Right Livelihood, Money, and Poverty Mentality: An Interview with David Nichtern

poverty mentality

David Nichtern joins Noah Markus for a conversation around Right Livelihood in modern times, why money really shouldn’t be a dirty topic, and how to deal with poverty mentality.

David Nichtern is the host of the Creativity, Spirituality & Making a Buck Podcast. His latest book, Creativity, Spirituality & Making a Buck, is essential reading for anyone looking to reframe their relationship with money and address concepts such as poverty mentality. You can learn more about David and his work at davidnichtern.com.

Noah Markus: Hi David, thanks so much for joining me! I’ve been doing some work around the concept of Right Livelihood, and I keep thinking how things were a little different back in the Buddha’s time. How do we apply this concept to the crazy world that we’re living in these days, especially with how many of us have a messed up relationship to money? 

David Nichtern: I think we’re also living in a psychologically more sophisticated time so that, you know, a fair amount of the Buddhist teachings can be taken exoterically or esoterically, kind of literally or figuratively. And the Theravada style of teaching, it’s pretty literally intended. Like, I just looked up the five different obstacles to Right Livelihood. It’s stuff like not raising animals for slaughter, not creating alcoholic beverages and selling them. So it almost becomes like the Ten Commandments kind of aspect of Buddhism. But I think if you talked to somebody who’s practicing in a subtler way, the intention becomes important. The context becomes important. So it’s not just, I found five rules I can follow and then I’m good to go.

It’s interesting, the word Samyak is used in Sanskrit for all of the ‘rights’ in the Eightfold Path, you know, Right Intention, Right Livelihood, Right Mindfulness. But the way that my teacher, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, taught it, he said it’s more like ‘complete’ in the sense of being holistic. So Samyak means taking the whole thing as a whole integrated picture. For example, if you’re talking about appropriate use of alcohol or sexuality, you’re talking about being reasonable as opposed to being rigid. The most important element is not harming, not causing harm. That could be a great parameter to think about.

Noah: So I was thinking about some of my past work experience and how that fits in with Right Livelihood. Like, I was a marketing copywriter writing for an online poker company. A lot of that was about encouraging people to spend money they didn’t have for the very slim chance to win even more money. And, it’s like, I didn’t feel like I was doing anything wrong, but it also didn’t necessarily feel right.

David: It didn’t make you feel whole and integrated and good about what the work you’re doing. Consequence is everything. Because you know when you study karma, it’s a very interesting topic because it’s not something we can really escape for the most part. People would like to bypass their karmic situation, get around it or get over it with some kind of magical process. But, in general, it’s just cause and effect rippling through the sequence of what we go through. So if it’s causing harm, that definitely creates a certain kind of karma. And if it’s benefiting you or other people, that creates a certain kind of karma. And it’s really hard to live without doing either one of those.

Noah: So is the key to just try to limit the amount of harm you’re doing as best you can as you navigate this crazy world?

David: As I understand it, the kind of fundamental ground of Buddhist practice, and quite a few other spiritual practices, is non-aggression. In other words, not creating harm, or Ahimsa, like they say in yoga, non-violence. So the first iteration of any good spiritual training is to learn about cause and effect and dialing down the amount of harm you’re causing. And that could include harm to yourself. There are a lot of things we do that cause harm for ourselves, and they’re just a force of habit.

Noah: Absolutely, this all it all makes sense to me. I wish there was a pretty little bow to put on this stuff, but there’s really not. It’s not a black or white sort of situation.

David: Well, the bow could be self-assessment. Taking inventory. In a lot of great practices and traditions, you stop, you pause for a minute. Maybe if you’ve blamed circumstances or family or environment or whatever, you at least put some energy into looking at your own causality. And what did you do? What could you do differently? So, I teach this mindfulness meditation teacher training. And that’s at a certain point, I’d say that’s the key point, self-assessing. There’s a Buddhist slogan of the two judges, take the principle one. Which means, everybody else would give you their opinion, their feedback, but at the end of the day, you’re responsible for what happens. And so taking a good look, without treating yourself harshly and unproductively. Look with what we call Prajna, some kind of insight, some kind of discriminating awareness, and with kindness. It doesn’t really help to add aggression to any process. It’s kind of useless, aggression.

