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+ thoughts on money
It’s been almost six months (!) since I started this substack, and about a year since I’ve been writing regularly. It feels like the right time for me to step into this role more fully, which is why I am now offering paid subscriptions for any of you who wish to support and encourage my writing. Let’s get the details out of the way first:
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Asking for money has led me to think more deeply about money in general, and about different financial philosophies and models that people in my field(s) of work use to sustain themselves. Some of these models are older and more traditional, while others are emerging or renewing previous customs for the modern age. Whether you’re considering supporting me or not, you may find it helpful to examine these ideas about money.
Money has been around a long time, and is at its heart a currency of exchange. It is a system of reciprocity, a way we transfer things between us, and is deeply tied to cultural ideas of value. In spiritual terms, money per se is not good or bad, neither to be avoided nor to be grasped. It is a tool, or a technology, that can be used either skilfully or unskilfully.
In the classic book Work Sex Money, Chogyam Trungpa talks about the Tibetan idea of yun, which means prosperity or fundamental wealth:
It is actually the force of wealth rather than actual concrete wealth. There is a belief in an abstract energy that can pass from one person to another. It is an abstract magnetizing quality that gathers and radiates wealth.
In the Tibetan system there is also the idea of ratna, which literally means jewel and also refers to wealth. Ratna energy is about nourishment, balance and abundance. It is the basic enriching and supporting force of the world, related to how the Earth nourishes us. Ratna is the ability to feel rich, even luxurious, no matter what you have; to share resources easily and wisely; to appreciate what you have and delight in what others offer. What would it feel like to interact with money and wealth in this way?
I believe that what many of us are secretly seeking through money is to restore our sense of dignity, and to be able to see and bestow value on ourselves and others. I doubt very much that our current economic system supports this ideal. But becoming aware of our motivations and desires at their core can only help. So here are four models that might get you thinking about your own relationship with money, and how you’re spending and receiving it. I start with the most familiar models and go through to the least, so if you want to learn something new, stick with me till the end.
This is the model we are most aware of: transaction, or barter. In this model, you pay money for something you receive in return (goods, services etc.) And others pay you money for what you provide them. If you work and receive wages or a salary for your labour, you are participating in this process. And if you choose to become a paid subscriber, from this perspective, you are paying me for the time and labour I put into writing, or for the value of my ideas.
The underlying problem with this model is how the worth of things is determined. I am familiar with the free market argument on this, that prices are set by the behavior of individual consumers. But the more fundamental issue is that it is basically impossible to calculate in numbers the value of what actually matters in life. I’m thinking of things like: clean air, nourishing whole food, the care of a mother, the joy of a child, art that moves the heart, healing touch, a deep and stirring conversation, birdsong in the morning, the trees on your street, an idea that changes your life... How can you quantify their worth? How much would you pay to drink fresh water, or to speak true words with a friend or a lover?
Someone mentioned an article to me a few weeks ago, which framed caregiving and housework in terms of hours of unpaid labour. The argument was that these tasks are largely performed by women, who are not compensated financially for them; and if they were to be compensated, their work would be worth $10.8 trillion. As I absorbed this information, I felt a strange mixture of sadness, horror and total absurdity. On the one hand, this story is a desperate attempt to value the work being done behind-the-scenes every day that keeps the world running. On the other hand, it’s ludicrous to think that such work can be given monetary value, even if it adds up to a number with too many zeros to count.
The truth is that these things do not belong in the transactional system. Yet there is no other place for them in modern society, because it is almost entirely oriented around that system.
Some people try to solve this paradox by saying all these things are priceless, so they should be free. (I once had a t-shirt that said ‘all the best things in life are free’.) After all, zero and infinity are the closest numbers to each other. This means no charge for your healing sessions, your time spent caring for a child or an elder, your expertise, your transmission of sacred teachings, your labour of love, your creative expression. No price you set could ever reflect their true value.
