1.4.4: From having a mind full of money to being mindful with money
Being mindful with money means paying attention to the right things; you do this by focusing on some other process
To recap, in the course of turning our resources into a Good Life, we are performing brain surgery – wiring our brains in such a way that we make better financial decisions, and so that money plays a positive role in our lives, rather than being a source of anxiety or confusion. We do this with the aim of making the right action the default action, so that we need never again need to feel as if we are in a fight with our feelings or our finances.
This is a meditative process. A process of deconstructing unhelpful narrative experiences into sensory ones and subjective views into objective ones, before building back up a more conscious and enlightened whole. As the meditator translates their river of thoughts into the coming and going of bodily sensations, so must we see the stories that subconsciously determine who we are as mere transitory drafts, ready for refinement. You inescapably are a narrative; you can consciously choose to be its author.
We rewire our brains by taking conscious control of the story we tell ourselves and the world about who we are, by shaping our centre of narrative gravity with our thoughtful virtues, rather than letting it be an unthinking slave to other’s vices. We take this conscious control by paying attention in the right way to the right things, by being aware of the building blocks of our stories – our internal and external language – by knowing ourselves, and our environments and the ongoing means by which they interact and influence each other.
Our relationship with money is shaped with our purchases, our words and our thoughts. There is no standing still. No chance to wait and deal with it when we’re more ready. Our brain doesn’t stop sucking in inputs from the world, and spinning them into a protective, predictive web of stories to conjure a ‘self’, to determine its place in the world, and how to navigate its way around. Amid this incessant dance between environment and response, we can choose to ascend towards real-life monetary enlightenment, or down into a cave of complexity and shadowy illusions.
Almost everyone chooses the cave. We are not biologically blind, but without a guide to light the way, and without sufficient courage to face the fears that block us, we are psychologically so.
We want strength, so we seek security. Stumbling around in the shadows, hands grasping at anything we can touch, we think we find it, forgetting that if we can touch it, it is not strength, for strength comes from within. It is a crutch. It delays the search, it doesn’t end it. We know this, because our anxieties are veiled, not abated: external sources of ‘security’ do not destroy the insecurities that summon them, they only shroud them. We are the ‘cowards’, who ‘die many times before their deaths’, while longing instead to be ‘the valiant’ who ‘never taste of death but once.’[i] A fear once faced and taken into ourselves soon fizzles out, but anxiety is fertilised by ignorance.
Courage does not try to hide insecurities. It does not shield its eyes. It opens them. It awakens to reality and does something about it. This process of awakening is what we’ve come to know as mindfulness.
The process of mindfulness is notoriously much trickier to describe than its benefits, despite knowing about both for centuries – even in the West. Hear William James, for example: ‘The faculty of voluntarily bringing back a wandering attention over and over again, is the very root of judgment, character, and will […] But it is easier to define this ideal than to give practical instructions for bringing it about.’[ii]
We know it’s got something to do with paying attention, but as with our brain surgery, there are right and wrong ways to pay attention. The one we choose is the self we choose to be. ‘Never forget this,’ wrote advertising guru Rory Sutherland, ‘the nature of our attention affects the nature of our experience.’[iii]
A common error is to think of attention in terms of a spotlight. However, mindfulness and brain surgery are less the concentrated snapshot of a spotlight and more a process of continually renewing your interest, and refreshing your intention. It is a tuning in not a concentration on. It is a practice of paying attention to how you’re paying attention. It is the difference between listening and hearing.
This is important, because you cannot ‘practise’ paying attention directly. You focus on your breath, and indirectly practise paying attention. As John Vervaeke explains, ‘You pay attention by optimising some other process.’[iv] You do not will attention, you flow into it, and with it. You do not control the spotlight because you pay attention to it; you control it because you really want to see what’s going on somewhere (and before you know it you've been paying attention for ages).
Crucially, mindfulness is an active process, not a passive state, as the Buddhist text, Theragatha describes:
If your mind runs loose after sensual pleasures and states of becoming, quickly restrain it with mindfulness as you would a bad ox eating grain.[v]
Mindfulness is a purposeful act, in a way that attention need not be. The other important aspect of mindfulness the above passage demonstrates is that mindfulness is a kind of remembering. Again, this is an active, purposeful process, not a snapshot recall of a fact. You’re remembering reality. You’re remembering what’s important. You’re remembering perspective. You’re remembering who you want to become. It needn’t take a natural disaster for us to remember what really matters to us. Mindfulness in this sense is calling to mind the right things at the right time, which is the core of all effective behaviour change techniques.
