I love reading New Yorker cartoons. With one picture and a short caption, many of these cartoons lightly capture existential truths that would require entire books to unfold. Last week's issue featured a cartoon that showed a depressed man lying on a psychiatrist's sofa, staring aimlessly at the ceiling. The psychiatrist looks at him and says, "Just because you work at a bad bank doesn't mean that you are a bad banker."
We are learning the hard way the devastating results of an unrestricted selfish focus on short-term monetary gain: of bad bankers doing bad things. And we are seeing the public's anger at the people who pursued vast quantities of wealth, seemingly without concern for consequences to others. As the cartoon suggests, then, does the pursuit of wealth necessarily label us as "bad"? This may lead us to believe that we have only two options: to relentlessly pursue wealth and risk following the path of those whose irresponsibility led us to this point (and become a "bad banker"), or reject wealth as inherently corrupting, and focus instead on the development of morality and spirit? The best of philosophical and spiritual teachings tell us that there is a higher resolution which leads to an understanding that allows us to experience wealth while maintaining a path of growth and concern for others. These teachings urge us to move from a mode of greed to one of abundance.
To many, these terms may sound similar because both are associated with wealth and prosperity. It's not surprising, therefore, how much confusion - in my experience - there seems to be around this distinction. So, in order to make the difference very clear, please allow me to present a very simple metaphor:
Two young brothers are each given a pile of birthday gifts from their parents. One child quickly opens the presents, and after he is done feels let down. "Is that it?" he complains. "How come I didn't get all the stuff I was hoping for?" He compares his pile to his brother's. "Why did he get such good stuff? That's not fair". He feels slightly sick, and then is suddenly angry.
The other child opens his gifts. "Wow!" he says. "Look at all these gifts." He plays happily, and feels good knowing that these gifts came to him from his parents simply because he is their child. He looks over and sees the anger on his brother's face. "I wish that he could feel better so we could play together", he thinks.
This is a deliberately simple example because the essential differences are simple: different basic beliefs in the fundamental workings of the cosmos. We can distinguish between greed and abundance as follows:
• begins with belief that there are limited resources, leading to a feeling of lack - that there is not enough for everyone.
• flows from the fear of not being good enough as one is and with what one already has, leading to hording and accumulation for its own sake, with the hope that "someday I will have enough to feel secure".
• builds the desire to only receive, leading to selfishness and sole reliance on one's own limited energy source, producing fatigue.
• sees wealth as an end in itself, stemming from the sense that life is basically meaningless, leading to depression.
The Greek philosopher Epicurus said of greed,
"Nothing is enough for the man to whom enough is too little."
• begins with recognition of the incredible richness and diversity of creation, leading to knowledge that, if treated with respect, there is more than enough for everyone.
• flows from a love that come through the recognition that wonderful gifts are given to us "unmerited", leading to gratitude.
• builds the desire to participate, leading to the urge to give, and increased energy from the limitless Source.
• sees wealth as a tool and a gift, stemming from the knowledge that life is inherently purposeful and gracious, leading to happiness.
The motivational teacher Wayne Dyer said,
"Abundance is not something we acquire. It is something we tune into."
Of course these differences manifest with an infinite variety, depending on the person and their experience and inclination, but this framework presents the essentials of each. The ancient Jewish book of wisdom, "Saying of the Ancestors", asks, "Who is rich?", and answers, "One who is happy with his lot". This does not mean that we should be complacent, and not strive to increase our wealth, or that we should eschew ambition, but tells us that abundance can not flow when we are not grateful for the gifts that we already have. In fact, gratitude frees us to pursue prosperity free of attachment. Like the child who sits amid a pile of presents and complains that he does not have enough, though, ingratitude shuts out abundance because - to stay with the earlier metaphor - a good parent will not give any more gifts to one who is ungrateful for what he has.
When we look at the incalculable vastness of space and the unbelievable diversity of species and resources on our planet, we see that the essential urge of creation is endless abundance. We do not need to be "worthy" of abundance because it already exists, just waiting for us to recognize and appreciate it. And this abundance has been provided to us as a blessing of our birth. Wealth, then, is a blessing that facilitates our purpose and supports others. From this perspective, greed is a distortion of the intuition of infinite abundance; when we project that intuition on to physical objects and our own fleeting needs.
There has been much written recently about how to tune in to and attract abundance. Unfortunately much of this has focused merely on receiving desired material gains, as if there is a magic secret for manipulating the Universe in to giving you the stuff that you want. True abundance, though, is a two-way flow of giving and receiving - not only material wealth, but attention, concern, and love. The greatest abundance flows when we too desire to be a blessing to others, paradoxically creating more abundance for us. As Joel Osteen said, "When you focus on being a blessing, God makes sure that you are always blessed in abundance. "