Twelve years ago I quit my job, packed my belongings and moved back home to complete my education. I had a new baby and no savings... just a final paycheck from a clerical job that didn't buy many diapers. My parents supported me, and within a few months I landed a full-time job. Soon afterwards I started taking night classes. I'd gotten in trouble with American Express during my first college career, so at the time the only credit card I could get extended a very lean $250.00 line of credit. The limit was small enough to force me to use it responsibly. A year later, I had two cards. A few years later I had three, then four. I paid my bills on time, but I racked up debts... the majority of them the year I fled the nest for the second time. I'd only lived on my own twice before for brief periods on campus when I was spared the inconvenience of randomly assigned roomates. At other times, my living quarters were populated with friends. Finally, I found myself on my own... independent... or so I thought.
I finished school and I landed a decent job. I had enough money coming in to cover basic living expenses and enough left over for a few extras. I had habits that I considered frugal, but I racked up an unreasonable amount of credit card debt to buy furniture and household "necessities" and I lived paycheck to paycheck. In the beginning, it seemed okay. In previous years I thought I would never be on my own again, and just getting to that point was enough. I could breathe again. But as the months and years went by and I didn't seem to be able to chip away at my debt in any way that seemed significant, I decided it was time to change.
Over the past two years I've been engaged in a serious debt reduction program. I grew tired of paying rent and bills every month still feeling I wasn't getting anywhere. I'd been working full-time for a few years and I still had no significant savings... surely not enough put away to sustain the loss of my job for any extended period. Though my daughter was young at the time, college expenses were on my mind. I started to think seriously about the possibility of financial freedom. I started to make steps to turn the possibility into reality, and I'm finally starting to see the beginning of the end of my co-dependent, addictive relationship with credit cards and the beginning of a new focus on saving and living with less.
I'm not patting myself on the back. Not yet.
Don't get me wrong, I'm excited about the fact that I just paid off my car and I'm excited that at the end of the month I will have no credit card debt. But something else happened as I've watched myself take the necessary steps to get to this point... I watched my patterns. I watched how much my spending was driven by feelings of discomfort, inadequacy, or anxiety. I noticed how I tend to try to spend my way out of misery.
The ironic thing is that I'd had such deep judgements about the stereotypical female shopaholic who racks up debt for clothes, shoes, makeup, and other girlie things. I tried to lie to myself and convince myself that since the things I was consuming were more "enlightened" or geeky (books, yoga DVDs, dharma materials, technology, educational materials, things like that) I was somehow better than those girls. I came to realize that the problem (if there is a problem) is in how we consume, not in what we consume. I've learned to stop digging a deep hole, but the pattern hasn't left me completely. There is still more work to do.
I've thought a lot about myself and my responsibility in the global economic crisis that we can't seem to escape hearing about or fretting over on a daily basis. While I didn't go out and try to buy a house with my finances as they were, I didn't have the most responsible habits... and like those who lived during the roaring twenties, I didn't imagine that the economic prosperity that could be realized in this country would ever come to a screeching halt. Not again. I thought I had plenty of time to resolve my financial woes because I depended on the fact that the economy would just keep chugging along as it had been. Hadn't we learned from history? Weren't there smarter people than me out there making sure we wouldn't find ourselves in a position where we'd be destined to repeat it?
Maybe the solution to this crisis (and any crisis) lies with the fact that we, all of us in this human realm, have unskillful habits that we need to break. Maybe those people out there who work in the financial sector are smarter than I am about finance... but if they are plagued by the same unskillful habits that I am, their knowledge couldn't possibly make a damned bit of difference. I'm not an openly emotional person, but I am an emotional person. And time and time again I let my emotional response drive me. I find that I can be derailed or completely stopped (or driven and completely distracted) by nothing more than a feeling. And the custodians of the financial world, they are just like me. That is an unsettling, a sobering, a frightening thought.
I used to be embarrassed by my greed, by the ceaseless itch of craving that I feel when I'm driven to consume something, anything. In light of current circumstances, both personally and globally, I realize that I don't have time to be embarrassed, and I can tie this to my attitude towards my practice... an attitude that is shifting. When I say "I don't have time," I don't mean it's a good idea to ignore the feeling, stuff it down and pretend to be altruistic and giving so as not to see the greed that arises in me so I don't have to feel all uncomfortable about it. What I mean, is that I don't have time to waste an opportunity to use whatever feeling arises to conquer the five hindrances or to break the unskillful habit patterns that bind me.
More than anything, we all need to wake up and own how our personal habits and conditioned responses get us into trouble... and how they impact what I like to call the big four—self, money, relationships and the wider world. And we need to figure out for ourselves how to stop wallowing, stop avoiding, and stop anesthetizing long enough to find within ourselves just enough courage to look at our habits and just enough willingness to explore ways to drop those that are unskillful.
I'm starting to see this financial crisis in a different light. It's not (just) about money. It's about who we are as human beings at the core. And while we look to President Obama and the new administration for a quick and easy fix, some suggest there is a spiritual solution to the problem—a solution that lies squarely in our own laps.