I saw this screencap making the rounds on Twitter:

The post reminds me of a favorite koan. The Buffalo Koan.

Wuzu Fayan said, “It is like a water buffalo (an ox) that passes through a window. Its head, horns, and four legs all pass through. Why can’t the tail pass through?”

From The Gateless Gate

One commentary on the Buffalo Koan, from Sitting with Koans, goes something like this… it is awful difficult to get a buffalo through a window. It is as difficult as practicing non-dualistic thinking. But what about the tail? The buffalo’s tail should fit through just fine, if the rest of its body has already gone through. How can the tail get stuck? One way of thinking about the tail is as representing our natural dualistic way of thinking. It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that non-dualistic, “enlightened” thinking is superior to dualistic thinking. Seeing reality in non-dualistic terms is difficult. It is like squeezing the buffalo through a window. But non-dualistic thinking is not superior to dualistic thinking. Thinking of one way of seeing or being as superior to the other is itself just another form of dualism.

So it is with frugality.

Frugality is a useful way of seeing and being. But frugality is not an end unto itself. Managing money well is a useful skill. It gives you options. But which options should you exercise, and when? A meaningful life lies in answering that question. Sooner or later, all the options we’ve accumulated during our lifetimes expire worthless.

My answer to the Reddit poster is to start living. Funny that something so simple can seem so difficult. You’ve got almost all of the buffalo through the window (a 28-year old with $200,000 has a lot of options). It’s only the tail that’s stuck!

This dilemma is a good example of a psychic prison. We are used to thinking of people becoming slaves to addictions and other compulsions. Frugality can likewise degenerate into addiction. In extremis, frugality is no different from any other compulsion. It’s a fear-based response to scarcity. This degenerate form of frugality creates the illusion of control. It’s pseudo-freedom. Another form of selling your soul.

Frugality is a means, not an end unto itself. The pursuit of freedom can become another kind of prison.