The Five-Minute Buddhist Books

Recommended Host

Learning Non-Materialism

Question:

I am fairly new to Buddhism, though I have been interested in the Buddhist system of beliefs for many years. I am wondering if you can suggest any practices to help develop non-attachment, particularly in regards to food and material things. Perhaps you have covered this in a previous episode, I have not listened to all the back podcasts yet. Thank you for your time and for the work you put into the website and podcasts. It is very helpful to a novice Buddhist like myself.

Answer:

No, I don’t think we’ve covered this before, at least not from the “how-to” perspective, and yes, it’s a difficult thing to master.

In the Four Noble Truths, Buddha himself explained that one of the primary causes of suffering is attachment. He meant more than just attachment to material things; he meant attachment to ideas, people, emotions, beliefs, and much more. But let’s focus on just worldly material possessions for today.

In the East, historically, it has been tradition for householders to support wandering monks, mendicants, ascetics, and other traveling “holy men.” It was completely possible for these men to survive owning nothing but the clothes on their backs, and in some regions, even clothing was an option. With modern society in the East, and even moreso in Western countries, this lifestyle just doesn’t work well anymore. Generally speaking, we don’t look at “homeless people” as holy men; often it’s quite the opposite. Clearly, for most of us, we need to find some kind of middle way between being totally homeless and propertyless and blatant greedy materialism.

There’s nothing wrong with having a job, driving a car, wearing decent clothes, and owning a few “toys.” The trick is not to get too attached to them. How would you react if somehow you lost it all tomorrow?

In my own life, I never really learned this lesson until I went to Japan. Basically, all I took with me was the contents of two suitcases, and had to make do with those items for the duration of my stay (finding clothing in my size over there was not something I ever managed to do). It was tough, but it was also easy to visualize how it could have been worse; I wasn’t broke and I did have options if there was something I really needed. Still, I had a house full of possessions back in the States that I was giving up, and it turns out after a couple of weeks, I didn’t miss those possessions at all. Upon my return, I have been slowly working at getting rid of many of those things. It’s just “stuff” now, and I see now that “stuff” is just another ball & chain.

So I’ll open up the question to all of you: How do you manage your attachment to material things? Is it a problem for you, and if it’s not, then why not?

15 comments to Learning Non-Materialism

  • Mary

    I am writing in reply to today’s ideas of how to rid oneself of attachment. For myself, I try each day to self-check about what things or ideas are “holding me hostage.” Am I really worried about a relative dying? Or that I’ll lose a favorite possession? I find imagining what life would be like without those things helps a lot to cease being attached to them. In meditation, I come to see that it is so humbling to realize that I can think that everything or anything can stay static. Change is.

    When you have everything, you start to think that material things are most important. When you lose them all, at first you think that you have lost yourself, as well. But with faith, you begin to see it is only those things that you build inside – those things that no one can take away from you – that matter. Now we try to live from a place of love. And we understand that you can only have great joy if you also know great pain (Prudence, a Rwandan genocide survivor).

  • Michael

    This is very helpful, especially as a new Buddhist believer. Thanks for the Daily Buddhism.

  • Andrea

    i go through mass purgings of material attachments. i want to be more consistent but so far all i can manage is to just get a wild hair one day and throw tons of stuff away. but i’m a pack-rat, so things accumulate again. it’s a bizarre cycle that drives my housemates nuts.

    as far as non-tangible attachment, one of the things that helps me is to consciously restructure my way of thinking. if my find myself investing too much of myself in an emotion or thought i ‘catch’ myself and make a conscious effort to realize that my attachment to this emotion or thought is causing me unrest. i visualize a rope that links me to the things that i am investing in, and i imagine a big pair of scissors cutting that rope. it’s hard work, but it pays off.

