And as I think about the choices I’ve made and the world around me, I’ve been thinking again about what I value and why. Writing has the power, ultimately, to help us understand ourselves. Writing helps us understand what matters to us, and helps us communicate that— first to ourselves and then with others.
While there are many pressing, alarming, particular issues happening in the news around us all the time, I find that rather than be in reaction mode all the time to this or that new horror, it can be more effective sometimes to get to the heart of the matter and re-assert our own values.
And so, as I’m out in the woods, I’m thinking again about Henry David Thoreau, and the ways in which we define wealth.
Too often, people mistake material wealth for value. This fall, for example, when I was canvassing in the election season, I talked to two young construction workers. They clearly didn’t have a lot of money, but they were voting for Republican candidates, they told me, because they respected the way Trump was a good businessman. “He must know what he’s doing if he did so well for himself,” they told me. It didn’t interest them that he had been born into his wealth or that the way he accumulated more money was by cheating others. To them, his wealth was simply a signifier of superiority.
This is exactly the kind of association that the President of the United States makes explicit every day: he wants us to think that the wealthy are worth more and are better people; that those who are down and out somehow brought it upon themselves.
The American myth of pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps, of independence and achievement, feeds into this dangerous association between power and value; the idea that those who are better do better is essentially the idea that might makes right.
In spiritual circles, the “law of attraction,” the idea that we attract into our life the experiences and qualities that reflect our own inner lives, is similarly dangerous. Without more complex or nuanced teachings, it reinforces the idea that those who have material abundance spiritually “deserve” it and those who are suffering deserve it and have brought it on themselves. While it is true that our mindset can help attract into our lives certain qualities, and while it is true that material comfort is an important quality to appreciate–for all people–we must also be careful about how we use these teachings and how we use language.
Here, then, are some of my reflections on wealth, abundance and value. And beneath the essay, I’ve included a few writing prompts for you as well.
Relearning the Meaning of Wealth and Abundance
“The master can keep giving,” the Tao Te Ching teaches, “because there is no end to her wealth.” What is meant by wealth here? I sometimes struggle with this question. Like most people, I grew up in a society that equates wealth with money and material possessions. Our culture celebrates CEOs and billionaires, and teaches us that we should all try to act like rich people. We are taught, not only that a “mindset of abundance” is the best way to happiness, but that this when we talk about “abundance” or “wealth,” we think only of material possessions.
I worry that these messages overlook the plight of America’s and the world’s poor. I worry, too, that in an age of climate change and environmental destruction, cultivating a mindset of abundance is a distraction from–or even an encouragement of–the ever-mounting overuse of material resources. In an age of environmental devastation and growing inequality between the rich and the poor, I want to rethink what we mean by wealth, and go back to what the Tao Te Ching really means by the phrase “there is no end to her wealth.”
So, is it time to be more explicit in what we mean by wealth and abundance? Is it time to unlearn one vision of wealth that we have been carrying in America and the Western world for hundreds of years and re-learn another?
Every spiritual tradition grapples with questions and attitudes towards wealth, and I find it helpful to look back at teachings across traditions and time. Henry David Thoreau, like Jesus, suggests that people misunderstand what we define as having wealth and value, favoring inanimate ‘things’ (to use Jesus’s word) over living relationships.
“It is easier for a camel to fit through the eye of a needle,” Jesus famously pronounced, “than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” Jesus identified two kinds of richness: that found in material wealth and that found in spiritual wealth. In Luke 12, Jesus suggests that those who enjoy material wealth will be in trouble in the afterlife, but those who have the “richness” of God will be saved. “This,” Jesus says, referring to a difficult end to one’s life, “is how it will be with whoever stores up things for themselves but is not rich toward God.” Those who store up “things” are not rich in the ways that matter.
In 1863, in his essay “Life Without Principle,” Thoreau wrote: “If a man walks in the woods for love of them half of each day, he is in danger of being regarded as a loafer; but if he spends his whole day as a speculator, shearing off those woods and making earth bald before her time, he is esteemed an industrious and enterprising citizen. As if a town had no interest in its forests but to cut them down!”
Thoreau points out that in mid-nineteenth-century America, only in the act of cutting down the tree for its material wealth is someone considered ‘industrious.’ He implies that New England culture does not know how to value the inherent wealth of a living tree and living forest.
