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Bodhisattva Work: Bringing One’s Heart to Financial and Life Planning

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George Kinder is a financial advisor and founder of the Kinder Institute of Life Planning. He is also a poet, writer, and photographer. A meditator for over 50 years and meditation teacher for more than 30, Buddhist ideals and principles have made their way into his globally recognized work and have been the subject of his most recent books.

Buddhistdoor Global contributor Tsering Namgyal talked with Kinder about his spiritual life, his career, and his thoughts on the coronavirus pandemic.

Image courtesy of George Kinder
Image courtesy of George Kinder

Buddhistdoor Global: I am extremely impressed by your efforts to bring spirituality and mindfulness into the realm of economics and financial planning. What inspired you to pursue this somewhat idiosyncratic journey three decades ago?

George Kinder: I think that from the moment I was born I was aware that there was a difference between the depths of spiritual experience and the hardest edges of our material life, including the complicated boundaries of ourselves in the world. In any case it was from birth that I was launched on a path of spiritual exploration in the material world. Luckily my mother was similarly inclined. She was a Christian teacher and encouraged my explorations. Later, while in college, I began to study world religions along with their formal meditative practices. In my twenties, I attended retreats of the Buddhist, Sufi, Jewish, Christian, and Hindu traditions. Each of them fed my passion to learn and to be more. Living in Cambridge between Harvard and MIT, the more secular practices of Buddhism drew me most of all. So much so that I’ve practiced meditation now for 50 years, three hours a day. For more than 30 years I’ve been a teacher, leading retreats and small sanghas in Europe, New England, and Hawaii.

As to economics, I studied it at Harvard, entering college as a math major. What I loved most was spiritual practice and poetry, but I couldn’t make a dime at either of them coming out of college, so I went where my testing aptitude lay, and became a tax accountant and then a Certified Financial Planner. My passion for freedom led me to look at how to deliver real freedom into the lives of my clients. That was the beginning of what was to become my professional legacy. Many of my early clients were psychologists and I attended their professional development workshops, curious as always, but also to better understand what their tax write-offs might be. In the 1990s, I developed a two-day workshop on the psychology of money based on my book The Seven Stages of Money Maturity (itself rather loosely based on Shantideva’s Bodhicaryavatara). I started the Kinder Institute of Life Planning in 2003 to train financial advisors in what I called Life Planning: the deep listening and inspirational skills that deliver clients into their dreams of freedom. I’ve been training advisers and other professionals in the Life Planning methodology for 30 years, and am now applying that same process to groups and communities all over the world in order to inspire a Golden Civilization and deliver it within a generation.

BDG: You are a prolific author, having written seven books, and are currently promoting your latest, A Golden Civilization and the Map of Mindfulness. Please talk a little about your latest book.

GK: Yes, I’ve been speaking and leading workshops all over the world for the past year promoting A Golden Civilization and the Map of Mindfulness, as well as the grassroots conversation movement it inspiredThe book presents readers with a vision of a great and sustainable civilization that thrives with freedom for all for thousands of years. It provides a framework to establish a civilization based on mindfulness and explores how the incorporation of meditative practice can transform economics, democracy, media, and leadership. The book was initially my response to the banking crisis of 2008, the subsequent Great Recession, and the distrust of the financial services industry. It grew to encompass the political turmoil in developed democracies, surveillance, populism, wars, Earth-fears, inequality, cynicism, and societal distrust. I write of systems and structures that would instead bring the peace, authenticity, and the exhilaration of freedom to populations all over the globe.

A Golden Civilization and the conversation movement in participative democracy that has grown out of it applies the practice of Life Planning that I developed to a much broader area—crafting a vision for civilization in which war and corruption are brought to an end within a generation. I also introduce the map of mindfulness—a map of space and time that is based on the present moment rather than the past and future, incorporating awakening, and naturally demonstrating the accumulation of selflessness and virtue. The map of mindfulness transforms the map of space and time to one of freedom, present moments, and virtue. In the chapters on economics and democracy, I show how to replace self-interest with self-knowledge as our main motivator through the integration of mindfulness across all fields of human endeavor, thereby bringing an end to inequality. I shift the focus of economic theory from moments of transaction to moments of freedom. The book creates an inspiring and illuminating path to a sustainable future through its emphasis on a flourishing present.

BDG: We live in a world of slowing growth, climate change, trade wars, and disruptive new technologies, as well as growing awareness about sustainability and the environment. Your ideas about money, which are rooted in Buddhism, seem tailor-made for our times. Do you see your mindfulness-based financial and investment philosophy growing in popularity?

