Tie Your Camel
to the Hitching Post

An Interview with Jacob Needleman
By Melissa West


Jacob Needleman, professor of philosophy at San Francisco State University, has been on a lifelong quest to integrate the great spiritual and wisdom teachings of the world with how to live the challenges of everyday life, writing books on love, time, medicine, and psychiatry. In his search, Needleman realized almost a decade ago that embedded in our relationship with money lay many of the answers to the great questions about who we are. For this issue on Prosperity, Personal Transformation decided to find out more about money and the meaning of life from a pioneer who has broken our culture's deep-seated taboo about exploring what money really means.
Personal Transformation: You write in "Money and the Meaning of Life" that "money is the key to the question of who and what we are." What does that mean?
Jacob Needleman: The invention called money has entered into our life in a much more complete way than it ever has in all of human history. It has entered into all aspects of our culture; it is one of the great overwhelming forces that influence our life. Everywhere we turn, every move we make, requires that we take into account the money factor. Yet very few of us are unflinchingly honest about our relationship to money. It's like sex was 50 years ago in our culture a force that operates everywhere, and yet one that very few of us can face squarely and honestly. If we're going to know who and what we are both as individuals and as a culture, we need to take money much more seriously than we do: not to despise it, and not to be devoured by it, but to take it seriously and study it. As we begin to study our relationship with money, we may begin to see things about ourselves that are hard to accept, but which represent a very important part of ourselves. To study money is to study a very large part of what we are.
Transformation: You reiterate in your book that we don't take money seriously enough. Discuss that
Needleman: Right. I know it sounds paradoxical: People can be obsessed with money, but that doesn't mean they take it seriously. If we're on a spiritual quest for self-transformation, we need to give our best attention to how we are with money because it's one of the keys to a big part of our human nature. A human being, according to the great spiritual teachings of the world, has two natures or aspects: a side that is meant to be engaged in activity in the world, making and doing, having a family, creating, building; the other side has to do with the spiritual, the transcendent, the relationship to God, one's deepest inner consciousness. Those two natures make up who we are. We are called on to find the relationship between these two opposing parts of ourselves, and to develop the kind of awareness that relates each to the other in a harmonious way. We can't do that unless we really understand each part and take each very seriously. Money is the principal means in the modern world for organizing the material part of our selves and our lives. To know money is to know the organizing, desiring, creating ways that we act in the world.
Transformation: You write in your book that "meaning only appears in the place between the worlds."
Needleman: We are neither pure spirit, nor pure egos and animals. We are that which relates these two levels or forces together. The meaning of our life in the material world how we eat, how we work and raise families and create only emerges when it is connected to the spiritual world. The meaning of spirit appears when it's related to our life in the world. While we're on this earth, we are meant to be in relationship to these two worlds. The real meaning of life comes when you feel and know that there is a connection.
Transformation: What does money have to do with that place between the two worlds?
Needleman: Not much; it represents one of the worlds in this culture. Fifty percent of who we are, in this day and age, has to do with the money question. Our health, where we live, where we go, what we do with our time, how we are respected or not, what we can accomplish, all our sufferings and pleasures, one way or the other, are related to money. Money doesn't have meaning, but we can't have meaning in our lives until we are related to money in a conscious way.
Transformation: And what does relating to money in a conscious way mean?
Needleman: It starts by having the courage and sincerity to really look at money, to see how we feel about it and how we relate to it. If we can do this, which very few of us do, we will see our relationship with money to be full of fears and contradictions and conditioning, and it will be quite shocking. But that's the first step toward self-knowledge, to get rid of our illusions about ourselves and our relationship with money. We're all pretty weird about money. Do you know anyone who's "normal" about money? We don't even know what that means. And yet money plays such a central part in our lives, from morning to night. If most of us kept a complete record of what we spent, every day, down to the last penny, we'd be terribly shocked. Money is a key to what we actually value.
Transformation: Are you saying that money is a mirror of who we are?
Needleman: Money is a mirror of almost one half of our nature. That's pretty big.
