It might seem strange for an Environmental Warrior – who is always going on about reducing consumption and our impact on the Earth – to be writing a post on how important it is to value our personal belongings. Although I don’t believe it’s necessary for us to own ‘nothing’, I do believe we need to own much less than we do, and to not attach ourselves to objects or possessions in a way that makes us feel incomplete if those things are removed from our lives. Our belongings are physical representations and manifestations of our deepest selves – our souls made visible.
In Buddhist philosophy, non-attachment means being free of the desire and craving for things outside of ourselves that we believe give our lives value and meaning. But if we see everything around us as ‘one’, there is no reason to feel we are separate from anything, and therefore no reason to feel attachment to anything. If we see ourselves as existing inside a barrier of skin that physically separates us from the rest of the world, everything outside that physical ‘barrier’ becomes ‘the other’. We then grasp for things outside of ourselves in order to feel safe, happy and valued.
I prefer the term ‘belongings’ instead of ‘possessions’ because ‘belongings’ sounds like we have a more intimate relationship with what we allow into our personal space, rather than objects and things we amass for the sake of it, or because we think it makes us look good to others. Our belongings are extensions of ourselves manifested in the physical world, tangible expressions of our heart and soul, our joys and inspirations made visible. When we value our belongings, we value ourselves. I’ve always believed how we take care of our belongings reflects how we take care of ourselves (or not).
Although we must always strive to reduce our levels of consumption, and minimize our impact on the environment, we are essentially creative, spiritual beings in physical bodies that exist on a material plane. We engage with each other and with the Earth not just through the world of spirit or psyche, but also through the world of matter. We have enormous creative, reproductive power, to create and destroy. We can either channel our energies into being constructive, or into being destructive. The power is the same – the difference is in how we consciously (or unconsciously) choose to express that power.
The difference is also in whether we choose to surround ourselves with belongings that have meaning and significance, that we are intimately connected to, rather than have possessions we need to upgrade every season because they’re not ‘in style’, or we get tired of them, or because our tastes are so whimsical and transient they are forever changing. If we’re happy with what we have, and find joy in what we have, we don’t need to be constantly buying everything, and this is how we can reduce our consumption of useless, unnecessary things, and reduce our impact on the Earth.
I’ve always loved the book The Bridge Across Forever by Richard Bach. I must have read it a hundred times at least (I’m not exaggerating), and every time I read it I love it as much as I did the first time. The way Richard writes his friend, business partner, soul mate and future wife (now ex-wife), former old-Hollywood actress Leslie Parrish, with such incredible delight and awe, is quite beautiful (his description of her character was apparently the way she truly is in reality). I’m reading the book again at the moment – Leslie was the inspiration for this post.
In the book, Richard describes Leslie as being someone who is intimately connected to her belongings, who knows exactly who she is, who engages fully with her inner self, and has nothing in her personal space that doesn’t represent who she truly is. She is also a passionate environmentalist, and during her more active years successfully campaigned to stop the United States Bureau of Land Management (BLM) from engaging in destructive, illegal logging activities in Oregon (TELAV), and created the Spring Hill Wildlife Sanctuary on Orcas Island, Washington State. You can easily see why she’s a woman I greatly admire.
In a scene from the book (based on a true event), Leslie is pottering around in her front garden watering her plants and flowers while Richard is in her house working on a writing project:
“Late that afternoon, I was working on a television screenplay, re-writing the last few pages, knocking them out on Leslie’s typewriter while she slipped into the garden to care for her flowers. Even there, so different we were. Flowers are pretty little things, all right, but to put so much time into them, to have them depending on you to water them and feed them and wash them and whatever else flowers need…dependence is not for me. I’d never be a gardener, she’d never be otherwise.
There among the plants in her office were shelves of books reflecting mists of the rainbow that she was, there above her desk the quotes and ideas that mattered to her … I studied those from time to time between paragraphs of my script, knowing her better with every spade-crunch, scissor-snip, rake-scratch from her garden, the muffled hiss of water through pipes and hose, gently slaking the thirst of her flower family. She knew and loved each separate blossom.”
In another scene (also based on a true event), Richard observes how Leslie interacts with her belongings:
“She turned from the typewriter, smiled at me where I had settled with my cup of chocolate and a draft screenplay. ‘You don’t have to gulp it down all at once, Richard, you can sip it slowly. That way you can make it last longer.’ I laughed at me, with her. To Leslie, I thought, I must look like a pile of jackstraws on her office couch. Her desk organized, her files trim, not a paper-clip out of place.
‘Our drinks are not paperweights,’ I said. ‘Hot chocolate, most people drink it. Yours, you befriend. I can drink enough hot chocolate to hate the taste of it for the rest of my days in the time it takes you to get acquainted with one cup!’ ‘Wouldn’t you rather drink something friendly,” she said, “than something you’ve hardly met?’ Intimate with her chocolate, with her music, with her garden, her car, her house, her work. I was linked to the things I knew by a network of silken threads; she was bound to hers by braided silver cables. To Leslie, nothing close was unvalued.”
Leslie experiences an intimacy with her belongings, with her life. She values her belongings, so essentially she values herself, not in a selfish way, but in a way that reflects a deep knowledge of her own heart and inner being.
The ‘Embrace Simplicity’ challenge for us is to cultivate intimate relationships with a few treasured belongings that we value immensely, instead of lots of little things and bits and pieces of unrelated objects that just sit there, which we don’t even give a second thought. We don’t need to buy everything we lay our eyes on just because we can. We don’t need to own a lot of things. We need to fully engage with our belongings, braid our own ‘silver cables’ to what we love, and let our environment reflect the original, individual, quirky, creative person we are.
We need to focus and define. The less we own, the more defined we are as a person. The more we own, the less defined our personality. Wouldn’t you rather have an innermost self that is ordered, simplified and whole than one disordered, messy and incoherent? We consume endlessly because we feel separated from life, from ourselves and from each other, and because we don’t know what we want or who we are.
List five of your most treasured belongings that have been in your life for a long time that you won’t replace or ‘upgrade’, because they have meaning and significance to you:
Here is my list:
- An authentic Japanese tea set painted with blue flowers
- A Tibetan rug hand-made by local artists in Nepal
- A Perfect Potion bamboo aromatherapy diffuser
- A DVD of the film The Bridges of Madison County
- A wooden Buddha hand-carved by local artists in Bali
We are creative beings that exist on a material plane. Imagine a life without art? What would our artists, painters, craftspeople, photographers, sculptors and writers do if they couldn’t create beautiful works of art? Reducing consumption is not about deprivation, it’s about choosing wisely, using less, simplicity and opting for quality over quantity. But more importantly, it’s about finding joy and meaning in the non-tangible aspects of life.
I believe when we value ourselves, we don’t need to constantly grasp and consume to feel better about ourselves or to give our lives meaning and purpose, and we learn to value others and the Earth more.