Attending 'Work, Sex, Money, Dharma' with Martin Aylward.

Work, Sex, Money, Dharma…I heard these words inside my head as I read the invitation email from London Insight and went yes, a resounding yes!!! I imagine there were exclamation marks emphasising my ‘Hell, yeah!’ inside my head.

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I knew who Martin Aylward was from You-tube and really enjoyed him speaking about the three gestures with money, knowing how the hand gestures (grasping, avoiding and confusion) seem consistent; both when I speak about money or when others gesture in money-related conversations. He passed the ‘know, like, trust’ test from me and so off I went to this Urban retreat held at the beautiful St. Luke’s community centre, London.

I want to share a few key insights I had from the workshop. Work, Sex, Money, Dharma…these are four highly charged topics we tend to put a lot of energy into avoiding thinking about, avoiding deep introspection or just not questioning our habits or beliefs.

We often have stories about these — especially money, in my experience anyway…and don’t slow down to check in with our bodies if what we believe or say actually feels true. We (me included in having a dysfunctional relationship with money ) default to our habit patterns, conditioning or learned behaviour from our family or culture when it comes to money. Taking time to slow down in retreat or other ways, helps us get conscious and realise there is hope in moving towards greater liberation in these areas.

We first explored what comes up with work and related assumptions or associations with work. Were the assumptions inspiring or liberating, Martin asked? We talked about ‘work-life’ balance which suggests, Martin observed, that the richness is over here and work is over there, pointing to separate locations.

We explored what we had learned in our life about work. This involved delving into our observations of our parents, their attitudes to work, conflicts at work, their happiness or lack of it with work, gender biases that perhaps were present and so much more. We looked at our own orientation to work from the Buddhist view of the three poisons of greed, hatred and delusion; simply translated by Martin as demand, defence and distraction.

There were several opportunities over the retreat for supported introspection with monologue work, where one person talked for 10 minutes, in response to a question we were exploring, with 2 others listening silently. We all had a turn and at the end, we had a few minutes for a debrief which included a discussion of common themes or what came up for us (but no analysing, advice giving, etc).

Usually, when we talk about these sorts of charged themes, we revert to our old stories — the ones we know about ourselves and can repeat easily. However Martin’s instructions were crystal clear: “Let the words come from sensing, in the moment…”, He encouraged us to stay with our body sensations. “Go fear-wards”, he advocated playfully suggesting a gentle curiosity and speaking from what was alive at the moment. This led to participants having clearer insights overall with new material coming up; it felt easy to listen to someone when they were speaking from this space of honesty and presence.

I particularly enjoyed Martin’s teachings about our relationship to being ‘busy’. “ We use busy as a ‘disguised boast’. What we really mean is ‘I am so very important’, he said. This rang true for me, a recovered workaholic, who felt a frantic ‘doing’ for most of my 20’s and 30’s. The strategy of being busy was for me a path to establishing my usefulness, self-worth and contribution to others, although done in an unhealthy, people-pleasing, life-alienating kind of way. Thankfully, this unhelpful pattern is now behind me.

I also enjoyed Martin’s ‘scary demon’ face exercises after lunch — designed to wake us up and energise us…in preparation for the afternoon session. We stuck our tongues out, took a deep breath, lifted our arms up and went bahhhhhh….with a long exhale, staying with the exhale for a little longer than usual. In facilitating a workshop, I so appreciate when the leader recognises natural ebbs and flows of our human energy levels and capacity to feel lethargic while digesting meals.

I won’t talk about sex, skipping straight to money. Just kidding! Sex covered intimacy and ways in which we get reactive in a relationship. I don’t seem to have too many notes on that topic, perhaps I should have done more scary demon faces after lunch.

Day 2, a morning session and the topic was money. I was on the front row, ready for it. A book suggestion is always welcomed by me (and perhaps you too?) — ‘The Buddha’s teachings on prosperity’ written for lay people or householders was suggested. Martin explained, the Buddha taught that your intention as lay people should be to increase your income each year, so that you take better care of yourself, those that depend on you and society. This was a relief to hear especially as money is often shunned as ‘bad’ or ‘impure’ in some spiritual communities.

Martin also talked about Jacob Needleman,- one of my favourite authors on money — who stated that any spiritual practice needs to take into account the relationship with money. Again, we looked at this from the three poisons: greed, hatred and delusion… A few ways greed may manifest is fixating on earning more, spending more or holding the overarching belief that ‘greed is good’. A few examples of how hatred may manifest is feeling aversion, feeling repulsed or consciously pushing money away. Delusions take the form of going unconscious or feeling disconnected from money or going into a mess with finances. Fascinating, right?

I have numerous pages of notes…but I don’t want to give Martin’s entire workshop away. We talked about what it means to prosper…buoyancy…a capacity to feel supported and be of support in life. We talked about gratitude and cultivating a generous heart as a foundation of happiness. We looked at delicate places where we felt tight around money or free around money in a monologue form exercise…”Notice where you feel adult internally”, suggested Martin. “Simple, relaxed, it’s a mature state. Friction feels small, helpless, lost, deficient, childlike…”

After the monologue exercise in the group about money, I spoke up suggesting to Martin that the only way I could come to peace with my own relationship with money is to accept I am a hypocrite. In my mind, I do not live 100% fully aligned with my values. For example, I worry about sea life, climate change and yet take planes.

Martin first asked me to describe the situation without calling myself a hypocrite. His response was very compassionate and moved me to tears. He asked me to allow the grief in, to have an honest relationship with grief, to have the courage to look at this and weep. He found my criticism of myself too harsh and mainly it was his kindness and compassionate presence that made tears roll down my cheeks spontaneously while resolving to be gentler with myself.

I notice that guilt colours my relationship with money. I feel guilty about having more money than many others, guilt about my privilege…even though I didn’t grow up wealthy by any means, we always had enough — food and a roof over our head. I still had tons of privilege — English speaking, a village that nurtured me, great friends and education, access to books, self-esteem and so much more. Guilt is never, never helpful although it is helpful to have remorse and reflect, said Martin. I agree…and that I cannot change everything but I can do something.

I am sitting with the questions Martin asked us to reflect on towards the end of the retreat — How might your life be more awake? Being engaged socially, what might you be moved to do? How could you engage more creatively with your meditation practice?

Martin has an online training course with this same topic coming out soon. He was filming it in London while he was teaching us. I highly recommend it!