Transformation: When you compared money today to sex 50 years ago, I think of the revolution of our culture's relationship to sex from Freud to the present, from taboo to people now speaking of sex as a doorway into the divine. Is money similarly taboo? Does a conscious relationship to money hold the same promise as a conscious relationship to our own sexuality?
Needleman: Insofar as the doorway to the divine is a difficult and narrow passageway which requires a lot of honesty about ourselves, money is a golden key. It's not like sex insofar as sex is connected to love and deeply organic; money doesn't have that organic quality, but it's like sex in that it's such a powerful force that almost nobody seems to be able to be sincere about it, the spiritual masters as well as corporate business people, the academics as well as the poets.
Transformation: How did consciousness about money come to be so taboo?
Needleman: That's a good question. You can ask almost anybody about sexuality these days, but try asking someone how much money they make or how much they've got in the bank! Money is so tied into our sense of self-worth. It may be rooted in the Protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism; Max Weber had a thesis that Calvinistic Protestantism looked upon success in the world as a sign of God's favor. How one succeeded in the world of business and commerce became a sign of not just our material worth, but our spiritual worth and our worth as human beings as well. Money then became very intimately connected with a sense of self.
Transformation: Those two worlds got mixed up in ways they weren't meant to be.
Needleman: Exactly. Our job now is to re-separate them and take them both seriously.
Transformation: How do we do that?
Needleman: We begin by cultivating an attitude of non-judgmental observation of how exactly we are in this realm, and then recognizing, as the religious philosophers have shown us, that the act of seeing is separate from what is seen. The seer the witness within ourselves is not of the same reality as that which it is witnessing. That is the beginning of the separation of the two realities within ourselves, the spiritual and the material. The cultivation of the capacity to step back from one's own reactions, emotions, behavior, and thoughts is to find the Self that is untouched by all of that, but is aware of it. This separation, if we do it deeply enough, will result in a new unity within oneself.
Transformation: Is stepping back in order to become more conscious of our entanglements with money a first step toward developing that witness which can then take us deeply into the spiritual life?
Needleman: Yes. That witness, when it is more fully developed, is the conductor of a force which will unify us.
Transformation: What is the place of money in the spiritual life?
Needleman: It is one of the keys to sincerity within ourselves. One of the things we have to be more sincere about is the recognition that without money, we can't do many of the things on the spiritual path. We can't search for God, for example, without money. We have to have money in order to have time, in order to find people, go places, be secure enough in the world to engage in a search for transformation. Without being people who crave or who are obsessed by money, or being so-called spiritual or artistic types who claim that money is not important at all, we must acknowledge how important money is to everyone. I don't think it was always like that. There were times when people didn't have to be so concerned about money; they could live a poor life and not attend so much to things of this world. Nowadays, you simply can't do that. The artist has to stand on his own feet in the world of everyday concerns and even be a bit of a businessman. The important question now is, can you be a good business person and still have spirit take first place in your life? I think you can. It's extremely difficult, but to me it's the key to the old dynamic of how to be in the world but not of the world.
Transformation: What challenges have you faced in learning to be a businessman with a spiritual life?
Needleman: It's not easy! The challenge has been and I'm still trying to meet it first of all, to really try to not compromise what I wish to say in my writing and in my teaching, and at the same time keep my eye on the material realities of life: to be a good business person, but to not sell out my thoughts in any way. There's a great saying in the Islamic tradition, "Trust in Allah but tie your camel first to the hitching post." The challenge is how to tie my camel enough earn enough to feel like I'm grounded in the physical world, but hold my work to a standard I can recognize. At the inner, more subtle level, it's not always easy to discern the real reasons for doing something. I like money. I don't love it, but I do like what money can do. I think it's something we all need to recognize. The other challenge is, can you use money as an instrument for the spiritual search?
Transformation: How does one do that?
Needleman: First by creating the space in your life for doing things which are absolutely unmotivated by money, which has to do with self-knowledge and spiritual work and serving others in the way they need. There are things we need to do which are totally untouched by money, but in order to do them, we need money! We need to earn money in order to engage in the kind of spiritual search and the kinds of activities that money can't buy.