In the past ten years since I started teaching, I’ve lost count of the number of times I have been asked to do sessions for free, or in exchange for exposure. Needless to say, I’m not a fan of this approach. Whatever other talents I may have, they don’t include the ability to live off good vibes alone. Having said that, I do sometimes still work for free. I also recognize that sometimes those on the asking end genuinely do not have the funds, sometimes they are just unaware of the implications of what they’re doing, and other times they are extracting whatever they can, because they can. This is true across numerous industries, including the arts. It is a sad reality of this financial model, which often brings up feelings of resentment and despair. For a comic take, check out the video below.
In times past, especially in medieval and court-oriented societies, artists and other such people were supported through a system of patronage. Those with the money, usually royalty or nobility, financed a whole industry of talented people for the purposes of enjoyment and learning. In this way—while it was still competitive, even cut-throat, and court politics came with its own problems—there was social, perceived value in being a poet, a dancer, or a spiritual teacher. Much of the good that remains for us to enjoy in the arts, architecture, literature, dance and other traditions arose as a direct result of patronage.
In the case of spirituality, the convention was to support entire monasteries and places of spiritual endeavour because (1) they were sanctuaries; (2) they often took in and cared for the least fortunate like orphans or the mentally and physically ill and dying, and (3) they were oriented to the pursuit of wisdom and meaning. There was also a sense that it was morally good to support such institutions. In many cases this led to their corruption and politicization. However, I strongly believe that it is the artists, knowledge-seekers and the spiritually-oriented people of a society that maintain its invisible balance, that hold things together from within when they appear to be falling apart, and that suggest fresh ways forward when all else is lost. This was better understood in the past than it is today.
The modern parallel of patronage is university or government grants, but I’m not sure it tallies that well, given how institutional priorities have changed. Another way that some in the yoga/arts industry survive is by having someone else support them financially—a spouse or parents usually. Many teachers I have known would not be able to do what they do without the backing of their partner, or the support they receive from their family. This is a kind of patronage system too, albeit on a much smaller scale.
In the modern world, wealth is more widely distributed than it was in medieval courtly periods. One result of this is that many more people can be patrons, and in some sense, we are all patrons of everyone we buy from and every business we support. (Hence the term to patronise an establishment.) One of the options when opting for a paid subscription here on Substack is to become a ‘founding member’. It’s the highest tier of membership and the most expensive. When I saw that I immediately thought: that’s how you become a patron, without needing to be royalty ;)
Another parallel tradition from Asia is dana, which means generosity, or giving. It is the root word for the English ‘donation’, but it has a different flavour in Sanskrit, due to the cultural context. Dana is a gift—of money, clothing, food or shelter—given to those who have renounced the world, ie. monks and nuns. In Asia it is traditionally placed in the begging bowl of a wandering ascetic, whose practice is to accept whatever is given with equanimity. This creates a two-way relationship that sustains the practice of dana in a society. Dana is also given on a larger scale as money to temples and monasteries, particularly at auspicious or festival times, or when the temple performs a service like a funeral. In this way, society supports those who have given it up, because they still provide intangible value through their existence, their efforts, their counsel, and their collective wisdom.
Many spiritual teachers still operate on a dana basis, with wildly variable results. In my experience, walking around with a begging bowl doesn’t really work outside of specific contexts in Asia. In some Western cultures it can even carry negative associations of being a ‘beggar’, someone who is not working but still wants to be fed. Because the value of such an individual to society is not seen, they are judged instead of supported.
Another way dana operates is when people host events or offer their work on a donation basis. Sadly, I’ve not found this to be particularly effective. It often results in confusion on the part of the participants, because they are unsure how much is appropriate to give, or they (subconsciously) feel that because it’s basically free, they don’t need to pay much. Both these responses underscore how deeply we rely on the monetary value assigned to things when assessing their worth. In my own case, I am faced with that confused state of mind whenever I visit a cathedral or an art museum and they have a coin box at the exit. No matter how much I give, it never feels like enough. We’re back to that first question: how much is this worth to me?
