I think it's fair to say that most people assume that money and spirituality have nothing to do with each other. In fact, to many people's way of thinking, money-or, more precisely, the obsessive pursuit of the accumulation of wealth-appears to be the exact opposite of spirituality and, of course, they'd be right. Avarice—which is just a fancy word for plain old greed—really is an unspiritual attitude that has done much harm to our planet in that it is often the fuel that runs much of the crime and indifference that seems to be such a part of the human experience. In fact, in the Bible greed is even personified as a type of demon by the name of Mammon, which Dante thoughtfully chose to include in his cheerful little tome as one of the seven princes of hell. As such, wealth has gotten a bad rap (despite the fact that so many who lack it are obsessed with acquiring it themselves).

That's why so many people are surprised when I suggest that, like all things having to do with living on this planet, money, too, possesses a spiritual component. In fact, wealth itself is not the problem and can actually even be a means towards achieving greater spiritual awareness if used in the proper context.

I recognize this statement seems counter-intuitive, leaving most people probably scratching their head at such a statement. After all, wealth's byproduct, materialism, is what frequently stands in the way of spirituality, so how can it also possess a spiritual component?

The first thing that must be recognized is that money is neither a good nor a bad thing in and of itself. It is a neutral, like nuclear power. For instance, nuclear energy can be used to either power a city or to destroy a city, depending upon the intentions of those in possession of this power source, and wealth is much the same way. It can be used for extraordinary good or for great evil, depending upon how it's used and to what purposes. Even the Bible makes this point when it notes that the "love of money"—not money itself—is the source of all evil. I don't know if that's necessarily true or not—I tend to think that fear is the more profound source for evil—but I won't belabor the point.

I think the Buddha has an interesting take on wealth that some might find illuminating. As many people know, Gautama Siddhartha—Buddha—was a real historical figure and one who was born into great wealth, which he enjoyed for the first twenty-nine years of his life. In fact, his father was King Suddhodana, the leader of the Shakya clan, effectively making him a prince destined to one day lead his people. In this capacity, then—and as was common for royals of every era—he wore only the finest silks and gold jewelry, ate sumptuous meals at a time when many in the land had barely enough to stave off starvation, and generally lived the lavish lifestyle of a monarch in waiting. This didn't make him a bad person, of course. It merely made him a product of his environment and, as such, not all that much different than many people today.

One day, however, Gautama came to realize that all his wealth left him feeling strangely empty inside and he did something most remarkable: he walked away from it and took on the life of an aesthetic (that is, a beggar). In effect, he went from affluence to poverty literally overnight, living in genuine rags and subsisting off the charity of strangers for the next five years of his life. In fact, his aestheticism almost killed him when his weight fell to dangerous levels and he was subsisting on nothing more than a few dried nuts each day.

Eventually, however, young Siddhartha came to realize that aestheticism left him feeling spiritually empty as well, so he left that life as well. However, he didn't return to the wealth of the palace—which he had effectively given up when he left in any case—but he no longer tried to starve himself in an effort at finding contentment either. What happened next was that he came to the realization that all life—both wealth and poverty—were a part of the maya and through that he achieved satori or, what we in the west like to call, enlightenment. In a flash of rare illumination, he suddenly came to realize that one's physical circumstances meant nothing; enlightenment was equally as possible for the prince as it was for the pauper, rendering things like money merely another aspect of the illusion.

That might work for 2500 year-old holy men, of course, but is this attitude realistic in the light of the world we live in? After all, we all have bills to pay, making all this talk about the illusion of money impractical and even naive. Even if we accept the world to be an illusion-which is no small feat for the average person (myself included)-we still experience the harsh realities of it, and one of those realities is that we need money to get along. It's simply the nature of the beast, just as it is the nature of a termite to consume wood. As such, you can acquire it, pursue it, invest it, spend it, use it to manipulate others or even use it as a means of helping others out of their dilemmas, but the one thing you can't do with it is to ignore it. It simply won't permit it.

Additionally, it's no use suggesting that to be spiritual one must simply walk away from their possessions and their wealth as some gurus maintain. Like everything that is part of the illusion, money is there for a reason and we need to understand its role in making us more spiritually aware.

But how can money-or the lack thereof-make us more spiritually conscious?

It does it by showing us-often in a way that nothing else can-where one is spiritually. For those who see it as their security blanket, they will often demonstrate a particular clandestine air around the subject, as though by discussing it too freely or acknowledging its role in their lives, it might be taken from them. These are the people who lack a real understanding of spirituality for they are so deeply caught up in the illusion of financial security that it has become the foundation of their life.

Interesting, however, I have found that this attitude transcends economic status. In effect, it doesn't matter whether a person is fabulously wealthy or lower middle class; if they imagine their security comes from their wealth, they are both equally afraid they will lose it. Of course, the wealthy worry more about losing their fortune while the average person fears losing what little they have, but the fact is that neither is truly secure in their economic status, which seems counter intuitive. One would imagine the one thing the wealthy wouldn't need to worry about was the future, but that often does not seem to be the case.

