Getting Mindful with Money
by Jessica Graham
This might come as a shocking disappointment to some, but waking up doesn’t mean you and your life become magically perfect. How many enlightened masters have also been alcoholics, sexual inappropriate with students, or downright abusive? Clearly, if spiritual awakening made you a perfect person, this wouldn’t be the case. There are different layers of awakening, and some of them are quite simple and human. I’m in the process of waking up around money.
I’ve always had a funky relationship with money. I grew up in a family that never had enough money. When I was little, we were on welfare for a while – back when food stamps actually looked a little like stamps. Even though we didn’t belong to a religious sect, we sometimes got food from the church. I loved it because there was always candy and sugary cereal in the big brown paper bags (we weren’t normally allowed to have luscious Lucky Charms or Count Chocula). We were also that family that held up the line at the grocery store, giving items back until the total was affordable. Honestly all of that was kind of fun as a kid. Plus, it was just the way it was, so I didn’t realize that there was another way of life.
What seems to have had a negative impact on me was all the fighting and stress around money. There were fights about finances regularly, that sometimes even got physical.
What seems to have had a negative impact on me was all the fighting and stress around money. There were fights about finances regularly, that sometimes even got physical. There was also non-stop upset and worry about money that the adults vocalized to me and my siblings all the time. There was no ease or sense of abundance with money in my childhood. Financial discussion was a treacherous territory.
My main caretakers also worked a ton. I saw adults working constantly (sometimes doing things they enjoyed, but even then, overworking to the point of distaste for whatever they did) but still deeply concerned about money. My dad tended to work hard (he was a boilermaker) and then play hard, spending all his earnings. My mom seemed to work hard, not play much, but still never have enough money. My stepfather worked every day, all day, and seemed to be in financial fear every day and all day. He never took vacations.
Mindfulness of Money
This all led me to become a workaholic with no savings, a propensity to run up credit cards, no clarity about budgets, and a deep terror of finances in general. It’s been the opposite of fun, but I’m not sitting around blaming my parents. It’s my experience that once I am aware of faulty wiring in my brain, I do have the power to change it. It takes work, sometimes a lot of work, but it is absolutely possible. I know this because of what happened in all my relationships, including romantic, work, family, my creative life, and most notably my sex life, when I did the work. They all changed dramatically for the better. So, if I choose to avoid doing the required work – I can only blame myself for the enviable suffering and repeated dysfunctional patterns that follow.
Here’s the deal with me and the work I need to do around money. I have been doing it. I’ve been doing it… very… very… slowly. Using my meditation practice to deconstruct and inquire into my emotions and thoughts about money has been incredibly helpful. I no longer wake up with ice cold fear coursing through my body and my mind filled with images of total destitution. I no longer go into an insane panic when my account balance dips dangerously low. I don’t imagine worst case scenarios, or scan through Craigslist looking for some minimum wage job to soothe my anxiety. I’m not afraid of money anymore.
My spiritual work (along with therapy) have removed my financial fears. I’ve gained unconditional love and acceptance of myself through my spiritual practice as well. That sense of self-love and increased self-worth has of course helped to address the old financially-related wounds and conditioning from childhood.
My recovery from financial terror came slowly over the years of my spiritual practice. It was inch by inch, and then one day, I realized I wasn’t terrified anymore. I could lose a gig or have a low balance and not freak out. That’s because I had observed the thoughts and emotions that make up financial fear, and they weren’t the big bad wolves I had once thought. They were just thoughts and feelings.
In the beginning, I still suffered a lot, even with the new awareness that I didn’t have to identify with the mind or emotional states. After a while, the suffering became optional. I could choose if I wanted to go to the dark side and tell myself scary stories about money, or simply take the next right action and not get caught in the mind. Now days, I don’t seem to even have the choice. I just don’t suffer much, or I suffer in such a subtle way that it’s nearly imperceptible.
I also don’t have a deep envy of folks who have lots of money anymore. I used to walk dogs in affluent neighborhoods. One of my many odd (though quite enjoyable) jobs that I crammed into my schedule, trying to make ends meet. I would feel angry and jealous looking at the cars and houses, and then judge myself for those feelings. First the awareness of my suffering came. I became cognizant of the thoughts of envy and the emotional sensations that accompanied them. Then of the same ingredients that made up my judgement of the envy. I would walk the dogs and meditate on this experience. Eventually the judgement fell away and I could just observe the pure envy.
