Why Buddhism, Financial Planning, and Investing Belong Together

Statue of buddha on small pile of money

A growing movement of financial advisors have realized the human side of money is as important — or sometimes even more important — than financial returns. Since the 1980s, I and many other Western business leaders have studied and practiced Buddhist meditation. We’ve realized that many of its principles are key to cultivating fulfillment and financial wellness in clients, top notch employees, and a healthy corporate community. 

Over 50% of Fortune 500 companies, including Google, Aetna, Apple, and General Mills, offer employee mindfulness programs. Asana, a $21 billion dollar company, is known for making mindfulness its highest value. Even the Wall Street Journal published an article highlighting my Money Breath on its front page! Numerous meditation studies confirm the benefits to employee health, happiness, productivity, retention, and profits.

Beyond meditation, core Buddhist principles are foundational to Abacus’ culture, our interactions with clients, and to our bottom line. Through this and future writings, I hope to bring more awareness to the transformative power of Buddhist principles, and how they can help you be less stressed, happier, and wiser with your finances and investment choices. After all, money is often considered as tender and taboo a topic as sex, religion, or politics. It’s a subject filled with distrust, fear, and worry. Money is connected to our survival and sense of self-worth, so it’s no wonder we’ve got a lot of emotion around it. We inherit fixed beliefs from a young age that tend to override our financial common sense, such as, “Money is the most important thing in the world,” “I’m not good with money,” and “I’d be happier or less stressed if I had more money.”

Buddhism is considered a religion by some, but I and many others, especially in the West, consider it a philosophy or way of living. The Dalai Lama’s famous quote sums it up best: “My religion is kindness.” This is something intrinsic to all spiritual traditions. 

So what does Buddhism or kindness have to do with financial advising or the business world? Isadore Sharp, founder of the Four Seasons Resort (arguably the most successful hotel chain), made kindness, patience, and humility the foundation of his business. He discovered that kindness is good for the employee culture, for the guests that stay and dine at the hotels, and for the bottom line.

The Uncomfortable Comfort of Equanimity 

I discovered the benefits of Buddhist meditation practice in the early 80s, even before earning my MBA in finance from Wharton or founding Abacus. I have found the principles of meditation apply to all areas of our lives, including managing our own finances and being a financial advisor. And it’s the Buddhist principle of equanimity that I come back to again and again, as it continually shows up for Abacus advisors and clients alike.

Equanimity is the ability to find calm in the middle of a storm. The practice of meditation cultivates a steadiness of mind so that we won’t react impulsively when financial markets go up and down (as they invariably do). This is key for us individually and for financial advisors. Many studies confirm those who are less reactive to market movements earn higher returns. 

A Buddhist financial advisor or investor is one who sets their allocation intention and then course-corrects to return to that original intention. If the right allocation for you is 70% equities and 30% bonds, then we as advisors stick to that allocation — we sell equities when they’re more than 70% of your allocation and buy equities when they make up less than 70%. This steadfastness is difficult, especially during crashes like 2008 and 2020, but as we see from historical data holding steady is a solid path and so we don’t veer from it. We are committed to doing the best we can for our clients even if it’s sometimes emotionally difficult.

In addition to being less reactive to investment and business ups and downs, equanimity is about staying impartial while helping clients see life decisions from a larger perspective. We look at all sides of an issue. A small example: when a client said he wanted to spend $500,000 on a new boat, my equanimous self embraced the idea rather than allowing a personal bias against boats to alter my advice. He was aligning with his values and what brought him joy, so it was my job to not force my values alignment on him.

A larger example: most financial advisors recommend buying rather than renting a home. But when a client said she was feeling stressed over the maintenance cost uncertainties of home ownership, I suggested she consider renting. She was immediately relieved and said, “That’s exactly what I’ve been thinking.” She sold her house and rented three smaller places instead: one in the mountains, one in the city, and one by the ocean. By both of us calmly and impartially considering an unfamiliar path, renting gave her new freedoms with much more flexibility and our embrace of equanimity helped her align with her deeply personal values.

How Do You Cultivate Equanimity with Money? 

A mindfulness practice trains the mind to stop reacting to every thought. Close your eyes for a moment and become aware of your thoughts. Notice that they’re random. One moment it’s a thought about work, the next it’s a reminder to pick up milk at the store, and the next is regretting something you said to a colleague a few weeks ago. 

The key is to let go of pursuing each thought. When we practice letting go, we are doing a bicep curl for the brain. We are training resilience. We are becoming the masters of our attention instead of allowing our attention to be passively hijacked by the thought of the moment. 

While we practice mindfulness while we meditate, we also practice it when we bring our focused attention and awareness to our daily money interactions and thoughts. Start becoming aware of how you feel when you spend, save, give, invest, and earn money. As you become aware of your reactivity or impulsiveness with making online purchases, or harshly judge yourself for earning less than your sibling, you are training and cultivating a more equanimous mind that will be less reactive to life’s inevitable and unexpected curveballs, especially with finances.

The Money Breath

Equanimity is also defined as being completely at ease with who you are and what you have. The culture beckons us to have more money, more friends, more likes. Imagine, in this very moment, being okay with your finances, with your kids, with your friends and family, with your body, with yourself. What would that mean for you?

Here is a small experiment you can try. The next time you notice your mind thinking, “If I had this amount of money, or if I owned a beach home, or got that raise, I’d really be okay,” let go of clinging to that thought. Letting go of a fantasy or dismal thought creates freedom. It strengthens your equanimity. 

Letting go is easier said than done, so I recommend a short practice that I call “The Money Breath”. Here’s the practice:

  • Bring to mind a money challenge you’re currently experiencing. 
  • Close your eyes and become aware of any muscle tension, thoughts stirring, and other body and mind sensations. 
  • Gently inhale through the nose for 3 counts. 1, 2, 3.
  • Pause and hold the breath on the count of 4.
  • Slowly exhale through the mouth for 5 counts. 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10. 
  • Do 2 more rounds of this breath and then allow your breathing to come back to normal.
  • Ask yourself: How do I feel in this moment compared to when I started this Money Breath?

It’s a Practice

In my 35 years of being a financial advisor, I’ve noticed that as we find a way to be at peace with our finances, we are likely to attract more money and discern better opportunities. Free of money stress, our wisdom and creativity surge, we take action, and paradoxically, we can earn more money. Even if we do not earn more money, our inner lives are richer than before.

Equanimity is not numbness. It’s not aloofness. It’s being fully engaged, fully present, and emotionally responsive. It’s not being reactive, nor being swept away in thoughts of fear or fantasy. We’re not obsessing about the impending financial disaster dissolving our nest egg, nor fantasizing about the lottery ticket saving us from our credit card debt. 

When the pandemic hit and the markets dropped 30%, instead of focusing on potential financial disaster, Abacus came up with a mindful plan to reduce expenses and discern the opportunity to hire the outstanding national talent that would become available due to the remote work environment. By being fully present and emotionally responsive, we were able to navigate a difficult passage with a calmer sense of freedom and purpose.

Equanimity is a sublime state of contentment, independent of changing conditions or financial circumstances. We are at ease with who we are and what we have. The next time you or your business have a disappointment or setback, do my money breath meditation until you’re beyond the anxiety of fight or flight and then say to yourself: “What is the opportunity here? Even if one isn’t apparent, I’m okay.” 

That’s freedom. That’s equanimity. 

If you would like to talk more about how equanimity can expand what’s possible with your financial life, reach out to an Abacus advisor today.


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