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Financial Independence / Retire Early (FIRE) is a cherished goal among the readers of this blog and many others. Even those who have achieved FIRE want to be sure they are on the right track, and follow websites like these to be sure they remain comfortably FIRE’d.
On the other hand, a dictionary defines a Mystic as:
a person who claims to attain, or believes in the possibility of attaining, insight into mysteries transcending ordinary human knowledge, as by direct communication with the divine or immediate intuition in a state of spiritual ecstasy.
A mystic is focused on personal transformation and spiritual growth, and is not necessarily outwardly religious. Anybody can become a mystic provided they have the yearning to go beyond the constraints of the material world. Mystics are often far from any organized religion and shun external validations of their pursuit. It is important for me to say this, which will become more apparent in the context of this article.
FIRE and Mystic. Can there be any two subjects more far apart? Are you wondering where is Roman going with this nonsense?
Bear with me. It will make sense.
During my recent travel up to the mountainous state of Uttarakhand (near The Himalayas), I stopped by for a break on the serene banks of the River Ganga near Rishikesh. I have written about this river and the town Rishikesh (where both The Beatles and Steve Jobs tried to find Nirvana in the 1960’s and 1970’s).
What’s special about this visit was that a simple vacation trek turned into something far deeper than I imagined.
On an especially quiet segment of the mountainous road with the pristine river flowing nearby, I noticed a compact car parked on the unpaved overlook zone, but there wasn’t a soul in sight. I asked my cab driver to stop next to the parked car. I got out of the car to take in the view.
The mountains stood majestically in the background, with their breath-taking presence both timely and timeless. The storied river flowed rapidly on its way down the path laid by the mountains. The river’s emerald hue punctuated by eddies and waves off impeding bed rocks generated a constant thrumming sound, reminding you of its perennial presence.
I walked down slowly on the rocky slope towards the river bank to feel and taste the cool, fresh waters fed by The Himalayas. There, I noticed a man who appeared to be in his late 40’s or early 50’s – clean, manicured and in simple cotton attire – sitting in the lotus pose meditating atop a jutting rock face. I sat at a stone’s throw away from him, wondering how peaceful it is to meditate here. Within minutes, he got up, smiled and walked over to me. He sat next to me, and asked in a neutral but globally refined accent “Hi. First time here?”
I said, “No, I’ve been to these parts before but not to this beautiful spot”. I asked him whether it was his car up there and what he does. He nodded and said “I consider myself a mystic – a perennial seeker of the truth about life beyond what manifests in the material world”. His accent was close to American, with a tinge of Mid-Atlantic pronunciation but it was not so clear to tie him to any particular region.
He asked me about my work, and I said that apart from my corporate role, I am also a personal finance blogger – feeling almost shy about bringing the word ‘finance’ with a mystic. What came next surprised the heck out of me.
“So, do you blog about FIRE – financial independence and early retirement?” he asked. My jaw dropped to touch the rocks below. Not exactly what I expected from a soft-spoken mystic in these idyllic surroundings!
I’ve captured the conversation that followed below.
Roman: I am shocked you know even the FIRE acronym!
Mystic: Why, just because I live and mediate here, I am supposed to be a monk? I browse the Internet and read about many topics whenever I am not volunteering or pursuing my quest. Besides, I’ve heard some monks have a Ferrari [he chuckled, referring to a popular self-help book].
Roman (laughing): So, you straddle both worlds – material and spiritual?
Mystic: I have to. I commune with fellow seekers at an Ashram in Rishikesh, but I cover all my own expenses. I am financially independent.
Roman: Fascinating. Tell me about how you got here?
Mystic: There I was, after an MBA, working as a nameless manager in a faceless corporation in the American heartland. They paid me well, but the price I paid was dealing with management bullshit. After 15 years of that, I got tired and wanted to spend the rest of my life discovering my inner spirituality. I guess I always had that urge but didn’t want to abandon the material world too soon, only to become a burden on the spiritual establishments of the world. I’ve been here for 5 years.
Roman: An MBA and a mystic! What about your living costs?
Mystic: I simply have my dividends and interest get transferred automatically from my brokerage into my checking account. I have no other income source. With a Visa ATM card, I withdraw whatever I need, whenever I need from any ATM here. I also have a credit card from the same bank so I use both – you’d be surprised how many merchants accept credit cards in Rishikesh!
Roman: Cool. If you don’t mind me asking, how much do you have and what do you spend here?
Mystic: Oh, I haven’t checked my brokerage account in a long time as the money keeps flowing in periodically into my checking account. Over the whole of last year, there was nearly $34,000 in dividends and interest deposited into my checking account. I spent about $25,000 – and that’s for luxurious living in Rishikesh! I live in a fully serviced apartment and also travel at least a month in a year. I gave away the rest to support the Ashram’s kitchen for free food and for other charitable causes in India.
