All About the Money
All About the Money
Here’s an excerpt from my book, Zentauria: My Season in the Warrior Utopia. The book is essentially an 11-week documentation of life with a secretive utopian community, on a small island off the east coast of Africa. I wrote it journal-style, with a conversational narrative, but I believe the themes, experiences, and insights covered throughout might be useful or even inspiring to others.
All About the Money
Entry Preface: For the hardcore artist at heart, it’s often difficult to reconcile the right-brain, creative headspace of one’s artistic life, with the left-brain, pro-business mindset of one’s financial life. This is partially why many of us prefer to deal with managers, accountants, agents, assistants, and/or advisors; so we don’t have to dirty our hands with the money and, instead, so we can keep our minds and hearts “pure” to create our great works. Well, that’s the theory we like to believe, anyway.
Next to religion and politics, it would be hard to find a more polarizing subject than money, especially among the artistic or altruistic minded. The various prejudices, falsehoods, and cultural biases toward the issue are innumerable. I know I’ve had to do a lot of work to recondition—or shall I say, decondition—certain limiting beliefs about money I’ve arbitrarily picked up along the journey. In fact, I’m sure I still have a few lingering around.
And particularly in spiritual circles, this money thing has long been a divisive topic. On one side of the fence, there is a philosophy that is pro-prosperity. We are encouraged to seek the abundant life and enjoy our riches, because our prosperous lifestyle will best mirror the inherent, prosperous nature of God/the Universe. And then, of course, our abundance of wealth can be shared with others as we can do more good in the world. Cool. But then there are those who have interpreted this to mean that your best demonstration of prosperity is to send them (via their ministry) a particular amount, with the idea being that by adding to their overflowing coffers, yours, too, will soon be overflowing. (Makes for some entertaining TV, at least…)
On the other side of the fence, there is a philosophy that is more less-is-best in nature. The focus here is deliberately not on things of the physical world, and money, material possessions and country club memberships are seen as somewhat of a distraction to one’s spiritual evolution. So by embracing the simplicity of a modest lifestyle, we can more easily align with God/the Universe. Ask these folks to envision the quintessential devout and virtuous spiritual seeker, and many would think of the impoverished monk archetype. Cool. But is this path really anti-wealth, or just anti-attachment-to-wealth?
At the same time, I’ve heard an earful from certain in-the-trenches activists through the years about the greedy, gluttonous ways of those “rich motherfuckers.” I’ve been told all about how their single-minded obsession with wealth and its superfluous trappings has turned them into soulless automatons, constantly on a quest for the almighty more, no matter the price. And yet, I’ve seen many a “rich motherfucker” hand over some obscenely large checks to some worthy organizations, as the stroke of their pen facilitated hundreds of animals being rescued, or thousands of humans being fed. (Hey, let it be known that “rich motherfuckers” are always welcome to any fundraiser I’m ever a part of!)
For these reasons and more, I had been looking forward to getting the enlightened perspective on the subject around here. So far, the glimpses I’ve caught of the financial inner workings of this place are every bit as impressive as the artistic aspects. The Zentaurians as a whole keep an eye on it, but they seem to recognize money, or “digits,” as a means to an end… as the logical, anticipated, cause-and-effect result of simply being great at what you love and offering your gifts to the community in some tangible form of servitude. But the money people appear to be downright geniuses of that domain, exhibiting the same passion and fervor about managing currency, real estate, stocks, and international investments as the artists, athletes, scientists, teachers, or monks have about doing what they do. It’s an unusual but refreshing dichotomy.
* * * * * * * *
I had an interesting conversation about money and finances this morning at Town Hall with Osapha-T, a dark-skinned Shaolin priest with a thick gray beard and bushy silver eyebrows. O.T., as I like to call him, has long been recognized as one of Zentauria’s chief money men. His work space was an interesting juxtaposition of a relaxed Zen haven and a Wall Street broker’s bustling office. All of the furnishings and decor were straight out of Buddha-land, but his desk area incongruently displayed a semi-circle of computer monitors. Some had a firestorm of numbers and stock names scrolling by, while others had intricately color-coded charts, tables, and graphs. As I scanned over the screens from left to right, it was all about numbers, numbers and more numbers. I would have no idea how to decipher hardly any of this data.
