“There is nothing so relaxed as the shoulders of a very wealthy person when the talk turns to money.” Jon Carroll, columnist for the San Francisco chronicle, once said this, and he is probably mostly right. For the rest of us—and even for the wealthy, actually–money is an issue and cause for anxiety. For those of us who are older, and whose future ability to make money is declining, it may be even more so. “Fear of loss of livelihood” is one of the Five Great Fears in Buddhist teaching, which means that it was a concern even for the monastic renunciates of the ancient world, who were after all dependent on alms for their very survival.
So pretty much everyone worries about money, but what is spiritual about it? The Buddhist teaching of Right Livelihood is part of the eight-fold path, so clearly the issue has spiritual resonance. Right Livelihood is usually interpreted as meaning occupations that do not involve harm or killing, such as tanners or butchers. But more deeply right livelihood signifies a relationship to money and sustenance that is balanced, that is relatively free from grasping, that does not needlessly disturb the mind.
One of the losses of aging is the reduced capacity to make money, whether through retirement, job loss, career change, or other circumstance. Obviously this whole issue has been greatly exacerbated by our current economic climate, which has substantially reduced their retirement savings for many older people.
It is helpful to know that the ancient Buddhists—even the monastics—included this kind of circumstance as part of the spiritual path. In other words, they are universal experiences that all practitioners face.
But how do we face them? What should be the spiritual attitude toward fear of loss of livelihood—of worries about money? First of all, these worries can be transformed into a positive examination of the dividing line between basic needs and ego desires. As Suzuki Roshi said, when we have lots of food around it makes us more hungry, not less. When we have lots of money, our desire for things—and perhaps our anxiety about money—tends to increase.
So there can be something positive in the seemingly pedestrian task of cutting costs, living more frugally, and doing without certain things that we like. It can also make us more sensitive and generous with people who are struggling even more than we—who may be losing their jobs or even homes. Times of scarcity can be an opportunity for compassion and kindness; cutting back can sometimes make us appreciate all that we do have.
Buddhist practice is not just meditation. The original map of the path had eight leaves, eight spokes. Right livelihood—perhaps better translated as appropriate livelihood—is one of them. We can all practice it, every day.