There is a good example from history that illustrates this fear-based illusion nicely. Hetty Green was a fabulously wealthy nineteen-century businesswoman who was known not only for being a multi-millionaire at a time when only a comparative handful of people on the planet could make such a claim, but for being arguably the most miserly woman who ever lived. Though by the end of her life she was worth, at least according to some estimates, as much as $200 million dollars (almost $4 billion in modern dollars), she was astonishing for her stinginess. While there are many tales—of various degrees of accuracy, one imagines—about Hetty Green's remarkable "frugality", some of them almost defy belief. For example, it is said she never turned on the heat nor used hot water, that she owned only a single black dress that she wore every day, and that she ate mostly pies that cost about fifteen cents apiece. One tale claims that she spent half a night searching her carriage for a lost stamp worth two cents while yet another asserts that she instructed her laundress to wash only the dirtiest parts of her dresses (the hems) to save money on soap. In another story, it is said that she suffered from a serious hernia in her later years because she refused to pay the $150 for an operation to repair it, leaving her to live with the pain of that decision to her dying day.

Of course, we might be tempted to laugh if her story wasn't so heart-breaking. Here was a woman who owned more money than she could spend in a hundred lifetimes, who lived in a time when the average American worker made less than $500 a year, and yet she lived like a pauper, terrified that someone would take her money and leave her destitute. I suspect old Hetty—who passed on to the great by-and-by nearly a hundred years ago—left us a valuable legacy to consider regarding the subjective nature of security: Even those who seem to have it often don't feel it, clearly demonstrating it to be the illusion it is.

Another way that some people use wealth in a way that is detrimental to spiritual growth is as a means of establishing status. For such people, instead of seeing themselves as a spiritual being having a physical experience, they see themselves as a highly successful and clever physical being indeed, thereby supplanting the role of spirit in their lives in the process. This frequently manifests itself in an ostentatious life-style designed to showcase their success, which is really nothing more than a type of vanity intended to gain other (or, more precisely, the "right") people's respect and even admiration. Left to its own devices, avarice leads to an aridness of the soul that ends up not only in making a person apathetic towards the plight of others but can, in the end, end up defining a person not according to who they are, but according to how much they have, which is one of the most unfortunate legacies one can leave their progenitors.

On the other end of the economic spectrum, those who experience a lack of money are equally caught up in the status mythology, but they use it in a more negative way. In effect, they use it as a means of defining themselves as victims of society or "losers," which naturally leads to the manifestation of avarice's vicious cousin: jealousy and, with it, a type of slowly burning anger which eats away at spiritual growth. The problem is that one can never see the divine in another person when they are busy comparing their own economic status with others and living in envy of those who have materially more. It's no accident that many of the most brutal and destructive revolutions in history have been built upon the back of the oppressed who, encouraged by the expert manipulations of frequently wealthy and power-hungry propagandists, rise up and destroy their own country in acts of collective retribution against the "haves" and even surrender their own freedoms to anyone offering them a way out of their poverty (rarely realized, by the way). It is this very inequity between rich and poor—or even between the upper middle and lower middle classes—that dictators (and even many every day politicians in some instances) feed upon to realize their dreams of power. In both cases, the rich and the poor make the same fatal mistake, and that is in letting their resources—or lack thereof—dictate the terms of their lives. In effect, they surrender their lives to the golden calf, never for a moment realizing that the calf is a blind and deaf thing crafted from metal and stone.

So how does a spiritually conscious person see wealth-or the lack thereof? How are they different from those who remain caught up in the illusion that money is what makes the world go around (like 95% of the planet)?

The difference is one of perspective and attitude. Spiritual people control their financial resources and see them as a gift and resource to be used for their own betterment and the betterment of others rather than as a means of acquiring security or as a symbol of success. In essence, they control their wealth; they never allow their wealth to control them. They also never see the acquisition of money as the goal of life in and of itself, but only as a means to an end, nor do they see money as security or interpret the lack of it as evidence of victimhood or failure. They also don't see poverty as a spiritually valuable condition nor do they interpret wealth as necessarily a detriment to growth. On the other hand, they don't see wealth as evidence of spirituality nor do they perceive poverty as evidence of a lack of enlightenment. Spirituality simply sees money for what it is: a neutral energy waiting be used for either good or evil.

