Moneyless philosophy and the delusion of self

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Humankind has not woven the web of life. We are but one thread within it. Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves. All things are bound together. All things connect.

— Chief Seattle

Regardless of whether you believe that the story of money serves us well or not – whether you’re a capitalist or a socialist, hippie or yuppie, Christian or Buddhist – you probably spent most of your life wanting a bit more of it. Considering that everyone pays lip service to the old adage that money doesn’t bring you happiness, and that it is not exactly famous for improving the character of those who get their hands on increasing amounts of it, you’d wonder what the hell everyone finds so attractive about it. But we do. We love it, and envy those who have lots of it. We even give up our time – those precious, finite moments that make up the totality of our lives – in return for it, regardless of how much we already have, and how hideous or soul-destroying the task. Everyone, it seems, wants more money. We’re all Spike Milligan, when he quipped “all I ask for is a chance to prove that money can’t make me happy”.

What is it about money that makes it so attractive? The ease of life it promises, perhaps – a nice home, a car, good schools for the kids; nice clothes, holidays, eating out once or twice a week. These are all understandable aspirations in themselves, but it doesn’t take Buddha to realise that these are merely things that we can have. Money can certainly play a crucial role in changing the material world around us, but can it really change the way we can be? And what is it that we want to be?

There is no ‘natural’ way of being human. We are not inherently greedy, nor inevitably destructive. A sweeping glance around the cultures dying on our periphery will quickly tell you that there are infinite ways of living as a human being, and the way we are influences the way we behave.

Who are you? You are a mother, perhaps, a teacher or a lawyer. You are your ego, your memories, and your imagination. You are your desires, your fears and your joys. You are a range of expressions from moment to moment. Compassion. Love. Creativity. Care. A pain in the ass. Spontaneity. Honesty, integrity, truth. The human spirit is potent.

Does it stop there though? Where does your perception of self end? Is it at the limits of the human spirit, or the human body? You probably acknowledge that your leg is part of you. But what about the bacteria in your intestines or colon, which are life-forms supposedly independent of you in themselves, but which are also a hugely important, interdependent part of you? Not so clear-cut, right? Consider the water you drink from the stream (or these days, the tap) – do you believe that it is part of you? It makes up between 30-90% of your body, once it is inside you, so you probably ought to. But what about that split second before you cupped it in your hands and drank it, when it was still labelled a stream – is it still separate from you then? Or when you swill it around in your mouth? Or when it lies in your intestine before being absorbed into your bloodstream? How about if you spit into a glass of water – would you then hesitate to drink it, because that spit no longer seems a part of you, despite that you certainly swallow that same saliva every time you drink?

My point is that the boundaries of our sense of self seem to be fuzzy and ill-defined. We might think of ourselves as a discrete ‘object’, bounded by our skin (what Alan Watts describes as “the skin-encapsulated ego”),(7) but it’s hard to justify that when even skin itself is constantly exchanging atoms and energy with the wider environment. No person is an island, we are instead part of a flow of energy, food, water, minerals, radiation and so on, constantly passing in, out and through us, much of which has no respect for the boundary of the skin at all. We are no more a bounded ‘object’ than a wave on the ocean is. Like a wave, we are a form through which many objects (in that case, water molecules) are passing. To identify one’s self with the molecules that are within your skin right now is no more appropriate than to identify an ocean with the molecules that are within its form at a given moment.

But what is real is interdependence. It is clear that if the stream I cup my water from is poisoned, I will die. If the soil under my feet is stripped bare, I will eventually starve. And so in a real, clear, practical sense I am one with them – like the bacteria in my colon, they are part of what is necessary for my form as a living human being to continue.
Shamans and mystics, free thinkers and tribes people have been banging on about ‘oneness’ since the dawn of humanity, but it is only since the 1960s, with Lovelock’s Gaia theory, that the idea has had any credence in the modern world. We are not, as contemporary culture would have us believe, glorious beings separate from the savagery of Nature. Instead, it would appear, we are glorious beings inherently part of glorious Nature, an interconnectedness which makes that stream as much a part of you as the flesh, blood and bones that you consist of at this precise moment. At a fundamental, particle level we are all the same – different assortments of the same basic elements (such as oxygen, carbon and nitrogen). Should our sense of self not stretch to encompass all life? Albert Einstein put it beautifully,

… a human being is part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. We experience ourselves, our thoughts and feelings as something separate from the rest. A kind of optical delusion of consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from the prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty. The true value of a human being is determined by the measure and the sense in which they have obtained liberation from the self. We shall require a substantially new manner of thinking if humanity is to survive.

The human sense of self is integral to our behaviour, and to the way we decide to build our lives. It is reflected in our institutions, our social values, and our power structures. If we do not see ourselves as connected to, or dependent on, our community, why would we bother nourishing it? If we do not see ourselves as connected to, or dependent on Nature, why would we bother preserving its splendour and bounty? Modern culture has developed and encouraged a sense of self which implicitly denies these integral connections and dependencies – implicitly denies oneness – and the results of this have never been clearer: deforestation, desertification, species extinction, air and water toxification; rising rates of cancer, asthma, diabetes, heart disease and obesity; increasing incidents of suicide, depression, drugs and violence; cults of celebrity, obsessions with physical beauty, fear of death. All of these are immensely unhealthy, and, I would argue, stem directly from a nature-illiterate people lost in their understanding of themselves, disconnected from their communities and stores of knowledge, and terribly misguided about their place in the world.

This is not a book about the self, it’s about money, but questioning where the boundaries of self lie is a crucial foundation to understanding the call to move beyond monetary economics. People assume that I would agree with the old misquoted adage, money is the root of all evil. I don’t. Instead I propose that it is our deluded sense of self which is the root of many of our current personal, social and ecological crises. Money is instrumental to maintaining and affirming this delusion.

Money is both chicken and egg in relation to this delusional sense of self. Whilst it originated as a mere symptom itself of the illusion of separation between ourselves and all other life, and the consciousness of concepts such as debt and credit which stem from that, it has in turn perpetuated and greatly intensified the extent to which we feel disconnected from the rest of life by increasing the degrees of separation between us and what we consume. This creates an even stronger delusion and more severe symptoms. Therefore it plays a major role in contributing to the destructive acts which each of us undertake when we put the narrow interests of our own skin-encapsulated ego over the interests of the whole, our holistic self.

Why is this important? Where we draw the boundaries between our-selves and other has huge implications for the personal, social and ecological problems we face. Our current monetary economic model works partially on the basis that we will act in what Ayn Rand,(8) and those such as Adam Smith before her, describes as our rational self-interest. But what if the boundaries of the self are not as clear as Rand and the rest of us first assumed? The terms rational self-interest and selfishness take on a much different understanding under a more expansive, holistic sense of self. If a person perceives their self to be the entire whole, then to act in your own self-interest would involve making decisions where looking after yourself would mean protecting the rivers, atmosphere, soil and forests that provide the hydrogen, oxygen and minerals that make up the physical elements of what you presently define as ‘I’. Redefining and expanding the boundaries of the self would also make charging other humans for the gifts you bring into the world, which you yourself have been gifted, become no less ludicrous than your penis or clitoris charging your knees for the experience of an orgasm.

Can you imagine such a world?