Is God Expensive?
In my early 30s, my favorite uncle, Norbert, recognized that I was on a spiritual path, and in a moment of candor, confessed that when he was around 19 he used to hang out at the Ramakrishna Foundation, and later became deeply interested in the works of author Paul Brunton, who he had had the privilege of meeting. Brunton was a well-known disciple of Ramana Maharshi's, and my uncle had a full collection of Brunton's books. Even after Alzheimer's had begun its assault on Norbert's cognitive skills, he was often pulling Brunton books off the shelf to read aloud quotes about the mystery of the inner Self. His affinity for these matters was for a long time unknown to everyone in the family apart from his wife, my Aunt Karin, and was a real revelation to me, for I understood that even as a child, on some level I had recognized Norbert as a kindred spirit. Or more accurately, I could feel somehow that he had recognized me as a kindred spirit!
The only spiritual advice Norbert ever offered me over the years was surrounding the issue of money. A purist from the old school, he insisted that if anyone ever charged any money at all in exchange for spiritual teachings, I should run the other away as fast as possible. Thankfully, my two earliest teachers, Ram Dass and Hilda Charlton, never charged. But as for the rest of my career as a seeker...let's just say I've paid through the nose.
Uncle Norbert was not familiar with the sheer magnitude of commerce connected with contemporary spiritual pursuits, and I was reluctant to fill him in on all the teachers I had paid over the years, for surely he would have cast a leery and suspicious eye on all of them and doubted their motivations as well as my gullibility.
Nor had Norbert heard one of the popular, prevailing ideas of those times: money is simply "green energy," and like all energy, can be used for good or ill. And who better to use lots of money for good than one's revered spiritual teacher? The problem, of course, was that somehow that approach to spirituality and money matters also often involved Swiss bank accounts, offshore trusts, and ridiculously lavish lifestyles, perhaps symbolized most blatantly by former televangelist Jim Bakker's famous gold-plated toilet seat. Or else by Bhagwan ("Osho") Rajneesh's ninety-nine Rolls Royces, although in his defense, one of my heroes, Tom Robbins, insists that the cars were like a huge piece of performance art, and that Bhagwan was merely offering a mirror to and making a mockery of our extremely materialistic culture. (One does have to wonder, though, why he stopped at ninety-nine?)
One evening in the late ‘70s I attended an evening talk with Leonard Orr, the founder of Rebirthing. The price of admission was $50, but in return Leonard was promising to give people an idea that was worth many times that amount, an idea that could easily produce great riches. I revealed the idea in my book, The 99th Monkey, which costs $16.95, representing a savings of over 60%. And now here in Reality Sandwich, I'm giving it away absolutely free!
Here is Leonard's idea."My personal connection to Infinite Intelligence is sufficient to yield me a huge, personal fortune."
The funny thing is, I don't doubt the truth of that at all. Of course, if you speak to Job about it, he might further clarify that "Your personal connection to Infinite Intelligence is also sufficient to bring you to the absolute brink of ruin." Infinite Intelligence is very moody; It can go either way. But in the meantime, perhaps a reader can sell Leonard's affirmation on e-Bay:
"Invaluable Idea, Like New, Barely Used."
My friend Randy simply can't believe the kinds of things people will pay for, and keeps insisting that the two of us could easily create a religion with him as the charismatic leader and make a ton of money. He has already begun working on his fundamental teaching concerning the distinction between what he is calling "The Vertical Path" and "The Path Upward," and which one will cost more. I actually recognized the commercial possibilities of spiritual teachings one morning in the hot tubs at Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California, where I was a group leader. I was commenting to my friend Daniel, a therapist, about how cooperative everyone was in Esalen workshops; as a leader, I could ask my groups to do virtually anything and they would jump right in and try it. On a lark, Daniel and I discussed creating a new therapy, in which participants would be instructed in squawking like a chicken. Students would also learn the theoretical basis behind the technique: how the flapping of the arms stimulates certain acupuncture meridians, and the contraction of the vocal chords while squawking clears out the 5th chakra. As we practiced a few times, within minutes several people from an adjoining tub approached us and asked us which workshop we were in, because they wanted to sign up. We had our first converts to CST™!
Last August, I walked into a bar at Burning Man, and in order to receive a drink, patrons were asked to roll a pair of dice, and the bartender would tell you what you had to do. The challenge assigned to me was, “Walk around the room squawking like a chicken.” Ha! I thought, they don’t know who they’re dealing with, the one guy in the room who not only has actually been squawking since way back, but has actually taught it! (The girl next to me rolled a lucky seven, she got to be publicly spanked at the bar.)