If one is gifted with substantial financial resources, it is good to acknowledge it and even be grateful for the fact as long as one also recognizes that wealth is transitory and can be rendered meaningless by a tragic loss or a sudden illness. If one lacks financial resources, however, the spiritually aware see that too as transitory, and realize that ones security is not dependent upon having more but in relying on the abundance of the universe to provide for basic needs. The spiritually attuned wealthy person sees their wealth as a means of improving the lives of others, either through providing well paying jobs or basic needs and services, while the spiritually attuned poor sees that they have other gifts to offer humanity that can't be provided by simply writing a check. One person has the capacity to donate $100,000 to a charity that provides basic sanitation services to an entire village in Nigeria while another works as an assistant to an elderly shut in who would otherwise rarely have human contact. Both are doing important work and neither is better than the other. True, the wealthy philanthropist can help greater numbers of people but to the elderly shut in, the gift they receive is as precious to them as is clean drinking water is to an entire African tribe. That is the way Spirit works, through all of us—both the wealthy and poor, and everyone in between—if we let it.

So does that mean to be a spiritually conscious person one shouldn't strive to improve their financial situation? Not at all. If you feel you have a need for more resources, pursue them to the best of your ability. Just stop along the way and ask yourself why you need to make $75,000 a year instead of the $50,000 you currently make. If it is to feel more successful, that's ego talking. If it's to improve your security, that's fear talking. If it's to buy a bigger house or a better car, that's vanity talking. But if it's so you may have the resources to benefit others in tangible ways, that's Spirit talking.

How does spirituality look when practically played out? I recall once having a man come to my home to lay tile in my kitchen. As he worked gluing the linoleum roll down, he talked about the number of children he and his wife had adopted over the years. It turns out they were also a foster family, and he discussed expanding his business so he could afford to take in more children. His desire to make more money, then, was not to have more "stuff", but to provide a larger home so he could accommodate more displaced and abused children. That's how Spirit works. That's how the spirituality of money works.

Of course, that doesn't mean there's anything wrong with having nice things just for the sake of having them. I have pieces of art in my office and in my home that I could live without, but I enjoy them and see no problem with having them purely for the enjoyment they give me. The difference is that they are merely phantoms in this world of illusion, all of which could be lost in a fire or flood in a matter of minutes, making me aware that they are as transitory as life itself.

But what of the truly poor? All this talk about helping others and being content with what you have is fine, but there are truly destitute people among us who are genuinely living in squalor and lack the resources to keep themselves and their families' healthy. What should our attitude be towards them?

Jesus of Nazareth once told his followers that "the poor will always be with you," which I thought was a fairly cynical perspective at the time. (Jesus was definitely no utopian, it appears.) However, in considering his words more carefully, I realize his statement was not a surrender to pessimism, but a challenge to the rest of us. The poor are put on this planet to challenge those of us who do have resources. They are a means of gaining spiritual insight and a way of gauging compassion. They are, in effect, the tools we use to sharpen our spiritual awareness. In effect, how you treat the poor says more about you than any résumé or bestowed honors ever could.

That doesn't mean the poor don't have an obligations as well, however. Too many believe their lesser status entitles them to other people's resources-the "redistribution of wealth" as it is called-but such a mindset can be as detrimental to spiritual growth as hoarding can be. Too many people desire to be given everything they need rather than work for it and even instill this mentality into their children. In doing so, they don't realize they are surrendering their future—and often that of their children—on the altar of victimhood. This, unfortunately, has the effect of encouraging an otherwise healthy and capable person to remain dependent on the state for the rest of their life, effectively preventing them from taking responsibility for their own situation. The challenge to the poor, then, is to rise above their own perceived limitations which are, after all, just that: a perception. In doing so they may discover gifts and talents within themselves they would never have otherwise appreciated had not the quest to escape poverty impelled them to try. America's history is replete with stories of immigrants arriving in this country unable to speak the language and with ten dollars in their pocket who, within a few short years, became successful and, in some cases, even fabulously wealthy. Had they been simply handed a blank check upon stepping foot on American soil, who knows what this country would have lost in terms of creativity and determination.

Of course, not all of them made it. Some did die in shantytowns or ended their lives when things got too bad, but the point is that they at least had the opportunity to try. Spirituality does not guarantee success, nor is failure evidence of an unspiritual life. In fact, some of the most spiritually lacking people on the planet are extraordinarily successful by worldly standards, while some of the poorest are spiritual giants. The universe does not recognize classes of people, the rich and the poor, the haves and have nots, the princes or the paupers. It simply experiences the fullest range of what it is to be human and lets each aspect of the divine—that which we call human beings—make their own decisions and reap the rewards or consequences of them. Some may consider this inequitable or uncharitable, but it is simply the way that Spirit works.

The problem is that Spirit doesn't play favorites, which is in some ways what makes it so dangerous; we want a God who is on our side, who's rooting for us, who's willing to pull a few strings to get us that dream job or see to it that we avoid the pitfalls of life, but I'm afraid such a God is purely a creation of our imagination. Spirit allows us to make the decision about what our life will be and then provides the mechanism to bring that about. Whether we like what we get is up to us, but even then Spirit allows us to go in a new direction and start over again.

Like I said; wealth is like nuclear power: it's neutral. Whether we use it to power or destroy a city—and our own lives—is up to each one of us.