How to solve your money koans.

written by Bari Tessler August 19, 2015

Money koan.

It’s a phrase I’ve used for a while in the community of my year-long Art of Money program. When I see someone in a hard spot around money, I tell them I see their struggles as being their current money koan.

It could be that they’re struggling with a money belief or trying to understand a part of their money relationship that they haven’t been able to work out or maybe they haven’t found a solution to some big problem they’re facing around money.

Any big question they’re holding in their mind around money, trying to crack the nut of it, is a money koan.

If you’re not familiar with the word “koan,” it comes from the Zen Buddhist tradition. In Zen, it’s defined as “a paradox to be meditated upon that is used to train Zen Buddhist practitioners to abandon ultimate dependence on reason and to force them into gaining sudden intuitive enlightenment.”

I’m no Zen Buddhist, but wow, are some of the money challenges we all face paradoxical. Right?

Now, I’m not using “koan” in the traditional Buddhist sense, but I find that it’s a powerful, useful metaphor to use when doing money work. In a sense, when you sit with a money koan long enough (and solve it!), you definitely experience a sudden moment of intuitive, financial enlightenment. And who wouldn’t mind a little more of that?

I think we all have money koans to work on and solve at different points in our life. Money conundrums. Money riddles. Money mysteries that we have yet to solve.

I see them as tension places in our relationship to money. Places that we need to understand, turn inside out, unravel, and find a key to unlock the treasure.

Einstein once said, “It’s not that I’m so smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer.” That’s exactly the kind of focus I’m referring to with money koans: sitting with the problem or the mystery long enough that you solve it.

Ultimately, I believe we can always find new solutions, new possibilities, and new ways to do things around money, even when stress is high or things seem impossible in the moment.

In my own life, I certainly have my stuck moments and crying moments and moments where I just can’t find the key to unlock a money koan…until I suddenly do.

When the answer comes, it’s magic, and I’m incredibly grateful that I have finally broken through and found an answer. Suddenly, I’m seeing a whole new way to do something that solves my money koan.

Hard work, intention, and magic all come together in one moment, and the koan is solved. It reminds me of another great Einstein quote: “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” So, for the sake of our sanity, let’s keep sitting with our money koans until we solve them and find a new path to take.

I believe that you can find new solutions you’ve not thought of before. I believe that you can find your way through the biggest money challenges you’ll face. I believe that magic is possible. Why? Because in my life, even my most stubborn money koans eventually open up and reveal an answer I couldn’t see at the start. I’ve seen it time and again in my own financial challenges, and in those of the hundreds of people that go through The Art of Money each year.

Money koans in real life.

So, let’s bring it down from the realm of concepts into practical life. What do these koans look like on the ground? Here are a few snippets of stories from my journey around money to give you a sense of what I mean by “money koans.”

Why am I pointing these examples out and why are money koans important? Because once you learn to spot your own money koans, I’ve found that just using this koan metaphor reduces the level of financial stress that people feel when they’re facing big money challenges. Somehow, just labeling them as money koans seems to bring some peace. Like “Oh, okay…this is just a big money riddle, and if I sit with it long enough, I WILL solve it.”

Here are a few stories of big money riddles I’ve sat with, and eventually solved (despite the fact that when I had these problems, I wasn’t sure if I’d ever solve them.)

Money Koan One

One of first big money koans came when I was in my late twenties. I was making $11.00 an hour as a counselor in the mental health field. I’d recently graduated with a Masters in psychology, but I wasn’t ready yet to start a private practice.

Up to this point in my life, I hadn’t made more than $11.00 an hour, nor had I gotten above the $2,000 a month level of income (and ohhhhh did I want to get above that level so badly.)

I wanted to have the freedom to do things like bring an abundance of good, organic dark chocolate to potlucks or to be able to afford self-care for myself (like chiropractic, acupuncture, massages, and other alternative healing sessions). At my income level at that time, none of that was a possibility.

I sat in the tension and stress of it all, and it became a money koan: How do I break through this money ceiling?

Sitting with that koan felt like staring at a brick wall (which, I’ve heard, is actually a thing that happens in Zen meditation retreats…staring at a wall while you meditate on the koan that your teacher has given you.)

Here I was with a Master’s degree, and I was only making $11.00 an hour! Though cell phones and texting didn’t exist yet back then, it was definitely a WTF? moment.

I briefly considered starting a movement to rally against the culture and how our society values this type of social work and care-taking. I was passionate about helping people and felt this work could add so much to making our world a better place. And yet, our culture didn’t agree with me to the same degree, which meant that someone with a Master’s degree in this field could only make $11 an hour. I raised my fists in anger but soon realized that fighting that fight was not my life’s calling.

So, I took a different approach with this koan and asked “What can I do differently here? Anything? What are all of my options. Can I get a raise? Where else could I work to earn more?”

