YML podcast with Layth Matthews
Sep 12, 2019
Layth Matthews shares with us reasons to be cheerful about the wealth within you.
In this podcast I’m in discussion with Layth Matthews, author of The Four Noble Truths of Wealth, a Buddhist view of economic life, a book that explores how the essence of the Buddha’s teachings can illuminate our own perception of what wealth really means, and how our perception of wealth affects our personal and global experience of prosperity.
Layth has been studying Buddhism and economics since 1979. He also studied at the University of Washington and Harvard. He is a Shambhala Buddhist teacher as well as being President of Rigden Financial, in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada.
I met Layth when he was teaching a course called the Art of Being Human at Shambhala meditation center in Victoria. Layth and I met up in his office in downtown Victoria where we discussed mindfulness and the cultivation of attitude, gratitude, appreciation, compassion, and ultimately how you have a responsibility to cheer up!
So, if you’re into Buddhism, business, mindfulness and money matters, this is the interview for you.
Christopher: This is called your mindful life. So, I've interviewed a number of people who practice mindfulness, and I think the inspiration behind it comes from a passage from Rachel Naomi Remen's Kitchen Table Wisdom, which says 'Just Listen'. Because I don't listen very well. I mean I’ve got this little voice going on. I’m quite analytical. I always want to get the next thing in – I’m quite good at interrogative fillers, or saying stuff like Oh, really? Yeah that happened to me too. And so the idea behind the podcast is actually just listen, and it’s really like: well, tell me about your journey, and it's interesting in terms of the themes that emerged from that, the similarities for people's arrival at something such as meditation. And I noticed that you’re a Buddhist economist, you’re a Buddhist teacher, you were the director for Shambhala Victoria between 2010 and 2013 , and you started meditating in 1979 and I reckon you'll probably my vintage so you started very young, or young-ish. It’s kind of interesting that because a lot of people I speak to in terms of taking up the practice of mindfulness, it’s usually in their later years when the kids have gone, they’ve stopped mowing the lawn, you know. They've started thinking, well I don't need to do as much now, so let's be a bit more. But you started young. So what's the story of Layth, then?
Layth: Well, I became interested in meditation and mindfulness in my teens, my late teens. We’d lived a few different places within the US but then also we did a stint in Cairo and then I lived in Seattle with my aunt and uncle for six months, while waiting for my parents to come back from Egypt. They sent myself and my brother back early in 1971, because they were worried about the Arab-Israeli war heating up.
But anyway, we have family in Seattle, so I would I would go there, periodically, and ended up going to University of Washington. My cousin - my father's nephew - had been traveling extensively in India at around that time, and he was fascinated by Buddhism and all things esoteric. And so I became interested and was referred to a couple of books -–“Zen Mind Beginner's Mind” by Suzuki Roshi, and also “Meditation in Action”by Chögyam Trungpa.
To step back a bit, my interest in meditation actually arose from a combination of ambition and depression. On the one hand, I was very ambitious and confident because I had a bit of a worldview and I wanted to be a hero, you know, do things for humanity. At the same time, when you have that kind of outlook, or great expectations, you get a lot of speed bumps too.
But anyways you could say that I started exploring Buddhism from a mystical point of view. I knew there was more to life than just convention, and I couldn't exactly follow all of my conventional dreams anyway. I wasn't in New York City or something. I was feeling I was on the fringe of things, and I also didn't have the drive to chase the conventional path.
I became interested in making friends with myself long before I got into mindfulness practice. I remember thinking in middle school, when I was really having a really hard time, that if one was really was happy, one could be happy at any time. i.e. you could actually be cheerful in spite of quite a wide range of external circumstances, but then I didn’t know how. I thought maybe more weight lifting would help.
So I was very young when I had that thought, but it stuck and then I became interested in “happiness”for its own sake, happiness itself.
