When thinking of wealth, most of us imagine having or making a certain amount of money. According to Lynne Twist, how much money you have or make is hardly a determining factor in your experience of true wealth. Perhaps you remember Lynne Twist as the author of The Soul of Money (see review in March/April, 2005), a book about understanding and healing our relationship with money. In 2003 Lynne founded the Soul of Money Institute, a center for exploring and sharing knowledge, wisdom and best practices that enable people to relate to money and our money culture with greater freedom, power and effectiveness. Lynne Twist was director of global funding for The Hunger Project—an organization for ending chronic world hunger—from its inception in 1977 until the year 2000. As a global activist, she raised over $150 million in individual contributions to charitable causes. She loves what she calls “the sacred work of fundraising,” because she delights in helping people put their money where their heart is and use money as an expression of their deepest values.

A lot of our readers do what they do because they want to build financial freedom. What is financial freedom?

It is different for every single person. You can’t necessarily come up with a formula for it. Financial freedom is an experience and not necessarily a set of circumstances. Some people have financial freedom with very modest resources and others need enormous resources. But the experience is available always, no matter what the financial circumstances are.

In many ways, financial freedom—some aspects of it, certainly—involves money and financial security as we know it. It’s healthy and intelligent to build your financial resources so that you have a foundation of financial responsibility and sufficiency that feels good to you.

But when you think about the origin of the word “wealth,” it actually comes from “well-being.” When people are truly in that space of freedom, whether it’s financial freedom or any other kind of freedom, they’re in touch with the infinite well of being that’s at the heart of life and at the heart of all relationships.

Achuar man named Irrea with Lynne in the Ecuadorian Amazon.

Lynne with Ethiopian village women; they were building a tea house to support themselves as widows.

Lynne and Mother Teresa at one of her orphanages for baby girls in Delhi.

Lynne with Arn Shorn Pond, a Cambodian refuge and leader of children.

Through your career and through your journey, you have had the opportunity to work with some of the richest as well as the poorest people on the planet. What has it taught you about wealth?

I’ve worked with people who are resource poor, at the very bottom of the economic spectrum, such as the women in Ethiopia or Sudan or Ghana who are trying to make a meal out of nothing for six, seven, eight children and whose husbands have gone off to fight a war or abandoned the family.

Most of us would call them “poor,” based on their circumstances of abject poverty. But as I worked with them in service of The Hunger Project—the organization I worked with for more than twenty years—I began to see that the label “poor” wasn’t accurate. To collapse their financial circumstances with who they are is to diminish them by not recognizing that these are whole and complete people living in the ebb and flow of sometimes crushing poverty.

When I let go of labeling them as “poor,” I started to find enormous riches in who they were—riches in character, incredible courage, resilience and determination. And tremendous joy and happiness.

For people who aren’t confused by money or material possessions, this happiness is available in the well-being of their relationships, their love of family, the celebration of life itself.

Since I was responsible for The Hunger Project’s global fund-raising, I also ended up working with many people I used to call “rich.” I no longer use that term, either. Labeling people rich—which is a label we all more or less wish we had—also means collapsing people’s financial circumstances with who they are and failing to recognize that these are whole and complete people living in the ebb and flow of sometimes crushing dehumanization.

Having way, way, way more resources than you need may seem glamorous and desirable. But living in excess wealth can bring isolation, especially if your lifestyle doesn’t include in any kind of giving or philanthropy. When people have the resources to separate themselves from society—flying in private planes, moving about in limousines with darkened windows, living behind high fences or in gated communities—isolation and loneliness can become a big problem. In some of our wealthiest and most abundant families, there are tremendous abandonment issues, addiction issues, abuse issues.

What became very clear to me in my work is that money, even in large quantities, does not at all guarantee the experience of joy or happiness. That’s just not the source of what we are looking for.

Where does our confusion around money come from?

For most people, even the very wealthy, money is a troubled area, fraught with worry and suffering. We can’t sleep over a deal that didn’t go through. We are frantic about the stock market. We’re obsessed with money, we’re frightened about money, we feel shameful about money. While we experience the pain very privately, as if it’s all about something we should or shouldn’t have done or something we did and aren’t proud of, our fears and suffering around money are actually cultural.

We live in a culture that’s totally confused about money, a culture that’s lost its soul in relationship to money. First of all, we’ve forgotten that we actually created money. It’s not part of the natural world. We invented it about 4,500 years ago in order to facilitate the sharing of goods and resources. Its original purpose was to make life easier for everybody so that we could share more equitably.

