Comedian George Carlin once suggested that the only reason we have houses is that we need a place to put our stuff. (If you want to laugh out loud, check out his monologue on ‘stuff’) I look around my home and see all the stuff. So much stuff! And I think I live a relatively simple life. When I choose to relinquish some of my stuff, I am faced with all the meanings I have assigned to that stuff—the reasons I hang on to it.
When I watch my mind, I notice the arbitrary assignment of this meaning. Some stuff no longer triggers my need to keep it. Other things seem to be more ‘meaningful’. But all this is in my mind. Nothing has inherent meaning except maybe food, shelter, and clothing—all of which I have more than I need. Beyond basic survival needs, everything else is just a pile of arbitrary associations. When my idea about an object changes, I often muse, “What was I thinking?”
This is exactly the point. We only own stuff based on what we think about it in any given moment. We might buy a book because it was recommended or because we ‘know’ it will be of value when we read it. But there it is on our bookshelf years later—unread. What were we thinking? And yet we may still purchase more books with arbitrarily assigned meanings and never read them. Even if we read them, we may store them in perpetuity because they were so ‘meaningful.’
As we are now in a season associated with giving gifts, we might want to consider the true nature of giving and relinquish a few meanings. We could consider passing on some of our stuff to someone who might benefit—or repurpose, reuse, or recycle it in the appropriate way. My yoga mentor once said, “It is not about the number of things we have. It is about all the decisions we need to make regarding the things we have.” It is a veritable energy sink!
Our mental energy really gets absorbed when we assign spiritual associations—and there is so much stuff in Vajrayana Buddhism! Paradoxically, all that stuff is dedicated to helping us let go of stuff. But just owning a thangka image or statue or practice text does not help. We need to use them. The creation and completion practice is designed to help us understand how the mind assigns meaning and how we can let it go. In other words, our altar should be a portal for letting go, not for hanging on.
In letting go, we can dedicate the energy made available toward increasing true happiness and easing suffering for all beings. Maybe if we began with this meaning, we would not gather so much stuff.