When I came to University of Washington in Seattle to study I started out studying business, but then found my way into the economics department. I liked economics better than business, because it had more of a societal agenda and I started studying Buddhism around the same time, and I started practicing mindfulness meditation.
My cousin had a friend, Grace McLeod, who was kind of the Grand-Dame of Tibetan Buddhism in Seattle at the time - many of the most important Tibetan Buddhist teachers that came through Seattle would either stay at my cousin Tom’s. One night my cousin Tom took me out to dinner with Grace and we drove around after dinner to look at the various meditation centers around town. We drove by the Sakya Center and she said, this is where I am a member. And then we drove by the Dharmadhatu, which later became the Shambhala Centre. Grace said, “You might want to go to this place because that's where they really meditate, instead of just saying chants in Tibetan!” This was a bit of a joke, based on comments I had made earlier. I should also mention that my cousin, Tom Strickland, himself was and still is, also a major benefactor of Tibetan Buddhism in America. Those of us who have benefitted from the significant Tibetan influence on mindfulness, as we know it, can thank Tom for some of it!.
Christopher: You're bringing me to what I wanted to say, which is why Shambhala? But let's backtrack a little bit which is very interesting because it came up when you were teaching myself and also in your bio for writing your book based on the four noble truths of wealth, which is this little theme emerging here about cheering up. And I remember you saying to me or saying to us as a kind of audience of practitioners over the weekend in our level one training, the art of Being Human, or ordinary magic as it’s also called, also known quite deftly, that you have a responsibility to cheer up. So we might be coming from similar places here because we can recognize that we need to cheer up and when we access that state of cheerful equilibrium, whatever you want to call it, that's a good feeling and we also know as an impermanent feeling but it's a good place to access, isn't it? But I get the sense that when you talked about depression as well. So it's like these two, there's a sort of duality going on which is I don't want to be in this sense of dis-ease, I actually want to be up there.
Layth: Well, I think people have highs and lows and I certainly did. I think if you're an intelligent person, you probably do have highs and lows. I should say, if you're a sensitive person. So if you're sensitive, you probably pick up stuff, but you probably pick up more than is there sometimes, and that can take you high and low.
But the stability actually that I found through mindfulness practice is really just by way of the combination of Heaven and Earth, as Chögyam Trungpa used to call it. Earth, or grounding, which might be basic discipline of how you look after yourself, and maybe how you look after your house and so forth. And then, at the same time, understanding the necessity of vision as well. Vision meaning: something bigger, something inspiring.
And it's interesting, talking to people about fundraising or wealth or things like that, lot of times they're way too heavy on one end of the spectrum or the other. They don't realize that the two have to come together before the rubber hits the road. Some people are all vision, all heaven, and you know, they're just heading for a crash. And then there's other people who are plodding along - I shouldn't say other people, I mean I go through this absolutely, you know, everybody. It's just a question of degree, and how long you're stuck.
But basically if you can find some balance between Heaven and Earth, and kind of keep yourself inspired, and at the same time keep the practical aspect there, kind of appreciating the worthiness of where you are, as good ground for going forward, that's a recipe for success. Because you're connecting and at the same time you're achieving the potential of a human being, as Chogyam Trungpa liked to say, which is that joining of Heaven and Earth.
Christopher: So something that occurs to me, I mean, we're going through some interesting times at the moment with Trump as president who's an entrepreneur - economic wealth. And it seems to me I don't want to go off on this road, but you've suddenly inspired me to think about it which is we're going through these transitions at the moment in the world, and in the next 40, 50 years are going to be things that happen that are utterly and completely beyond our comprehension probably and our children will inherit. A lot of people are living in denial, so all of this could kind of fit into the kind of Buddhist psychology of you know, that denial, non-acceptance clinging, attachment, but it seems to me you're talking about a compassionate approach towards wealth-making perhaps the compassionate entrepreneur as we come out of this kind of belligerent entrepreneurial age, which is about the individual.