If you were the pig farmer and I was the cobbler, I would fix your children’s shoes and you would give me a pig. But if you didn’t need your shoes fixed, then I’d have to go fix the corn farmer’s shoes, because I’d know you needed corn, and then he’d give me corn and I’d give you corn and you’d give me a pig. It just was too complicated, so we invented money to simplify these relationships, to make things flow more easily.

That was a long, long time ago, and since then, money’s lost that purpose. Banking and interest have gotten involved, and we’re now in a system where money, rather than being used to make life easier for everyone and share goods more equitably, has divided us. It has us dominating and exploiting each other.

And in that way money’s off its original purpose.

That’s right. Secondly, we forget that we give money its value. It doesn’t have any value except the value we assign to it. And unfortunately, we have assigned it more value than human life. None of us admits that we think money’s more important than our relationship with our parents or our sisters and brothers or our spouse. However, we will not speak to a parent or a sister or an ex-husband for years over a money issue—sometimes for the rest of our lives.

Everybody knows someone who has cut off a relationship over a money issue, which clearly shows that money is more important than that relationship. Maybe we’ve even done it ourselves. We do very strange things in the name of money; we kill each other in the name of money. We’ll cut down a whole rainforest for money or pollute a river for money, which says that to us, money’s more important than the air we breathe, the water we drink and the rest of the natural world that sustains us.

We live in a society that encourages behaviors around money that are inconsistent with our humanity. The confusion and the suffering around money come from some of these behaviors and a society that has lost its way in its relationship with money. Of course, the biggest lie we tell about money is the myth of scarcity, which I go into quite in detail in my book.

Many of our readers are fans of The Secret and the whole movement around abundance thinking. What’s your take on that?

I have great respect for abundance and for the work that’s been done to create The Secret. I know—as you do, because I see you have interviewed them all—the presenters who are in it, and I admire their work. I would say The Secret contains a wonderful teaching in a culture that doesn’t understand what’s called the Law of Attraction, or, as Gandhi said, “You have to be the change you wish to see.” In that way, it makes a great contribution.

I would go a little farther. In order to have that message not be misleading, it’s important to recognize the lie of scarcity that rules our consumer society. That lie sends people thousands of messages a day, telling them they’re not enough, they don’t have enough, there isn’t enough to go around, and more is always better.

Our society confuses people and makes us think that the only answer is to get more than you need, excess, tremendous accumulation. I don’t subscribe to the idea of “abundance” in that sense, because it comes from a place of fear of scarcity. I do think that abundance and bounty are part of the universal beauty of life. However, I think that true abundance or true wealth is available only through the exquisite distinction of enough. Accumulation makes sense only against a background of scarcity.

Wanting way more than you need is often driven by the fear that you won’t have enough.

That’s right. The alternative is to dwell in what I call “the house of sufficiency” or “the house of enough,” which is recognizing that your needs are met by the universe over and over again. In many ways, this is what The Secret does teach, but sometimes it’s misunderstood.

We may not always get what we want in life, but we get what we need. Every moment, we are provided with lessons, with teachings that are exactly what we need to continue to evolve and be more and more deeply who we are. When we fully pay attention to that, something shifts in our experience. In the nourishment of that attention and intention, the value of what we have expands. I call it the principle of sufficiency.

If you let go of trying to get more of what you really don’t need (which is what most of us are doing), it frees up oceans of energy to make a difference with what you have. And the beauty of this is, when you make a difference with what you have, it expands. Another way of saying this is, what you appreciate, appreciates. In my experience, the pathway to true fulfillment and wholeness is through the doorway of enough, recognizing and being grateful for the enormous gift of life, for the teachings you receive (even through some of the tragedies that have happened), even for the loss of this or the loss of that.

The route to true prosperity is to live in appreciation of what is already there, what has already been given. And through that appreciation, life starts to expand or overflow into a kind of happiness or fulfillment that I would call abundance or true wealth.

True abundance is found in sufficiency and sharing the overflow.

Right. I don’t discredit abundance, I think abundance is absolutely fabulous and bounty is really who we are. It’s when abundance is driven from the mindset of scarcity that it becomes excess and it becomes harmful. It’s what goes into our landfills, it’s the clutter in our closet and it’s buying tons of stuff we don’t need. It’s destroying and consuming our own environment with this sort of greed-driven pursuit of more, more, more.

