Money, Death and Life on Earth

Agnes Otzelberger
The Good Jungle
Published in
9 min readAug 17, 2022

Part 1

XR’s Red Rebels. Copyright Stefan Mueller, original modified under CC license 4.0 international

Let’s stop making deals for a safe passage:
There isn’t one anyway, and the cost is too high.
We are not children anymore.
The true human adult gives everything for what cannot be lost.
Let’s dance the wild dance of no hope!

Jennifer Welwood, ‘The Dakini Speaks’

The covid pandemic has been one of many ongoing and connected crises that that demonstrate two human responses to crisis. The first is defensive — a fear-fuelled retreat into control, shoring up resources, separateness, some form of shut-down/escapism, rigidity or frantic doing, denial, clinging, aversion. The second is open the crisis becomes an opportunity for creativity, agility, connecting with others and connecting of dots, seeing more clearly, a going-towards. The defensive response, paradoxically, while seemingly being about securing our existence, has the opposite effect of pushing us and other species over the edge of extinction. How, then, amidst all this volatility, insecurity and loss, can we tap into humanity’s true creative power?

I believe that part of the answer lies in our relationship to money and in our bodies. Over the past seven years, I’ve been working with a practice developed by Peter Koenig to transform our relationship to money. It’s called Money Work. It is simple but it reaches deep, impacting the human psyche and nervous system in ways that have given me huge hope for a much needed boost in human capacity to respond to today’s challenges.

In this piece, I’m going to start pulling together some threads that need connecting to explain why and how. Broadly, these threads are to do with culture, money, fear of death and our nervous systems, and in this first piece, I am going to focus on the first three. Further down the road, I will explain what all this has to do with our nervous system and say more about the practice of Money Work. This, and the next part, are also intended for those of you already well versed in Money Work, as I believe death anxiety and neurobiology are fundamental to understanding our practice.

An inadvertent death cult

Remember the story of Icarus who keeps flying higher and higher towards the sun until it melts his wings? He crashes into the sea and dies. In the industrialised West we live by this story, relating to mortality and finitude as the ultimate enemy, and immortality and limitless growth as the ultimate holy grail. The things we do to secure and expand our existence — denying and living beyond our natural limits, shoring up resources, frantically building and expanding, and creating technologies with the power to destroy us — have the opposite effect of pushing not just other species but also ourselves towards or over the edge of extinction. We have unhinged tyrants in control of weaponry that could wipe out the planet multiple times over. We’ve got billionaires building space ships to Mars and working on ways to upload our consciousness into a virtual cloud while our life support system is burning and suffocating in pollution. We’ve been living in a half-dead, soul-sucking way, in an ever more barren world that is extinguishing species and heritage second by second.

According to Charles Eisenstein (2018), a metanarrative of separation (the separate self; identities that separate us from one another; humanity as separate from nature) dominates industrialised culture and is at the root of many of the life-destroying dynamics we are finding ourselves in.

From an archetypal point of view, humanity could be seen as being in a collective state of adolescence (Eisenstein 2020): emerging from our infant-like union with the universe, we discovered our separate self and spent the next few thousand years increasingly focused on ego, individuality and identity. With that separation comes a keen awareness of finitude and mortality. In industrialised culture, this awareness is repressed, a terror banned from consciousness as much as possible. In Wilber’s terms (1996) we’ve been in a ‘typhonic’ state of consciousness — halfway between animal and the divine — divinely aware of our existence but mortal in our animal bodies and therefore terrified; driven by our egoic desire to perpetuate existence.

Joe Loizzo (2018) gives a synopsis of how Western culture, economy and our basic view of humanity have been defined by evolutionary Darwinism. We are culturally narcissistic and obsessed with ourselves, and this is at the root of much of our suffering and that of the planet more widely. It drives crisis response A — the defensive one. According to Buddhist psychology, suffering emerges from a misguided drive to self-reify, which literally means to make ourselves a thing. And at the deepest root of this obsession with ourselves is our ‘arch-anxiety’ (Médard-Boss cited in Wilber 1996): our fear of death, whose shadow turns our culture into an inadvertent death cult.

Money as a substitute for immortality

‘Money as we know it today is intimately tied to our identity as discrete and separate selves’ (Eisenstein 2011). Therefore, it is also intimately tied to our fear of ceasing to exist.

In their drive for self-perpetuation, the separate individual will create or latch on to a host of external or objective wants, desires, properties and possessions … all of which he tends to imbue with either infinite worth or infinite desirability. But since it is precisely infinity that men and women truly want, all of these external, objective and finite objects are, again, merely substitute gratifications. They are substitute objects, just as the separate self is a substitute subject. (Wilber 1996, 18)

Our relationships to and interactions with money, a lot of the time, are an expression of this meta-narrative of the separate self, and of the deep-seated death terror the separate self cannot escape. As a result, in our culture, money is put in service of our adolescent striving for limitless growth and infinite existence and, thus, ‘utterly fails to connect gifts and needs’ on the planet (Eisenstein 2011). Culture itself, according to Wilber (1996, 18), is ‘the world of objective substitute gratifications’ — money being a key one of them — which serve

the same two closely interrelated functions as the inward substitute subject: namely, [it] provides a source and promise and flow of Eros (life, power, stability, pleasure, mana) and avoids or resists or defends against Thanatos (death, diminution, taboo).

