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!

A random act of kindness in Kochi, Kerala

In early January this year, I spent a few days in Fort Kochi, Kerala, India. This is a story about someone who inspired me to ‘A Random Act of Kindness’.

After my morning Yoga, I walked back to my home stay, past some school gates where I saw a woman crying, with a 4-year-old daughter near her. As I looked at her, she averted her gaze and hid her face in her handkerchief. Her eyes looked like she had been crying for over 15-20 minutes and she looked distressed. I follow my instincts as much as I can in moments like these and my instinct was to connect, to offer her some human connection & care - it is what I would have wanted for me in that moment.

I cannot speak Malayalam (the regional language in Kerala where I was) and luckily, she could speak some broken English. She really had no idea whether she could trust me but under the circumstances, we both took a risk. She shared that she had a 2-hour window to complete her daughter’s admission to the school and had to pay annual fees for the year in one go...and she had a few thousand rupees less. They wouldn’t accept a partial instalment and asked her to leave as she got emotional, when she asked for some flexibility; she was holding up the long queue.  She was Muslim, her husband was Hindu – she had no family support. She looked very distraught about the deadline, she had gold earrings in her hand and she never once asked me for any help.

As I suggested I could help, she looked visibly upset and ashamed. She wanted to pay me back and asked for my bank details. She offered me her gold earrings; I could see how genuinely she wanted to do this on her own and how difficult it was for her to negotiate receiving funds from a stranger. Yet, she was caught between a rock and a hard place. I had 400 rupees less than what she needed. I requested some passer-by’s that spoke English but of course, they may have thought I was part of a scam & said no. So, I told her to wait for me, gave her the cash that I had and hailed a rickshaw, went to an ATM and got her the balance within about 10 minutes. She gave me a huge hug and insisted I accompany her to the admissions inside, requesting me not to share with anyone that I provided some cash. I promised I wouldn’t and so together we went in.

I was dressed in yoga tights and a t-shirt…and so, there we were – this odd-looking pair sitting in front of some nuns and school staff paying school fees for the entire year in cash, which was counted 4 times.

After the admission was granted, she breathed a sigh of relief and looked visibly relaxed. During the process of admission, we both shed tears – I was so touched when she shared her story with a staff member that asked (after we paid the fees) and even though it was in Malayalam, I couldn’t understand a word, we both wept. I was moved by her fierce love for her daughter, her pride and dignity in not wanting to accept money from a stranger, her flexibility in doing what was best for her daughter despite the struggle.

As she believed in God, I told her that perhaps it was God that led her to me. And me to her. And to view it as the money flowing to her because she needs it, that this was meant to be. I felt very grateful for the opportunity to give and I wanted her to receive and not feel any sense of obligation to pay me back. She seemed to settle, trusting that with our recent interactions I genuinely didn’t want the money and it was a gift. We exchanged numbers, took a selfie, she asked her daughter to hug me goodbye. Later, she sent me a beautiful text in broken English expressing her gratitude.

I have blurred the picture below but you can see her daughter being measured for a school uniform and a copy of the paid bill. A beautiful morning and one which I will treasure forever.

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Trust, a non-judgemental approach and expertise

I read a great US based study this week that had to do with financial advice and found some bits of it really relevant. "The study cited several attributes that distinguish a remarkable adviser experience from just an acceptable one. “Someone I can fully trust to have my best interests at heart/not just out to sell product” emerged as the leading priority (57%). Other factors included:

  • “Not feeling judged on size of assets/financial decisions” (36%)

  • “Deep expertise across a wide range of financial solutions and strategies” (33%)"

Trust

In my opinion, trust is a process. Trust is earned over time by being reliable, timely in your responses, disciplined, professional and knowing your subject matter thoroughly. Your initial gut response is a good indicator of whether you want to continue your conversations, after meeting with an adviser for the first time. Every time, I have ignored my own intuition in choosing clients to work with, I have made a costly mistake- so it works both ways and as they say, the body never lies.

Not feeling judged

Different advisers do have different minimum asset size thresholds so best to ask this before the meeting, if it is a worry. I enjoy the diversity of working with younger clients who can have a lower asset size, unless they have an inheritance, so I am flexible in this area. Some of my favourite clients also started out with me when they were young and have gone on to be successful so asset size is not a deal breaker, if I really like the client and feel we have a good connection.

It is a fine balance to effectively challenge a client without judgements, review financial priorities at meetings and course correct over time as financial planning is a process. From anecdotal evidence, and conducting several money workshops, I would say it is a huge asset to have someone who offers a relaxed, non-judgemental space for you to talk about your past, present and future financial choices. You might also prefer an adviser who uses anecdotes, stories and light humour rather than technical arguments or factual information which leaves you feeling emotionally disconnected.

Deep expertise

Yes, this one is obvious too. And also, look for expertise in the specific area of financial advice you want - ex. ethical investing or pensions draw down, etc.

Further reading:

7 questions to ask your financial adviser

Discovering Nonviolent Communication helped me be a better Financial Adviser.

The podcast covers how Nonviolent Communication (NVC) has been invaluable to me being of greater contribution to my clients as a financial adviser. A focus on client needs In the podcast, I talk about how I believe it is important to a client (& humans in general) to feel seen, to be heard and hear for the deeper meaning behind words; a focus on the client's problems & potential solutions rather than on the adviser and their life stories.