“Daaaamn,” I said. “How do you keep up with all of this stuff?”
“And all of this, as well?” O.T. asked, smiling, as he clicked a key, and we watched all five screens simultaneously shift data. My eyes widened, and I was just about to say something profound like “Holy shit!” when he clicked the key again and yet another simultaneous shift happened on all the screens.
“What the hell?”
“Oh, it gets worse!” O.T. said. With that, he clicked the key several more times, and all the screens shifted data with each click. He smiled at me like a child, eyes twinkling and teeth shining ivory white in the glow of all those screens.
“Wow,” I said. “So there’s probably no easy explanation for what all these numbers, charts, and graphs mean, huh?”
“Well, the easy explanation is that here is where we monitor and manage all of our money matters: assets, investments, expenditures, C.T.s, stock activity, everything,” he said. “Zentauria has enjoyed a long, rich history of successful money management and investments on an international scale, and this is how we continue to engage this part of our equation. It’s a full-time job for a large group of us.”
“Daaaamn,” I repeated, slowly shaking my head, trying to wrap my brain around the densely displayed data on all of those screens.
“You didn’t think our little island sustained itself exclusively through those lovely ocean breezes, did you?” O.T. joked.
“Well, actually I did, I guess.” We both had a chuckle.
“But that’s just it,” I continued, “it seems like for anything centered around art, altruism or activism, many people don’t consider the role money has in sustaining things. And if they are forced to consider it, they can often get disillusioned and question the underlying motive behind it all. It’s whacked.”
O.T. listened intently to what I was saying, eyes squinting and face static with deep lines and wrinkles. And then, his expression lightened and he smiled.
“The truth is,” he said, “behind every monastery, temple, church, mosque, music conservatory, or museum, there is someone, sitting in a back office in front of a computer somewhere, tallying up numbers on a spreadsheet. And that will be going on for as long as currency remains the universal medium of trade on this earth.”
“I agree,” I said. “That seems to be a reality of any such endeavor. But it’s hard to know when it’s not a flawed part of the endeavor, considering how much corruption and greed have erupted around money in so many of those very institutions you mentioned.”
“Well, corruption and greed are human conditions, based entirely on human issues, none of which are intrinsic to money.”
“But it seems that the money itself gets the bad rap,” I said, “being that it’s supposed to be at the ‘root of all evil’ and whatnot!”
“You’re speaking of cultural conditioning there… only what many have been taught about money.”
“Yeah, it’s crazy, isn’t it?”
We both stood there at the desk, gazing at the screens, watching numbers and stock abbreviations roll across some of them, taking it all in. Then O.T. invited me to have a seat across from him in his study area. We both sank into a couple of plush pleather recliners.
The Truth About Money
I continued: “So what is the bottom-line truth about money?”
“There isn’t one; currency is a completely neutral commodity. It only takes on the meaning one chooses to assign to it.”
“So this whole thing about how it’s more spiritual to be impoverished, for example, is not necessarily the truth about money?”
“It is to those who purport that to be true!” he said, smiling.
“That’s a big one, actually… you know, the whole broke-ass monk vibe.”
“It’s a story, that’s all. I’m not making a judgment call about it; I’m only saying that it’s the truth to those who choose to make it their truth.”
“Yeah, elective poverty via the denouncement of the material world seems to be that virtuous monk energy thing, where the super sparse lifestyle is viewed as synonymous with spiritual elevation.”
“And in certain cases,” O.T. said, “I’m sure one’s physical detachment from as many things in the world as possible can help facilitate a particular alignment with Source. That’s all about building a practice around a lifestyle that’s most conducive to, and representative of, non-attachment. But again, the detached lifestyle of a monk is not an indictment against having, earning, or handling money; believe me, even monks need funding.”
“No doubt,” I said. “This less-is-best directive always calls to mind that old story about Gandhi: in response to an observer’s adulation toward his humble, impoverished style of living, one of his associates famously commented that it cost Gandhi’s friends a great deal of money to keep him in poverty. In other words, while he walked around with the unassuming frugality of a man largely disassociated from the material plane, things still cost money. So, appearances and perceptions aside, the rupees had to flow to keep things moving along… even in the ‘elevated’ world of Gandhi’s mission.”
