A 20-minute guided analytical meditation on how money exists through parts, causes, and the mind in our interdependent, empty reality
Money has a huge impact on our lives. Most of us spend at least half our waking hours working to earn money that we then use to buy everything else we need or want in our lives. If we only have a little money—or worse, if we’re deep in debt—it can mean a life of struggle and fear.
If we have a lot of money, we might feel safe and comfortable. But we might also be afraid of losing our money, or we experience the jealousy of people around us who wish they had more. Some of the richest people in the world have everything they could dream of materially, and yet they may not even know who’s a real friend and who’s only a friend of their money.
Since money has such a big place in our lives, it can be a powerful object to reflect on when we meditate on emptiness, the Buddhist view of the interdependent nature of reality. How does money exist? Why do we believe in it? And what feelings does it bring up in us?
Start by getting into a meditation posture. You can sit cross-legged on the floor with your hands up in your lap and spine straight. Or straight-backed in a chair with your legs uncrossed and feet flat on the floor. Tilt your head slightly down, half-close your eyes, and send your gaze a few feet in front of you at a spot on the floor, or into the space itself in front of you.
Now think for a moment about why you’re meditating. Meditation’s relaxing and de-stressing, but there are other ways to relax and de-stress that might be nicer than sitting on a cushion. So why are you meditating? Meditation is a way to bring out our best qualities: like love, compassion, patience, generosity, and kindness. That can be one motivation.
Another is to help us be of greatest benefit to everyone we encounter: to become a better daughter, son, parent, brother, co-worker, boss, or friend to all the people in our lives, and even to strangers. Tiny actions that we take, like a smile at someone we pass on the street, can have surprisingly big, positive effects on the people and the world around us.
One way to get in touch with our better nature is to reflect on the interdependent nature of reality, how things and people and ourselves aren’t separate from everybody and everything else, and we’ll do that today.
For a minute now, to stabilize the mind, let’s focus on our breath. You can watch the breath as it enters and exits your nostrils, cool coming in, warm as it goes out. Or you can watch the rise and fall of your abdomen. Distractions naturally occur, sometimes even on the first breath, so as thoughts, feelings, sounds, or visual images intrude on your focus on your breath, just let them pass by. Without pulling them forward, and without pushing them away, they’ll naturally disappear on their own, like clouds passing across the sky. So for one minute, focus on the breath.
How Money Exists
Now we go into the analytical meditation on how money exists. We’ll use a stream of thoughts, feelings, and critical analysis to try and bring our mind to a better understanding of reality. To do this meditation, called a meditation on emptiness, or a meditation on dependent arising, we first bring the object to mind.
Think about some money that you yourself have—however you’d like it to appear. As a stack of bills, a bank balance on your computer screen, or an entry in the Bitcoin blockchain.
Notice how the money you’re imagining feels real and separate from you. That there’s a you, who at the moment, owns that independent, separate money.
With this concrete sense of the money and me, now we start to explore how money exists at a deeper level.
The Parts of Money
First, think about the parts of money.
If it’s physical currency, think about the paper it’s printed on. Think about the ink, the number that says how much it’s worth. Depending on what number is printed, one piece of paper can be a hundred times more valuable than another one. Think about the words, the serial number, the secret symbols, and the pictures of the people on your money.
Think about the molecules of material all stuck together that make up the money: pieces of cotton and flax plants ground up, pigments from plants, varnish, resin, solvents, and carbon in the ink, little bits of iron that magnetize the ink to make it machine readable. There are fingerprints and grease and dirt and even DNA on the money too. Traces of all the other people that touched it, who thought it was theirs for a little while.
At its edges, the money’s dissolving, turning to dust, exchanging ions with the air, being breathed into you and me and literally being turned into us. At even a material level we aren’t separate from money – parts of our bodies rub off onto it, and we breathe it into our bodies.
At a more fundamental level, paper money consists of atoms of carbon and hydrogen and oxygen and other trace elements.
If you’re thinking about your bank balance instead of bills, at first there are the glowing pixels on the screen, which your brain interprets as numbers, not just patterns of light and dark, but something with value that will pay your rent or buy your food.
Think about the servers in some giant building in Utah or Virginia, air-conditioned, threaded with tons of wires; and one server that has your name, account number, and account balance stored in one small place on one tiny microchip somewhere inside that vast building. The physical location of those numbers and characters is something you’d need a microscope to see, layers of silicon pressed up against other layers of silicon holding the names and dollar amounts of other people you don’t know. Is that your money right there on a microchip in the Rocky Mountains?
Or, if you’re thinking of money you have as cryptocurrency, the money’s all over the place. You have an anonymous public key 160 bits long with entries for every time you made a deposit or withdrawal.
These entries are stored in the blockchain. And the blockchain doesn’t exist in any one place, but it’s replicated in about 83,000 different places; every computer running a bitcoin node. So is your bitcoin in all those 83,000 computers, in one tiny part of one microchip? Is it in all of them? If it’s neither of those, is it in none of them?
The Causes of Money
Next we think about the causes of money.
For paper money, we can think about the mint where the money was printed in big sheets, then cut apart into bills. We can think of the person who designed the money, and the master artist who cut the design into a metal plate that’s pressed thousands of times into ink and paper.