Noah: It’s so interesting, aggression, there’s so much of it in American culture. It’s overflowing.

David: And not to confuse aggression with precision or cutting through, being insightful, calling out a situation when it needs to be called out. But aggression is this extra added push that we put onto things that usually just creates more of the same.

Noah: Especially in the workplace, there can be a lot of aggression. People hustling, trying to get ahead. That’s the culture that we have.

David: Yeah. We’re working on that, right? We’re working on the culture that we have, because we are the culture that we have, every one of us makes a contribution to that. I believe cultures are malleable. I believe people are malleable. Nothing’s written in stone. There’s just strong tendencies, strong patterns that you can observe, but none of it is permanent or indelible.

Noah: That’s good. Because the way we look at things today in terms of our society and where it’s headed, it’s pretty scary. Let’s see it bend back the other way a little bit.

David: Well, it’s up to us. It’s tricky because if you want to change something, sometimes you need a kind of direct powerful intervention. So in Buddhism we sometimes talk about wrathful action, and essentially it means you directly communicate the word ‘no’ into a situation that needs it. But it doesn’t have to add aggression. And that’s a very subtle point, right? The point where we can tap into our anger in a healthy way, basically, and take the precision element of it and the clarity of it. In Tantric Buddhism, anger and clarity are like two sides of the same coin. You need that insightful, sharp, precision element. But if you hold it back too long or if you bury it or if you get too attached to the outcome or something like that, then it can turn toxic. That’s separate.

poverty mentality

Noah: Can we talk about money? Because it’s all attached. 

David: Of course. And if you’ve seen my latest book, Creativity, Spirituality & Making a Buck, there’s a picture of a dollar bill right on the cover. So part of the message is that if we can talk about practice and spirituality and creativity, but we think money is a dirty topic, I think that’s not holistic. I don’t think that’s a complete view. So I’m trying to really take the view that it’s possible to look at it all as an expression of some kind of creative force. And we don’t have to target business or finances as something that’s an unfortunate necessity, it’s just another channel of our experience. 

Noah: So how do we go about reframing that relationship with money? 

David: Well, that’s what the whole book is about! And the book also invites each person to write a workbook, which you can download, and then you’re doing your own version, your own assessment of your situation. So that’s highly recommended to people if they get into it. Because then you look at your own relationship to these things by writing it down. For example, there’s a whole chapter on what’s called ‘poverty mentality.’

Noah: I was just going to bring that up, because that’s the chapter that caught my eye while I was browsing the book And it hit me hard because it’s something I’m very familiar with. 

David: You and a lot of people. Go ahead and say more about it yourself.

Noah: Just that I do have that relationship with myself a lot of the time. Especially these days, I’ve lost confidence in myself and my place in this world. That’s the feeling I have a lot of the time.

David: Yeah. It’s like, ‘I’m not worthy, I’m not worthy.’ Poverty mentality is a phrase that was coined by Trungpa Rinpoche. You put the two words together – it’s not just that you’re poor, but it’s a psychology that’s sort of locking you into a certain view of reality, in which there is a sense of scarcity. I think that’s an interesting way of looking at it. Everything is scarce, so you become very survival oriented. The opposite of that is a kind of fundamental attitude of richness or inherent worthiness, in which there’s a feeling of abundance. You know, resources are abundant, people who can help and support you are abundant. So, a lot of it is the turnstile in our mind that opens to one gate or the other gate.

And of course, a lot of this is habitual patterns that come from our family situation or whatever our experience has been. So the first helpful thing when it comes to poverty mentality is just to see it. A lot of Buddhist practice starts without trying to change stuff, just trying to illuminate it and see it as it is. For example, the Four Noble Truths. The first one is just to observe the suffering. And the second one is to look at the cause of it. So if you notice that poverty mentality, you’re way ahead of the game already, as opposed to just suffering within it, which is like, you’re in a Whirlpool but you don’t know where you’re going or what started it. Then you look at the cause. The source is going to be different for each person. But, in general, what would you say the source of it is?

Noah: There’s a lot that goes into it, and one part is being in debt and feeling a bit of that sense of scarcity. Then there’s this element of, ‘this isn’t how I saw my life turning out’ kind of thinking.

