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Arthur Rosenfeld Headshot

Your Money and Your Soul

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If religion is the opiate of the people, as Karl Marx has written, it's one they smoke because they don't have the money to buy the ease, comfort and goods they believe would make them happy. Embracing this point of view, spiritually minded people have -- for centuries, if not millennia -- embraced a simple life with few material goods and shunned the pursuit of money. In some cases (Buddhist monks come to mind) such folks carry this notion as far as renouncing the material life completely, living in a monastery and surviving through the generosity of others. There may, in such a choice, reside an itsy-bitsy slice of judgment or even resentment toward those who are more materially inclined.

The other side of the coin is that rich people may consider minimalists and renunciates to be people who can't make the grade. If a person lives either on the margins of society or in frank opposition to cultural norms, if that person declines to trade time for money in the pursuit of things they don't need, he or she is taken for a deviant or a fool. Such disregard for the spiritually inclined may sometimes be cloaked in screeds on practicality, responsibility, and contribution to society, but it is an ugly sort of prejudice nonetheless.

The philosophical Taoist tradition offers a completely different path. Based on the wisdom of the ancient sage, Lao Tzu, one of the three great patriarchs of Chinese culture, it places the greatest emphasis on living in harmony with nature, in achieving harmony by reconciling the opposing forces of yin and yang in life, and on keeping things simple so that you can be free. If door No. 1 offers material lack and spiritual riches and door No. 2 offers material abundance and spiritual lack, Taoists choose door No. 3: as much comfort and abundance and spiritual depth as we can handle while avoiding stress and remaining, joyful and free.

Pursuing what and whom we want and love is a natural impulse. Such pursuit might well be tempered by wisdom, but to discipline it is to subjugate a natural side of the human condition. Without passions and desires, life is likely to be tedious and empty. So long as no other person is hurt nor their beliefs or feelings disrespected, and so long as we keep our pursuits in perspective and don't let them rule us, we should be able to achieve our dreams and share our pleasure with those around us. If those dreams include getting filthy rich, well then we can charitably do at least as much for others as we do for ourselves.

Affiliated with an organized religion or not, moving carefully to avoid life's traps and pitfalls is just common sense. Seeking a view beneath the surface of the ocean of life is something everyone shares -- an inevitable impulse for an awake, alive mind. Cleaving to a path trodden by millions of others over thousands of years is a tried-and-true method for achieving such sense, as is the sudden but rare spiritual awakening experienced by mystics who "pop their cork" and lead the rest of us out of darkness. Whatever way you get to it, spirituality makes life ever more worth living.

So let's relinquish the holier-than-thou attitudes and stop looking down our noses. Let's move our mind/body and capitalist discussions past silly judgments that degrade others and set us up to feel pretty bad when the wheel of life turns. Let's sidestep this old squabble pot and the bias it implies. Being poor does not guarantee spiritual fulfillment; nor does being rich. Each of us has our own path, a unique set of gifts, talents and opportunities to lift us, and certain inevitable circumstances and limitations to lay challenges before us. In seeking spiritual advancement, we want to experience life at its deepest level. In seeking material wealth, we want to experience life most fully. If we can achieve balance between them, these two goals need never be at odds.