Thursday, October 22, 2009

Samsara In The Maketplace

This is a stressful time for me on several levels, and lessons are revealed through the cracks the tension causes.

In Georgia, probably elsewhere as well, October is the month that property taxes are due, although they've been delayed slightly in Atlanta due to the City's inability to reconcile the tax digest. On the 15th of this month, the property taxes on the Unsellable Condo in Vinings were due (and paid). At the end of this month, the City tax is due on my house and on the 15th of next month the County taxes are due. Altogether, these taxes total over $7,500. I've come to call these sequential payments "The Tests."

Many people deal with these taxes by creating escrow accounts with their mortgage lenders, basically, sending to their lender a little bit of the full amount due each month, and then having the mortgage company pay off the tax. That's not a bad idea and I once did just that in the past, but since moving into this house, I decided that I could manage my money just as well as a mortgage company could and set up my own escrow account through my bank. The money's in there now to pay the full amount, but somehow I've gotten attached to the balance in the escrow and have come to think of it as "my" money.

As I was listening to a podcast recently by Zen teacher Chozen Bays, a remark she made about money really resonated with me. In these modern time, she noted, wealth has become nothing more than computerized 0's and 1's. Cash money once was a symbol of actual wealth, the legal tender that represented some tangible assets, and now numbers on a computer screen have come to represent cash - a symbol of a symbol. You can think of those symbolic numbers as the economic capital that holds our materialistic society together, a measure of our value and our worth, or you can regard them as nothing but black and white pixels on a computer screen, digital "zeros" and "ones" in a computer. My employer pays me through direct deposit, and when the digits appear in my on-line account, I redistribute those numbers via electronic fund transfers to those various parties to whom I owe debt. What's left, I use to buy groceries and gasoline using an ATM card, and the balance after that gets divided on line into different electronic accounts, such as the escrow account. I hardly ever deal with cash any more, much less anything of actual value.

But sometimes when I look at the account called "escrow," my greedy mind wants to put a label on it called "nest egg" or simply "mine." I'm going to come close to emptying the account out over the next 30 days, and that scares a part of me. The balance has been steadily decreasing over the years, and it seems that each year I wind up taking more out than I put in. What will happen when it finally runs dry? What if I suddenly need those zeros and ones for something else? What if my employer decides to stop directly depositing pixels into my bank account? What would happen then?

As Chozen points out, that's the nature of our minds - always worrying about the bad things that might happen, could possibly occur (perhaps, maybe), and working itself up into a state almost as if the worst had happened. The Buddha once said that it's as if someone shot an arrow at us and missed, but we pick the arrow up and start stabbing ourselves with it. Of course, the mind doesn't spend much time at all thinking about the good things that might happen and it spends even less time giving "thinking" a break altogether and switching instead to its other function - perceiving.

So in addition to the stress of giving away funds from an account set up to ultimately be dispersed, I add stress by worrying about every possible bad thing that could result from those funds being gone. Of course, all of this is merely the tip of the iceberg of worrying - worrying about money and about health and about health care and about the cost of health care, and so on and so forth.

It also makes me realize how bound up I am by my financial obligations. I couldn't move to Portland a year or so ago because I couldn't sell the house and free myself of the mortgage obligations. Even if I could figure a way to feed and shelter myself, I can't quit my job and devote myself full time to practice because of two mortgage obligations and taxes and insurance and car payments and utilities. I have fallen victim to what the Subgeniuses call "the Big Con" - the conspiracy to convince modern man that we need to sell our labor for wages with which to consume ever greater quantities of real estate, automobiles, entertainment and diversions, and consider ourselves "successful" even as we sink deeper and deeper into servitude to our financial overlords.

Sometimes it seems to me a perfectly rational and even healthy idea to just liquidate everything - to hold a fire sale and get rid of everything, the homes, the car, the furniture, everything. Declare bankruptcy if the proceedings don't cover the debt. It would be scary, but liberating.

On the other hand . . . many people depend upon my redistributing zeros and ones in the computerized wealth matrix, and I made a sincere promise to certain individuals to pay certain fees in return for certain goods and services - would it be ethical to just quit? And I know for certain that Eliot the cat likes things just exactly the way they are right now - a warm, safe place to sleep and a reliable source of food. As a bodhisattva practicing kindness and cooperation, shouldn't I do what's within my ability to keep my obligations to all those cats, feline and otherwise?

To put it another way, can renunciation of materialism be a matter of simply no longer attaching to the material, even as one is still earning wages and paying debts?

Ah, layman's Zen - transcending the marketplace even while one is in the midst of it.

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