  • Kalieris

    I used to be a hoarder of stuff, which became worse after my parents died (and I inherited all their hoarded stuff too). Two moves in which I ended up leaving behind or losing 3/4 of my accumulated belongings, plus a basement flood in which my ex-husband lost stuff I had left behind (including family pictures) helped me to see that 1) I felt less encumbered without all those things to worry about and 2) even the loss of things I had previously been extremely attached to, like pictures, really didn’t have a negative impact on my life. I still remembered all the people, even without the physical aid of photographs or keepsakes, and now I didn’t have to worry about something catastrophic happening to them (because it already had). I also realized that, since my parents were no longer alive, they probably didn’t really care anymore about what happened to their books and tchotchkes, so I wouldn’t be hurting anyone if I gave or threw those things away.

    I don’t have an oversupply of furniture, decoration, keepsakes, etc. But what I struggle with now are clothes, books and especially food. I am working on paring down my wardrobe so that I have three weeks’ worth of clothes (I currently have about 2 months’ worth before I need to choose between doing laundry or showing up at work naked). I’m using the “don’t own it if you don’t absolutely love it or if it’s damaged” principle, and getting rid of things as I do laundry, but I still notice quite a bit of anxiety at the thought of not having “enough.” Books and food are related for me – I usually eat while reading, and have been working on weaning myself of this. Both because it allows me to eat less if I’m fully present for my meal, and because I find myself with the conditioned response of getting hungry if I read even if I have just finished eating!

  • In my view it is not the “objects” themselves, but my relationship to them that is either consistent with the Dharma or inconsistent with it (i.e. causes more or less suffering). I posted a discussion of this related to the one of the sayings. Lojong 4.) “Let even the antidote vanish of itself” or “Don’t [even] cling to the method.” Here is a link to that discussion: http://bit.ly/yN33g

    On a humorous note, have you ever seen George Carlin’s standup routine on “Stuff”. If you don’t mind the cussing, it is really funny and pokes fun right at the heart of my issue with “stuff”. You can find it at this link (but be forewarned it is R rated): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MvgN5gCuLac

  • Abe Simpson

    I have wrestled with this in my past as well. I grew up moving on average of every 18 months (military) and every move was a purge. This “loss” caused me to develop attachments to stuff.

    I now live in a hurricane prone area and last year went through a very large hurricane and lost some stuff. The weeks spent hauling my stuff out to the curb to be unceremoniously hauled off gave me much time to meditate on what it is I should be attached to. What I found was the truth in a lesson Nagarjuna teaches. Nagarjuna teaches that there is pleasure in scratching a sore, but there is more pleasure in being without sores. There are pleasures in worldly desires, but there is more pleasure in being without desire.

    With this lesson, each load I carried to the curb was lighter than the previous one, and I felt liberated when the pile was hauled away. Now I am not ready to start running around naked and homeless, I am still attached to providing nice things for my family, but I am more attached to being present and being kind than I am of providing them a bigger TV.

    Attachment seems to be a little harder for westerners, we tend to see stuff like a trophy and use it to value ourselves.

  • Jyoti

    I started practicing the non attachment action 10 years ago, I gave up one material item and one lifestyle item every year on my birthday. Finally I am now a vegetarian, who lives simple life… and although I love my family and friends, I am distant from them, and this allows me detach myself from social and wordly tasks. Allows me to finally align my personality with my soul.

  • Brittany

    Hi, I’ve been reading dailybuddhism for a while and I’ve never felt inclined to comment before, but this is a really interesting one for me. I’m 23, and I’ve been traveling around the US and world for about 3 years homeless. When I first started I couldn’t get rid of the attachment to my stuff – I stored lots of stuff with friends and family, and my backpack was HUGE (too big for me to put on by myself!!). Over the years, every time I returned home I would go through my old boxes of stuff and think “I just lived for a year without this. Why did I ever think I ‘needed’ it?” and I gave away most of it. Still, every time I stayed anywhere for a few weeks, or months, I would tend to accumulate ‘stuff’ and had to slough it off every time I went traveling again. There were more and more little things I got attached to and my backpack remained huge despite my best attempts to part with things that I was just too afraid of losing!

