The psychology behind why we pursue financial independence is most often about having the freedom to choose what we want to focus our time, energy, and money on.
Although the movement began with FIRE, some people observed that many of us don’t necessarily want to RE (retire early), we want the freedom to choose how to spend our time. We understand that our values do not always line up with our 9-5 jobs. We want to spend more time with family, be outdoors, work in an area that we can contribute something to, or we want to leave a legacy.
As the FI Monkey, I try to be disciplined and aware of my values as much as possible so that I can put my money to work, while I do what is important to me.
The monkey mind
What does a monkey have to do with the pursuit of Financial Independence?
There is a metaphor I like to tell about a monkey. It comes from a Zen Buddhism and is used to refer to the undisciplined nature of our minds and our lives. According to Wikipedia, monkey mind means “unsettled; restless; capricious; whimsical; fanciful; inconstant; confused; indecisive; uncontrollable.”
The metaphor goes like this: There is a monkey and it's in a room bouncing around all over the place. The monkey is hyperactive and inattentive. It has little focus and changes from moment to moment. Inside this room, there are six windows, five of which include our senses. The sixth window represents our thoughts and feelings. Whoa, one window to include where most of us spend our lives!? Living in our own minds? The sixth is a big bay window that most of our monkeys spend a lot of time looking through.
Oh, the pull of this window is great! Even when we're doing something that we really enjoy, like eating a delicious ice cream sundae, or checking our personal capital dashboard during a bull market, the unfocused nature of the monkey pulls our attention and suggests:
“Maybe you should check Facebook to see if anyone said anything interesting.”
“Do we have milk for coffee in the morning?”
“I have got to remember to send that email.”
..and on and on.
Within that sixth window, our monkeys jumps from one thought to the next, often moving so quickly that we barely have time to catch up before it is on to the next thing. For example, how often have you driven somewhere and realized you didn't pay attention to the drive at all?
What does the monkey mind have to do with personal finance and FI?
Well, I’m glad you asked. It has a lot to do with it! Just as Cory Muscara said on the Mindfulness episode, the practice of mindfulness is about disciplining the mind. Taming the monkey mind and saving 50% – 70% of your income are both about discipline.
People following the path toward FI have had to ignore the pull for the new car, the bigger house, or even that new shirt from Banana Republic. For those of us who are reluctant frugalists, we've had to be disciplined and choose over and over again to invest when consumerism pulls us in a different direction. We have to resist the pull of immediate gratification and the lure of the new shiny tech toy. We know the feeling of the temporary dopamine hits when the package from Amazon lands on our doorstep. But we resist these feelings for something larger, our common value–freedom.
With the Monkey Mind, comes talk about mindfulness. Here in the Western world and increasingly across the globe, we are bombarded with stimulation about what we don’t have and what will make our lives better. It can be overwhelming and if we’re not clear about our values and intentions, it can be easy to wake up at 65, wondering where our lives went.
Mindfulness is often spoken about in terms of meditation. Media has been telling us for years that we need to meditate. And, if you’re like most people, you’ve tried it once or twice, and gave up. While meditation is wonderful, and I would encourage you to try it again, that is not the intention behind this post.
Meditation is one way that we can practice mindfulness. Mindfulness is paying full attention in the present moment. It is about being aware of what is happening right now. You can be mindful without sitting on a cushion in lotus for an hour a day. You can practice it in your daily life as you wash the dishes, play with your children, or go for a run. Mindfulness is available all the time and if you're living your values, you will truly be able to appreciate the present moment.
I've read some people mention that when they found the FIRE movement, it was liking waking from the Matrix. I had the same experience! The lure of the online sales lost so much of their pull for me. Why? Because I was now awake and aware. I didn't want to spend my money “buying things I don't need to impress people I don't like.”
After understanding the FIRE movement, I'm better able to stay focused. I'm also aware and mindful of my intention and values: To spend as much time with my husband and kids doing the things we love.
My experience and a small suggestion
I was first exposed to it through my graduate school studies. Mindfulness has been embraced in the field of psychology as a way to help depression, anxiety, and substance abuse. In one class, I was required to read a book by the Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh. Hanh is a Buddhist monk who has written dozens of books for the practice of mindfulness for ‘regular' people. After reading it and learning about its application in my life as well as my clients, I began studying and meditating. I have attended several silent retreats and I currently attend a Soto Zen temple.
So how do you practice without sitting in lotus? Ready for the answer? Drum roll… You just focus your attention on what you're doing in the present moment. That's it. Simple. But not easy.
Mindfulness of the present moment can be practiced all the time. When we are fully present, we can absorb what's happening. If that is not a good fit for those of us who are working on freedom to choose our time, I don't know what is.
Try it and let me know how it is. Just be fully present with one of the senses, one of the windows. Just focus on that one sensation for five minutes. It can be pretty wild. Let me know if you do it. It will be one step in taming the monkey.