We can think about the plants that grew the paper fibers; the people that watered those plants; the clouds where that water came from; the endless cycle of water across oceans, lakes, forests and farms; the evolution of life that lead originally to plants, the geological events that spawned the minerals in our money.
The atoms that make up our money have causes too: hydrogen that’s been present since the birth of the universe, oxygen and carbon the product of stars that exploded billions of years ago, before our own star formed. So the bill in our hands can, in a logical, scientific way, be traced back to the origin of the universe.
Then there are the societal causes of paper money: the people who came up with our modern banking system and laws. People like Alexander Hamilton who designed our financial system in the US. And tracing the idea of money back through the history of civilizations through Roman coins and Chinese cowrie shells, to the first people who conceived of the idea of money.
For money stored in bank accounts, the causes are the people that invented the computers and algorithms, the founders and owners of the banks, the software running the many systems like ACH and Wires and the Federal Reserve. You can even think of the electricity as a cause, keeping these systems running, and the power plants making that electricity. The coal or oil, the products of decayed dinosaurs from millions of years ago being burned to maintain the record of our bank balance. Or the energy from the sun, a nuclear furnace 93 million miles away powering our money.
Cryptocurrencies have similar causes, but more distributed, diffuse. Can you find it in the code running the Bitcoin algorithms that keeps your funds secure? There’s no government as a cause for cryptos, but a group of people with a new idea to decentralize and democratize money. Those thinkers and programmers are one cause. And all the people who decided to run their own Bitcoin servers.
Another cause of cryptocurrency is the political desire that many people have to be independent from any particular nation. And then similarly back through the earlier causes of strong cryptography and the first computers invented during World War II by people like Alan Turing. Or back through the history of secret codes in society, to the first person who ever sent a simple encoded message that no one else could read but the person she wanted to read it.
And then, like bank money, back through the history of civilization, the evolution of humanity and life on our planet, our star, our solar system, and universe, all causes of everything here on earth.
The Mind’s Role in Money
Now reflect on the mind’s role in money. We can see that any form of money is made of innumerable parts. And that those parts have an extraordinary chain of causes that led to their coming together. Yet what is it that brings uncountable trillions of parts together with uncountable trillions of causes to make this object appear as a twenty-dollar bill, my bank balance, or 1 bitcoin? It’s our mind.
This analysis of money, that we can apply to any object, breaks things down into three logical ways of inter-being: their parts, those parts’ causes, and the mind that wraps those caused parts into the concept of a singular object.
There is nothing outside our mind that unifies those parts and causes – it’s only our mind, which applies a label, a sound, an idea that we project onto them, the notion of a singular object.
All those trillions of parts and causes are not singular, but plural. We label them as a single object for the sake of convenience, by convention, as it’s often said in the Buddhist view.
And this way of existing is the true way the object exists, by mere convention; a mind wrapping the parts and causes with an idea, a sound, a word, a concept.
This analysis doesn’t conclude that money doesn’t exist. We can still use that bundle of parts and causes to buy lunch or a house or pay off our credit card bill. But this view of interdependence corrects the more extreme view that the money exists independently, partlessly, and without causes. Money is not separate from us and the world around us. In a very real sense, money is interconnected with us and the vast array of parts and causes and minds in the world around us.
So for a moment, if you feel this more expansive, interdependent sense of how money exists, rest in that space for a minute and let go of the logic that got you there.
Why is this Useful?
And then as you come out of this meditation, you may ask, Why is this useful? And you’ll have to come to this conclusion yourself, but for many meditators, applying this analysis is very helpful when disturbing emotions arise around any object, like strong attachment or strong fear or strong aversion or anger…without denying that we may need money, or that we feel jealous, or that we feel lonely, or whatever genuine human needs are wrapped up in our situation with money. At the same time, we can see that money is not a separate independent thing; it’s interdependent, interconnected, and fluid.
And sometimes this more relaxed way of looking at money and at our own mind around it, can help us achieve calm in the face of craving or anger. And the purpose is not necessarily to forget about our problems, but to help us see that our situation is fluid, that things aren’t as concrete and fixed as we think, and that change and interdependence are at the root of reality.
That, if things change, are interdependent, and have parts and causes and changing minds that mistakenly project solidness and separateness onto them, then when things are going poorly, they can possibly change in a better direction. This understanding can also help us accept that things will sometimes change in a worse direction, too, and we can be prepared for that. Meditating like this can help us prepare for those times, prepare us for the way the world really is, the way things really exist, as constantly changing parts, causes, and a mind that projects solidity and permanence onto them.
So as you come out of the meditation, look at some real money or your bank balance and see if it looks and feels any different. How does the money you have or don’t have feel when you think of it in this deeply interdependent way?
And then, of course, you can extend this way of seeing things to other objects you have strong feelings toward, and even, eventually, to yourself, to come to a deeper understanding of how you truly exist as interdependent, made of parts, causes, and your mind labeling these parts and causes as you.
Written and hosted by Scott Snibbe
Produced by Tara Anderson
Audio mastering by Christian Parry and Chris Boulton