Layth: I like to think of myself as a “free market” Buddhist economist! And the reason I like to do say that, beyond just being provocative, is that most of the people who have engaged in the idea of Buddhist economics, including the person, E.F. Schumacher, who coined the term with his essay, have really been applying Buddhism sort of as a rationale in support of socialistic principles. Much of which are not against Buddhist view, I mean, they harmonize for the most part. Bbut I think the reason I like to make the distinction, stick within the “free market”aspect, is that Buddhism is not a philosophy. Buddhism is not a system of politics or economics. It's really an arrow or an indicator of something that's pointing atto the naturally occurring wealth, if you will, of each moment and understanding that seeing clearly is actually the solution to just about everything.
Your next choice, everything that's happening, where your fear comes from, where your hope comes from, it has to do with whether you're connecting with where you are or whether somehow there's a disconnect and in into that disconnect jumps in something else in your head, you know, e.g somewhere else you should be, some dissatisfaction with where you are, or clinging for that matter, rather than being able to work with where you are because of the richness of it. It could be stop and smell the roses, or stop and smell the dog shit, along the way.
So the approach that I would take to Buddhist economics is really about perception. And that your relationship with material wealth is just a means to facilitate connecting with inner wealth, with genuine wealthiness, which isn’t so dependent on a particular material situation.
So it's not so much about compassion even, because genuine compassion arises naturally from awareness. Mind you, it is our path to sort of fake it till we make it. But ultimately we're genuinely compassionate not because we should be, but rather because it makes complete sense.
So if you make a genuine connection with let's say another person, the experience of that other person is somewhat an extension of your own. So let's say you live in a little box and you suddenly get rich, and then you get to expand outside your little box. Now you're perceiving outside the box and whatever is going on outside the box is part of your experience. And ultimately your wealth is inseparable from your experience.
Christopher: But there's also the materiality of wealth as well and attitude and perception of that materiality.
Layth: Well yes, but the materiality of wealth is inseparable from perception, even the perception of materiality. We think of clean running water out of the garden hose is normal, right? And in most parts of the world that's just like conspicuously outrageous wealth and we don't appreciate that. We're still focused on the 1% right? We’re already in the 1%. The point is perception. And if you want to look at world problems, you really want to address world problems, there's all kinds of strategies and tactics you could follow, but unless you address the view, unless you recognise and work with your own original internal dissatisfaction, constant habit of dissatisfaction with where we are, there's no point. Because that's exactly what's created it!.
It's the habit of not being able to be where we are now, being unable to appreciate the richness of where we are, that leads us to create endless environmental degradation, conflict, and poverty.
Christopher: So it raises the question of what in terms of perception of wealth about how much making money is about people not thinking, you know about people thinking: Oh, I need to be on the treadmill, I need to be working hard, and buying into a series of values that really are degrading. I mean, that might sound a bit extreme, but they actually are kind of degrading.
Layth: I guess what I would say is that that the notion that wealth is always and everywhere a matter of perception is actually not an educated view, it is actually a more fundamentally accurate view. That's really important to internalize. It's interesting to do contemplate intellectually, but it can take your whole life to really get it.
My perspective of wealth is also built on 30 years of financial advising, and working with people with lots of long time Buddhist practitioners, and people of different faiths, backgrounds, and perceptions who have been my clientele. You see all kinds of things. One time I used to say I had two kinds of clients, the ones with a mortgage, and the ones without a mortgage. This was more an index of the level of personal satisfaction than net worth because the people who who owned a mortgage free home weren’t necessarily richer financially. What it comes down to is you want to manage your money in the way that facilitates perception the best. "Financial planning for peace of mind," is a term often used, which is essentially the same thing, but you could say that peace of mind is ultimately only realized, and sustained through wakefulness, perception.
Christopher: Okay. Can you elaborate a little bit?