“There’s no question,” O.T. said. “Visit a Shaolin temple in China lately? The monks are apt to roll out the merchandise tables and offer their wares direct to the tourists. There’s a complete line of products, I’m told… incense, books, souvenirs, everything! They understand that bills have to be paid there, as well.”
“Yeah, I saw that shit on some TV show. Struck me a little odd.”
“Well, if you have a perception of how a monk’s relationship to money should be, and then you witness what appears to be the contrary, it becomes a juxtaposition of ideals that’s difficult for you to reconcile,” O. T. suggested.
“Yeah, well… I guess just seeing that street vendor-style commercialization seeping into the sacrosanct Shaolin world… uh… you know what I mean.”
“Sounds like it’s more an issue of style for you… an issue of how they choose to conduct their affairs over there.”
Art vs. Commerce
We talked a bit more about the universal art vs. commerce debate, and then I got really curious about how Zentauria’s robust creative community weighed in on things.
“How do all the artistic folks around here reconcile the business side with the creative side?” I asked.
“What’s there to reconcile?” O.T. said. “If you are doing this professionally, it is understood that you will need favorable monetary arrangements in place so that your efforts as a professional will be sustainable. So if managing and negotiating money matters is not something an artist is particularly interested in, he or she would simply hire or partner-up with someone who is.”
“Aahhh, so it’s not so much that a Zentaurian artist would have these cultural hang-ups about money and would be looking to ‘pass the buck,’ so to speak, to someone else…”
“Here? No,” O.T. said. “But there is a reverence for numbers and an understanding about good business practices in our culture. And I think every creative person understands that there is a special skill-set required not only for negotiating, but for big picture career and business management. And unless they happen to excel in that world as well, why would they attempt to handle these matters themselves?”
“Good point,” I said. “I think it is often expected that our creative people—especially indie artists—should figure out how to run their own businesses. But I don’t see that reverse expectation imposed upon marketing experts. I mean, I don’t see folks running up to marketing people and saying, ‘Hey, you’re great at marketing. Why don’t you learn how to play an instrument, start writing songs, then create your own record. It would be much more profitable for you to market your own product, wouldn’t it?’ They would think you were insane.”
“Well, again, art and business have very different skill-sets, as well as mindsets. Finding mastery of both in one person is more the exception than the rule, I would think.”
As we were finishing up, I had to know one more fundamental thing about the Zentaurian money mindset:
“Do all Zentaurians aspire to be wealthy as part of a cultural directive?”
O.T. seemed a little perplexed by this question. He cocked his head and held a steady gaze against the back wall for a moment.
“That’s almost like asking if all Zentaurians aspire to be healthy,” he said. “Naturally, we all aspire to be healthy. Our cultural directives are rooted in ways that promote sound health. The only variance might be, how much health does the individual require to thrive in their highest light? Someone whose journey involves more physicality—like an athlete or a dancer—might need more health in terms of physical conditioning, caloric requirements, training recovery time, etc. But I can’t imagine a scenario where someone would aspire toward an unhealthy lifestyle… even if they tended to spend a lot of time in office environments like this,” O.T. said, as he flicked his hand toward his desk and smiled. “Poor health would only be an impediment to virtually every other aspect of your life.”
“Likewise,” O.T. continued, “our cultural directives are rooted in ways that promote wealth and sound financial practices, with a similar question of variance: how much wealth does one require to thrive in their highest light? This is defined quite differently by folks all over the island, as you’ve probably noticed. But the common denominator between all Zentaurians, I would think, is that no one tends to get trapped in a lifestyle continuum where a consistent lack of funds becomes an impediment to their ability to thrive large here. In the alternative, some might appear to live more modestly than others, but that’s all by design.”
“So no one around here would aspire to the ‘American Dream’ and figure out how to leverage borrowed funds to support a lifestyle they really couldn’t afford,” I asked, grinning.
O.T. smiled wide. “What would be the point? If the stress and distraction of attempting to sustain that which is ultimately unsustainable becomes a constant hindrance to you living at your grandest light, why would you choose to do that?”