Insights appear when we free an event from the meaning we attach to it, which we do by foregrounding and backgrounding different aspects of our attention, not turning them on and off
The ‘remembering’ sense of mindfulness is at the heart of cognitive therapies used to treat the feelings of flatness or anxiety that keep us stuck from becoming who we want to be. Remembering perspective and how you interact with your circumstances – what is instrumental to your life, and what is merely incidental – is central to breaking up the treacherous marriage of an event and the meaning we attach to it. We cling to the world (or rather our beliefs about it) in an explosion of unhelpful ways, especially when it comes to money.
For example, money ‘success’ is an event. You give it meaning in the context of the story you tell yourself about who you are and your place in the world. You can choose to see billionaires as heroic winners or exploitative evil shits, and in both cases you are playing the same game – attaching a meaning that money is the fundamental object of judgment, with all the knock-on consequences on your own feelings about your money and your life that come with that.
The deconstruction of mental narratives into bodily sensations is key to this process of defusing. Successful therapy often requires backgrounding (but not shutting off) our thinking, and foregrounding those inputs into our sense-making machinery that speak in senses not sentences. Active thoughtful theorising is essential for planning, but it needs help when it comes to knowing what to care about planning for. We go awry when we lose this balance. Insight flashes forth from the mutually supportive interplay of opponent positions, not from tribal warfare, be it between thinking and feeling or actual political tribes.
Because our motivation to form beliefs and take action, to ward off our existential anxiety, runs so far ahead of our understanding, and because ‘our conclusions run ahead of our power to analyse their grounds’[vi] we end up fusing events with the meaning we attach to them. Removing that attachment then becomes literally as painful as removing something to which we are physically attached. Which is why so many people spend so long looking like absolute idiots, frantically defending their foolishness with incoherent and inconsistent impromptu narratives rather than saying ‘oops, I may have been mistaken there’.
Oscillating between a zoomed-out vision of the world and introspection is how we become more insightful. Everything else is just rearranging our prejudices. Divorcing money events from money meanings makes it possible to face our money anxieties and combat them with courage, rather than falling into the trap of thinking ignoring them makes them go away. We cannot weaken worries, but we can strengthen ourselves. The strength of mindfulness comes from its non-reactiveness. It is a proactive, purposeful acceptance. This is the base for good decision-making of all kinds. And of course money plays a role in just about every decision we make. Being good with money leads to becoming a good being with money.
Unthinking is valueless, and dangerously easy. Thinking and not-thinking are both valuable, and hard, but quickly get better with practice
Strengthening your decision-making abilities with the purposeful observant inaction of mindfulness demands two core skills: thinking and not-thinking. Yet we turn away from them like a fat man from a salad, substituting for both the sugary disaster of unthinking.
Thinking and not-thinking are both means of seeing more clearly. Unthinking is blind. Thinking and not-thinking are complements: part of the ability to think things through is the ability to be comfortable with not-thinking. Not-thinking is a conscious ability to simply be, without any sort of cognitive processing – helpful or unhelpful – as in meditation. Unthinking is the opposite.
Unthinking is what we let fill our minds when, scared of being ourselves, we fire our mental doormen, and go hide in a corner, handing over the reins of our worlds to whoever most wants to get their hands on them. ‘Uncertainty, in the presence of vivid hopes and fears,’ wrote Bertrand Russell, ‘is painful, but must be endured if we wish to live without the support of comforting fairy tales.’[vii] Repeat it often enough and unthinkingly delegating decision-making to whatever comes to hand leaves you with an addiction just as strong and just as dangerous as someone who will do anything for a drug fix or who can’t stop their hand from reaching for their phone at every idle moment. The more we default to unthinking, the harder it becomes to see the light. And nothing inspires unthinking quite like money.
As we saw earlier, the plastic capacity of a brain – its ability to change its wiring in response to changes in its environment – does not fade with age, but with choice. This is unlikely to be an active choice any more than muscle atrophy is an active choice of the person who chooses not to be active. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t real. Passive choices are all the more pernicious because they are side-effects, not in-your-face effects, be it the smoker choosing cancer, the sitter choosing weakness, or the non-examiner of life choosing not their Good Life, but someone else’s irrelevant illusion of it. By the time the damage is visible, it’s probably irreversible.