GK: I have seen a significant shift in the focus of financial planning conversations over my 50 years working in the industry. When I first started as a tax advisor in the 1970s, the focus was on selling products to clients, which systematically puts money into the pockets of the large brokerage firms, which are product companies. These personal finance conversations were not held in the best interest of clients. Now there is a sizeable fee-only movement in the US, and more organizations demanding that planners use a fiduciary approach to managing clients’ personal finances. This is an important shift, but it is not enough.

Life Planning squarely puts the clients’ most profound aspirations and desires at the center of the financial planning conversation and thus of economics. A Registered Life Planner is trained in the deep listening, empathy, and inspiration skills that lead clients to their lives of greatest meaning. When individuals live lives of profound meaning, entrepreneurial spirit (and thus innovation and growth) is both purified and democratized. It can be delivered much more efficiently and comprehensively across all levels of society, maximizing the efficient allocation of human capital, while enhancing both democracy and markets. What this means is that growth is much more expansive and efficient, incorporating an explosion of personal growth across society.

In terms of sustainability and the environment, it is critical that we have both a top down and bottom up approach. Nobody wants a sick planet. Greatly strengthened participative democracy governing our markets is key to a Golden Civilization.

BDG: How do you think Buddhist principles can help your clients gain material freedom in their everyday life?

GK: The Life Planning method I have developed has been taught to more than 3,000 advisors in 30 countries. It is based on mindfulness and uses the skills of profound listening, empathy, and inspiration. The process helps clients discover what is most important in their lives. It is done in the context of a deeply trustworthy relationship dedicated to the client and their freedom. A Buddhist would recognize it as bodhisattva work. These visions of greatest freedom typically center on at least one of five themes and often include all five. I call them “the five pursuits:”

1) Family or relationships.

2) Wisdom, often represented as spirit or values that frequently include kindness, generosity, honesty, integrity, authenticity, spiritual practice, and compassion.

3) Creativity, usually in the arts, but also in business.

4) Community, giving back, participating, collaborating.

5) Earth, a sense of place, a longing to live in the country or the city, and a passion for a sustainable planet.

These are values. Understanding and energizing personal values allows us to put our material desires into perspective and prioritize what will bring us the most freedom.

BDG: How difficult is it to be a Buddhist and a financial planner at the same time, especially in the predominantly non-Buddhist, Western world? Do you find yourself explaining a lot of things?

GK: It’s not difficult at all! In fact, I highly recommend financial planners meditate or practice some form of mindfulness activity daily. It helps the planner be more attuned to the client’s needs as well as their own feelings as they arise. A regular meditation practice strengthens focus, listening, emotional intelligence, empathy, and wisdom. The wonderful thing about Buddhism is that it’s not an “ism.” It’s not a religion, at least in the way I understand it. It’s a series of secular practices—see my book Transforming Suffering into Wisdom—that maximize our efficient delivery of the very best person we can be into the world. It builds authenticity. Its link with the efficiencies of economics is natural and organic.

BDG: Tell us a little about The Seven Stages of Money Maturity, your first book. I hear that it has revolutionized the world of financial planning?

GK: It’s hard for me to believe that I released The Seven Stages of Money Maturity over 20 years ago and it continues to inspire readers to find freedom and financial security by developing clarity and ease in their relationship with money. The book uses personal stories to outline seven stages of growth, not that different from the paramitas and related to the seven chakras. It is a practical guide to examining dysfunctional beliefs about money and what to do about them. The book revolutionized the world of financial planning by giving reason for human behaviors and tendencies that cause us to act against our own interests. It has heightened awareness of the effect that money has on decision-making and led to an entire training methodology called Life Planning.

BDG: Finally, given your position as a Harvard-educated legend in mainstream financial planning and asset management, who also happens to be a Buddhist, I am curious to know your views on what is fundamentally wrong with the current financial system?

GK: It is lacking a heart. Our financial institutions (in fact, all institutions) need a heart transplant. They have failed us. They are not sustainably designed for 21st century issues, for global issues, for all of humanity, or for the creation of the Golden Civilization that we all deserve. We need to establish by law a broad fiduciary standard for all corporate entities. We need to implant a human heart of compassion and wisdom at the center of every institution to which we grant power. A human heart that is dedicated to humans thriving, where we experience each of our institutions as profoundly trustworthy and as a flowering of civilization that naturally delivers a healthy planet, strength and security for its species, safety, truth, democracy and its freedoms, and care and concern for all stakeholders. Surely 250 years after the beginning of the industrial revolution, we should be finding the very best of humanity, our wisdom and compassion, at the top of and permeating our hierarchies of power. But we don’t. Without systemic change in our institutions, no matter how well we address our individual failures, we will not survive. We have given too much power to our hierarchies of power at the expense of everything human.