As Thoreau suggests in “Life Without Principle,” the Tao Te Ching, written in 4th-century BC China, teaches us that the wise person knows that life is impermanent and cannot be “possessed.” “Things arise and she [the master] lets them come; things disappear and she lets them go. She has but she doesn’t possess.”
Most of our current definitions of wealth tend to be narrowed to an accumulation of material possessions. But this definition of wealth is not inherent to the meaning of the word and, indeed, is largely cultural.
In Joe Kane’s book, Savages, about a trip to the Amazon jungle to visit people whose land was being threatened by oil development, Kane portrays a culture that defines wealth very differently from the way we define it today: material accumulation is a sign of weakness and insecurity, while trusting one’s ability to successfully interact and be in a supportive relationship with the surroundings is a sign of wealth and strength.
In the book, Kane needed to visit another tribe, so he and two other men set out for a three-day walk through the jungle with nothing but a machete and the clothes on their backs. It was assumed that they could get by in the jungle on their own. To carry food and water would only slow them down and was considered a sign of insecurity.
Those who gathered things and kept them for themselves were insecure, weak, and poor, while those who shared the most demonstrated their power and ability to provide for themselves and others. The abundance of this society came from its relationship to the natural world around it.
Can we, as a society, see wealth in terms of relationships?
Ironically, our focus on “abundance” may actually create an anxiety about having enough. Environmental thinker Frances Moore Lappe invites us to shift our frame of consciousness around wealth. “Scarcity mind,” to use a term Lappe has coined, comes from a culture that hoards, a culture in which wealth accrues more wealth, and in which wealth is not shared. It is not scarcity, Lappe points out, that keeps people hungry, but inadequate relationships: systems that don’t allow for sufficient distribution of plentiful resources.
Our society, Lappe believes, is dominated by what she calls the three S’s: scarcity, separateness, and stasis. But she encourages us to move toward what she calls the three C’s: connection, continuous change, and co-creation.
We must embrace the connection with others and the natural world, We must recognize the continually changing nature of the world and our wavering ability to control it. And we must co-create with those around us. Only then are able to fulfill our greatest potential and access the true, sustainable wealth and abundance of our world.
It is perhaps no surprise that as the gap between the rich and the poor deepens, as people feel increasingly insecure and isolated, and as our environmental crisis worsens, we as a society have been operating from a mindset of scarcity, fear, and confusion.
And as a result, we elected a president who represents all the false values of mistaking material hoarding for wealth.
The grasping that this kind of wealth represents is specifically warned against in the Tao Te Ching: “Chase after money and security and your heart will never unclench.”
It is time to unlearn this grasping.
I imagine a world in which relationships are seen as wealth. I imagine a world in which education, parenting, art making, bio-conscious farming, and reverence toward the world around us, toward all species, people, and the natural world are most prized in our economic and value systems. This, it seems to me, would be a world that accurately defines wealth and abundance.
It may be true, as contemporary spiritual teachers sometimes say, that internal abundance leads to external abundance. But if A leads to B, it does not logically follow that B is an indicator of A. A large bank account is not alone a sign of strong relationships, happiness, health, or relational wealth.
Similarly, it’s important that our contemporary spiritual teachers continue to define what that external abundance really is. If we have strong relationships and a sense of fulfillment and alignment, that is true abundance. If others have our backs and if we live in a sustainable relationship with the natural world around us, then this, too, is true abundance and wealth, even if our bank accounts are not very large.
After all, the root of the word ‘wealth’ comes from the Middle English word weal which meant happiness, prosperity, health. How we use language matters, and how we define wealth helps us clarify for ourselves the future that we want.
When we unlearn one meaning of wealth and reclaim another, we can move toward a future—both individually and collectively—that is more sustaining and sustainable. And when we redefine wealth, we can better choose the institutions and people we want to help lead us into that future.
(This essay was first published in Kosmos Magazine)
What do you most value? (Make a list)
What does wealth mean to you?
How does your pursuit of wealth contribute to your health?
Do you feel that you have “enough”? What do you wish you had more of?
Do you feel that you ARE “enough”? If not, in what ways do you feel deficient? In what ways do you think that those feelings of deficiency have been inherited or programmed by your family/ society?
What is one thing you can do today to cultivate one of the values that you hold? Can you appreciate the ways in which you’re already cultivating relationship, appreciation, etc.?
I invite you also to spend a few moments in meditation feeling that you ARE enough and to write about the experience.
As always, I love to hear from you. Let me know what you think and please share this with friends!
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