Layth: Well, it’s easier to look outward and appreciate more with stability. So maybe financial security or steady income is important. But you can chase the wealth rabbit around the track indefinitely. So the issue is materialism. So speaking of Buddhist economics or wealth, most people who are interested in spirituality and its relationship to money are sort of skipping over how they view things. They are sort of thinking that they could use their spirituality to somehow to make them more successful in business! But that’s totally missing the point, because the spiritual insight is the highest form of wealth.
What I'm suggesting is let's use material wealth almost as a lure or a vehicle to help us to actually understand wealth better, such that you we would actually be wealthier, no matter what your financial circumstances are. Perhaps, a more accurate understanding of wealth will have a fringe benefit on the way we do business because we understand ourselves and others better. But that’s a possible side effect, not the end goal.
So in my view the key challenge is really about making friends with yourself so that you can perceive more and appreciate your experience.
Interestingly, the whole idea of working with materialism is completely inseparable from what we discover through mindfulness practice. Mindfulness is really about being where you are. What you discover as you practice over time is that's home. That's actually the place to go for sanity. If you bring your body and mind together, be where you are, you actually start to have a full complete, human experience. And then your discursive mind takes you off on a side trip. With more practice, the more naturally and readily you allow yourself to come back or be brought back by a loud noise, or a smell, or some other perception. Then you go through your life with a little bit more more harmony, a little more in sync with what's going on.
And that's really as good as it gets.
Christopher: So how about yourself? Talking about Chögyam Trungpa, I think he mentioned something about spiritual materialism, which is like to actually think you need a certain type of life or you need the trappings of a certain type of life, whether it be Buddhism or any other philosophy, is actually a form of materialism. So how did we get into Shambhala?
Layth: Well Shambhala was originally established as a means of teaching mindfulness and awareness in a secular environment. So I think his vision was that we would be able to offer Shambhala training. That's why we have these levels 1,2,3,4,5 systematically taking you through a journey through mindfulness and looking at your mind in a variety of ways and exploring certain things that come up. It’s surprising the commonality of things that come up for everybody who goes through. Certain psychological and emotional things that come up when you're doing this kind of mindfulness practice, and you can learn from each other.
Anyway, one could say that working with materialism is the whole spiritual path. When you talk about transcending materialism, you're talking about transcending duality. The layman's way to say that is being completely connected to your life. In order to do that, there has to be a switch of allegiance from trying to constantly evaluate and make your life better all the time, to making a relationship with your life as it is, maybe just honouring it as some people say, or respecting where you are, as perfectly valid.There are a million reasons why each and every one of us has arrived at the place where we are and we should stop giving ourselves a hard time or a pat on the back, and understand that we're actually, essentially the same, we've just arrived at our particular point in the karmic stream.
There's a great quote from H.H. Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, in his book, The Heart Treasure of the Enlightened Ones, that goes something like this: “There are even some wealthy people who don't enjoy their wealth, who don’t really appreciate it. They feel guilty about their wealth.” He says, “this shows a complete lack of understanding of cyclical existence!” So basically from his point of view, until you actually understand how mind works, this life is simply part of a cyclical exercise of hope and fear, pain and pleasure. If you don't understand, if you haven't really got that, or maybe even if you do, it's a cyclical existence. Even if you happen to be at the top of the Ferriss wheel, it's still a wheel!. It's going to come down, and, and so you might as well appreciate the view while you're up there.
As long as we maintain a dualistic perspective, disconnected, still thinking in a self-absorbed way, then we’re by necessity going to go through a whole cyclical process of depression, and you know, it's basically bipolar non-stop. It's just a question of how fast and how intensely you go through it. But if you have some spiritual awareness insight into what's going on, if you find yourself in the hell realm but you have awareness that you're in the hell room realm, you might look around and say to yourself, “whoa, this is the hell realm I’m in right now”, but if you have that kind of awareness are you really in the hell realm?
Christopher: So you are detached?
