that beautifully embody the aspirations of these spiritual traditions – e.g. Chartres, the Dome on the Rock, the Potala Palace, Angkor Wat – such structures obviously required a lot of money to build and maintain.  Can such a negative attitude to wealth be consistently justified by traditions which engage in such building?

Well, yes.  These are the external, public embodiments of these traditions.  In their highest forms, these traditions are often deeply inward – they direct people to the discovery and cultivation of their inner resources.  Contemplation, in one or another of its forms, is both a key methodology and the fruit of such cultivation.  Contemplation does not require money; the joy of contemplation is joy for free.  Fretting about money is a major distraction for the contemplative.  This fact helps explain why some contemplatives seek out a monastic life; the monastery provides for the simple material needs of the contemplative — food, clothing, shelter — and the monks can organize their work in such a way that it creates a minimal disturbance to their contemplation.  

To be successful in the economic world, one has to give the best part of one’s attention to external things. To be successful in the spiritual world, one has to give the best part of one’s attention to inner things. There is a saying in Christianity that you cannot serve mammon and God, and there might be an equivalent saying in the contemplative life that you cannot simultaneously pursue a contemplative life and a life of riches.  

Or can one?  Is it not possible to have a degree of success in both realms?  Is it possible that there can even be a synergy between the two realms of value, so that engagement in one brings reward in the other?  I believe there is a middle ground where one can become sufficiently rich in both inner and outer resources to leave one feeling quite rewarded in both.

I can best describe this balancing of the inner and outer under the three terms “adventure, contemplation, creation.”   Adventure is an outer value; through adventure we gain new experiences. These do not have to be great adventures; reading a good book or meeting a new person can be an adventure.  

Contemplation, as we have already said, is an inner value.  Through contemplation we can find new depths and connections within our experience and transform these into knowledge or vision.  

Creativity starts as an inner value but emerges as an external one.  Through creativity we can transform the knowledge and vision gained in contemplation into something useful or beautiful or both; again, this does not have to be art or a new invention, it could be as simple as cooking a special meal or telling your children an engaging story.  Creativity connects us back out to the world and its adventure, thus starting the cycle again.

These three terms, of course, are variations on the basic computing idea of input, processing and output. While these computing terms speak to a fairly predictable process, it is precisely the open-endedness of adventure, contemplation, creation that makes them so life-enhancing, so much richer than the merely mechanical features of input, processing, output.

Artists, entrepreneurs, and inventors have always engaged in something of this threefold activities (and some have become wildly rich in the process).  Most of us, though, have not been born with the innate gifts of successful artists, inventors and entrepreneurs. It is not our destiny to become famous or rich. The destiny of most of us is to live ordinary lives.  This simple fact may shatter our dreams, or it may waken us to the possibilities of the ordinary.

To treat our everyday business with the world as an adventure; to develop the possibilities of our daily activities through contemplation; and to approach our vocation and avocations like they are art — this can  keep us mindful of the richness present in the ordinary and every day.  

Attending to our everyday experience in this way, we can experience the ordinary as a gift and channel our experiences of this gift as something of a gift to others. That gift may only be appreciated by a few people or perhaps no one at all, but the reward to us is in the process of giving.  (If we need our giving to be constantly recognized and appreciated by others; if we need that kind of boost to our ego, then ordinariness will be a disappointment and what I’m writing here will seem a sham.)

This cycle of adventure, contemplation and creativity can provide a balance of the inner and outer aspects of life.  And in this money also takes on a more balanced role.  A sufficient quantity of money gives us access to a broader possibility of adventure.  But sometimes having only a little money can actually lead us to deeper adventure.  A simple backpack camping trip will usually be more filled with adventure than a stay in a luxury hotel or a cruise ship, and is a lot less expensive.  It will also provide a better opportunity for contemplation.  Paying attention, all by itself, makes everything a little more adventurous.  

A sufficient quantity of money might also allow us a wider range of creativity and ability to give to others.  But there are limits to this.  Expensive gifts often seem rather soulless, but a gift given from the depths of one’s being – such as a simple but honest craft work — can be a gift another person might treasure for a lifetime.  

From this perspective the fact that we take an interest in money need not be “the love of money,” but a proper respect for it and what it can do for us and others. Money can expand opportunities for adventure, contemplation and creativity, and these activities can help us gain a more healthy attitude towards money. Contemplation is the arch stone of this process.  Contemplation is a deeply satisfying activity.  Aristotle called it the greatest human happiness.  I call it joy for free.  The lack of some such inner, non-economic contentment can leave us with a kind of inner lack of content, a kind of emptiness. A way to fill this inner emptiness is consumption — to buy things, to be a consumer.  Marketing executives love empty people, they want everyone to be a consumer, as hungry a consumer as possible. Contemplative contentment buffers us from the lure of the markets and thus protects us from expending resources seeking a contentment that we can have for free.  Now that’s a coupon worth clipping.

In this way, contemplation can help us to be more prudent. “Prudence,” which is one of the four cardinal virtues of the ancient world, is a concept that has been given something of a bad reputation in recent times.  This is unfortunate.  Properly understood it is a middle state between being wasteful with one’s resources and hoarding them, between being a spendthrift and a miser. Prudence directs us to strike a balance between enjoying our resources today and saving for the future.  Being prudent is simply being wise with our resources.

I will end this with a personal note.  I am now nearing retirement and I am very glad that I have for the most part lived prudently, and deeply glad that I am a contemplative.  Because of it, Fate be willing, I look forward to a retirement filled with simple adventures, contemplation and the small acts of creativity for which I have the talent.  

*Aristotle, in the Nicomachean Ethics, argues that intellectual contemplation is the greatest form of human happiness.  That contemplation or meditation in some form is a source of contentment or joy is shared by most spiritual traditions.  The iconography of Buddhism, Hinduism and Taoism, is dominated by contemplative Buddhas, Shivas and Lao-tzes.  In Christianity, contemplation often takes the form of prayer and Christian iconography is replete with prayerful saints and laity.


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