Interview from 2010.
Jacob Needleman is a professor of Philosophy at San Francisco State University and author of many books, including Money and the Meaning of Life, What is God, and The American Soul. He was educated in philosophy at Harvard, Yale and the University of Freiburg, Germany. He has also served as Research Associate at the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research, as a Research Fellow at Union Theological Seminary, as Adjunct Professor of Medical Ethics at the University of California Medical School and as guest Professor of Religious Studies at the Sorbonne, Paris.
Pulse: Mr. Needleman, as you see it, can money lead to greater self-knowledge? Can it help us better understand ourselves?
Jacob Needleman: Money is a great mediator, and it can bring us considerable self-knowledge if we can learn to study how we actually behave with money. We need to become acutely and honestly aware of our contradictions and self-deceptions in how we actually feel about money, how we regard it, what role it plays in our lives, and what it means to us. In that way, our attitude toward money can be a tool for self-knowledge, and the sincere study of our actual relationship to money can be a very powerful mediator between the two parts of our nature—the spiritual and the material parts of ourselves. But it’s not exactly the money itself that brings us self-knowledge; it’s the inner consciousness of our troubled relationship to it.
Is there anything sacred about money?
Money isn’t sacred, but our relationship to money can have a sacred dimension when we focus it towards accessing greater self-knowledge, generosity, and love.
Something about one‘s relationship to money can at times feel like a Zen koan. Can money bring us to a higher level of awareness; can it be a way we learn about courage and self-discipline?
If you need money for a sacred purpose, and if you take a risk with money in order to search for truth, that’s a very interesting way of bringing a new and higher order into your social, everyday life. If you really want to search for truth and love, and if that search costs a certain amount of money which exceeds what you’re comfortable with, that can be a spiritually creative situation. Not a comfortable situation, but one that can attract a certain energy, just like a koan can attract a certain energy, if you’re trying with your whole being to solve the unsolvable. After all, the “answer” to a koan is not in the words, but in the state of engagement of the whole of the mind.
Is that because our relationship to money can push us to our extremes, test how much we can take?
Yes. But of course all this also depends on your upbringing. Everybody has a different upbringing, and has different levels of “what they can take”. Money is often a very serious stress. And for many of us there are certain imaginary fears and assumptions of how money works in the world that we carry with us unknowingly, and those add to that burden or stress.
Things we learned as children?
Yes. Many of us are conditioned at a very early age. We watch our parents. Very often money is one of the great sources of conflict or tension in a family, and this energy affects us. It goes very deep. As we grow older, we are often unaware of this ingrained relationship to money; our awareness doesn’t penetrate deeply enough to reach the area where these beliefs reside. So our behavior toward money remains fundamentally amoral.
Why amoral? Because it’s not contemplated?
It’s deeply unconscious.
So these preconceptions about money, or these energies we’ve absorbed, are part of us in a physical sense, you mean?
Not physical exactly. But money means something to us that we are not aware of.
It’s part of us, but not a conscious part. So it’s almost formed at a cellular level, these patterns…
Well, in that sense, yes. It’s built into our behavior, almost into our DNA: As a metaphor, you can put it that way.
This reminds me of something you say early on in Money and the Meaning of Life. You’re talking about Freudian psychoanalysis. I’m not sure I remember the quote precisely… Freud says…
“Man is not as bad as he thinks he is, nor can he become as good as he wishes to become.”
Right. And you say Freud had it backwards, that —
Actually, we are much worse off than we think we are, but we can become far greater than we can imagine.
So even though these patterns or feelings about money might be deep and ingrained, we are nevertheless capable of changing them. How? Simply by becoming aware of them?
Exactly. These things are very difficult to become aware of, however. It’s very difficult to become conscious of these preconceptions and patterns. They’re blanketing us; they are buffering our awareness, protecting us from seeing our contradictions. But sometimes the veil is lifted for a moment, and you get a tiny glimpse through those protective illusions. You see your own deep contradictions, and if you have courage, you can stay with that and look at it closely — and that can bring us a glimpse of our higher, inner possibilities.
If we’re paying attention, do we get those intimations often?
Yes, but they are very hard to admit; it is very hard to admit our self-contradictions to ourselves. We don’t like to admit that the truth about ourselves isn’t what we think it is, or say it is. For instance, a person might live a very bohemian existence and claim not to care about money but when someone dies and a will is read and some money is up for grabs in the family, then that same person may act in a very different way, a way that contradicts many other aspects of his or her life. It’s very hard to face these kinds of contradictions in ourselves. There’s more inner hypocrisy and self-contradictions about money than almost anything else, including sex.
If we are talking to someone who looks kind of worn and rumpled, for instance, and we think they are poor, we see them one way. If someone then comes along and whispers into our ear “You are talking to so and so, and he’s famous for such and such, and he’s a millionaire”, then it often does very quickly change our view of the person.
In Money and the Meaning of Life, you talk about this too, you call it “the disparity between our values and our behavior”. But these moments are also gifts, are they not? It’s in these difficult moments that we are actually given a chance to grow. Is that right? Or am I reading something into your work?