Transformation: You raised a question in your book: "In a culture dominated by money and by the principle of personal gain, could there arise a wholly realistic way of giving and serving beyond the clich├ęs of altruism and hidden fears for our own safety or the opinions of others?" How do you answer that question?
Needleman: One way is how we give our attention and care to other people. To do that for its own sake, and not for the sake of personal gain, is possible. When you sacrifice your self interests for the good of the other person, a joy and a sense of meaning that nothing else can give you appears. To be deeply human with another person it doesn't matter what the context brings a current of life into the interaction. We are born to give. Deep down in our essence, love is our nature, and I believe that we have to touch even when we're making our money and scoring our points.
Transformation: You wrote in "Money and the Meaning of Life," "The money question is so strong not because money is ultimately real but because our experiences with it have become for most of us the most vivid and intense experiences of our lives." What is the way out of this tyranny of "money's seemingly ultimate reality?"
Needleman: The inner world the world of self-knowledge, the world of self-exploration can be immensely more vivid than the world of money, of another quality. But most of us, unfortunately, have a very dull inner world. Therefore, the outer world, the world of money, seems more real. Our society has not helped us cultivate a real inner life.
Transformation: What motivated you to think about money in such a deep way?
Needleman: In all my writings, my aim has been to connect the wisdom teachings of the world, which I have studied with so much interest, to the actual problems and challenges of our contemporary day to day life. Could I find a bridge that allows these great spiritual teachings to throw light on how we actually live, a connection between the great questions of life and the great problems of life? I've written about love, about education, about psychiatry, but at a certain point I realized that the problem that haunts everyone the most is the money problem, and no one had written about money asking, what light does the spiritual vision of the world throw on how we are toward money? Plenty of people had written about being spiritual about money, but I found that mostly unworkable and somewhat hypocritical. People wrote about making money, but not about what money really means. "Money and the Meaning of Life" was the most difficult book I ever wrote.
Transformation: Why?
Needleman: Because as I wrote it I was lying. As a writer you develop a sense of smell toward your own writing. Every time I started the book, it was a lie. It was so hard to find one honest sentence about the whole money question. It took me a long time to find out how to really write this book.
Transformation: What was the most important thing you learned writing the book?
Needleman: Two things. The first is that money is the means of organizing this human part of ourselves. That's the way to look at money, to see money as an instrument for putting into order what the spiritual traditions call "the desire nature." The second thing is a discovery that the world of money seems so real only because our inner life is not real enough. The strange paradox is that money is nothing; it's "just paper," as people say, and yet the "bottom line" is it's taken to be the most real thing in life. The experience of the inner world, for most people, is not enough to give real faith that there is something more important than money.
In terms of my life, writing the book helped me to be much more honest about my own relationship to money, to find something between being a stupid saint and a greedy materialist. I had to learn to be honest, that I did need to be a businessman and make enough money to be self-respecting. Many of us don't have that good common sense and toughness about money. Others have no problem asking for money, but they're not the ones usually engaged in writing the spiritual or philosophical books!
Transformation: Can you see any gifts to living in a money-driven world?
Needleman: There are wonderful things about living in a very rich culture. It's not bad to be comfortable; to go places and see things and help other people; to taste various aspects of life. In that sense, you're being presented with a lot of good gifts. If you can be non-attached to them, it's wonderful, because you're being provided with experiences about life and the world that others not from this culture can't come near. Money is a brilliant and ingenious invention which has helped people materially. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, "Man is born to be rich." He didn't mean being a fat cat, but he meant human beings are born to experience as much as the earth has to offer, and money helps. In that way, money is a tremendously good thing. It's just when it becomes our master that it's deadly.
Transformation: Any other thoughts on money?
Needleman: Phrases in the great traditions, "a pearl of great price" and "the one thing needful," speak of that one thing which is the only really important thing in life: the spiritual truth in your own heart. Let's keep that in mind. At the same time, there are a lot of secondary things that are pretty important, that need our attention and care; otherwise, "the one thing needful" will be impossible. So, tie your camel to the hitching post, but if you don't trust in Allah, then the camel's of no help anyway.