Except perhaps in addressing acute trauma, working briefly with people, or even over extended periods with little focus, rarely changes the brain in substantial ways. It almost always takes time to accomplish permanent, significant, positive, integrative neural reorganization. Earlier this year, in response to this realization, I decided to bust some of the folks in my circle out of their habitual routines a bit: I invited a small group of people interested in social neuroscience to work with me weekly online and over the phone for a year. I chose a brain topic that a great many people in the world – including me – struggle to be more skillful, mindful and organized with. That topic? Money.
To start off with a strong “irrational commitment” from participants, I let people know upfront that they would be required to pay me a monthly money stipend … for life. Not my life, but their life. In other words, as long as they lived, they would be sending me or my estate that monthly tithe. In effect, what I’ve invited people to do is mindfully, charitably tithe work in the world they believed in and wished to support. Even though there is a growing body of research that shows how altruism improves brain function (not to mention, making you more attractive), to my surprise – with very little persuading on my part – everyone readily agreed to those terms. Each had individual reasons and expectations of their own. Mostly I think it is the realization that whatever the brain pays positive, ongoing, mindful attention to … tends to increase. I personally expect each participant to reap at least 10 times what they pay me every year. Will they? We’ll see.
Tied in Knots Over Tithing
Tithe is from the Middle English word tithen and the Old English teogothian, which meant “to take a tenth of.” Today it’s most commonly refers to personal income set aside as an offering to God for works of mercy, or in support of the church or clergy. In Buddhism, the word for a similar practice is dana. I think of this offering as “The Ministry Model” of receiving payment for services. This process of paying or contributing money to causes or work we believe in, especially money we don’t feel we have available to spare, can impact our neurophysiology for better or worse. Differently than ambitious altruism, our real life experiment offered up some of the worst first.
Before our sessions together began, I made it clear to the group that I fully expected this monthly tithe to turn out to be much more than only about the money. Money issues and concerns are rarely “just” about the money. And sure enough, it didn’t take long for the first fruit for the juicer to ripen: Half the group failed to pay their first promised monthly tithe. One great thing about this group is that they don’t necessarily need me to mirror back to them their own disorganization around money. A little Fierce Listening and they’re pretty quick to catch on to things on their own. One immediate “Aha” this “oversight” brought to consciousness for the group is how promises made and not kept unfailingly violate and undermine trust. Healthy money rarely flows where little trust lives. Trust is actually the firmament that underlies much of internet eCommerce. Without trust there’s no Amazon, eBay or Google.
Another thing that quickly stood out in ready relief for our Money Brain Group is just how overloaded our lives are in terms of the cognitive and emotional requirements of daily living. Everyday reality is so full of constant, alluring distractions that maintaining a clear and steady focus on what we want our lives and work in the world to be centered around, regularly exceeds our capacity to easily sustain it.
A third thing has stood out early in this exploration as well. It is how constantly our brain makes up stories based upon little or no evidence, convinces us the stories are true, and then generates behavior based upon those “truths.” Here are a few of the less-than-sterling brain-generated storylines: “It doesn’t matter if I miss a payment. The world won’t come to an end.” “I can barely pay for necessities and this tithe isn’t one.” “I forgot.” “I’m keeping my promise, just not when I said I would.”
There’s a fine line between being truly kind and gentle with ourselves around money and letting ourselves get away with thoughts and deeds that don’t really serve us in becoming truly financially organized and integrated. Shame and mental abuse involving money are pretty common. So is squirrelly avoidance and denial. In a future installment, we’ll begin to explore some of the positive benefits that are beginning to accrue to our Pecuniary Practitioners as the result of our money mindfulness journey.
To be continued …