Donation-based events can also result in a skewed or polarised situation, where some people give a lot, and others give very little. I used to help organize lectures when one of my teachers visited Singapore. He would talk for 2 hours, in medium-sized auditoriums or large yoga studios, to an audience of between 30-70 people. A dana box was set up outside the door for people to drop money into on their way out. It was common to see most people dropping in $2 or $5. (For context, a movie ticket here costs about $15.) And then sometimes, there would be a couple of people giving $100 or even more. Even so, we routinely ran short.
The market answer to this is scale, that you need more reach, more participants. But economies of scale don’t really work that well when the service being offered is a personal one, like artistry, coaching, spiritual training, holistic health, caregiving etc. The value of these things lies in relationship and personalisation, rather than in mass reach (more on this later, in the gift section). Regardless, I’m more interested in what the perceived worth of the lecture was to each participant, and whether the amount donated reflected that or not. Perhaps because we don’t discuss money as openly as we could, people are largely unconscious in their interactions with it. And when you’re unconscious, you just do what everyone else is doing.
I got this model fromand his book Sacred Economics. I haven’t finished the book yet, but he argues that gift economies are a traditional financial model. In a gift economy, what is given is given freely, without expectation of return. That’s the meaning of the word gift: something that is bestowed voluntarily, without compensation. It reminds me of the concept of karma yoga, as in the Bhagavad Gita:
Your power extends only insofar as your actions, not their results.
Therefore, do not be motivated by results.
And do not also let this drive you towards inaction.
—BG 2.47 (emphasis mine)
Thus gifting is not the same as bartering, which is a trading model based on mutually agreed or negotiated values. When you barter, you always have to exchange something, or give something back to the other: otherwise, no trade. It’s also not really the same as dana, even though the word and the original intention may be the same. To me, dana is a way that Asian societies evolved to honour and value intangible services; it’s limited to certain accepted contexts and doesn’t carry over into other things the way that a gift economy could.
Gifting does not only value the things being given, but the relationships being created in the process. In giving something to someone, you are weaving them into your network, and vice versa. It is the promise of connection, enacting a bond between two people. Gifts move through the world in ever-expanding spirals, through each person’s participation in the reciprocity of gifting. Implicit in this understanding is that some things cannot be given value, and therefore they can never truly be repaid or compensated.
When I first started teaching yoga, I used to run open sessions for students at my college to help them destress. Students are known for having no money, but even so, most would drop £1, or £2 into my tip jar at the end of the session. Occasionally someone would give £5 or even £10. Once, at the end of term, a student came up to me and handed me a beautifully wrapped notebook. She’d noticed that I used to write my class plans on little post-its that I would stick to my mat, and wanted to offer me a more stable way of keeping my thoughts around. To me, this was a gift economy gesture. The notebook was not meant as compensation for the value she received from the lessons. It was a way for her to meet an unmet need she noticed in me. It has been more than 10 years and I still remember her, and her offering—because it was a true gift.
I don’t know whether gifts can replace the economy of trade and exchange, or whether they even should. But I feel deep down that participating in a gift economy is one way to restore dignity to the parts of life that are excluded or exploited by traditional market economics: caregiving and tending, teaching, creating, seeking, healing, dreaming, meditating…
This substack is my karma yoga. I do it because I have been given the gift of time, space and an aptitude for writing about spirituality, mysticism, embodiment, etc. My heart’s desire is that you recognize the gift I am offering through my writing, and that you are moved to offer a gift in return, either to me or to the wider world. That might be to become a paid subscriber, but the beauty of a gift economy is that a gift can be anything: words of gratitude, something you create, a reflection, the act of sharing this with someone else. The more personal the gift, the more powerful it is, because again, it is the relationship, the human connection, that matters.
I hope my thoughts have given you something to chew on. Money is an intimidating topic to broach, but it’s so central that I wanted to give it a go anyway. I’ve heard it said that we are now in a knowledge economy. If that’s the case, it’s more important than ever that we clarify our ideas about the value and worth of intangibles like information, ideas, beauty, stories, health, experiences; and how they do or do not fit in to our current monetary behavior and models. I’d love to hear any thoughts you have on this topic, so please share in the comments. See you in the next post, which will be on secret knowledge, deconstructing belief systems, and tantra.