I once heard some spiritual advice that went something like this: if you were not surrounded with objects you love, it was a sign you were “blocking abundance”. The statement might contain a nugget of truth; perhaps some people don’t believe they deserve to have what pleases them, and they live in a state of scarcity rather than enjoyment. Equally, there might be more than a kernel of untruth in that same statement; there are people whose lives are abundant in freedom, spontaneity and joy who live with few possessions and delight in life itself. For them, abundance is an experience, an unfolding process, and can’t be housed in a garage, hung on a wall, or stored on a shelf. Others might experience the best of both worlds: enjoying material abundance without attachment, allowing objects and even luxury to come and go without clinging or grasping.
As someone who appreciates beauty and aesthetics, I’ve accumulated many things over the years. Before I walked the Camino de Santiago in 2012, I imagined I’d collect lovely objects over my lifetime, amassing stashes of textiles, ceramics and art. I wanted the items I chose to say something about me and my taste, to reflect my identity. In the early part of my 520 mile pilgrimage, I stared into shop windows in some cities, tempted by stylish shoes, colorful handbags and clever souvenirs, items I did not need in the moment and could not carry. Because walking 12-18 miles/day consumed every spare ounce of energy, whatever had piqued my interest often vanished from my consciousness like clouds dispersing after a storm. Now, all I recall are the feelings of longing, not the specific objects, suggesting I didn’t desire those particular things but was in thrall to a kind of compulsive craving for better, more aesthetically pleasing stuff, as if that would make me permanently happier.
Since my trek, many of my belongings have created in me a sense of claustrophobia and weight. When each item has a story or memory attached, not always unambiguously positive, having too many things around can feel as if I’m walking through a crowded market place with barking vendors clamoring for attention. In the process of simplifying my life, I wondered if certain things were possessing me, requiring more space or care than I wished to offer. How many memories, even happy ones, did I need to preserve by keeping certain objects?
A few weeks ago I staged a garage sale. I had forgotten that such an event creates a portal through which diverse characters descend upon another’s detritus. A man drove up in an orange 1976 Volvo. He wore a suit jacket, usually only seen on proselytizing Mormons in this neck of the woods, and peered at me beneath a bowler hat and enormous owl glasses. He bought four CDs for $4, presenting me with a $2 bill and two singles as if he were handing me a bouquet. A long haired violinist purchased a dozen of my classical CDs and praised my assortment, which I kept for myself in digital form. Many visitors, expecting everything to be $1 or unwilling to pay much more than that, poked around and moved on; some did not even get out of their cars, but peered out the window and drove off. Others, commenting positively on some of my things, triggered a possessive reflex and made me doubt my decision to sell them. If my belongings generated compliments and attention, shouldn’t I hang onto them? But that’s precisely the kind of feedback loop I didn’t want ensnaring me.
Could I release beautiful things, even those that I obtained with some effort, without feeling loss or regret?
Towards the end of the sale, which at four hours was about all this introvert could handle, I no longer had patience for the vultures pecking at prices. Stubborn, I refused to sell some stuff. Even in the process of letting go, did I still need my ego stroked, my values recognized, respect shown for the objects? Would I insist on hanging on if my conditions could not be met? What would that serve, exactly? While I did sell many items, and raised a decent amount of cash, too many things remained.
Had I gotten in my own way?
A couple who spent $10 on smaller objects schooled me on a different approach. During their sale, they did not price things but asked people to make a fair offer, trusting better natures would prevail. With few exceptions, they said, they got what they wanted, the process was more like an exchange than a battle against scavengers and dealers. I took a harder look at my possessions and decided to part with even more. I held a second sale, without price tags on most things. A few of the same characters reappeared as they made their ritual rounds. Cheaper stuff sold, but more expensive items did not. By then my soul’s desire to be rid of things outweighed my ego’s need to be stroked. I brought some outdoor clothing to a consignment shop, three carloads to Goodwill, and listed both unusual and useful items on eBay. Perhaps the anonymity of the Internet and the neutrality of the auction system made it easier to let go, since aggressive negotiations drain me. Each time an item sold, I felt lighter, as if extra space had opened inside, creating a wider channel through which more life can flow. That’s abundance and, while it can’t be accumulated, I’d like to have more of it.