There is, out there in the larger world, an idea, a theory that the less stuff we own, the more we can simplify our lives, the happier, the more contented we will be. Whoa! Happiness, without my guns? Without my 5 guitars? Without my motorcycle, my boat and my RV???
It’s a crazy theory, I know. We want a certain permanence, or at least the illusion of it, in our lives. We tend to save things that we’ve built, that we’ve put value in, that we think might define us. And they do, to some extent. What really defines us, however, is what we do every day, how we treat others every day rather than how much cool stuff we have in the garage and the attic.
For much of my life I’ve had to let go of things I valued, a whole bunch of things. It started as the necessity of selling some stuff to pay bills… that’s a given if you’re a musician. There were several cars I really loved, and had to sell. My dad’s rifle collection, that was hard. Other things that were hard for me was my best friend’s ’48 Chevy, my parents’ Land Cruiser, my cabin on Lake Burton in North Georgia, and, two years ago, my cabin in Montana, And there were others – Dad’s coin collection, my electronic keyboards, back in the ’90’s… that was really hard. But about that time I had begun to pursue Buddhism, as there was a Buddhist Center for learning about four miles from my house. It started out as a curiosity and soon grew to be an interest, then a minor passion, as several of their teachings began to show up as an improvement in my daily life.
Please indulge me here for a few paragraphs. Over the next several years I learned to distinguish between their philosophy and their religious precepts, which are as deep and as many as Christianity’s. Having struggled to make Christianity work for me for about 40 years, I was more sensitive to the manmade tenets of any form of religion; and with the help of a friend, Carl Brown, I was able to separate useful philosophical teachings from religious dogma.
All that to tell you what has remained meaningful to me after five years of Buddhist study. But only briefly, as I’m not here to get “religious” on you. Quite the contrary, actually… all that is but a prelude as to why I now live the way I live, and why it’s working for me.
Now I know these elements are so simple; everybody knows these things. Yes, except that we take them for granted and forget to practice them every day. Also, we begin looking for more complicated solutions to our problems, forgetting that the simple solutions are almost always the best.
Understanding “Impermanence” As A Step Toward Happiness
Conceptually, most of us understand the concept of impermanence of things… and of life. But many of us live day to day in a comfortable bubble of permanence… of a feeling that everything is going to be okay, is going to stay the same for the foreseeable future. Occasionally that’s true, everything does tend to stay the same for a healthy amount of time. But those times are rare, if we stop to think about it. We tend to live in that moving bubble of perceived permanence, which can be a plastic comfort zone. Any temporary happiness or contentment can feel permanent, and we wish it could be permanent. But that is one of our expectations of life that life can’t, and won’t live up to. And we all know what happens when our expectations go unfulfilled.
So you know, several important Buddhist concepts are the same as most religions: No lying, no killing. No sexual misconduct, you know, that kind of stuff… the things we all know but seem to manipulate to our personal needs. But the ones that really hit me and stuck with me were Karma, Compassion and Impermanence. These babies, for me anyway, hold deep and life-changing, even life-defining powers if one pays daily attention to them. The one I’m harping on today is Impermanence. Why? Because I have let go of things I’ve cherished in the past few months, and actually found it to be rewarding.
What things? Well, my ’59 Chevy Apache truck, back in December. My large model train layout, last week. I’d owned the pickup for 15 years, the train layout for nearly 50. And yes, at first they were “things” that were fun for me, that even helped define me. But that’s just it… they were “things” to enjoy for a time, then let go. It’s the “letting go” part that is difficult for so many. But it turns out that “letting go” is an essential part of our ultimate happiness and peace of mind. From my perspective, it seems that the more we “let go,” the simpler, and therefor better our lives become. Anyone who has ever let go of a toxic relationship knows exactly what I’m talking about. Being able to let go of stuff that complicates our lives gets easier over time, and begins to actually feel good!
As an American, I will always feel that it’s okay, even great, to have things, sometimes lots of things. But as a fledgling Buddhist, I now also feel that it’s necessary to let them go at some point. For me, it’s easy to know when to let go. One’s interest begins to fade, one ceases to improve the thing or even use it and enjoy it at all… both signs that the honeymoon is over, and it’s time to move on. Ring a bell? It should. If our things cause us any kind of tension or worry, then it’s time to re-evaluate their importance in our lives. Most of the stuff of my previous life is tucked away in a storage room. It’s costing me money every month and there it sits… doing what? Waiting for me to dig it out of there and enjoy it one more time? Uh uh. Not gonna happen. I’m too happy with all that stuff being there and me being here. I will sell it all/give it away next month. And why not? I’ve had plenty of practice letting go of things. And for me, the trick is to let my stuff go to someone else, somewhere else, that might still get usefulness or pleasure from it.
Do I miss any of the things I’ve let go of? Sure, I’m a typical American stuff collector, remember? I miss my garage in Montana. It’s one of the few things I’ve ever owned that would, to this very day, continue to give me pleasure and be a place to spend quality time. It was mine, it was a part of me. I put it together and built its ambience to suit my every whim. It was a wonderful and creative place I always felt so comfy in. I still have its contents in that storage facility I mentioned. Yeah, I still have the stuff, but the garage ambience, which was so important to me, is long gone, sold with the Montana cabin. My next post will be all about that garage, it still means that much to me. I think everyone should have a safe haven like my garage was for me. A Big therapy room without a couch.
So yes, I can let go of most things, but not everything. A work in progress, right? I can’t get rid of small things that good friends have given me or made for me. Tuffy Burgstrom gave me a hunting knife he made, charged me a dime for it. I could never give it up. A simple knife, you say?? Yup. A simple knife that is hard-wired to fine memories, and to my heart. That knife is not just “stuff,” it’s a treasure, and I continue to hold on fast to maybe a half dozen treasures that friends and loved ones have given me over the years. Old family pictures are a natural treasure. Time can dim one’s memory of how a loved one looked, but one picture brings it all back in an instant. There is something about the tangible article itself that helps to hold and refresh the value of an emotion, or a special memory. Because we’re Americans, we’re going to always have stuff. I would guess there’s a balance in there somewhere, a balance that is different for each of us. The trick is, then, to hold on to a reasonably sparse few of your treasures, while bidding a fond farewell to the rest. It’s a neat trick, to be sure, but I urge you to try it. For me it’s been a huge reward, a couple of important steps up the path to enlightenment. It’s not easy, but we know that very little that is worth while ever comes easily.