Surrounding ourselves with “useless necessities” can keep us from savoring much of what life truly has to offer.
For ages, spiritual sages from a wide variety of cultures, religions (including Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, and Islam), philosophies, and traditions have advocated simple living as the pathway to true happiness. They’ve made it clear that living simply is not so much a matter of divesting oneself of material possessions as it is adopting a certain poverty of spirit. It’s about making peace with — even embracing — a meeker, non-avaricious, and therefore more generous approach to living. While it’s natural for us to desire our basic creature comforts — we all want to have enough to eat, a sound roof over our heads, sufficient resources to care for ourselves, etc. — it’s often too easy for us to get so attached to the things that please us that we become not only dependent upon those things but also to some degree enslaved by them. It seems the things we possess can sometimes have a way of possessing us, binding us in a way that limits our freedom to live life to the fullest.
The Christian tradition records a story of a young man who approached the itinerant rabbi Jesus, and falling at his feet, asked what he must do to secure a boundless life. Jesus, we’re told, affirmed for the young man much of what he already knew, namely that he should be faithful to the central tenets of his faith (i.e., keep the commandments). The young man replied that he had indeed striven to lead a moral life since he was a youngster. Looking upon the man with favor, Jesus then tells the man that if he truly wanted to have it all he should divest himself of his possessions and come with him on his historic mission. But despite his yearning for something more in life, the man simply couldn’t accept the invitation. As a wealthy man, he had many possessions, and was too attached to them to part their company and place his confidence in something else entirely.
In the Buddhist tradition, there is a story about the great saint Nagarjuna whose only possessions were the meager loincloth with which he covered his mostly naked body and a begging bowl given him by the King that was ironically made of gold. One night as he was about to go to sleep among the ruins of an ancient monastery, he noticed a thief lurking behind a column. Anticipating what the thief might do once he’d drifted asleep, Nagarjuna held out the golden bowl to the thief, telling him to take it now so he wouldn’t be disturbed by his attempts to steal it once he’d fallen asleep. The thief eagerly ran off with the bowl but returned the next morning, telling Nagarjuna that having been given the bowl so freely actually made him feel poor, and he then asked the revered saint to teach him how to secure the kind of riches that would make such a lighthearted detachment from material things possible.
Some time ago, when we were expecting out of town guests to stay with us for an extended period of time, we decided to do a deep housecleaning. In the process we uncovered mounds of “stuff” we had accumulated over the years and “stashed” in various places. By the time we’d rounded up all the things we thought at one time we simply had to have but which had since had become nothing more than clutter, we were able to fill a junk hauler’s cargo van to the brim. Worse yet, even after all that stuff was responsibly disposed of (we hired some truly environmentally conscious haulers who took items worthy of donating to various charities, recyclables to the recycling center, etc.), we still found ourselves with enough junk for another truckload, which at the time we couldn’t even afford to have hauled away! That was when it struck us how wasteful and how ultimately unfulfilling our consumer oriented lifestyle had become. We decided not only to make a concerted effort to divest ourselves of all the non essential things we had lying around but also to be much more mindful about accumulating things that eventually and inevitably lose their appeal. Materialism definitely has its costs. It’s not just that the more you have, the more you want. It’s that the more you have — well, the more you have. While your possessions might serve you very well at times, they can sometimes really encumber you from enjoying other important aspects of life.
One of the foreign exchange students we hosted in our home and who had come from a background that embraced a much simpler lifestyle coined a phrase that still sticks out in my mind as more than appropriate as he noted the great material wealth so many Americans enjoy. “Useless necessities” he called many of the things that in some ways seemed so essential but nonetheless kept us from savoring some of life’s truly valuable commodities. When we had an occasion to visit our “adopted son” and his family on a trip overseas, we found ourselves instantly falling in love with the utter simplicity of life, savoring every moment of our time there so much that we truly did not want to leave.
Folks in the Western world enjoy a great deal of political and economic freedom. Most of us also enjoy an unprecedented degree of material prosperity. But we are often beholden to our possessions, and that inherently chains us. To be truly free is to be free from want. To be free from want you have to be content with what you have. This is ultimately the lesson the thief learned from Nagarjuna. When you have clothes on your back and the means to sustain yourself (i.e., your “begging bowl”), you don’t just have enough. Because you’re free to really enjoy life, you have it all.
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