Wine Jugs, Shikishi Board by Ren Adams, 2009

Daily Musings 3/29/2010 – Don’t Let Things Own You

This is a classic, traditional Taoist tale:

Centuries ago, a decorated and famous warrior-general in the Emperor’s army retired after a long career. He had been hailed for selflessly leading his men into battle and for keeping his soldiers happy, healthy, and well-taken care of through years of hard battles. He was renknowned for being honorable, kind, and devoted and had never been afraid to die, no matter how much other solider may have feared the odds.

He retired with a nice pension and was given a home, land, and money to start “golden years” with.

Settling into his new life, he began to collect ceramics. Vases were his favorite. When he’d served his country as a warrior, he couldn’t really take a collection of large items around the countryside with him, so this new hobby became an obsession. He began buying antiques and display pieces everywhere, and whenever he could.

He collected fragile, beautiful antique vases and his collection began to grow. He paid high prices for them and set them proudly on display in his home. He often took them down to admire his purchases and he showed them to any guest who came over.

One day, while admiring an expensive new acquisition, he sat turning the vase over and over in his hands. How beautiful and rare it was! How expensive it had been! He was so proud to own it and to have it in his prized collection!

As he turned the vase and admired its valuable surface, his fingers suddenly slipped. In an instant, his prized, expensive possession began to spin away from him–through the air. He panicked. He lunged for the vase and his blood pressure went sky high. He barely caught it before it hit the ground and he sat there, holding it, seized in mortal terror. He felt fear and desperation throughout his entire body. His vase had almost shattered!

He sat back down, stunned. For decades he had fought fearlessly, never once thinking of himself. Always living life to the fullest and striving to be an honest person–without worry or greed. Without fear. Without trepidation.

Yet suddenly, here as a retired soldier–perfectly safe in his own private home, he felt sheer terror. He had never felt it on the battlefield but he was now alone and mortally afraid. He had felt so sick, frightened and terrified that his prized vase might break, that he felt he had almost died from the intense panic and despair.

After a moment of silence, he slowly sat back and smiled. He looked at the vase again. Had he become so attached to owning these prized possessions that they filled him with fear and mortal terror?

As he gazed at the priceless antique, he opened his hands. The vase fell to the floor and shattered.

Ever known someone who wouldn’t let you sit on the furniture, but made you plant your butt on a plastic slip cover instead? The couch would last a hundred years, delicately protected–but no one would have enjoyed it. Ever known someone who hoarded their collection of widgets and would have a panic attack if one was moved slightly out of place? They’d die if the widgets were stolen, crushed, or lost. You know who I’m talking about.

Some of you may even be attached to things with a level of ferocity. Cars, electronics, wardrobes. I understand. I’ve been there.

And I think the story speaks for itself.

I used to be neurotic about my books. I would keep them in closed book cases, super clean. I would dust them and keep them smelling fresh and nice, make sure there was no damage to the covers, no creases on the spines. I know, kinda OCD. A lot of people get this way with books and I’ve met a few who do the “turn the page, wash your hands,” thing.

I suppose it’s partly about treasuring the value of their contents–while losing sight of the fact that a torn cover or stale pages doesn’t mark the end of life as we know it, or the end of usefulness for the book.

I wouldn’t lend them to anyone, for fear of how they might be mistreated or damaged. To make a long story short, I realized one day that it was all just silly. It just clicked with me–I think after reading about an apartment fire nearby. If there were a fire or flood–something truly momentous or serious, the books would be destroyed. And, in that instant of evacuating something truly dangerous and serious (not the perceived seriousness of french fry grease or grubby kids), what would I grab? The cats. Living things. Not my prized, hermetically sealed collection of replaceable books.

Replaceable. Not as important as the living things around me. Replaceable. That was key. And even for rare books, signed books–maybe not so easily replaceable, but still not important for daily life and existence.

We are not what we own.

A weight was lifted off me. It was an instant cure for a semi-OCD thing that had been going on through college. I lent books out, lost some when they weren’t returned. I eagerly bought used books, damaged books, beat-up books. Collecting and enjoying, but staying respectfully detached.

I merrily read while eating, heaped them in piles on the floor, tossed and traded them. Still treasuring the inside, but remembering that they are vehicles of knowledge and should be respected–not psychotically hoarded.

After the first break-in at our house last year, I was glad to find that my priorities lay in making sure my fellow living things were alive and well–I didn’t even realize things had been stolen for several hours (or care). The things that were stolen? Inconvenient. Mysterious. Slightly maddening in afterthought, but nothing compared to the joy of knowing living things were safe.

It’s OK to collect things and to enjoy the little things that make life fun. Just don’t get so attached to them that they fill your life with terror. Don’t ever let it get that far. If you become so attached to a car that the thought of it getting into an accident fills you with horror–step back a bit. Nothing is permanent and all things will come and go at some point. Even your grandma’s perfect couch.

My Tao and Zen students know how I often draw parallels from the Tao to Fight Club. You’ll enjoy this one. 🙂

It’s only after we’ve lost everything that we’re free to do anything. –Tyler Durden, Fight Club

If you want to be given everything, you must first give everything up. –Lao Tzu, Tao Teh Ching