A Yogi’s Lessons on Greed

| July 31, 2011

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Greed. Envy. Arrogance. These are the three enemies of humanity according to world-renowned spiritual leader Radhanath Swami at Jivamukti Yoga studio on a recent summer evening.

What kind of disease does greed inflict on the soul and what exactly is greed anyway?

A former investment banking securities salesman whose business was obliterated in the mortgage market meltdown lamented that the greed of others destroys many economic lives. Greed is simply the desire to want more than you have, he explained. “It’s a natural state.” He is right of course. But for some, so is murder and rape. The evolution of our species necessitates we don’t give into every natural desire.

The continuing economic struggle of millions of unemployed, the unending tragedy of massive foreclosures, the vicious battle in Congress over the debt ceiling reveal that greed continues to be a complex force in our society. Much of our current economic hardship can be directly tied to the excessive acts of greed by a few thousand mortgage bankers. Their natural state of wanting and pursuing more has deeply damaged the financial future of the modern world. Yet greed is an old story that has virtually shaped every period in human history. How we can transform its power into a constructive rather than destructive force is the dilemma for 21st century finance.

Defining Greed

Is that all there is to greed – just wanting more? Doesn’t everyone want more? Is anyone satisfied with what they have? Among our first thoughts upon waking is the desire to eat breakfast. We wake up every day wanting more. We eat and are satisfied only until our next meal. As entrepreneurs and business persons, there is little sense that we can cease pursuing material gain. We are always looking at tomorrow, next week, next year. Each of us is locked in the frenzy of battle for market share. Because we know, we will always need more.

The beautiful Jivamukti Yoga Center just south of New York’s Union Square under the warm welcome of manager Carlos Menjivar and my host Joshua Greene, was the perfect setting to find serenity among cosmopolitan exuberance. Whisked away to vegan gourmet meals and smiling humility, one felt far away from the envy and arrogance of capitalism’s heartbeat. But the reality of the local economy was never too far.

Most people in New York are in a constant state of enterprise. The relentless pursuit of money permeates much activity in the city that never sleeps. Is it greed or simply the instinct to survive? Have we gotten so far away from our core selves that we think only of material wealth as a barometer for success? I ask these questions of myself as much as of others: How much is enough? When do we know if it is greed or simply necessity?

A Yogi Speaks on Greed

His Holiness, Radhanath Swami, a spiritual leader of Bhakti Yoga, gave up his American middle class life some forty years ago to seek deeper meaning in the powerful poverty of India. He eschewed western accumulation of material wealth and chose instead to live in one of the poorest nations in the world. Radhanath’s organization in Mumbai feeds 260,000 children daily. This is the man that America’s power elite are cultivating as a leader of spiritual and economic rationality. Men like billionaire Michael Milken, former “Junk Bond King,” whose 1989 conviction for securities fraud represented an era when greed was “good” are opening their forums to Radhanath’s practical spiritual advice. How do we manage our quest for more with the inner journey of the soul?

To find a balance within ourselves is always a challenge. The balance between love and hate, giving and taking is one that continually defines modern society. Radhanath speaks of love as a fundamental characteristic in the world of wealth. “Things,” he says, “can give no satisfaction to the heart. The heart is yearning to love and be loved.”

He continues, “In a real joyful state based on truth, there can be no greed. Real joy and love only wants to share themselves with everyone else. The nature of love is to give; the nature of greed is to take.” The heated debt debates in the halls of government demand we answer the question. Who are we really as Americans – givers or takers?

Radhanath shares his message of love with western centers of commerce and intellectual inquiry. Over the last several months, His Holiness has presented at Harvard, Princeton and Stanford as well as commercial hubs like Intel and HSBC. In October, he is scheduled to address the House of Parliament in Great Britain. Yet perhaps most astounding was his invitation to participate in the Milken Institute 2011 Global Conference “Shaping the Future.”