‘Much of what we do simply comes about, rather than being thought about,’ wrote Paul Dolan. ‘Whether or not you buy that big bar of chocolate depends largely on whether it is on display at the till and much less on any real, conscious decision to devour a giant candy bar.’[viii] If these behaviour patterns were confined to impulsively purchased chocolate, it wouldn’t be that big a deal. But our neural wiring doesn’t know the difference between a chocolate bar and a supercar. This makes it a huge deal.
Often what looks like a decision demanding impulsive action is in reality nothing of the sort. Because if you’re wired to react to a certain trigger in a certain way, is the impulsive act to go along with that wiring, or to override it? ‘High-stake problems,’ said Nobel-Prize-winning godfather of behavioural economics Daniel Kahneman:
are likely to involve powerful emotions and strong impulses to action. If there is no time to reflect, then intuitively guided action may be better than freezing or paralysis, especially for the experienced decision maker. If there is time to reflect, slowing down is likely to be a good idea. The effort invested in “getting it right” should be commensurate with the importance of the decision.[ix]
Our relationships with money go awry because we do not see our in-the-moment decisions as the high-stake problems they truly are. Expenditures are expressions of lifestyle choices; they are no more isolated experiences than an individual cigarette is to a smoker. Because we don’t prepare well enough, we slow down and reflect only on the rarest of occasions. The ‘effort invested in getting it right’ should include prioritising time to reflect. Money decisions are no place for intuitively guided action until we’ve trained that intuition. Until then, our intuitions are ruled by our addictions. In the long-run, the ‘effort invested in getting it right’ doesn’t happen at the point of purchase. No one can consistently make life-enhancing decisions under that sort of cognitive load. The effort is not to make a series of snapshot better decisions but to cultivate a way of thinking that effortlessly enhances our life at each fork in the decision-making road.
Taking conscious control of your thoughts and your decisions around money is the practical action I hope results from internalising the messages of this book. Like any skill, this needs to be trained. And like any skill, as near as makes no difference no one bothers doing that training. When it comes to thinking and acting with money, you have a huge advantage: you cannot escape it. No one goes for more than a few hours without making some sort of money decision, even if most of the time it’s done so unconsciously.
Meditation is one of the hardest things there is. But like sawing through wood, it quickly gets easier; we literally get into the groove. ‘A tool wielded well becomes almost as much a part of you as your hands and feet,’ wrote Daniel Dennett, ‘and this is especially true of tools for thinking.’[x] Professor of Psychiatry, Daniel J. Siegel, likens this process of integration to ‘the old physics idea of pushing a ball up a hill to get it rolling down the other side’. ‘It takes considerable effort and deliberate attention’ to get going with our process of intentional change (‘to push the ball up the hill’). ‘But ultimately,’ he explains, ‘the emerging mind takes its natural course towards integration, and the ball flows effortlessly down into the valley of coherence,’ and, in Professor Siegel’s words, ‘a cascade of positive effects seems to emerge spontaneously.’[xi]
The first step towards financial enlightenment is removing your brain’s blinding false beliefs about money and its role in your life
To move towards financial enlightenment is to move away from money anxieties. You do not move away from anxiety by turning away from it, but by turning towards it. The first step in overcoming any addiction is to recognise you are actually addicted. The first step in overcoming money blindness is to recognise that you’re not blind, but wearing a blindfold.
Immanuel Kant defined Enlightenment as the liberation from one’s self-imposed mental immaturity – an immaturity that arose not from ‘a lack of understanding, but in a lack of determination and courage to use it without the assistance of another’.[xii] Sapere aude! Kant compelled us: dare to know! Hear the echoes both of defeating self-deception and of learning to see through the eyes of the sage.
Kant is supported by modern neuroscience. ‘In the language of neuroscience,’ David Perlmutter and Alberto Villoldo wrote, ‘enlightenment is the condition of optimal mitochondrial and brain functioning that allows us to experience both wellbeing and inner peace and the urge to create and innovate.’[xiii] Hear, alongside the echo of Kant’s daring dictum, the importance (again) of living with a lack of inner conflict.
For Kant, the motto of the Enlightenment was ‘Have the courage to use your own understanding’. Nowhere is this more important for each of us than in how we think about money. Using your own reason is the most natural state for a human – a mature, grown-up human. However, in areas where reason is not cultivated, where power over one’s thoughts is given away, one remains, in that area at least, in childhood.