NVC Consciousness I also talk about how the consciousness of NVC as a tool to aid understanding is more important than a tool to manage or communicate with. NVC supports us to see and be ourselves more authentically and this is invaluable in interacting with clients. Also, the practise and commitment to internalise the principles and commitments of NVC  over the years has led me to to be noticeably more present and be more relaxed physically, which is helpful in client meetings.

Moments of faltering I also talk about a client interaction when I have not been as successful at embodying these skills and lost my balance in a meeting.

Description and link to Podcast In this episode 2plan Wealth Management IFA Cleona Lira sits down with Ian Horne and Ollie Smith to explain how discovering non-violent communication enhanced her relationship with clients. The podcast is available on Itunes under 'Planning People'. Link to the podcast via SoundCloud.

Hope you enjoy listening- there are good sprinklings of humour throughout the podcast.

Women, Financial Power and Barriers to Investing

The good news first. Behavioural finance has found women perform well when they do invest. Research work carried out by Terrance Odean, Professor of Finance at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business shows that women tend to trade less actively than men which incurs lower trading costs; they behave more like ‘buy and hold’ investors sticking to their long term goals. The study stated that ‘virtually all of the gender-based difference in performance can be traced to the fact that men tend to trade more aggressively than women.’ Another earlier study talks about the human quality of overconfidence and notes the gender differences. “ Psychological research has established that men are more prone to overconfidence than women, particularly so in male-dominated realms such as Finance. Rational investors trade only if the expected gains exceed transactions costs. Overconfident investors overestimate the precision of their information and thereby the expected gains of trading.”

So, why are women still lagging behind in investing then?

A recent Fidelity UK based study states ‘the majority of women don’t invest in the stock market’,’ ‘women favour the perceived caution of cash.’ Women face penalties that affect their career progression and earning potential titled in the study as ‘The Motherhood Penalty’, ‘The Childcare Penalty’ and ‘The Good Daughter Penalty’ - namely, opting out of careers to have children, paying for childcare and caring for elderly relatives. The word 'penalties' is cringe worthy to hear as it implies being punished for contributing to caring for life itself. And yet the reality is that our economic system does not recognize women (or men) or for making choices for ‘unpaid’ yet hard work.

A lack of understanding about what investments can offer is also a significant barrier. What was disturbing (although not shocking in my experience as a financial adviser) to read was that more than half of the women invested had no idea where their pension fund was invested and over a third didn’t know how much their pensions were worth.

So, opting out of the workforce for legitimate reasons, then having gaps in earnings and living longer result in a real problem - a pension gap. Women are also short-changed by the gender pay gap which contributes to lower pension and investment contributions. Women have a smaller pension pot size than men at all ages, tend to have more money in cash ISAs and less money in Stocks & Share ISAs overall. This worries me and at the same time, also galvanizes me into wanting to educate more and more women about how we can empower ourselves financially.

One of the actions suggested by the study is to increase pension contributions by 1%. To me, this seems too little. I would suggest really working out for yourself based on when you wish to achieve financial independence and what is sustainable as an annual income for you, what would be most appropriate. Make sure you reassess this regularly, at least once or twice a year. The 4% rule is an easy way to work out what you need for retirement.

Another action I recommend is empowering yourself with financial literacy skills. Read your pension valuation statements, Google any terms you don’t understand, fill your feedly with interesting personal finance reading material, call the pension providers help-desk and ask them to explain or help you with reading material to help you understand what you are reading- be persistent with this. And google Trustnet and the names of the funds you are invested in and train your eyes to visually read the information- information is so easily available and you can train yourself to read this if you are willing to persist through some initial discomfort if you feel incompetent. You could also speak to someone you know who is financially more literate than you and willing to help or mentor you. I encourage you to advocate for your own needs - for financial literacy and healthy financial choices. There are so many resources available, you don’t always need a financial adviser necessarily to understand what you are invested in and what the overall value of your pension pot is. And by the way, even highly intelligent, competent finance professionals that I have worked with as clients tend not to look at their pension statements or necessarily take the time to understand them. So, I really want to reassure you that if you have a clear intention and follow through with an action, you can easily overcome this hurdle.

A study from the other side of the pond titled ‘Women & Financial Wellness: Beyond the Bottom Line’ by Merrill Lynch illustrates the issue of the ‘gender wealth gap’ which is the difference between men’s and women’s accumulated assets.

Some of the actions suggested in this study which I liked are:

Break the taboo around money talk-Have you heard of Conversation Cafes? Nothing stops you from hosting one with about 6-8 people; here are some guidelines to follow to help you get going. Apparently 61% of women would rather talk about death than money. I offer you a gentle challenge to break this social conditioning we have and move towards feeling comfortable and confident speaking about money.

Start early- compounding & longevity can work in your favour. If you spend time out of the workforce, remember to catch up with contributions into your pension once you start working again or brainstorm strategies on how you could take care of your children and also take care of your future self financially.

I hope you will take some action to support women investing more, regardless of your gender. As for me, I intend to host a few Conversation Cafes around the topic of money both online and in London; if you want to support this work and get involved, please drop me a line.

Happy Financial Future and if you want to attend one of my webinars about feeling more confident about investing and retirement planning, sign up to my Newsletter. I intend to follow through on doing more to help educate women (and include men) on investing.