No, that’s true. That’s where the awakening is; in those glimpses into the embryo of the soul. If we see the contradiction in ourselves, and have the courage to face it – if we see the contradiction between how we want to be seen, and how we actually are – then a lot of growth can come from that. One grows inwardly by those kinds of shocks. It can be a kind of spiritual discipline, to really take that attitude toward money, and to discover more of ourselves in these shocks of self-knowledge.
We all see these kinds of contradictions in others, and perhaps others see them in us. But how can we share that information with each other? How do we meet?
Well, often we don’t meet. Just going up to someone and saying ‘You’re being hypocritical!” is probably not going to help. It might even end the friendship, at least if it’s said in that judgmental tone. In these kinds of situations, sometimes you just have to suffer it and take it as a call to look at your own attitude. The Other can be a mirror to us if we allow that. In fact, that is a very spiritually interesting attitude towards relationships: things we cannot bear about others, or the things we judge in another, if we’re honest, we can probably see the same things in ourselves.
Maybe that’s the bridge, or what opens a space where we can meet: the meeting comes not from me telling my friend how he is but rather from my friend seeing me have a revelation about my own situation.
Yes, if the connection comes, it comes out of a state of presence, and out of you having a revelation about your self and being open about that and letting it be seen.
What do you mean by “state of presence”? The word “presence” comes up often in your work.
Well, it’s one of those things that you know only when you’re in it. Many of us go through our lives without actually being present, or aware, of the actual moments of those lives. But sometimes you just wake up, and suddenly you are Here, Now, Present, Aware. You’re in this moment, with this person, doing this task, having these feelings. And you know it. Sometimes the lucidity only lasts a moment, but when you’re in that kind of moment, life has a whole new meaning for you.
That state of presence is a very potent state to share with someone, isn’t it?
Yes. When you share a certain quality of attention with another person, it opens up a whole other dimension and there is a whole new conception of what it means to be in a relationship. It’s a dimension that is almost entirely lost in our culture, or that so many of us do not even know we are missing because we do not know this other dimension exists. And yet, it’s precisely this dimension which we are hungry for. That’s what I meant by “you know it when you’re in it”. It’s very hard to define this state when you are not in it. In fact, it’s very easy to forget that state as well, even after one has been there. We often go through our days in a kind of daze.
Well, it’s hard to be present when life is feeling stressful. We’d rather shut off and not deal with the reality. And yet, it’s only by looking at it, being aware, that we can move through that stress to this other dimension. For many of us, this seems especially true when it comes to issues involving money.
Well, money is part of the world. We have to be savvy about money and still not let ourselves be poisoned by it. That’s one of the great challenges of our era, as individuals, the challenge of how to be engaged in this world of money, which we have to be engaged in, without being swallowed by it. The world has become so commercialized and commoditized, and we have to live in it, and play the game, even as inwardly we’re searching for something else. That balance is what teaches us. Money is necessary. We have to accept it and move on from there.
So the view that money is evil is no better than the view that money is the answer to all our ills?
The reason why you are doing something is important. There is a different energy that comes from doing something just for money, and doing something with awareness and looking at money in the way we’ve been discussing. Money in itself is neither evil nor sacred. It’s about our relationship to money. But money and transcendent value can be connected. It can take an amazing amount of precious discipline and hard work to generate wealth. And these human qualities can be very positive. In that sense, certainly, money can be very good.
What’s interesting is that we often have a hard time putting a price on our services. If we were asked how much we want for some service, we often have a hard time quoting a fair price. We can be greedy and go too far, or – and this is even more likely – we can feel guilty about money and not ask for enough. The real task it to look at your life and figure out how to be clever without being corrupt.
A favorite saying of mine is: “Trust in Allah, but tie your camel first.” God is the main focus. But the world is a jungle and you have to be sharp and awake in your interaction with it.
One last question: since you were around for the Sixties and the protests in Berkeley, and now you are teaching in the midst of the Occupy Movement, I’d like to ask you: How are the protest movements of the young people different today?
There’s a kind of despair among younger people today. A kind of aching despair. In the Sixties there was a kind of hope or belief in possibility that was a bit naïve, but it was still an energy that was very bright. There’s not that kind of hope anymore. But there’s a need, and maybe that’s even stronger. It’s more enduring – the need – because that need is understandable and justifiable. At the same time, there is also an element to it that is still naïve. I write in American Soul that people expect a nation to be a saint. But a nation is not a saint. A nation is a lower organism than a person. A person can be a saint; a nation cannot be a saint. Just like a law cannot be a saint. A nation is there to provide a much different kind of service—to protect the subtler, more tender search for inner truth and goodness.
Maybe that need is just the beginning. Maybe the Occupy movement is an attempt to do what we’ve been talking about, provide some light and clarity about these preconceptions we have about money and wealth, things that are so hard to notice and admit. We might take it to a more individual level now.
Many in this country are certainly exploring this in a new way. I think we have a president now (President Obama) who to some extent outwardly, politically, exemplifies that change. It is all being done imperfectly of course, but we have come a long way compared to our recent political blindness. Nevertheless, inwardly we have a very long way to go.