Layth: Not detached but you're aware. That's a subtle distinction for us Westerners, because with mindful awareness it sometimes looks like you’re detached but really it's more of an expansion of scope, an expansion of understanding. It’s not that you're not totally connected - you're totally connected, and aware - but you also see the larger context of life and things.
Christopher: How about yourself though, what's the thing that you do to bring yourself into the present moment?
Layth: Well the first thing about bringing oneself into the present moment is you have to value it. It appears to be kind of dull to the speedy mind. We think it’s dull because it's not distracting.
In the conventional sense, if you're not exploring mindfulness, even if you are, if you're just not tuning in, you demand ever more exciting situations to force you into the present moment. And what is it about that? If you're going fast in a race car, you feel very alive because your attention is right there. You've got no choice. Or maybe if you're having a very intense sexual experience, or you're eating something delicious, your full attention is on the spot, right? So that's a great human moment. Right? On the other hand, if you slow down enough, as you slow down, more and more comes to you. Y,ou don’t have to chase it, you just have to perceive and appreciate your experience at a much subtler level, which is what we are practicing when we practice mindfulness. It can be very exciting, wonderous.
So in other words if you have an appreciation of the present moment and you have a curiosity about it,then really the journey of mindfulness is about becoming more and more available to be brought back to your direct perception/connection to now. So it's not like you're trying to get back and stay back and crack the whip if you don't stay awake. It's more like how about how easy is it for you to be brought back by a bird flying or by the shine on a leaf, or the smell of perogies downstairs. Perception is richness. It doesn't have to be positive to be rich, and it’s full of naturally occurring humor too. It could be anything that occurs right where you are.
Christopher: So you're paying attention and you're accepting reality for what it is.
Layth: Yeah. I said the other day you could you could summarize the whole spiritual path as a process of overcoming FOMO, which is an acronym for “fear of missing out”. FOMO means wanting to be included in everything or who maybe wanting to do something super “important”: life is going by and they you need to do something really important, but end up doing something disconnected instead. So it’s kind of a state of false urgency i.e. distraction, that we all fall into. FOMO in the present moment is constantly thinking,“Oh, maybe I'm missing something.”“Maybe I should be over here. Maybe I should have had the fish.”“Maybe I should be other than who, and what, and where I am.”
In the meditation situation, when you're practicing mindfulness. If you want to bring it down to the very first instance, it’s that you're not allowing yourself to feel what you feel, and be where you are, and ultimately if you actually overcame, let go of, that discursive mentality, you would have continuous awareness. At least that's that's my sense of it right now. Because really the mind is skipping all over the place. Always thinking, “maybe you know, I should be focused somewhere else”.
Christopher: It also seems to be an act of creativity as well. I mean when you talk about the responsibility for cheering up that requires imagination, so my thing that I've kind of been working on is pay attention; William James talked about that. Rick Hansen also says you are what you pay attention to, or in this moment what you attend to is reality, which is what William James said way back when: a non-contemplative, humanist approach. So you’re paying attention and then you have to accept the reality of what you're paying attention to because you can't change it. Reality is what reality is. But then the next stage it seems to me is the one of imagination which is attunement. so one has to attune one's attitude with something approximating gratitude, you know being grateful for this moment, which I think is an act of imagination because I can say well actually if I'm going to achieve my attitude with gratitude while I'm really grateful I can sit here. I'm really grateful I am with Layth at the moment. I'm really grateful, yeah, to be living in this country that has so much wealth and people said well, yeah, I know. No actually that's gratitude. If you can start greasing the wheel with some of that stuff which is: I'm breathing. I'm healthy. You know that thing: I've got a beautiful wife, two beautiful children. Bringing yourself back to that.