As Peter Koenig (2003) discovered on his inquiry into the nature of our complicated relationships with money, the entanglement between money and our sense of who we are (and are not) can also be explained through the Jungian lens of shadow and projection. If we recognise that money is not so much a force of nature as a ‘total fabrication of our genius’ (Twist 2003, 8) — our human storytelling superpower –, empty of any inherent quality, then it presents the ideal screen on which to project unconscious, disowned and unclaimed parts of ourselves comprising all of the above aspects of Eros and Thanatos. Much like an authority figure, money is at the receiving end of all kinds of projections, including of the power to secure our existence, bring us alive, or destroy and annihilate us, and anything between. By projecting the source, promise and flow of life, stability and pleasure, as well as the power to take it all away from us, on to money, we split them off from our own selves. And by making money one of our greatest taboos, all this gets buried many kilometres beneath conscious awareness. James Hillman (1994 [1990], 174) writes: ‘money is like the id itself, the primordially repressed, the collective unconscious appearing in specific denominations’. Money Work emerged as a practice to mine for and reclaim, from these depths, what has been split off from our selves.

Eisenstein (2018) points to the meta-myth of inter-being as a way of bringing humanity into balance with itself and Earth not as a separate entity but an organism we are part of. Alternative cultural meta-narratives and insights from social science and increasingly also neuroscience challenge evolutionary Darwinism, demonstrating that we are at least as wired for connection and collaboration as we are for separateness (Ricard 2017, Loizzo 2018). But ‘until the separate self discovers its ultimate Wholeness, the foggy atmosphere of death remains its constant consort.’ (Wilber 1996, 18)

Reclaiming death so we can live

Discovering our ultimate wholeness is about the revolutionary act of un-earthing the parts that have been relegated to our shadow, individually and collectively, including the parts of us we fear the most, including our mortality and fundamental insecurity. We need death so we can live. We need to be in our mortality so we can be in our vitality. Without annihilation, there is no existence. Or to paraphrase Carolyn Elliot’s ‘Existential Kink’ (2020), we can only live the life we want by getting off on the death we are all going to die. It is through reclaiming Thanatos that we will reclaim Eros.

If money in and of itself is empty, then rather than being an expression of the story of separateness, it can be made a vehicle for the story of inter-being, driving crisis response B — the open, creative one. Our substitutions and projections can be made conscious and transformed, rather than being an expression of our unconscious, deepest fear. And so our relationship to and interactions with money, with each other and the world can become an expression of life- (and death-) affirming Love. This is what Money Work does.

Why and how this has such a transformative impact on our crisis response, from survival to creativity, will follow in Part 2. This first part has been an attempt at pulling together pieces on our cultural meta-narratives, money, depth psychology and eco-psychology as a conceptual starting point for explaining more about Money Work and how I believe this relates to our neurobiology and survival drive.

Money Work isn’t about taking off into lofty spiritual heights, and striving to detach ourselves, god-like, from our mortal flesh. That is how we are destroying the planet. It is about returning ourselves to the mud and the grit of the Earth, to the balancing, composting cycle of growth and decay, the ruthless, loving arms of Kali, goddess of death and motherly love.

As the separate self rediscovers its wholeness, it can emerge from the life-destroying and soul-sucking shackles of the story we keep telling ourselves is the reason we cannot stop poisoning the planet, give up oil & gas, feed 690 million starving people or stop working ourselves into the ground.

We can stop living the half-lives we live and reclaim our lives, in beauty and vitality.

And then, of course, we will die.


Money Work is happening around the world, in 1:1 and group settings, in open workshops and team retreats. It is moving, energising and fun! If you are curious, get in touch.

My next workshop on money is happening on 21 October, 2022, at the Royal Society of Arts, London WC2N 6EZ. Join Cleona Lira, Tash Stallard and me for a rich, playful and deep exploration of your relationship to money. Info and sign-up here.


With thanks to Peter Koenig, Tom Nixon, Tash Stallard, Guy Schmidt, Anne Rasimus and Fanny Norlin for various ways of contributing to this piece.



Charles Eisenstein, 2020, The Coronation. Accessed 2021–11–23 at

Charles Eisenstein, 2018, Climate — A New Story. Berkeley, California: North Atlantic Books.

Charles Eisenstein, 2011, Sacred Economics — Money, gift and society in the age of transition. Berkeley, California: North Atlantic Books.

Carolyn Elliott, 2020, Existential Kink. Unmask your shadow and embrace your power. Weiser Books.

James Hillman, 1994 [1990], A Blue Fire. The Essential James Hillman. London: Routledge.

Peter Koenig, 2003, Thirty Lies About Money. Liberate your life, liberate your money. Lincoln, NE: iUniverse.

Joseph Loizzo, 2018, Contemplative Psychotherapy. The Art and science of sustainable happiness. In: Joseph Loizzo, Miles Neale and Emily Wolf (eds.), 2018, Advances in Contemplative Psychotherapy. Accelerating Healing and Transformation. Oxon and New York: Routledge, 1–14.

Lynne Twist, 2003, The Soul of Money. Transforming your relationship with money and life. New York, New York: W.W. Norton.

Matthieu Ricard, 2017, Altruism. The power of compassion to change yourself and the world. London: Atlantic Books.

Ken Wilber, 1996, Up from Eden. A Transpersonal View of Human Evolution. Wheaton: The Theosophical Publishing House.