Zen, Money and the Flow of Life

Just finished a very insightful book: The Wisdom of Insecurity by Alan Watts. Basically, this is one of those “spiritual” books that try to tell you more about life and what really matters, how to live more fully in our “modern times” and all the rest of it. The basis here is something close to Zen Buddhism as I understand it (or try to understand). You know, this thing about “letting go”, “living in the moment”, knowing that there is only ever the present and no other time, listening to the wisdom of the body and flowing from one moment to the next, while being truly aware of each, and without regret for the past or worry about the future. This should transform your life.

The funny thing here is something actually quite typical for Zen (which BTW I think is the jazz among the spiritual traditions, just as Tango is the jazz among the Latin dances). Watts states that, ironically, we end up with insecurity BECAUSE we are always trying to be secure, and that salvation can only come through realising that there actually is no way of saving ourselves. But he doesn’t sound like this is a problem … It is all about going through every situation that comes up, facing it and not running away from it, about deeply knowing that there is no “I” and no “other”, that there is no seperation at all, that all is one and that once we feel that and forget ourselves, loose ourselves in whatever we are doing (“transforming the ego”), we can be truly happy … But if you hold your breath (to use his best example) in order to keep it, you’ll loose it.

He also makes a very good point about money – and this is where economic and social aspects come in. He thinks that it is fatal to take conventions too seriously – for example, a social convention like money. Money is of course good because it saves us the trouble and inconvenience of barter, but we shouldn’t confuse it with real wealth because we can’t eat, drink it or wear it. Money can stay in a static form for a long time, like in the form of a gold coin or in a bank account. But REAL wealth, like food, is perishable. So a community may possess all the monies in the world, but if it does not tend the crops, it will starve and die. Here again, the flow of life comes in since static money in a bank account (in particular virtual money that only exists on computer screens) doesn’t have any intrinsic value at all. Especially in times of crisis when there will be bank runs and many people will find out that most of their money is actually hot air, created out of nothing (yes, banks do that).

It occurred to me that exactly here lies the connection to something like “spiritual economics”. With regards to the current financial crisis, one of our problems is the so-called global liquidity trap (Keynes has written about this) which basically means that at some point in the economic cycle more and more money is accumulated in fewer and fewer hands and stays put there. And these people tend to possess so much that they don’t need that much more. Their consumption is very low compared to their possibilities. On the other hand, it doesn’t make much sense for them to invest all that static money in order to get factories up and running and people into work because the level of demand needed to make these investments profitable cannot be found anymore since the vast majority of people have less and less money. The gap widens. What happens in such a situation is usually that “the rich” indulge in a lot of useless speculation, something that we can witness at the moment.

So if money becomes static and cannot flow freely anymore, we get into economic trouble. Like we get into “spiritual trouble” when our energies don’t flow freely, when we are stuck in the past or the future and don’t live in the moment. As Alan Watts has pointed out, all forms of real wealth are perishable, like food for example. So with food or other perishable or quality-loosing barter items for exchange, this wouldn’t have happened. People wouldn’t be able to store this kind of wealth for too long, thus taking energy out of the eonomic cycle. It would go back in and flow soon enough in exchange for other forms of real wealth. But with today’s forms of money it is very easy to take energy away from the economic flow and make it static for too long to the great detriment of whole economies and countries.

Could it be that in the end to fix our problems with the global economy, we would have to apply the same principles as to our spiritual life? A great revolutionary thinker, business man and social reformer, Silvio Gesell, has tried to invent something like a “natural economic order” that would completely alter the way we think about and deal with money – that would ultimately make money a perishable good since that is what we want while still being able to enjoy the convenience of money. He said we would need something like “free money”: Money that looses its worth over time, thus forcing people to either spend or invest it which would make it enter the economic flow again where it can be productive to the benefit of a healthy economy.

Interestingly, it is said that Silvio Gesell had a kind of “vision” to arrive at his conclusions.