    In Barcelona, my backpack (in other words, all my worldly belongings, minus my clothes and a couple pairs of clean socks I was using as a pillow) was stolen. The weird thing? It was a big relief. There were one or two things I missed a little, but most of it I really didn’t need. For 3 years, I had carried the burden of the things I didn’t really need, but couldn’t stand to get rid of, and it was so heavy it really weighed me down, kept me from adventure, and HURT my back, shoulders, etc. Finally, my pack was light. Phew.

    A couple months later, my purse was stolen with my passport and my dog’s passport… interestingly, that REALLY upset me.

    Anyone else felt something like this? Get all your stuff stolen, or your house burns down, or you lose things, just to finally find that you’ve been purged of things that were tying you down?

    I learned a lot about attachment. It was enlightening and fascinating. Now all I have is a backpack with the things that I really need, and it feels… nice and light. 🙂

  • I have declared 2009 my year of letting go.

    What do I mean?

    I am letting go of:
    1. Things I simply had to have and then once I obtained them, I no longer wanted them.
    2. Things I obtained because one day I might need them and all these years later I still haven’t.
    3. Things I have used in the past and have held onto just in case I need them again.
    4. Things other people have given me because they no longer needed them and I have held onto just in case I do.
    5. Unskillful thinking that in the past has led to the harm of others, as well as myself.
    6. Unskillful speech that has brought harm and suffering to others.
    7. Unskillful action that has brought harm and suffering to others.
    8. Habits that promote unskillful thinking, speaking and acting towards others and myself.

    Letting go of these things takes time. A year surely isn’t enough but it’s a start.
    I have been slowly working at it through continued practice and after a year and a half of Zen practice, I find that I don’t get excited about the idea of “owning” things anymore.
    Of course I still have things but, I don’t worry about losing them.

    The realization that all “things” are impermanent, has really helped me understand that the attachment we have to our “things” will, in the end, only bring us suffering, not happiness.

    Things come and things go. That is life.

    I hope this is in some way helpful.

    Thank you Brian for your great website and podcast, it has been very helpful during my dharma journey.

    p.s. The spell checker wanted me to change dharma into Bodhidharma. Does it know something we don’t?

  • Timea

    I would not ‘label’ myself a Buddhist mainly due to this particular teaching. I am aware of the transparency in all material objects but I simultaneously believe that I am still too young to devote myself to a spiritual teaching that would limit my relationships with the physical world around me. I understand and value the message that is being transmitted through the concept of avoiding attachment; but I must also say that being human should involve experiencing pleasure and happiness.

    In this sense Buddhism is not compatiable with my daily life style as I do feel it is appropriate to become attatched to any photographs I own, books I enjoy, etc. because they are the small things that allow me to recognize and appreciate the knowledge and happiness that can be derrived from life. With the velocity of life it is difficult to mentally obtain these memmories and feelings.

    I believe my time to adjust to this teaching may come one day, but I do not believe that anyone should force themselves into following this teaching if they find it difficult. Buddhism is not here to dictate, but instead to lead us down a path of enlightenment. I believe that applying the ideologies of Buddhism to every day life is the the forward path; not forcibly stripping yourself of needs in order to be a ‘Buddhist’. After all, this is not a facist religion but a way of life and if applied properly (and not necessarily rigourously) you can become a better you from the inside.

  • Tony

    I had it all. Nice house, car, great job and a lot of stress. I was laid off a year ago. I had to sell the house, the car. I also sold or donated most of my furniture and have never felt better. I will never go back to that. I’m also no longer concerned with the financial aspect of work but more the personal fulfilment of my labor. At first I thought the lay off was the worst thing that could have happen to me. Now I’m convinced it was the best thing that ever happened to me.