David: Yes. You’ve come to a premature conclusion. Because you’re not finished with your life yet. It hasn’t turned out yet. You’re in the middle of it, actually. You’re in the process of it. So, you know, seeing the mind… You’re a meditator, right?

Noah: On my good days.

David: So, in the process of meditation – just simple mindfulness meditation, not anything fancier than that – you just catch, you see your mind over and over again because you’re just trying to be there with your breath. And then your mind slips off and you start thinking about, ‘How did my life come to this? I don’t know what I’m doing.’ Blah, blah, blah. And then you label that thinking. You come back to the breath. It’s like your mind is being hijacked by that habit, but you’re engaging in a practice of recapturing your mind to present awareness, and that builds a certain strength. You develop the ability to come back into the present because you’ve sort of developed a muscle for it.

And then, when your mind gets dragged away, which is inevitable for all of us when we meditate, is it getting pulled down a rabbit hole and now you’re Alice in Wonderland and you can’t get out? Or, as it starts to go down the rabbit hole, you go, ‘Ah, wait a minute.’ And then you come back to the breath. And present awareness is really unbiased, it’s not rooting for you or against you. The quality of awareness is just very neutral. So when you’re ‘awake,’ you might have more access to considering a stream of options or possibilities, your mind might be more fluid. You might just go, ‘Okay, instead of bathing in that poverty mentality this morning, I’m gonna make a list of people I should call today.’ Honestly, this is the work I love doing with people, because I feel the situation is laden with resourceful possibilities. But it takes some training to look at things that way. But once you have that view, then also be developing practical skills. 

Noah: Is that what inspired you to write the book?

David: What inspired me to write the book is probably similar to anybody else. It was my own journey. It’s a combination of my personal expression, my creative output – being a musician and a guitar player and a composer and a producer and arranger and all those – crossed with my path as a Tibetan Buddhist. And so I’ve been studying, practicing that for 50 years. I’ve been living as a professional musician for 50 years, and I’ve been an entrepreneur. I like business, I like to create, I like talking to people about creating things. So when I thought about if I was going to produce an offering at this point, it would be like a combination of Shark Tank, The Voice, and a Pema Chödrön workshop. Can you put all three of those together? Because that’s where I want to hang out. I’m not completely satisfied in any one of those three domains isolated. It’s just to walk and talk about the integration of those, a lot of things that I learned along the way, certainly mistakes that you can learn from that I wanted to share before I drop out of here.

Noah: I think that’s so great, because it’s such a problem for so many spiritual people. It’s like, ‘Money is bad, money is the root of all evil.’

David: That’s exactly why I put a dollar bill on the cover beneath a Tibetan monastery. You have the people I know who are really, really spiritual masters would have no problem with money whatsoever. It would not be seen as a problematic situation. They would have what they need. Maybe they don’t need much, or maybe they head up these huge monasteries and there’s a lot of business going on keeping those things in place. So I think if somebody says they’re accomplished spiritually, that means that they also are able to work within the worldly parameters without a sense of struggle or obstruction. And that could mean somebody who has a very simple life, or it could mean the President of the United States, I think it could be either or anything in between. I think if you look at the dollar bill, it’s not dirty, it’s just a symbol. The rest is a projection in our minds.


Noah: I believe you said you said something similar on Ethan Nichtern’s podcast, that money is not bad. It reveals part of your character in terms of how you react to it.

David: I think my critique of the spiritual communities is they have bypassed a little bit over the last several decades, this need to work in the phenomenal world in a more direct way. And I think that period’s coming to an end basically, because I see a lot of people going away. That’s not the complete answer. And then, on the other hand, the business world, which I’m operating in quite a bit, they’re going, ‘What is it all about? I’ve made tons of money. I can’t sleep at night.’ Or like in Tokyo, these people who work themselves to death with these companies. A company man, that’s what they call it. One person a day just jumps out in front of the subway in Tokyo, 360 people a year. Just they go, ‘I can’t do it.’ So I think people are saying, ‘Well, if that’s what that leads to, maybe there’s a middle way.’ I’m a middle way proponent. And if you go too far to the left side of the boat or too far to the right set of boat, it’s gonna tip over.

Noah: And that’s kind of what it feels like right now, right? The boat is tipping over. The 1% is tipping the boat over.