If you mindfully observe any strong emotional experience for a while it stops seeming so overwhelming. You begin to get some relief and drop into acceptance. With acceptance comes a reduction in suffering. Over time that happened to me.
One day I was walking down a particularly fancy-pants street with my crew of canines and I noticed something was missing. I wasn’t feeling envious! In fact, I enjoyed checking out the architecture and landscaping of the beautiful homes. I felt genuinely happy for the woman who drove by in her brand-new BMW. There was no anger and no jealousy. My brain had changed.
This suffering around money vanished because I woke up. I saw that suffering was optional. Then I had to integrate this knowing into all areas of my life. So that’s what I was doing on those dog walks and with my financial fears. Again, waking up spiritually doesn’t mean you suddenly have all the answers in love or money or sex. You must do the work to change the way your brain and body relates to these things. Being awake gives you the ability to navigate this stuff without getting caught in the mind, and while having a bird’s eye view on the whole thing.
After I integrated my awakening into my relationship with money, something really cool happened. I realized that If I was ever going to expand in the area of money and career it was time to make a change. I could no longer nanny, walk dogs, PA on commercials, dress up like a fairytale princess for kid’s birthday parties, make calls for progressive causes (aka be a telemarketer), or any of the other vast array of moneymaker jobs I had been doing. I needed to create space for my life to blossom. How could I become a successful actor, filmmaker, writer, and spiritual teacher if I was running around taking care of other people’s lives and supporting other people’s companies? It was time to bust out.
So, I quit all my jobs.
I said, I am only going to do things I am passionate about, unless they are paying me REALLY well, are flexible, and I like the people. I was only able to take this leap because of all my meditation on self, i.e. thoughts and emotions. I was no longer scared of all the what-ifs. I knew that feelings wouldn’t kill me. More than that I trusted that I would be okay. I wasn’t going to drop into some dark pit of poverty. I had untangled all my childhood experiences with money from reality. I had healed the traumas that kept me in financial terror. I knew it was safe for me to take risks.
Then after nine months I ran out of money. Just when I thought I might have to go get a nanny job, I got a call from a company that I had done freelance work for over the years. They are a great group of people and pay generously. They wanted to hire me for a three-month job. It was remote, so I could work from home and make my own schedule. Perfect for a creative. That job set me up to understand that I was worth a great day rate, and not to settle for less. Jobs like this supported me, and have continued to, in pursuing my creative and spiritual work. Those jobs fall under the ‘pay me really well’ category.
In the three and a half years since I quit all my jobs my income has gone up and so has my creative output. I wrote a book, which comes out this summer from a highly-regarded small publisher. I produced and acted in a feature film, which also comes out this year. I directed my first short film, starred in another feature, and produced a bunch of shorts. I also co-founded a meditation collective that is now thriving on the eastside of Los Angeles. None of this would have been possible in my old mindset. Not to mention I wouldn’t have had the time for any of it.
My relationship with thoughts and feelings about money has changed. I’m a different person in that regard. My creative and career life has changed. All this is great, but it has taken almost a decade. That’s just too slow for my liking. The other thing is right now, I’m broke. Yep, broke. There’s money coming in soon and I’m not worried, but nonetheless, I’m broke, have no savings, and am the bearer of modest credit card balance.
I have reasons for this. Over the last year and a haIf, I wrote a book (with an appreciated but small advance) and made an indie feature film. Those projects have taken a lot of my time and have only generated a little income. They are both investments and will no doubt bring returns, but not yet. I also got really sick at the end of last year, and was laid up in the hospital for a week. I’ve been dealing with serious health issues all year, which has made it tough to work and added a lot of expenses. Most would say that it’s totally understandable that I’m broke given those circumstances. But I’m not buying it.
Growing Up Financially
See, this situation is a symptom of the issue I still have with money. I’m still not a grownup when it comes to finances. I don’t know how to save or budget or invest. I’ve known that I have work to do around money for a long time. I’ve pulled up a bunch weeds in this area, but I haven’t yet removed the roots. I needed to clear space to be able to do the deep excavation, but enough is enough. It’s time to transform this motherfucker. Just like I did with love, sex, family, creativity, and addiction. My meditation practice is what made all that possible. It led first to an initial awakening that changed my basic experience of life and then gave me the tools to integrate that awakening into all parts of life. All parts. Now the money part is saying “integrate me too! I’m feeling left out!”