I wound up doing two different things:

1) I took a part-time job in an accounting department learning bookkeeping at $13.00 an hour (YES!! Broke the $11 an hour barrier!!) and quickly moved to $15.00 per hour. It felt like a brand new stepping stone job for me. Then I learned Quickbooks and moved up to $20 and $25.00 an hour. Hallelujah! (Not only was I making more money than I’d ever made, but this also became the seed for my life’s work: sharing the message of The Art of Money with the world.)

2) I also took an extra job doing overnight hospice care to move beyond the $2,000 per month mark. I knew the answer to this particular money koan wasn’t always going to be take an extra job, but in this moment it was the right answer.

Money Koan Two

Another money koan arrived at my doorstep seven years ago when my son, Noah, was born. I was in love this little bundle of joy but was crazy pants sleep deprived. In that altered state of reality, I began to wonder if I should continue my conscious money mission or not.

How was I going to keep working with all of these new limitations (sleep, time, energy, and health)? Before Noah was born, I’d been working 40-60 hours per week overseeing a whole team of bookkeeper trainers and financial coaches within my Conscious Bookkeeping business. I had absolutely no clue how I was going to come even close to that level of work given my current state of sleepy-recovering-but-blissed-out-new-mama.

Here’s me and my little nugget during that time.

And so the money koan for this phase of my life became: How am I going to step back into work again with all of these physical and time limitations?

I sat and sat with this one for a few weeks. Thankfully, I had a lot of time to sit with my napping nugget on top of me. When I finally solved this koan, here’s the answers I came to:

I decided to simplify everything. I mean everything. I let go of the whole team in my business and went back to a one-woman show.

In terms of stepping back into work mode, I would do so, but would only work 10 hours a week, and I asked myself a question I had never asked before… “What do I love to do the most in my work life and of those things, which would bring in the most money for the least amount of work and time?”

The answer to that question turned out to be my group programs, which were both really popular and which I absolutely loved doing. Moving forward, I built my new business model around teaching just those group programs.

By asking different questions, I was able to find a new business model that would work for the first few years of Noah’s life. This new business model wasn’t one that would massively grow my businesses revenue, but I was in the process of helping a newborn boy grow, and I just had to be ok with pairing things down in my business instead of ramping things up.

I was in a simplifying and maintenance phase. I needed to get my life and work and money in alignment with the energy of this phase. By doing things differently, I was able to set up the foundation for learning how to find the right equation with my time, energy, and health. And that, in turn, led me to imagine and create my favorite business model to date: teaching a year-long money school program.

Money Koan Three

Sometimes money koans take years to solve. Crazy, but true. For three years now, my husband Forest and I have been sitting with this one: how on Earth are we going to be able to buy a bit of land and build our super sustainable, off-the-grid Earthship home in our beloved home base of Boulder, CO?

We’ve never owned or built a home before, and reaching that milestone in life has been on our “ultimate lifestyle” dream list for years.

After talking about that question from every angle possible, doing research on building codes, and shopping for land, we realized that we may need to take an intermediate step in reaching that Earthship dream: buying a house or townhome in the Boulder market.

Soon after we realized that, this money koan had a part B to it: how are we going to buy a home in the crazy fast, competitive, expensive Boulder market?

As we continued to sit with this one, I watched my mind try to work with this big riddle. I watched myself tell some really challenging stories about our situation. And, those worn out tapes kept playing over and over.

We had a clear intention that we were holding, but we still needed to work out some major kinks.

Forest and I had ongoing weekly conversations about where else we could move that might give us a similar combination of good people, lifestyle, landscape, culture and environmental factors (e.g., an area without a major four-year drought happening).

Some of our friends in Boulder chose to move away from the area years ago to buy land and homes in other locations that were much less expensive. Being up against a seemingly immovable, unanswerable koan like this one, we too started thinking about moving to another area of the country to make our dream of building a home a reality.

There are so many other wonderful places to live, but we kept coming back to Boulder as the top option for many reasons. We knew we’d be paying more to have a chance to experience the things we want to stay here for, but that’s where our hearts kept leading us. Boulder is home.

In our weekly conversations about this koan, we’d talk about how important building or buying a home is, where it fits in our values and priorities right now, and where it fits in with this phase of our lives.

Forest searched for houses and land online for a year (he kept looking for land because he wouldn’t let go of the dream that we’d find a perfect little piece of it here in Boulder to build our dream home on.)

He tracked homes in our price range and watched how fast they sold, what they sold for, and read up on the Boulder real estate scene so we’d be prepared with knowledge if we every figured out how to get all the pieces in place to buy a home here.

In the meantime, we continued to grow our Art of Money business revenue, but didn’t know if we were going to be able to get everything together in time to get into the market before the home prices were too far out of our reach.