‘There is only one cause of unhappiness,’ wrote Anthony de Mello,
the false beliefs you have in your head, beliefs so widespread, so commonly held, that it never occurs to you to question them. Because of these false beliefs you see the world and yourself in a distorted way. Your programming is so strong and the pressure of society so intense that you are literally trapped into perceiving the world in this distorted kind of way.[xiv]
To free ourselves from this trap we need to learn a new language. Luckily, this new language contains exactly the same words as the language we already use. All we need to do is see, think about, and use them differently. Slowly at first, but shortly with so much ease that we’ll wonder how we ever did it differently. Taking conscious control of your thoughts and your decisions around money isn’t any more impossible than learning a language is to the child living in that language.
The hardest part of any new process is not getting going, but keeping going past the point where your expectations of quick results are shown to be unrealistic. Unfortunately, the same initial enthusiasm for taking action carries over into overenthusiastically looking at the results. Yet results from mental rewiring are exponential in nature, and as we saw with such devastating consequences in the coronavirus pandemic, few people can wrap their heads around exponential growth.
Getting going is the second hardest part. However much we may truly want to do something, what we really want is to become the person that doing that something will make us become. Often we’re not clear about who we want to become; we know only that we want to stop being the person we are right now – beset by the imposed wills of others that have seeped into our cells, comfortingly at first, but which always end up itching like bastards before long. Giving up these borrowed wills with no clear vision of what they’re to be replaced with, nor any idea if the attempt to replace them will be a success, is terrifying. We are drawn instead to quick fixes, to see our situations as perhaps not as bad as they feel. But such quick fixes are only ever illusions; illusions, as described in the Divine Comedy, that further hamper us from being the changes we want to see:
Because it often happens that a quick opinion Inclines in the wrong direction, and after that The intellect is hampered by vanity.[xv]
Part One of this book has been about brain surgery. It’s been about how to achieve this surgery with a philosophical process, set within an economics framework. About how to better allocate your resources in service of your Good Life by better allocating your attention. Which could sound even more terribly complicated than the myth of the terrible complexity of the financial world we’re trying to dispel. Yet it’s also been about how the initially hard turns into the eventually easy. About moving towards wu wei – effortless effort. About mastery, not magic.
It’s been about moving from addictions to wants, and from failure to success, and doing so sustainably. You don’t beat addictions with willpower unless you have an overwhelming once-in-a-lifetime desire to do so. You beat them with controlling your internal and external environments such that your Good Life is lived as a side-effect.
It’s been about how building a better relationship with money has to start with building a better brain: better organising your neural networks for spontaneous, effortless right action. Real changing of money behaviours isn’t about how to hack yourself into saving more responsibly for the future (though that doesn’t hurt). It’s about how to live with money such that the mental blocks to doing the right thing with savings (and everything else) disappear as a side-effect, beaten without a fight. It’s about systematic change right from the root, such that constant nudges to the flowers never become necessary.
 Hear again Paul Tillich: ‘The drive for security, perfection, and certitude to which we have referred is a biological necessary. But it becomes biologically destructive if the risk of insecurity, imperfection, and uncertainty is avoided. Conversely, a risk which has a realistic foundation in our self and our world is biologically demanded, while it is self-destructive without such a foundation. Life, in consequence, includes both fear and courage as elements of a life process in a changing but essentially established balance.
 ‘Sati’ in the original Pali, to break with the Ancient Greek for a bit. The closest Greek equivalent is a combination of prosoche and procheiron – paying attention to how you’re paying attention and having right action close at hand, remembering what to do just as you need to be doing it, with the aim of internalising the distinction between an event and the meaning you attach to it. This is what Marcus Aurelius is doing when he’s writing his Meditations, which we must remember were written to himself – he is practising, not preaching, and to make use of him we must use his practice as a guide to our own, not as mere meme fodder.
 To borrow words tentatively best attributed to William Fitzjames Oldham (and probably misattributed to William James and Edward Murrow).
[i] William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, Act 2 Scene 2
[ii] William James, quoted in Christophe André, Mindfulness
[iii] Rory Sutherland, Alchemy
[vi] William James, The Principles of Psychology, vol. 1
[vii] Bertrand Russell, History of Western Philosophy
[viii] Paul Dolan, Happiness by Design
[x] Daniel Dennett, Intuition Pumps
[xi] Daniel J. Siegel, Mindsight
[xii] Immanuel Kant, What is Enlightenment? (definition paraphrased)
[xiii] David Perlmutter and Alberto Villoldo, Power Up Your Brain: The Neuroscience of Enlightenment
[xiv] Anthony de Mello, The Way to Love
[xv] Dante Aligheri, The Divine Comedy