Layth: For me the gratitude thing trend is good, but a little tricky, because it criss-crosses the road of appreciation, which I think is a better word. Gratitude tends to reconcile itself back to “me”. If you're constantly reconciling back to “me”, then you have might be perpetuating the disconnect between self and other. Whereas appreciation can be a little more continuous. You can be in a state of appreciation without duality. But I do think that the idea of engendering gratitude, appreciation, or compassion or any of these sort of other ways of softening to one’s environment are beneficial. The reason why they're important is because they help reduce boundaries, so we reduce barriers to being touched. Touching and being touched by our world is essentially how we connect with the world. And normally we are quite guarded with the exception of certain “soft spots”. The journey I find I myself on is how to be more soft, how to be more touchable, without becoming overwhelmed. I think the potential of mindfulness practice is working with that.
Christopher: So, we talked before about how you bring yourself back into the present moment. When I do interview people I ask is there any chance you can share a practice, just like a little practice, something that might bring ourselves back into the present moment.
Layth: Well, the simple meditation instruction is to sit up straight and that this is a healthy human posture. It also has a little bit of nobility to it. One is upright, and relaxed, at the same time. The interesting thing about nobility you could say it’s the state of not having to prove yourself. What if you are complete as you are? What if you actually are just fine? The Shambhalian view is the basic nature of every human being is basically good.
So sit up like a noble Monarch. Feel what you feel, and breathe. Simply notice your breath coming in and out. Just notice, don’t fixate on anything. And use your breath really as a touchstone for entering your awareness into whatever place that you are.
And notice the tendency to judge whether you're doing it “right”, or whether the practice is sufficient, or whether it's good or bad or any kind of opinions. But don't do anything with that. Just let each train of thought leave the station and we are just sitting here peacefully on the platform.
Just notice your mind moving around and then just calmly keep bringing yourself your attention back to breathing: being where you are.
Another way to settle I have used is when you're at your desk, or when you're in your living room, or anyplace you might be, you can just pick something, anything you want, sight, sound, smell, taste, touch, and zero in on it. Whatever it might be. You might want to find something more uplifted, but right now I'm looking at the label of a lemonade bottle for example. You don't have to read it. You don't have to have an opinion about it. You just hold.
And then expand your mindfulness and awareness out from there.
Just a way of grounding yourself.
So the meditation technique is really just a way of bringing ourselves back to being where we are, dutifully. It's not necessarily a quest for the ideal state. It's really just a way of practicing getting ourselves into a direct connection with our experience.
Christopher: So thank you Layth. It's given me a whole new perspective on wealth and perception.
Layth: Yeah, it's a big journey. I think people have different things that are important to them. I just happen to have been working in business and with money. I do credit myself with having some, maybe one iota, of deeper acceptance of perception as wealth. Yeah actually trust that a little bit more. Not that it's increased my net worth!. But I think it makes life a little more fun when you’re not biting every single hook of materialism. I hope that by reading my book and exploring mindfulness people will realize that just cheering up is a legitmate option.
Christopher: And your book is “The Four Noble Truths of Wealth”.
Layth: Yes. Full disclosure. It’s really just the Four Noble Truths presented using examples from economic life. And also maybe how to use our experiences of wealth and livelihood to understand spirituality on a deeper level by recognizing the possibilities of that state.
Christopher: So warm thanks to Layth, an inspirational Buddhist teacher whose book The Four Noble Truths of Wealth, a Buddhist View of Economic Life is highly recommended. Check it out on Amazon.
Some take-homes from this interview are Layth’s refreshing optimism, his acknowledgement that there are highs and lows but that there is a treasure house of wealth that is within us, that it comes down to perception, that we have a responsibility to cheer up; that we can cheer up to the wealth within us and that we can do this by getting ourselves into a simpler relationship with our experience.
The main message for me was when Layth said, it's the habit of not being able to be where we are now, not being able to appreciate richness where we are, that leads us to create environmental degradation, conflict , and poverty.
Those are wise words.
So do check out Layth’s book.
And once again, respect and gratitude for checking in with Your Mindful Life