Thursday, May 24, 2012

What is truly necessary for living a liberated life?

“We should not have anything that is not necessary.” San Francisco Zen Center founder Suzuki Roshi.

This morning, I stumbled upon this quote in a fellow Buddhist blogger's post. It got me thinking about stuff. Literally the things we claim ownership over. What fills our houses and apartments. And what often gets in the way of our liberation work.

I was a collector when I was younger. It was a family thing really. We had a lot of antique stuff, which bred other sorts of collections as well. Clothing in closets. Things to play with and forget about. A need for numerous boxes.

At some point or another, I had collections of the following items: political buttons, buttons for a local festival called the St. Paul Winter Carnival, rocks, bottle caps, old bottles, musical albums (particularly ska and indie rock), every book I could find by Herman Hesse, Janette Winterson, Robert Bly, Carson McCullers, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Joseph Campbell, Thomas Merton, C.G. Jung, and several others. Buddhist books. Newspaper clippings of sporting events. Sports memorabilia. A board of pinned butterflies and months. Bookmarks.

And that's only the things I can remember as I write this.

I have said to people many times that I'm kind of a minimalist. Which is definitely true these days, but actually wasn't true even six or seven years ago. Living without a lot of things around, as well as the compulsion to gather many more specific things, is something that developed gradually and I can't help but think as a result of all the years of Zen practice and study.

Somewhere along the line, collecting and hording started to drop off. The "need" to have every book or CD by so and so just didn't matter anymore. The idea that my free time should be structured in part around heading to some store to purchase some object ceased to call me. Which when I think about it, is a pretty major change.

I have written a lot about the sickness of consumerism, how it defines and limits our lives in so many ways. But until I saw that quote this morning, I hadn't really reflected on how far I have come myself.

Less than five years ago, a long term relationship I was in ended. And when I think about the time I spent with my ex-girlfriend, no small part of it seemed to be built around going to bookstores and CD shops looking for something or another. We also did a lot of hiking, traveling, and event going, but there was a default around shopping that is so very clear to me now. That relationship is just one example of many I could write about.

Humans are good at justifying wanting more and claiming it as "need." Our mainstream economy is built around making profit through those falsified needs.

When was the last time you asked yourself what is truly necessary for living a liberated life? Maybe it's a regular practice, and maybe you have never asked that question at all.

What have you collected over the years? Did it bring you joy in the past? Does it now? How much time and energy do you use to maintain said collections?

*In the photo, I'm hauling weeds to the compost pile. What "weeds" could you let go of today?


Algernon said...

One way in which parenthood changed my life is that I no longer have time for listening to music (except sometimes in the car while driving to Las Cruces), and very little time for reading. I don't really need my collection of music (on CD) and books close at hand anymore.

Getting rid of the books is hard because I grew up surrounded and their presence brings comfort -- an association I've blogged about in the past. I hang out in libraries and book stores for the same reason.

Amusingly, my father is a notorious collector of things: tens of thousands of books, thousands of vinyl records, and thousands of DVDs. Our last name, of course, contains the word AMASS. No kidding.

tinythinker said...

Great question. I think a little of what some people might consider clutter or knick-knacks, or things like jewelry, can be a healthy means of self-expression.

But beyond consumerism there is also the tendency to collect things because of sentimentality or because you think some things might be useful again someday, especially that which is expensive or difficult to acquire.

And then there is just the mindlessness of shoving things in drawers.

Unknown said...

books expand the mind and should never be surrendered!!! having said that when I am poor I sell them all to second hand shops and buy bread instead. Also I tend to give them away when they seem needed. But books, books, books... are windows to new thoughts and visions. I couldnt do without them!

tinythinker said...

Off topic I know, but this is another reason why e-books should be MUCH cheaper than print books--they have no resale value!

Birgit said...

I saw your post by chance. Perfect timing as I returned from 7 months in Asia, aware of the hold my possessions have on me. I woke up this morning beginning to gather items I can let go of. SO far it is just one arm full of clothes, but I really think it is a lot more than that. If I didn't need it in the past 7 months then maybe I won't 'need' most of it ever. An armful of clothes and 3 books, so far.. still working on letting go of much more.

Thanks for your post, I found it at perfect time.

Nathan said...

I still have too many books. I have weeded through them and sold off many over the years. But I totally agree that it's hard to let go of a lot of them.

That whole thing about saving stuff that "might be useful later" reminds me of my grandmother. When we helped her move out of her house and into a much smaller condo, we found, amongst other things, a closet full of bags. Bags of used gift wrap and bows. Every year at X-mas, she went around and saved all that stuff. And then went out and bought new wrapping and bows all the same.

Often, it seems like the idea of saving for later is more important than actually using the things later.

Anonymous said...


Unknown said...

Less is definitely more, especially in consumerist societies.

But when it comes to cultural materials -- books, texts, music, etc. - -I have to wonder, especially when it comes to people who, unlike me, procreate. Isn't there a strong argument to be made for passing down political and social values to one's offspring?

Of course this can, and should, be done through actions -- becoming active and being involved. etc. But I know if I had children, I would surely take pride in passing down my very rare copy of the correspondence between Marx and Engels on the subject of the American Civil War -- among many, many others.

Nathan said...

"Isn't there a strong argument to be made for passing down political and social values to one's offspring?"

There is. I don't think people should get rid of everything, and I'd definitely defend keeping some books around. I have plenty of books around my apartment.

But when the books, or any material items, become a burden that sucks up too much time and energy to take care of, then it's time to ask the question again and act.

Cindy La Ferle said...

Excellent, thoughtful post. As a mixed-media artist, it's part of my work to collect bits and pieces of everything for collage and assemblages. I kid myself into thinking I am "recycling" old junk, but it still bothers me that my studio is chock-full of "stuff." I have closets full of clothes, too, which supply my work as a background extra in films ... Yet even though I can justify having all this stuff, I still feel burdened and wish I could unload it.