Part of what is going on is that I’m just not worried anymore. Not having money doesn’t send me into suffering; so the drive to work and make money has disappeared. I just do what I like now. When I run out of money I don’t really care. I’m happy either way. It’s the kind of unconditional happiness that Shinzen Young says comes from meditating. But if I want to make films, write books, and teach meditation I need to be able to support myself. I need food, shelter, clothing, and all the rest. That stuff costs money. Plus, I want to travel, have a baby, get a new car at some point, buy art, go to the spa. These things also cost money. Which brings me back to the underlying issue. I’m vague and childish when it comes to finances.
My lack of clarity and immaturity with money feels totally out of attunement with the rest of my life. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not out buying things I can’t afford or driving a car out of my price range. I’m modest in my spending, but I still seem to spend when I have money and never save for when I don’t. I have never cultivated a saving system, and after over a decade off credit cards I’ve fallen back into that nasty trap. It’s high time to walk the walk when it comes to money!
How am I doing this? Here are some of my mindfulness tools:
- I’ve publicly set the intention, in several ways, to create a relationship of clarity, maturity, and abundance with money.
- I’m using my meditation practice to observe and deconstruct any resistance that arises about this intention.
- I’m working on a spreadsheet clarifying what comes in and what goes out financially.
- I’ve gotten honest with my friends, partner, and family about my intentions about money. In doing this I’ve asked them to help hold me accountable.
- I’ve released the shame about being broke and about my lack of skills when it comes to money. I’ve done this by simply loving myself. This can be done with lovingkindness meditations and daily affirmations.
- I’m working with a financial advisor.
I know it’s going to take some time to integrate my spiritual awakening into my finances. It has already taken time, but now I’ve got out all my guns, blazing. My spiritual guns that is. I have no reason to believe that it won’t work just as well as it has with everything else. That doesn’t mean I’m going to be filthy rich by next year, but my guess is my debt will be paid off and I’ll have a savings cushion. That would already be a big transformation for me.
No Longer in the Dark
Money has always shown up when I need it. Always. I’ve come to trust that it even when things look bleak money will appear. Right now is no exception. No sooner did I realize that I was broke, then a bunch of good gigs lined up and money started coming in. But I don’t want to keep ignoring the root of my money woes. I want a whole new financial experience.
It’s important to mention that while I did grow up in and out of poverty, I do have certain privilege. I’m white for one, which sadly still gives me a leg up on some of those who are not. Plus, I’m in a situation that allows me to go to meditation retreats, get therapy, and sit around musing about spiritual awakening. I do recognize this and appreciate that while I’ve had it hard in some ways – others have it much harder.
I usually don’t like to write about something until I have it all figured out, but I take my willingness to put this out there as a good sign. To be a good teacher—Hell, to be a happy and healthy person—I need to be honest and up front about my own shit. If I pretend that I’m a money guru, I will become more and more unconscious about the underlying pattern. So, I am shining the light of all your eyes on this part of my life. I have zero interest in being unconscious. I’m peeling back the hood and taking a look. I’m going to need some new parts and an oil change in the money department.
My spiritual work (along with therapy) have removed my financial fears. I’ve gained unconditional love and acceptance of myself through my spiritual practice as well.
We all have the areas that need the light of awareness to shine upon them. We gain nothing by keeping our faulty wiring in the dark. You’ll find that as you wake up and heal, the spots you are avoiding will stick out like a sore thumb. All parts of your life want to be awakened and healed. Money, sex, health, family, career, service, romantic relationships, creativity – all of it. Don’t settle for anything less than a constantly evolving awakening. There will always be deeper levels of spiritual awakening. You are never going to graduate. But you’ll never see those deeper layers if you get stuck in mundane life stuff. I want to keep going on this path, unimpeded by silly money issues. Whatever it is that has you stuck, find the willingness to get unstuck. Use your meditation practice to find the cracks in your old way of thinking. Break out and wake up. It’s already happening. Just open your eyes and see.
featured photo by Piyushgiri Revagar
eye in the pyramid photo by Rafael Gonzales