David: They are tipping the boat. It was interesting to see Marianne Williamson running for president. That is the beginning, I think, of an iteration of people whose basic outlook is maybe transcendent or spiritual in its essence, but it doesn’t abuse or disregard the temporal world that’s unfolding. In fact, it sees it as inseparable. And that’s actually in accord with the teachings, by the way. In Buddhist Tantric teachings, they say Samsara and Nirvana are inseparable. You don’t reject one and get the other right there. They’re woven together, and a lot of it is perspective and how you hold your perceptions of those things. 

Noah: That makes sense. Thank you for that. As with most stuff in life, I guess it’s all about finding that middle path to tread.

David: And then the next thing is with somebody like you, just to start to look carefully at what the options are for you to cultivate. Spiritual practice is just cultivating what you want to cultivate. If you do compassion practice, it’s so you want to become more compassionate. If you do mindfulness practice, it’s so you want to become more mindful. And similarly, if you want to get better at business, you just have to cultivate that. It’s known skills. But a lot of spiritual people either think, ‘Oh, I can’t go there,’ or, ‘I don’t know how to go there.’ I’m pretty sure that all this is learnable things, and my basic view is people can have a healthy and integrated lifestyle. That’s why I wrote the book. It’s possible, and it’s what we’re actually supposed to do.

Noah: Right. And you can’t just abandon money and the system or otherwise you’re whatever, living off the grid in the middle of nowhere and not talking to anybody.

David: And it might be good for a few people. The big society could accommodate some people doing deep work like that, retreats and send Yogis and so forth, but we don’t have that here right now. If you’re a Yogi and a renunciate, there’s no real way to manifest that in this culture. You’ll end up sleeping under a bridge and not being respected. Now, in these other cultures, somebody who is a Yogi or a renunciate could go from house to house and get food and so forth. People said, ‘Cool, give us a little Dharma teaching.’ But we’re not there yet. Right now, people who can balance off the full equation are really very much helpful. 

Noah: Can I step back to poverty mentality for a minute? You write that one of the steps to overcoming poverty mentality is developing intention. I guess I want to clarify what intention I’m developing. Can my intention simply be to develop awareness? 

David: Yeah, for sure. You know what, that’s the ground zero of all of that. Self-awareness is kind of potentially even completely liberating, actually just seeing the whole situation. Here’s a simple grid that I’ve sort of evolved and calibrated after many years of looking at what these practices are really about. First is focus, because if the mind is not focused and you’re all over the place, you can’t even start with cultivating anything in a stable way. So developing focus and stability, that’s kind of mindfulness meditation. 

Then discovery, that’s the second one. What are you seeing there when you sit alone by yourself and you realize you can’t make a perfect world in your mind by holding your hands a certain way or wishing it to be true? You go, this is me and I might as well love it because I can’t leave it. You know, love the one you’re with. And the one you’re with most often is you. So self-care is really important. But along the way to that, then you start to have discovery of the kind of thing you’re talking about. Like, ‘Oh, I have poverty mentality,’ or, ‘I’ve had a lot of resentment over the years.’ In Shambala, we say put it in the cradle of loving kindness. You know, just treat yourself like a nice, sweet little baby and be kind to yourself. But look at it, and then you start to discover certain things that are historical, habitual, karmic, whatever. 

And then the third pod is transformation. It’s actually within our province. Once we see it clearly and have stability to actually begin to shift patterns and habits. And I don’t think there’s any ripened mature spiritual practice that doesn’t involve some kind of transformation or shifting, changing. The subtlest version of that is you’re not getting rid of anything, you’re just transforming. Trungpa Rinpoche used to say your obstacles become like the manure of Bodhi. They’re the fertilizer. You don’t throw it out. You just go, okay, let me look through this and begin to transform, for example, that anger into some kind of direct, clear perception, transform the poverty mentality into some kind of contentment and resourcefulness. Every one of them flips. And I totally think that’s possible. This is what we’re supposed to be here doing. 

Noah: We’re taking the stuff of life, and using it to grow.

David: Right, exactly. And helping each other to do that. That’s what I really feel like is the key. Everything else is adjustable, but that’s the heart to me of the human situation altogether. Personal cultivation, and then Sangha. 

Noah: That’s great. David, thank you so much for your time.

– Noah Markus

Images via Carlos Pun and Pxhere