But apart from obvious and extreme forms of financial exploitation and indulgence, most of us these days don't think twice about the idea of paying a reasonable fee to someone for their time and services, spiritual teachers as well as anyone else, perhaps even more so.
On my recent book tour a single question kept repeatedly popping up in different cities, and always in response to my rattling off a humorous and unimaginably long list of the many different teachers, retreats, workshops, seminars, gurus, ashrams, and techniques I've experienced over the last 30+ years. The question was, "How were you able to afford to do all that?" And underlying the question was the implication, "If I could afford to do all that, I'd probably be enlightened by now."
My first answer was to remind the questioner of my Uncle Norbert's primary teaching: that God is free. Enlightenment is not for sale, spiritual truths are not a commodity, and awakening to one's true nature is not a buyer's market. In this spirit, many teachers in the contemporary American Buddhist world do their work for dana, which is the Pali word for generosity. Their teachings are offered freely, and people may choose to contribute to their support according to their own measure, for what is generous to some would be impossible to another.
My old friend Michael Freeman, founder and resident dharma instructor at Southwest Sangha near Silver City, New Mexico, has been a dana purist for well over twenty years, supporting himself entirely through voluntary contributions, whether it be for meditation instruction or a carpentry job. His insistence on this practice once caused a major anxiety attack in an intimate partner when she realized that not only did her man not have a regular paycheck coming in, but he sometimes received dana contributions in the form of a pair of handmade socks or homemade carrot cake. Both are lovely, heartfelt expressions of gratitude; neither can be applied towards rent and groceries.
To live one's life that way requires developing a deep trust in life itself, a knowing that one will be taken care of. Those of us who never step off that ledge will never find out if it's true or not, whether life will indeed support us. Indiana Jones illustrated this leap of faith perfectly in Raiders of the Lost Ark when he had to step out over an abyss, and it was only in stepping off the spot he was standing on that he released the latch on a platform that swung up to meet his next step.
I unwittingly happened upon this idea while hitchhiking across the UK in my early twenties. One Friday afternoon it dawned on me that I had run out of cash and the banks would be closed until the following Monday morning. Rather than panicking, I had already had enough remarkably generous hitchhiking experiences in the preceding days that I had developed an unshakeable trust, and I remember just knowing that things would work out and I'd find a bed to sleep in and a way to eat. Minutes later, a casual chat with a family on a beach led to my being invited to join them on their weekend holiday, all expenses covered. It felt like Grace.
In the last number of years, Rabbi David and Shoshana Cooper and I have experimented with bringing the spirit of dana to a Jewish context, for surely the idea of tzedakah, or charity, figures strongly in the Judeo-Christian culture as well. We began offering our twice-yearly 7-Day silent Jewish meditation retreats for dana, and discovered that we would receive as much and usually more than had we charged the usual per head tuition. There was a great difference in feeling, though, in that each envelope we received felt like a gift, and in addition, the process enabled those with limited funds to attend the retreat who would otherwise not be able to. My Uncle Norbert would like the idea.
When the people on my book tour asked me how I had been able to afford my extravagant spiritual seeker's lifestyle for so many years, I explained that I was fortunate enough to have been born into a situation where just enough money had been freely given to me so that I always enjoyed the luxury of living a rather frugal and modest hippie lifestyle while pretty much doing whatever I wanted. And as members of the Doughnuts will attest -- the Doughnuts being a philanthropic group composed of those suffering with the burden of great wealth thrust upon them, and all the mixed emotions, difficulties and strings that comes with it -- I always found my financial freedom either a blessing or a curse, depending on how well I was using it. I have always felt extremely driven to somehow justify my very existence through using what was gifted to me wisely and productively, something I didn't always succeed at doing, which would plunge me into states of great despair.
I once asked dharma teacher Christopher Titmuss about it, and he said, "When you can relate to the money in the same way that you relate to your hand, you will be free." Meaning, my hand was given to me this time around, and I don't have a problem with it, not a lot of guilt, shame or issues around having a hand. It was given to me, and I simply use it.
May God bless the work of my hands. And may that work be offered freely.
This post was offered freely. Dana contributions may be sent to the author using PayPal at firstname.lastname@example.org. Eliezer Sobel is the author of The 99th Monkey: A Spiritual Journalist's Misadventures with Gurus,
Messiahs, Sex, Psychedelics and Other Consciousness-Raising Experiments
"Wealth of Pennies" photo by r-z, courtesy of Creative Commons license.