When I was twenty-one, I spent four months hitchhiking across South America. Amazingly, I never spent a penny on travel costs or accommodation, preferring to sleep in my tent in football fields or on hillsides than to pay for a hostel. The mission? Live for free and experience wonderful things as cheaply as possible. I succeeded, returning to New Zealand four months later a lot thinner, possibly malnourished, but having spent only $750 in four months across several countries. Well done.
Jump forward eight years, and I am living on the shores of Lake Atitlán in Guatemala. It’s the end of the year and the annual Rainbow Gathering in Central America has just finished, leaving thralls of young, dreadlocked, possibly malnourished hippies lining the streets of San Marcos. They sell macramé in the alleys and dance with sticks and try to bargain food off the locals who are living on less than $2 a day. They put up their tents in the gardens and front lawns of the properties along the lake, arguing with landowners who ask them to leave that “we are all one. No one owns the land.”
Money and Spirituality: Are they Mutually Exclusive?
I’m now a landowner with a big garden on the lake, and yet I used to be one of them. I find that I’m asking myself, “Are financial success and deep spiritual convictions mutually exclusive?”
What a dream to live for free—but at what cost to others? I realized that while I had paraded around South America with my free love/free-living principles, I had not been living without money. Rather, I had been living off the money of others. The people who offered me rides had to pay for their gas, the people who cooked for me had to pay for that food, and in my naïve fundamentalism, I never offered them anything in return. I preferred to force the world to fit into my belief that the world doesn’t need money, while others worked hard for theirs and I profited.
Another field where this belief shows up is in the spiritual marketplace. We are more than happy to pay the price of topping up our phone or buying our coffee from big corporations, yet we somehow feel it fair to bargain with a fabulous spiritual teacher to get a cheaper yoga class, a cheaper retreat, a cheaper workshop. It can be difficult to put a value on our personal and spiritual growth, but there must be some price arrived at that can sustain the teacher who makes a living solely off offering his or her often life-changing spiritual knowledge.
We often speak of money as if it were at odds with spirituality. But how much would you pay for the best meditation of your life? How much is your liberation worth? We find ourselves saying that we are willing to give everything—our passions, our limitations, our lives—for the Truth with a capital T, but our money? No. We’d better hold onto that because we’ll have to fly home for Christmas if we don’t get enlightened by November.
Coherence of Practice
As the owner of a meditation retreat center, I have heard the line “I want to do a retreat but I don’t have enough money” many a time. And, I believe that in many cases it may be true. I have also used that line when I was genuinely short on cash. However, I have also watched someone who asked for a retreat for half-price, then leave the retreat and spend five times as much as the retreat on a beautiful Airbnb as a “treat” for their last week at the lake. What is being called into question here is values. What do we value and how much do we value our own personal growth?
If we continue to operate in the world at this level of excuses for our skinny bank accounts, and constantly barter with spiritual teachers and establishments who could help us most, then we will find ourselves caught in a never-ending cycle of fear-caused resistance. The journey of aligning our daily lives into our spiritual beliefs can be challenging. But, through practice, we begin to see that everything moves spontaneously and perfectly in this constant flow of life. To truly surrender and open means to let go into this flow.
Overcoming Fear and Staying in the Flow
Holding onto our money out of fear is not staying in this flow. What are we afraid of in giving it forth? When we begin to value the work of others, and what a class or retreat or teacher might offer us that will inspire us until the day we die, we actually begin to value ourselves. We begin to step into the flow, not only through giving but through receiving as well. We begin to empower ourselves and ask for our own hard work to be honored and are able to put a value on the things we have to offer that can inspire others and change lives.
One beautiful spiritual ideal that we are often ruled by, especially in a spiritual community, is that we must always give to others without thinking of ourselves. What I have seen from trying to live this ideal, both in my experience and the experience of others, is that if we don’t value our own needs as equally as we value others, we are simply running ourselves into the ground, and eventually breaking down from exhaustion, lack of personal space, and emotional overloading. Caring for ourselves is caring for others. We can only give everything we have when we are completely replenished—otherwise the beautiful ideal of “Karma Yoga” is not sustainable long-term.
It’s funny to me that in advertising for spiritual events I have often seen the word “price” replaced by “energy exchange” or “contribution” or “suggested donation.” There is fear to use the simple words “cost” or “price”—as if these words might denote that money is connected to that evil world of capitalism which spirituality is trying to escape. As if there ought to be no association between spiritual work and the “real world.”
Money Is Not the Enemy
Money is not evil. Some of the ways that it is used or divided in the world may be unfair, but in itself, money as a form of currency and exchange has no evil intentions of its own. It is a simple fact that if we are to live in this world, money must pass through our hands. Rather than trying to resist being a part of this world in an attempt to escape into nirvana, we can use the endless dance of money in our lives to remind us of the dance of the Ultimate moving within us.
Ancient communities may have once lived through the exchange of goods and services, and maybe one day we will live in that reality again. But, so long as we hold onto the idea of money being “dirty” or “evil” we will never truly accept reality. In spiritual practice, acceptance is key. To meditate effectively we must not to fight with our thoughts or emotions, but freely allow them until they dissolve into deep stillness and peace. If we demonize the thoughts or emotions as “evil,” we are constantly creating a separation between self and thoughts, when, really, self and thoughts, money and love, are all one and the same.
Through acceptance that we are material beings living in a material world our fears and ideas of separation can dissolve, and the deeper reality of Oneness can be revealed. And, once it has been revealed, once we feel that perfect unity we have longed for, we are still living in a material world in which money is the universal language that we speak.
The goal of all spiritual practice is to dissolve the limiting beliefs of oneself as an isolated individual separate from the whole, and experience that self and the whole are in fact one reality. This understanding brings incredible peace and openness to all expressions of life. When this understanding flowers within us, we become aware that all people, all nations, all of the money in the world, are incredible parts of ourselves. This freeing of limiting beliefs around money actualizes freedom itself.
I have been walking on this path for a number of years now, working on myself, and on opening in complete fullness to this understanding of Oneness. I value the spiritual work of others and the work that I have done and can now share with those around me. Money is just another fabulous expression of the same divine reality, and I am open to giving and receiving it equally. I’ve come a long way from the hitchhiking kid living the dream of “free living”—my only wish now is to live free.