Monday, May 11, 2009

"My stuff, my stuff!"

I've been reflecting about a pair of stories concerning outrageous attachment to stuff. The first story has to do with my own family. I was out with my father for dinner before heading to a baseball game on Friday. He told me he was going out to Pennsylvania to visit my grandmother, and I asked how everyone was. The response was the following: sometime in the past month or so, a few guys visited my grandmother's house, wondering if she was going to use some old scrap metal that was in the back yard. She said no, and allowed them to haul it away. (She's been in an increased reduction of possession mode ever since my grandfather died in February.) Anyway, a few weeks later, my uncle discovered the "stuff" was gone from the pile, and asked my grandmother where it had gone. When she told him, he got angry and started an argument. Aparently, he had placed some old grates in the pile, and was planning on using them to build a grill. Now, these grates had been aquired for nothing, left in the pile for nearly twenty years, but suddenly they were more precious than kindness toward his mother.

I have no desire to single out my uncle's behavior here, although it is petty extreme. I believe most of us have similar warped places in our own lives, where attachment to something is way out of proportion to what that something means, or should mean, in our lives. But hearing how my uncle got so wound up that the issue lingered for over a week - in fact, probably still lingers - made me pause.

The second story comes from Buddhist teacher Sharon Salzberg in the current Buddhadharma magazine. In it, she retells a moment from the recent plane crash into the Hudson River that made Captain C.B. Sully Sullenberger famous. She says "after the plane had landed in the river and everyone had to evacuate immediately, one of the passengers was blocking the aisle, reaching into the overhead bin. She kept saying,'My stuff, my stuff!' She wouldn't leave the plane without her laptop or something."

What is this drive within us that makes us risk our relationships, even our lives, for some object? Is it simply difficult attachment that can be broken with a lot of hard work and patience, or is it something more complicated?

Dogen writes in the Genjokoan "with confused thoughts about body and mind, holding to discrimination of the myriad dharmas, one mistakenly thinks his own mind and nature are permanent."

It strikes me that there's something of this belief in a permanent, fixed self that bleeds out into our understanding of objects and their value. How else could someone choose to privilege a set of crusty, old metal grates over his own mother, or anything in a sinking plane over her own life?

Among the many slogans of former President Bush and his administration was "The Ownership Society." Behind this slogan is the view that the more an individual has control over his or hers' material wealth, the more personal happiness one will feel, and the more societial value one will have. In other words, one's life is measured primarily in terms of ownership of stuff.

I would like to argue that even as President Bush was rejected by three-fourths of the U.S. population at the end of his time in office, this old idea of "the Ownership Society" was still beloved by the vast majority, and continues to be beloved today. We in the U.S. love our stuff, and we love the idea that our stuff will make us happy and fulfilled. Which makes it all the more difficult in this tanking economy to find peace, be peace, in every moment. Or even just some of the moments of every day.

So, what is it that you are attached to? What story drives you to cling, and what are your fears about letting it go?

If we don't examine questions like these in our own lives, over and over, how can we ever speak of such lofty things as a kinder, more enlightened world?


ZenDotStudio said...

interesting post. I'm thinking about your uncle and thought that comes to mind is that often, a problem is not really about what it seems to be, if that makes any sense.

I'm thinking about a reaction of my own that I remember. A friend of my daughter's used to appear at dinner time a lot and I used to feel angry about it. It wasn't about the dinner. When I looked deeper it was a feeling of being "unconsidered" in how the 2 girls behaved. It's a feeling that flashed up instantly and was very strong. My zen teacher used to say when this happens, most likely there are some deep seated "karmic" origins, which are carried over from previous lifetimes to have such strength.

So my guess is that it's not really about the grates that's grating on your uncle. Or maybe he's just a grate guy. Okay I better stop now!

ZenDotStudio said...

okay now for another award Nathan, should you choose to accept the mission. I love your blog and so here are 2 awards, in fact. They are another Honest Scrap Award and a Lemonade Award. You are in my 7 blogs I find brilliant so without further adieu.....