Mooch’s love for Little Pink Sock from the cartoon Mutts by Patrick McDonnell

Close your eyes and think of an object that means a lot to you, one that gives you comfort, one that you’d be sad to lose. 

When I posed this challenge to my students on Zoom, I then invited them to do a show and tell, each sharing her chosen object’s personal significance. It led to a very rich discussion full of wisdom, inspiration, connection, and laughter.

But why were we having a celebration of our favorite possessions? Isn’t Buddhism at least in part about letting go of attachment to our stuff? Yes! But we are not monks wandering in the forest. We are surrounded by objects that we own or would like to own or would like to get rid of. We have an economic system that tells us it is our duty to participate in buying stuff or workers and their families will suffer. Our challenge is to learn how to be in skillful relationship with our stuff, without grasping, clinging, or pushing it away. And without the delusion that our possessions represent us.

The human senses delight in objects, and just as little Mooch from the Mutts cartoon loves that little pink sock, so too do we often find inordinate pleasure in some ordinary thing. One of my favorite things is a cozy personal-size comforter that helps me to sleep deeply. Each spring as the weather warms I confront my reluctance to put away my blanket.

And that brings up one big challenge that comes with attachment to our stuff: We might not always have it. One sangha sister has been evacuated from her home several times over the past few years. She has a very different relationship with her possessions than those of us who haven’t had to make difficult choices of what to grab on the way out the door. Fortunately, her home was spared, but the wisdom she has gained lives on within her. She learned how to let go. Yet with all the back and forth, one small sentimental object got lost. Even though she knows her loss could have been much worse, she misses it. This is what it is to be human. Having experiences, learning from experiences, and noticing the patterns of experience arising again. The difference is that with awareness we can hold these patterns gently with abiding affection for this transitory gift of life with all its joys and sorrows. Recognizing the universal nature of impermanence can help us to appreciate it all the more, not taking anything for granted. Holding it all lightly without grasping, clinging, or pushing anything away. And what we learn from our relationship with objects can be a safe way to learn how to live with the impermanence of our bodies and our loved ones.

Though our favorite objects may activate pleasure, sweet memories, and comfort, we can also be triggered to attachment to objects out of fear. Perhaps as children our possessions felt more dependable than the people in our lives. Going to sleep at night, we could trust that our stuff would still be there in the morning, just where we left it, and in the same condition. Objects have no unpredictable mood swings, no volition to act out unskillfully. They are just there. This can be soothing.

Or maybe there were so few things, we learned to cling hard to whatever we had, to value them, to stockpile them, to prepare for scarcity. Life experience imprints itself on our behavior and gets passed along to the next generation, whether they accept it or rebel against it. (For example, almost a year ago many of us suddenly developed a very different relationship with toilet paper. We’re not likely to take it for granted again!)

For those of us who had reasonably dependable parents, can we expand our field of compassion to hold those who may have had a very different kind of childhood? If we are sharing a living space with someone who learned early on that people are intrinsically untrustworthy but objects are dependable, or perhaps they were taught that possession of things keeps you safe, can we hold them with loving-kindness? Can the person who enjoys a looser state of disorganization have compassion for the one who needs a sense of control and spaciousness through organizing and decluttering? How do two such people come to some equitable arrangement that provides a livable space for both? By respectfully recognizing that nobody’s way of being is right or wrong, and by letting go of shame and blame.

A couple of sangha sisters felt they have hoarding tendencies. Maybe, but as I understand it, people who have hoarding disorders rarely see what they do as hoarding. To offer clarification on what constitutes hoarding, here’s an interesting interview with a specialist in that disorder:

SPEAKING OF PSYCHOLOGY: Why People Hoard with Julie Pike, PhD

One thing I learned from the interview that might apply to my sangha sisters was that people who have difficulty decluttering are often perfectionists who worry so much about getting rid of the wrong things that they get overwhelmed and procrastinate until they can get it right.

For some, organizing can be a way of dealing with stress, offering a sense of control in an uncontrollable world. Getting rid of things is liberating! Freeing! But it’s best to confine this activity to our own stuff, not anyone else’s! (That’s where respect comes in!)

For those who find safety or delight in stuff, a trip to the mall or browsing online might engage the brain in a sense of solidity, dependability, and ease. It’s called ‘retail therapy’ for a reason. Of course, it’s just a temporary escape, a moment’s pleasure. And it can be costly, both to our wallets and the planet, as we succumb to the acquisitive delusion of thinking that a particular object will make everything better in our lives. It doesn’t. But window shopping alone seems to calm the mind. Why? Maybe because inanimate objects just sit there? They might be visually pleasing or they might be hideous, but they are reliably inanimate, unlike people.

Trying to define ourselves on the range of our attachment to or lack of interest in stuff is just labeling, a habit of mind that tries to fortify a sense of separate self. It’s more useful to notice our preferences without denigrating or glorifying them.

As we go through stressful times, it’s worth noticing our relationship to stuff, not to judge it, not to change anything, but just to recognize what’s going on, and why.

One thing that comes up often after a certain age is the worry about putting our children through the challenge we faced when confronted with having to deal with our deceased parents possessions. One sangha sister told the story of a friend confessing her concerns to her daughter who replied, “Oh, don’t worry about that, Mom, I’ll just call 1-800-GOT-JUNK.”

Does that daughter’s plan for her mother’s stuff fills you with anguish or ease? Please comment, and if you like share about your favorite object and your experiences with stuff.

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