I own almost nothing – never have, and probably never will. My income is so tiny that when I file my dutiful tax return I always worry that they won’t believe my numbers. And yet, I have everything I could possibly want.
I have access to spaces and opportunities all over the world. I have good food, plenty and always. Clothing both practical and fun. And no end of available music and art, entertainment and pleasure. Mobility comes in the shape of my bike, a bus pass, comfy shoes and a will to move. Most valuable of all, I have a symbiotic network of friends and acquaintances, diverse co-conspirers and kindred spirits. And I know that no matter what I may have in my pocket, they will always keep me rich as long as I live in service and keep the karmic wheel spinning.
So how did I get to be so rich? What set me on this path? People have been asking me what brought me to this place, and it is a useful question to ask and to answer.
First of course, I was born a human being, in a place called Canada. The statistical odds against this incarnation are staggering. I know I write from a position of privilege which is unimaginable to most of the world’s people. I cannot explain this karmic fortune, but I accept it, along with all the responsibility that comes with it. It is part of the deal, and while I accept my privilege, I try not to take it for granted.
I was born into the most middle of middle-class suburbs, in 1960’s Toronto. Mine was a typically dysfunctional nuclear nest, but imperfect as it may have been, my family also had its particular virtues. The greatest gift my parents ever gave me was the gift of lightness around the subject of money.
My father’s pleasures were small and he lived them to the max. He loved nothing better than to fly a kite so high in the sky it was almost invisible, and then tie the string to the arm of this deck chair and sit, gazing skyward, for hours. His delight in an orange popsicle was absolute. He never schemed to get rich quick, or to get rich at all. My dad was a contented man, and as such, he was a rich man.
He made his modest living as a salesman, but paradoxically, he wasn’t in it for the the sales. He enjoyed the work he did because it gave him a window into other people’s lives, and he was unabashedly curious. He sincerely believed that the things he sold – encyclopedias, forgery protection devices – improved the lives of his clients, and that he was offering them a genuine service. Seeing the satisfaction he took in his work, I learned early that true reward is in service, and not in the paycheque at week’s end. Right livelihood breeds richness of spirit.
I don’t remember my parents ever fighting about money, or pining for the things they didn’t have. I don’t think they felt bitter or deprived. My mother didn’t want more clothes, and my father didn’t want a new car. They didn’t yearn forÂ a bigger house or a fatter bank account – or at least if they did, I was never made aware of it. They never put a dollar value on my life or on my happiness. They never told me there was anything I couldn’t do, or anyone I couldn’t be – and though they might have regretted that later, when i lived in graffiti-filled houses full of mohawked rockers or drifted through a series of eccentric careers, lovers and journeys, it was too late by that point. My doors had been opened to worlds beyond the scope of money, the horse had left the barn, and the sheer accumulation of money could not define the course of my life.
At the time I didn’t appreciate the rareness of financial contentment. It wasn’t until I grew up that I learned how many of my friends’ lives had been shaped by the albatross of monetary stress around their necks. I knew one young man who was literally presented with the accounting of his life – “your upbringing and education has cost us over $100,000,” said his father, “so you better make yourself worth it.”Â For many people, monetary stress gels into neurosis, and they are forever paralyzed by the fear that they will not have enough – even though all their material needs are quite easily met. Added to that is the insidious effect of consumer capitalism – the competition to have even more than more than enough, the unfulfilled promise of happiness through consumption and hoarding -Â and many of my suburban playmates ended up chained to the consumer hamster wheel forever. Hungry ghosts, always stressed, always resentful, and always and ever, powerless and “poor”.Â Forever afraid to take a true path, beaten down by the fiction that money stands between them and their dreams, they are convinced that they cannot begin living until they have more – until they have “enough” – money. And since there is never “enough” money, they are defeated before they have even begun to live. I am eternally grateful to my parents for their legacy of “enoughness” which opened the doors of my life so wide.
The other thing that set me on this life of richness has been my love affair with the bicycle. The bicycle is the physical embodiment of possiblity and joy.
For this I thank my younger brother Bennett, a bike nut who hauled me one day to a warehouse sale, to help me buy some new wheels. “This one!”, he said, rummaging through a stack of dissembled bikes in cardboard boxes. I looked at it skeptically – a fine orange road bike frame, slender tires, a plastic bag of components incised with curvy Italian script. “I don’t know…” I waffled, “it’s $200…and it’s orange. I don’t like orange.” My brother glared at me and told me if I didn’t buy that bike he would never talk to me again. So I bought the bike and brought it home, and he carefully assembled it. The Rocket. It flew. I rode the Rocket through the streets of Toronto and Vancouver, through rain and snow, and far beyond and away. I hauled furniture and groceries and camping gear bungied on the rear rack. I became involved in bicycle advocacy and bicycle revolution. I decided the bike was all I needed to be mobile and free. And it was; it is.
As well as richness of spirit, living car-free has brought me wealth in the literal sense. The money I save by not owning a car has enabled me to live very well. The average cost of car ownership and maintainance (not including the cost of the car) in Canada is over $10,000 per year, and most years, I make less than that.Â If I had a car I would have to have a job, in order to pay for the car.
A childhood unencumbered by monetary anxiety, enhanced by a life behind the handlebars of a bike, has brought me to a place of freedom. The language I have found that best describes this elusive state of happiness – this freedom from the suffering of delusion – is the language of the Buddha. The mantra: “I have enough.” When I have enough, I am rich.
There is nothing in this world that I cannot afford – in fact, I have banned the phrase “I can’t afford it” from my vocabulary. If I wanted anything badly enough, I would find a way to make it happen, and I believe this is true of most of the empowered people I know. This has been true for me with homes, travel, education, and goals large and small. It is true that I can’t buy a sailboat or a monster home or a trip to the moon – but these are not essential to my happiness in this life. If I don’t choose to focus my energetic efforts on those things, then obviously those are not the things I really want. My freedom lies in choice, and I will not give up my free will to the illusion of money. There is nothing in this world that I can’t afford.
I have everything I want, and everything I need. I am rich beyond words.
The Bicycle Buddha’s Guide to Karmic Economics:
How to live a rich life without letting money get in your way