That is not true abundance. That’s excess and vapid accumulation. It’s important to make that distinction for people so they can choose to dwell in sufficiency, which is where true prosperity, true fulfillment and an authentic relationship with life occurs, including deep appreciation and gratefulness. It’s that great fullness of life that turns us into philanthropists, into people who serve and share and give. Then everyone benefits from our bounty, rather than we hording it.

Sufficiency or enough is the exquisite experience of being present to all that life has to offer, the beauty of life meeting you every moment with exactly what you need. It is an experience of absolute presence. It’s not really an amount of anything. It’s not halfway between more than you need and less than you need. It’s a state of being we all have access to when we’re fully present.

We are surrounded by this myth of scarcity and consumption and we’re discovering the falsehood of that. Yet all our systems and culture are based on this model. What can we do to transform this belief?

First of all, we can acknowledge the extent to which we’ve bought in—both literally and emotionally—to the advertising messages that say you’re not tall enough, you’re not young enough, you’re not beautiful enough, you’re not anything enough. There probably isn’t a woman who reads your magazine who doesn’t want to be a little bit thinner or a little bit bustier or a little bit more something.

We also receive constant messages telling us we’re not enough until we acquire something. In the meantime, we live in a society that has the largest deficit in the history of the world—the United States. There’s no precedent for the U.S. deficit. States are in debt, schools are in debt, cities are in debt. We live in a deficit culture, and you could say it’s an accurate reflection of a culture that values outer riches and sort of eclipses the value of inner riches.

We can recognize that we live in a culture that promotes scarcity, that promotes more is better, yet even while this is the cultural mythology we’re swimming in, it isn’t who we are. Instead we can begin to distinguish sufficiency and enough as the reality of life. I call this the radical, surprising truth of life. Not only is there enough to go around, but when we collaborate, when we work together, that’s where ultimate bounty and prosperity live.

If we truly believed this, how would we go about our day differently?

When you wake up in the morning, for example, most people think right away, “I didn’t get enough sleep.” And then they go right into their day with, I don’t have enough time, I don’t have enough this, I don’t have enough that, all the way until they go to sleep at night. And the last thought most of us have is, “I didn’t get enough done.”

You can begin to transform that. You can, when you go to sleep at night, no matter what time it is, commit to waking up knowing that sleep is sweet and whatever amount of sleep you get, you’re going to wake up rested and fulfilled. And when you wake up, make a choice—today I’m going to appreciate something, for example, clean water, or your pet, or your computer. This is a practice I’ve used, and it has really made a difference for me, as it has for many other people. You can wake up tomorrow morning and think, “What am I going to appreciate today? What shall I focus my gratefulness on today?”

Here’s another simple practice: when you go to sleep at night, instead of ticking through a list of what you didn’t do, review all that you accomplished, before your head hits the pillow. All the people you touched, all the things got done. Review the beauty, the gifts, the generosity, the contribution to you of this day.

Out of the hundreds of little things you could do, this next one is more related to money. I often think of this timeless quote from Aristotle. He said, “I love going to the marketplace and seeing everything I don’t need.” I say this to myself whenever I walk through a mall or down a street with beautiful stores. Isn’t it wonderful to see and realize all the things I don’t need?

What does money look like from this vantage point of “enough”?

Money is like water: it flows through every single life. It is a creation that we’re all responsible for. The money’s not really ours, even if we have piles of it. It flows in and it flows out. It belongs to all of us, or it belongs to none of us; we’re really trustees of it for the moment.

If we see it that way, as being like water, we’ll allow it to flow in ways that will nourish, make things grow, make people prosper. If we hoard it or hold onto it, just like water it becomes stagnant or toxic. Money needs to be flowing. We need to not hold onto it with such grip. The posture of the hand when it’s receiving is an open hand. The posture of giving is also an open hand. It’s the same posture. When the hand stays open, it both gives and receives and money flows.

Money is simply a carrier and it carries whatever we are willing to send into the world. If we use it with soul (which is why I call my book The Soul of Money), if we give money some soul and we engage our souls with our money, we can trust and know we’re going to be richer for that. Richer in true wealth; richer in well-being.

And it so happens that it also does come back to you in a way that you are financially rewarded for your generosity. I strongly believe in the flow of the universe, the Tao. You can’t give money away to get it back, that’s inauthentic. But if you’re being authentic with it, it truly will nourish the world and come back and nourish you, too.