ARE SPIRITUAL TEACHERS ‘SELLING WATER BY THE RIVERSIDE’?
“For what shall it profit a man,
if he shall gain the whole world,
and lose his own soul?”
– Jesus of Nazareth
“Live long and prosper!”
– The Vulcan Salute, Star Trek
I have often been asked to talk about the supposedly ‘controversial’ subject of charging money for something called ‘spiritual teachings’.
Personally, I don’t see any controversy at all. The controversy seems to stem from a profound misunderstanding of who we really are, a very narrow and divisive view of ‘spirituality’, and the fear of something that we do not need to be afraid of at all.
MONEY IS SPIRITUAL
Many people who consider themselves to be ‘spiritual’ consider money to be very ‘unspiritual’ (what a strange division to make!). They say that money is dirty, against life, a stain on consciousness, filled with ego. Some people even say that spiritual teachers should never ask for money, and teachings should either be given for free, or by donation – and if a teacher charges money he or she is not authentic, or perhaps even a fraud!
But let’s get real here. If a spiritual teacher does not charge money, deep down he or she can still desire to collect as many donations as possible, or collect as many students as possible, or collect as much admiration or publicity or popularity or respect as possible – and the image of selfless, desireless, ego-free teacher who never asks for money can be a very profitable image indeed!
So, it all comes down to motivation and intention.
It’s not money that is the problem, it is our concepts surrounding money. Money is simply a part of life, a natural movement of life-energy – it is our greed and fears surrounding money that create so much suffering and inequality, for ourselves and everyone else.
When you offer a service or a product – and that could include spiritual teaching, singing, art, healing, therapy, anything – what is your intention? Are you doing it primarily for the money? Are you doing it solely to make a profit for yourself? To amass personal wealth? To promote yourself and your own image? To increase your own security and comfort at any cost? In that case, you will never be truly rich in the deeper sense of the word – that is, deeply in touch with prosperity, the natural flow of life, the abundant cycle of life energy. Without a deep understanding of prosperity, and the importance of giving and receiving in total balance, no human life is possible.
THE CYCLE OF PROSPERITY
Since humans first gathered together, we have been in touch with the cycle of life, the primal flow of life energy. Life gives so much to us, often more than we need, and we eat and drink and live well and prosper, and, in gratitude for our good fortune, in humility, and out of the understanding of our interdependence, or simply in awe and wonder of things as they are, we give back to life, and life gives back to us, and the flow of prosperity keeps going round and round. It is the most natural thing in the world to want to prosper and thrive, and to want our loved ones to prosper and thrive, and to want to be at one with prosperity – for we are not separate from this flow.
The moment we forget our inseparability from life itself, and make our primary focus ‘my wealth’ or ‘my profit’ rather than the prosperity of all, fear begins. If profit is our primary motive, if our wealth is built on disconnection from life and pure personal interest, when we finally do achieve our success and wealth and fame, it all feels so empty – it is not true wealth. We sit in our million dollar mansions and rot, feeling lonely and left out and maybe more of a failure than ever. And then, in a world of impermanence and constant change, there is always the possibility of losing our profit and success and apparent security and comfort – and great anxiety can result.
All of this stems from a basic misunderstanding of who we really are. ‘My profit’ and ‘my comfort’ are not really what we long for. What we long for is prosperity in the deepest sense of the word – our inherent inseparability from life and each other, which is the truth of who we really are. Money in itself cannot give us that.
THE JOY OF GIVING AND RECEIVING
When we are joyfully doing what we love and loving what we do, when we are truly connected and allowing life to flow freely through us, when music and art and creativity and inspiration are allowed to move and express in us, when we offer that original and creative expression to others in our community, out of a sense of joy and wonder and adventure rather than a drive for profit and the holding up of the image, when we return what life has given us to the ‘marketplace’, the place where others gather, it is possible that others will love what we share, that they will want more of it; that it will inspire or move them or help them or even change their lives – that our prosperity will become their prosperity – for it is all the same prosperity – and that they will feel moved to give back to us in some way. Touched by what we have shared, others may feel the joyous urge to contribute to our prosperity, and this may manifest in the form of giving us money from the fruits of their own prosperity. They know that giving and receiving are all part of the same singular movement of life. Seen in this way, money is only a token of prosperity, a movement of love, you could say.
When Bob Dylan shares his musical poetry, or Marlon Brando acts by not acting, or Mozart gives us his heavenly music, or Shakespeare shares his words, or Billy Holliday sings from her heart, or someone dances or paints or creates in their own unique and unexpected and thrilling way, and we are inspired and moved and changed and delighted and even deeply challenged, we are often happy to give back to them, to contribute to their prosperity, and therefore to the prosperity of all who have been and will be touched by them. We want life to keep flowing, both for ourselves and for all mankind, and our giving of money can simply be an expression of this gratitude.
Seen in this way, a good spiritual teacher is simply an artist, a poet, a musician, who uses words and silence instead of a paintbrush or musical instrument – but the intention is still the same – to point back towards the deepest truth of life.
The division between ‘spirituality’ and everything else is totally illusory, you see. There is only One life, indivisible.
Spirituality is art, and art is spirituality, and when we see spiritual teachers as artists, giving from prosperity rather than the urge for profit, then we are happy to compensate them for their art. They give us so much, and we give to them, even though what they ‘give’ is intangible and may be seen as ‘nothing’ by the mind. Even though music and art are ‘free”, are artists really “selling water by the riverside” when they move us to tears and change our outlook forever?
If we say “No! I REFUSE to pay, they should be giving this to ME for FREE!”, is this not a movement of shutting ourselves off from prosperity and gratitude and therefore life itself? It’s certainly something to explore within ourselves.
When we are in touch with this universal prosperity, with our inseparability from life, when we are doing what we love and loving what we do, when we are sharing our gifts and talents and skills with others in the human marketplace, when we give our joy and even our pain to others, yes, we can make money. Profit may arise. The sole intention was not to make money – it was to prosper and to add to others’ prosperity – but we ended up making money, as a side-effect of love.
Simply put, we may profit financially from our intention to add to the prosperity of the world. In this way, making a profit can actually be a beautiful and moving and very innocent thing – we have touched others, and in turn we have been touched. And with our profit, we may then keep the cycle of life going, by giving and sharing and using this profit to further add to the prosperity of the world. When we have more money, we may be able to do more to increase prosperity – not just for ourselves and our immediate families, but for everyone in our town, our city, our country, our continent, and perhaps even the entire world. We could build hospitals and schools, provide medicines to the poor, fund important research, or simply be able to give more products and services away for free to those who have less money than us. Who knows what is possible, when our ‘spiritual’ fear of possessing money ends.
When you understand that hiding underneath a wish to make money can simply be a primal calling to add to the prosperity of the world, you understand that there is nothing wrong with wanting to make money, in itself, and your conditioned “spiritual” guilt over making money vanishes.
Money is very, very spiritual in its essence – everything is. It’s up to each of us to check our intentions and motivations surrounding money, that’s all.
And then perhaps we can all share and even rejoice in each others’ prosperity, rather than becoming imprisoned by jealousy and criticism and mesmerised by false divisions between something called the ‘spiritual’ and something else called the ‘non-spiritual’.
A prosperous spirituality that no longer divides “material” and “spiritual”, that embraces money and sees the deeper truth in the giving and receiving of it, is a spirituality deeply rooted in truth.
– Jeff Foster