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Do You Care about Material Objects?

This past Memorial Day weekend, I started the job of switching out my closets from my winter items to my summer things. I store the winter stuff; I wear the summer stuff. It's a biggish job.

I started to think about Peter Menzel's book Material World, in which he photographed families around the world, surrounded by their belongings.


How much square footage would the stuff--winter and summer--from my Manhattan apartment take up?

And as a buddhist, how do I relate to all my stuff, anyway?

Friends of mine are sometimes surprised that I haven't thrown away most of my stuff, or that I still buy clothes and makeup. "Aren't you a buddhist?" they'll ask. "Aren't you supposed to not care about material things?" I've heard that line from folks who've broken things, lost things, messed up clothes, or just throw things in a pile on the floor. "Well, you know, I just don't care about material things. I'm beyond that." Renunciates in New York City.

I used to think that way a bit, myself. I wanted to divest myself of stuff, to be free and light, like monks and nuns who had few material worries since they had few material possessions. But I came to realize that doesn't mean they don't "care about material things."

In all the retreat centers and monasteries I've visited and stayed in, I've seen spotlessly kept kitchens, well-ironed sheets, dustless corners, and clean bowls. I've not seen piles of crap, broken items, cracked appliances, messy piles of robes or cushions, or other detritus.

I realized that my urge to divest myself of material things had a hidden cop-out. I didn't want to pay attention. I didn't want to take the time to care about my world, to add energy to keep it in order. Easier to say "I'm free of material objects" than to pay attention to them, to be thoughtful with them.   

So I take the time to switch out my closets, to care for my clothes and shoes (okay, yes, I do have too many shoes). They are tools that help me make a living, so I can give time and money to my practice and to the IDP, yes, but they are more than skilful means for money-making. They are all tools for mindfulness, for waking up. There really isn't anything that's not a tool for waking up.

Although I sometimes wonder about all those single socks. . . .

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appreciating beautiful things because they are beautiful is very different from wanting them to make you somehow better, to prettify the outer year that covers up the inner you that you find so messy and unacceptable.


Living in the Material World

Ellen, I really struggle with my relationship to stuff -- my mom is a borderline hoarder and for as long as I can remember I've been determined not to care about material goods.  But as you so wonderfully point out, not caring is often the same as careless, which isn't a good way to treat anything.   I'm learning to be more careful with my things, even as I don't have a big emotional attachment to them.  



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