Then our business consultant, whom we had hired a few months ago to do some branding and marketing, sent us an email out of the blue: “I’m not sure if you’re ready for this right now, but I think you should go look at this house.”

And here’s where the intention and magic comes in. During our very first meeting with her, she had asked us what our big dream was in life, and we said it was to own a home and build an Earthship.

Somehow, she took that dream of ours and placed it in her magician’s caldron and started stirring the pot. Three months later, she sent us that email about the house she found in her neighborhood.

As soon as we walked up I knew it was the home for us. And not only did she send us to this house, but she also sent us to her trusted realtor as well. We hit it off immediately with the realtor (who knew of my mentor, Tamara Slayton!), and the realtor took us right over to an incredible bank and lender in town. The lender was at a great credit union, and he totally understood entrepreneurs and the Boulder lifestyle.

I suddenly turned into a jaguar and was ready to pounce. (On the house. Not on the lender. Come on you guys.) It was our time to finally buy our first home. I knew that time was of the essence with this situation, and the vision of owning a home like this was totally crystal clear in my mind. Kitty cat was ready to make things happen.

And happen they did. Within a 36 hour whirlwind of an experience, we got pre-approved for a loan (after a big analysis of 2 years of our tax returns, credit scores, and savings), we made an offer to the seller, and the very next morning our offer was accepted. Holy schmoly. They were not kidding when they said that things move VERY fast in the Boulder real estate market.

The magic of this event was off the charts. We could not have asked for all of the details to line up any better than they did.

family-selfie-new-home-no-textHere we are in front of our new home. We took this selfie with the clear intention that this would be our new home. When we made our offer to the owner, we included this photo and a love note to the seller. (We heard later that this photo sealed the deal for us. Yay for human connection in the strange world of real estate deals, where buyers and sellers don’t meet each other!)

After making it through big hurdles, (conditions, inspection, appraisal, the loan), we will be closing on this house in 2 weeks from now. We can hardly believe it. A very big, multi-year money koan seems to have been solved. And when we have the keys to the house in our hands? Maybe we’ll actually have a moment of financial enlightenment.

Four ways to work with a Money Koan.

“Okay, Bari. That’s all well and good,” you say, “but how am I supposed to work with my own money koans?”

Have I ever told you how insightful you are? That’s such a good question. Here’s a few thoughts on how to work with your own money koans:

1. Make your koans living questions.

Meditate on them.
Hike on your favorite trails with them in mind.
Sit with them on your meditation cushion.
Name them in the shower (or in a tower, or with the flowers. Ahem…excuse me. Just had a Dr. Suess moment there.)
Ask them over and over as a mantra.
Set the clear intention.
Live them. Know them. Breath them.
Stay with the problem.
The answers will come.

2. What is your money ceiling?

Let me say that again. What is your money ceiling? Really.
Name it. Because it needs to be named.
What’s the amount of money that you’ve not been able to make more than?

What is the most you have made hourly? Or monthly?
What’s the most you have made over a quarter or a year?

Now, brainstorm creative options for bringing in more money. Even if the options feel totally out there or not possible, just let your creativity flow here. Get out your journal and write. Let your mind go and just write out your options.

3. How does your current money koan fit with your three-tier money map plan.

You’ve heard me talk about money maps, right? They’re like Google maps, only cooler, and they’re for your financial life. If you haven’t heard about them, have a read of this post.

What phase of life are you in? Are you currently living your basic needs lifestyle, comfortable lifestyle, or ultimate lifestyle?

How does your current money koan-riddle-challenge fit within your values and priorities right now? How will each of the solutions you come up with affect your lifestyle level right now, or how soon you’ll reach the next level you desire to reach?

4. Talk about your koan with friends.

In traditional Zen koan practice, you don’t talk about your current koan with your friends, whether they’re fellow Zen practitioners or not. You only talk about it with your teacher (called a roshi), but it’s not the kind of conversation where you get a lot of help in solving the riddle. You have to solve it on your own because that’s the only way the deeper spiritual insights will stick with you.

With money koans, though, it’s important to remember that these aren’t mind stopping Zen koans. They’re living, breathing life questions that you’re trying to answer, and one of the best ways to answer them is by talking them through with friends who are good listeners.

So, even though I’m borrowing a practice from the Zen tradition and bending it metaphorically, you don’t need to get all Zen with your money koans and try to solve them alone while staring at a wall.

TALK to your friends and intimate partner and life coach and therapist and parents. Engage with people about your money koan, because the answer to it may come from an unexpected source.

Money koans. It’s a simple little metaphor, but try it on for size and see if it helps you move through (and solve!) your next big money challenge with greater ease.

And if you have a big money koan that you’re sitting with right now…keep going. Keep sitting with it. Find the grit deep down inside of you to stick with it. No matter what. The answer will come, my friend. I know it will…

With love,

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