Surviving a Financial Crisis, One Breath at a Time

March 2, 2009

I am finding myself now focusing on my consumption habits and impulses. I try letting the desires, impulses and ‘needs’ pass by attempting to locate the root cause of wanting something. Chocolate, I really want that chocolate cookie. Well, I realized, I just want something sweet. What do I have that is sweet? I could be just as satisfied with tea and honey actually. And how often have I bought a cookie and it was too sweet for me?- Often. And if I still really want the chocolate cookie, well I will just go home and make a batch- quadruple the cookies for half the price. And not only that, I decided I will make only a couple cookies now and freeze the dough so the next time I crave, I just pull out a couple more, stick them in the oven and in 8 minutes (faster than I could run to the store) I’m in heavenly bliss.

Kripalu’s March Newsletter contains the following article I found very insightful:

Surviving a Financial CrisisLongtime yogis, authors, and cofounders of the sustainable investing firm Abacus, Brent Kessel and Spencer Sherman share their wisdom for these economic times.

Contrary to what we might at first think, everything that we do on our yoga mats and meditation cushions has so much to teach us about our personal financial lives—and about the global financial challenges we’re all facing.

In yoga practice, when we overstretch one part of the body, we usually pay the price in another joint, tendon, or muscle. When we’re injured, an astute teacher will direct our attention to the larger joint that is “upstream” of the injured area. So if our elbow is suffering, we’re very likely misusing the shoulder or upper back. If our knee is aching, the roots of our pain can often be located in a flaccid thigh muscle, an overly flexible hip, or just a plain lack of core strength.

Our economy is no different. The muscle which appears broken right now is the credit market, and by extension, the stock market and real estate values. But the “upstream” culprit is our own overconsumption—a result of our desire for things, including everything from electronic goods to houses, too many of us were willing to buy on credit items that we actually couldn’t afford. To survive this recession together, we must individually become aware of the insatiability of our own Wanting Minds, a term coined by the Buddhists to describe that part of us which can never have enough.

creating awareness

Awareness is the critical first step, but, to be effective, it must also lead to informed action. As you go through your life, see if you can first notice, and then let go of just one impulse of wanting per day. You may want a new stylish coat for this winter, or a laptop computer, or perhaps something as trivial as a chai latte. Instead of rushing out to satiate your impulse, create a noticeable pause between sensing your want and taking action on it. This won’t be effortless, because the things we buy do often bring temporary relief, and we’re now going to be foregoing that.

The big mistakes that we make with money happen when we’re jumping to the future, trying to avoid our present experience, and almost always, when we’re “barely breathing.” Going shopping to numb the pain in a relationship, or lack of a relationship. Selling everything out of an investment account to not experience further losses, or the fear of running out of money.

The practice of yoga teaches us to use the breath to bring awareness to the moment, and is particularly useful in those moments when we want to do something, anything, to escape our suffering—whether it’s being caused by an asana, a relationship, or sitting at the dining room table paying our bills. Breathing into these moments slows us down, creates space. In reaction to a rumble of financial insecurity, we may think “I’m not going to be okay. I need to do something. Spend. Save. Give money to someone.” This is the best time to simply breathe. The breath is here as long as we’re alive. It’s the cycle of death and rebirth. It is the foundation of our life force, of which money is but one manifestation.

spend, save, give

Whether we tend toward over-spending, over-saving, or over-giving, if we can become much more curious and spacious right when that emotional tremor first arises, we then have the sacred opportunity to just be with that first wave of emotion, or anxiety, or emptiness. If we stay present with our direct experience without rushing to our familiar money habits, then the sense of emotional need passes, and usually much sooner than we expected.

So does this actually effect our financial bottom line? When this emotional need passes, so does our need to go shopping, which saves real money, and by extension, our life energy. When this need passes, our excessive frugality passes, and we now have the opportunity to use our money to be generous with others or ourselves. When this need passes, we stop lending and giving money to friends and family and begin taking as good a care of ourselves as we do of others.

Robert Frost said, “The strength of a man is in the extremity of the opposites he can hold.” As we increase our capacity to witness and bring awareness to the emotional disturbances that are almost always the precursors to our financial actions, we are then able to choose to cultivate the opposite financial habit. This is real financial freedom, when we are able to choose to act financially in ways that allow us to ride out the waves of crisis in all forms and create lasting nourishment for ourselves—and that’s got to be good for the planet as a whole.

Brent Kessel and Spencer Sherman are both practicing yogis and the authors of It’s Not About the Money (HarperCollins 2008) and The Cure for Money Madness (Random House 2009) respectively. They are the cofounders of Abacus, a nationwide sustainable investing firm.

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