One of my colleagues has a beautiful Rolex watch. Sitting next to him in a meeting not long ago, I found myself really wanting a similarly beautiful watch. My desiring-machine was really ramping things up, and I found myself trying to justify such a purchase. “I’m an attorney, I should look a certain way to impress clients. Other attorneys will see me as successful, too, and maybe refer business my way. And I’ll buy my Rolex in a frugal way—used, of course!—off eBay or somewhere similar. Don’t I deserve it?”
Luckily it was about this point my mental yoga training kicked in, and I started laughing at myself. (Internally—the meeting was still ongoing.) That whole train of thought was all nonsense. Referral business comes because people are impressed by the quality of your work, not the quality of your accessories. No matter how good a deal I got on a Rolex, I’d still be losing because it’s impossible to “save” money by spending it! I liked the idea of having that kind of watch, but I didn’t need to attach myself to it because it was totally irrelevant. And I have a perfectly good watch already that I love. A new watch wouldn’t give me anything other than trouble—making it harder to reach my financial goals, making me worry about taking care of something that I couldn’t really afford, and therefore just adding stress.
This process I went through wasn’t an accident. It was mental training: the practice of non-attachment. Although it works on any kind of desire (as far as I have experienced!), it’s an especially useful skill to put in your frugal toolkit. Because we live in such an abundant society, we really need very little to lead happy, fulfilling lives. Learning how to confront irrational, silly desires and crush them like the gnats they are is the root of non-attachment practice. Because money and desire go hand in hand, it can be the root of sound financial practice too. I learned it through yoga, but you don’t need to take a yoga class to practice it.
Yoga Pose 1: Acknowledging Desire
Yoga has taught me many things. But the lesson that keeps giving is not how to do fun poses—though I love them—but the mental practice of non-attachment. Like many type A personality people, once I get an idea in my head about something I want, or want to do, I almost feel duty bound to make that idea a reality. Sometimes that’s a good thing, like when it means crushing a massive amount of debt very quickly.
But other times this internal drive creates extremely negative conflicts with my larger goals—usually when it comes to more immediate desires. Not long ago you could bet your bottom dollar that I’d have some type of Rolex within a week of having the thoughts above. I would’ve agonized over where to get it, how much to spend, and ensuring I got the highest quality for the best price until it was in my hands.
But now I practice non-attachment. And it starts by accepting the fact that you are having thoughts of desire. Instead of letting the thoughts of desire take over your mental script and lead your thoughts (and actions), take a step back. Acknowledge them like funny looking tourists visiting the immaculate, frugal citadel of your mind. “Huh, I’m having extremely strong thoughts of desire for a Rolex! What’s up with that?”
The goal here is to create distance between what your desire is and your own rational thoughts. By creating—and acknowledging—the distance between your thoughts of desire and the rest of your mind, it’s much easier to treat desire as something separate and distinct. Your thoughts are not you. It’s okay to have them, but you don’t have to keep them. But the goal is not to push the thoughts of desire out. Instead, by examining them closely as just that—one thought among many—we actually move closer to them by shining a bright examination light on them.
After a little practice, often just taking this small step back from the mental traffic is enough. Other times it takes a little bit more work.
Yoga Pose 2: Letting It Pass
Letting desire go takes practice. By nature, at least for me, it sticks around and tries to prod me into action. (This is also why doing nothing is often the best financial decision, but is extremely hard to accomplish.) So for most larger financial decisions—say $100 or more—I’ve instituted a mandatory holding period of at least seven days. This gives me more time to examine why I’m having such strong thoughts of desire—for a Rolex, for example—after I’ve taken the first step of acknowledging these thoughts as something distinct and separate from myself. My thoughts are not me. Don’t believe everything you think.
Desire is kind of like a forest fire in your mind. At first it seems really intense, but it only has so much fuel. Making it burn through that fuel without being satisfied makes it all the more likely that it will disappear under methodical examination. Take my desire for a Rolex. What was really driving that desire? My colleague who was wearing it is an exceptionally good attorney. He is also a genuinely good individual who cares deeply about those with whom he works. Generally, I admire him and think he’s a great guy. In many ways, I’d like to be like him. My lizard brain distilled all those feelings into the fastest possible (but least effective) way to be like him: wearing the same kind of watch.
After I’d had time to roll those thoughts around, I realized I didn’t really want a watch at all. I wanted—and needed—to work on my own character and skills so that I could actually exhibit the traits I admired in my colleague, not just wear a poor proxy for them. And then, like a train departing the station, the echoing cacophony of desire was gone.
Yoga Pose 3: Finding Space for the Present
After the difficult work of acknowledging desire, confronting it directly, and letting it pass, there’s nothing like a little gratitude for the present. It’s like a long drink of water after a difficult workout. And flipping desire on its head by appreciating something you already have is a great way to make sure desire doesn’t come roaring back in.
So, to continue the story, it was about this point that I started focusing on and appreciating my current watch more. I’ve had it for almost nine years. It’s powered by sunlight and therefore has never needed a new battery. Its hands glow in the dark making it easy to see the time in the middle of the night without an obnoxiously bright light. It was a gift. I’ve taken it on many adventures through the forest and on rivers and it has held up to every kind of abuse imaginable. It’s a workhorse. Why on Earth would I want to replace it with a difficult to operate, time-losing, delicate status symbol?
I didn’t want to! And freedom from desire for one purchase pushed me ever closer to debt freedom, and eventual financial freedom. This ability to confront desire to spend money and turn it upside down, and instead find gratitude in the present for free is what I call financial yoga. Now you can practice too!
What about you? How do you confront your desires and liberate yourself from them? Please share in the comments!