The event might be called a “Celebration of Conspicuous Capitalism.” Every hedge fund, investment bank and financial institution in the industry is represented at the annual meeting of moguls. The swami’s presence this year marked a reflective shift in the future of finance. Named after Michael Milken, a legend on Wall Street who innovated the trillion dollar high yield market, the Institute is a “non-profit, non-partisan economic think tank that seeks to create a more-informed public, more-thoughtful policymaking and improved economic conditions.”

The Milken Institute has emerged as philanthropy on steroids. According to Fortune Magazine, Michael Milken has singlehandedly changed medicine with his dedication to cancer research. In his year’s since Wall Street excess, he has earned a reputation as a pioneer for social change using his vast wealth to help solve global problems.

Milken himself is a fascinating character. His “crimes” of the 1980s seems quaint now next to the socio-economic devastation of subprime mortgage markets. Who indeed did Michael Milken harm in the 1980s outside of Wall Street? His nemesis Ivan Boesky brought him down in the insider trading scandal of the decade. Yet insider trading is hardly as destructive to the general economy as middle class mortgage fraud and trillions of dollars of worthless 100LTV loans. Perhaps ironically, Milken’s own words reveal his enlightened rejection of unbridled greed.

Milken states the major cause for the 2008 financial crisis was “the false belief that you can build a successful financial business through leverage instead of through unleveraged spreads. Hundreds of companies were rated triple-A that actually were never triple-A quality. But their ratings enabled the leverage that created the problem. People got comfortable with the rating rather than doing their own homework on credit quality.”

So the Gordon Gekko-like shadow that was Michael Milken has emerged anew as a sage teacher for modern finance. Perhaps two years in prison and 20 years of giving back to society has birthed his pearls of wisdom. How much hardship will the rest of us suffer before we recognize the need for restraint in profit?

Moral Relativism

It’s all relative on the socio-economic Richter scale. But the moral imperative in post-crisis 2011 is surely that greed is no longer good. Michael Milken’s genuine transformation from unabashed 20th century gluttony to world-class humanitarianism marks a clear path for us all. If we have any common sense left as modern capitalists, we will strive to rein in our excesses to become a positive social force in our economy rather than give in to the harmful short-termism of our past. “What’s in it for me right now” should yield to the greater vision we have for our future. How do we see ourselves in 5, 10, 20, 100 years?

In this second decade of the new millennium a transformation is taking place in the world of money. Radhanath’s growing popularity among the well-heeled and well-funded is evidence of a definite shift in the capitalist conscience. What could an American ex-pat Swami who “has vowed poverty, has no property, no bank account, nor a penny to his name” teach the giants of  capitalism about greed and money?

At Harvard’s Kennedy Center, Radhanath was invited to lecture  on “Ethics in Leadership and Management” to an enraptured audience. The swami explained, “The tools of this world are neutral. For example, a knife can be used to kill, or it can be used to perform surgery and save a life. It is the consciousness of the person using the knife that determines whether the result is good or bad.”

Do we choose to use the tools of capitalism to enhance or destroy lives? Wanting more is natural, but how we will get more is the choice before us. Is it possible to change the consciousness of capitalism from pure self-interest to one of broader world interest? And if so, will we find the courage to do it? Perhaps the continuing economic pain of the U.S. debt crisis and the European Union’s fragile state will make us think collectively of how we can, like Milken, recreate ourselves in an image we can respect and revere.

We never change when things are easy as human beings. The challenges we face with our current economic complexities are calling each and every one of us to rethink our approach to markets and money. In so many ways, this difficult time in our evolving human story is an opportunity to create something better. What kind of world do we want to co-create and leave to our children? That is the real question for modern capitalists.

Monika Mitchell is Chief Executive Officer of Good Business International, Inc. (Good-b), a new media company dedicated to incorporating compassion and social responsibility into 21st century finance. contact@good-b.com

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Category: LAW & POLICY, shared values, sustainable leadership