I was awestruck by his honesty in sharing these details about his life while having a peaceful expression on his face that radiated a mental calmness, which I rarely found in the corporate world. I was also impressed by his 25+% passive income contribution to charity!
At this point, I asked him if we could continue the conversation over lunch. He readily agreed and led me to a small vegan café where he said the food will satisfy my palate. Over a simple but flavorful lunch, I learned more nuggets of wisdom from this financially independent Mystic.
Mystic: You have a good aura about you. So, I feel comfortable sharing personal things with you. Since you asked, I will tell you what my portfolio looks like. Good thing I keep my iPad handy and this place has Wi-Fi.
He then takes out his iPad to login to his brokerage account.
Roman: Thank you, you are kind. I am now wondering if I am speaking with a mystic to learn deep insights about life or about FIRE!
Mystic: Ha! I like your sense of humor. Remember I said, I don’t want to be a burden on anybody. Just because some Ashram is ready to host me and care for me doesn’t mean I should agree. I carry my own weight in this world.
Roman: So, you are a FIRE’d mystic!
Mystic: You can say that.
Roman: I see you have a car. Isn’t that against minimalism that mystics follow?
Mystic: Just because I have chosen this life doesn’t mean I should live by somebody’s standards on minimalism. I have the car because it’s easy to get around with it, and it has AC to handle the hot summers here! I believe in ‘trial by fire’ for spiritual growth, but not where it doesn’t matter.
Roman: Fair point.
Mystic (looking up from the iPad): Boy, they have changed the website since I last checked. I am surprised that my portfolio is at $1.1 million – don’t recall seeing a number this high ever.
Roman: Wow, but it makes sense. You have a healthy income yield of 3.1% to generate those $34K dividends last year. How did you get started on your FIRE journey?
Mystic: Oh, just casual reading during my work days. I remember reading some books on personal finance, don’t remember the names now. Any spiritual pursuit should start with freedom from the material world. That freedom, ironically, depends on money, for which the material world serves the purpose.
Roman: Makes sense. Can I ask what portfolio allocation do you have?
Mystic: I started with 60% of an equity income fund and 40% short-term bond if I remember correctly. I had $750K when I left my past life to start my new life here.
Roman: Ever re-balanced?
Mystic: Maybe 3 or 4 years ago, don’t remember.
Roman: Not that it matters for you, but your portfolio would have gone to 75% stock, 25% bond now because equity markets have been on a tear the last 3 years.
Mystic [disinterestedly]: Ok. So, what should I do?
Roman: Nothing really, if you ask me. You are withdrawing only the dividends generated, and that too, with a large allocation for charities. With your kind of withdrawal rate, my analysis has shown your portfolio will last forever!
Mystic: Forever?! In a world where nothing is forever, it sounds funny to hear that.
Roman: I see your point but your portfolio will long outlive you. That I am very sure of. Ever thought about what will happen to your 7-figure portfolio after you attain Nirvana?
Mystic: Nirvana? That sense of humor again!…..[clears his throat] I have a plan for that.
Mystic: I am, of course, single but my brother has a young child with special needs. My brother worries about what will happen to his son after he passes away. I told him I will put enough funds in a trust and have the interest take care of his son at a special care home. A large part of my portfolio will go for that, and the rest will go to the Ashram here that has given me freedom to pursue my spiritual interests and taught me valuable insights about true and lasting happiness in life.
Roman: Sir, I am honored to have met you. A financially independent mystic with an estate plan! Would you mind if I shared this exchange in my blog?
Mystic: Sure, as long as you don’t include my name or picture. I don’t want people to know.
[I stopped myself from saying “A financially-independent mystic who understands stealth wealth!”]
Roman: Sure. I promise.
Mystic: Be happy, and continue to walk on the right path. May God bless you.
With that, one of the most amazing conversations I’ve ever had in my life ended. In many ways, this opened up my vision of what FIRE means to each person and to what extent even people who shun materialism can benefit from being financially independent. I learned from that Mystic that there is no contradiction in a spiritually-inclined pursuit supported by financially-independent resources. In fact, that might be the best way to do it!
Wherever life takes you, travel safely, my 10! Friends.
Raman Venkatesh is the founder of Ten Factorial Rocks. Raman is a ‘Gen X’ corporate executive in his mid 40’s. In addition to having a Ph.D. in engineering, he has worked in almost all continents of the world. Ten Factorial Rocks (TFR) was created to chronicle his journey towards retirement while sharing his views on the absurdities and pitfalls along the way. The name was taken from the mathematical function 10! (ten factorial) which is equal to 10 x 9 x 8 x 7 x 6 x 5 x 4 x 3 x 2 x 1 = 3,628,800.