BDG: Have you changed any of your ideas on economics as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic? What lessons can we draw from this crisis and the responses to it around the world?

GK: The novel coronavirus pandemic reinforces the global nature of the crises humans face, including COVID-19, climate change, racism, corruption, and inequality, and that they each require a global solution. Addressing these issues individually or culture by culture will fail. The only way we can address these is to do so comprehensively and holistically. Among the global solutions that would be most effective would be a fiduciary standard of care for all institutions that requires them to place the interests of all stakeholders, Mother Earth, and democracy, above their own self-interest.* To this end, I have crafted and am aiming to popularize a single sentence that if enacted into law on a broad scale would, I believe, solve the many problems of the world, including, quite possibly, climate change, threats to democracy, racism, and corruption.

Imagine this is the standard everywhere in the world. How would that feel? We can make it happen.

BDG: What can Buddhism do to help transform the culture of excess and perhaps save it from driving itself, especially the banking system, into another financial crisis reminiscent of the last one? Do you address some of these issues in The Golden Civilization and the Map of Mindfulness?

GK: Yes, I address solutions in great detail in my book. There is much on mindfulness, but the focus on Buddhism itself is implicit rather than explicit. Let me focus here on how Buddhism can help. I think of this in three ways:

1) Continue with scientific studies demonstrating the benefits of mindfulness practice. There are already many books and many studies, and we need to continue this research and publicize and popularize the results.

2) Replace the traditional map of space-time with a map of mindfulness.

Image courtesy of George Kinder
Image courtesy of George Kinder

The present moment is the only moment we’ve ever experienced. Ground maps of space-time in the present moment and many amazing things follow: Space-time is still there, but the focus of the map, matching our everyday experience, is the present moment. Rather than primarily focusing on accumulating things in the past and plotting our future trajectories, there would be a natural focus on mastering the present moment—what Buddhists understand as awakening. We would approach the universe as relational rather than Cartesian, and we would understand how mastery of the present moment builds character, authenticity, and virtues into civilization as it increases our selflessness. Focusing on the present moment also brings far greater energy into our systems. Nothing is more powerful than anicca. The universe, rather than being formulaic and reactive, becomes a field of awakening. For people to realize how in each momentary action they are contributing to an awakening, or, as I call it, Golden Civilization, would have tremendous benefit.

3) Buddhism needs to reach more people. The teachings of the Buddha are profound and if ubiquitous would lead to the fundamental system-change that is needed to create a sustainable planet. Buddhism is the circulatory system we are lacking. One beating heart based in wisdom across all layers of society.

The second thing Buddhists can do is simply to follow the Noble Eightfold Path. Our practice transforms everything. We have a motto in Life Planning: “Model Integrity, Deliver Freedom.” That’s what a Life Planner aspires to do, and it is exactly the Buddha’s message in the Eightfold Path.

My advice regarding practice: if you don’t have a daily practice, establish one. And if you do have one, double the amount you are practicing. You can’t practice too much. In practice we experience the world in a moment, exactly as it is. We naturally grow more authentic, selfless, and organic. The more we practice, the more civilization also grows in its authenticity and selflessness, organically creating a Golden Civilization.

Right Speech, Right Action, and Right Livelihood are as important as meditation. All practice starts with listening. Only after listening—to ourselves and others—can we engage with the world. Right Speech and Right Action are primarily respectful to human beings, but they are primarily truthful to institutions, speaking truth to power, where the dangers of propaganda to democracy, to the planet, and to world peace are so huge. Right Livelihood is not well understood or well taught in the 21st century. Much of our livelihoods and much of our freedoms are due to democracy and the freedoms it develops. Participative democracy (not just voting) and social activism are part of Right Livelihood in a democratic era. Engagement doesn’t take us away from practice. It is practice.

The Golden Civilization has also been called Maitreya and the Great Turning. The Buddha famously claimed his awakening as his birthright. It is time for us Homo sapiens to claim a Golden Civilization as our birthright as well as our destiny. In my book, I argue that we have no choice but to do the work now.

* A fiduciary standard of obligation is required for all institutions (corporations, non-profit, and governmental) to place the interests of all stakeholders, of humanity, democracy, and the living planet that sustains us, first above their own self-interest.

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