  • Patty

    I am not a Buddhist, but I often look to Buddhist websites for insight into what is happening to me. I feel as if lessons smack me in the face because I am usually ‘in the moment’ of riding my bike or doing my drudgery as a waitress (hard work is good for you, and a form of meditation, I believe). My story is about attachment. It was a hard one. I am a Taurus, key words “I have”, and was a record-keeper and collector. I was also adopted; the reason I mention this will become clear soon.
    I have always been a writer. I wrote a 108-notebook-page front and back story called “The Adventures of Little Tiger” in the 3rd grade and read a new chapter to my class each week. About 2 years later it disappeared, and I think my parents may have thrown it out. Around the age of 10 I began keeping diaries. Around age 12 I began taking photos. I kept memoirs of my life’s events. At age 24 I met my biological parents. At age 33 I went into the Peace Corps and put everything in storage. Seven weeks later my Mom died and I came back, and put all the stuff she gave me in storage, too, without really looking at it all. I lived overseas for six years, and right before I came back, there was some kind of accounting mix-up with the storage company that I didn’t hear about until it was too late. They said my bill was three months late, when I had paid the month before, and all my stuff was auctioned off. I found out the day after. My brother was supposed to have been watching it, but dropped the ball. Now we don’t speak, for more reasons than that. I missed my diaries most of all, but they set aside the photos and a friend of mine got them for me. She held them for a year in her house, said I could leave them there until I came to visit (she lives in a different state and I have no car, plus work 6 or 7 days a week). Ten days ago my favorite cat died, and a week later this friend called me to say she was taking my photos to the dump, and we were no longer friends. Not sure what happened, as over the previous month we had been supporting each other through the death of her father and the illness of my cat. She never mentioned my stuff until she left a cruel message saying this will test whether I react as a victim or not. Interesting that I told her not to seek revenge on part of her family from whom she was estranged, but to keep love in her heart, which is what I am doing for her now. She has provided me a lesson for sure.
    So losing my stuff at first felt like losing my self. Some stuff was valuable, some sentimental. But I missed the stuff I created myself, like journals and songs and poems, the most. I often thought, “At least I have my photos,” but now those are gone too. I lived 6 years at least without a lot of the things I lost. I have also tried to live by the plan of getting rid of stuff you haven’t used in a year, but those things were like an attic of my life, and without my parents alive, I could feel at home with the things. Now I have had to really walk my talk more than ever. I have lived overseas, valuing change and freedom, but it had been on my terms, always with that little place that held my physical relics that I could draw upon for security. Now I have no family, have lost a friend I considered one of the best after 25 years of being there, and now I have only the stuff I had with me overseas and a few recent purchases. It is kind of empty. I was at peace with my simple life in a studio or living rustically overseas, but without my objects that made me feel secure, I feel I am being tested. Yes, I lived without them being near, but now that they are really gone, along with people and pets I valued, it feels like my life is being stripped down to the most basic element: my self, and that all the pictures and self-reflection of diaries are gone. I think being adopted made me always search for who I am, and now I wonder if this is a sign to be selfless or selfish.

  • ed

    I am not a buddhist, but inspired by the principles.I am still in the process of letting go of material things, but I think it’s OK to own things, just not get too attached to them. I own around 6000 vinyl LP’s and I used to think that if they were lost in a fire or a flood or something I’d be devastated. Now I feel I may be relieved if that happened, it’d take the pressure off me having to get rid of them. At the moment I feel as if I wan’t to keep them as I am a DJ and I love hearing them, the artwork on the sleeves etc. but I know know that they are only material things and that they do not define my life, the true purpose of my life that is!

    As for losing attachment with loved one’s I do not feel this is a natural thing for human beings and it is a product of insanity to try and become detached from family and those close. Rather we should be building stronger bonds with them, becomming more forgiving of them and riding the sadness and hurt if they die, because that pain is as much part of love as joy is and to try and separate ourselves so we can avoid such heartache doesn’t make sense to me. Loving and supporting others at the risk of great pain and sacrifice should be a priority otherwise you may become selfish and I fear a lot of buddhists i have met have become selfish and self absorbed and have failed to comvince me that their non-attachment to others is a positive thing and have even tried to hurt me and those close to me with their so called ‘free’ attitude to relationships. That’s just how I see it.

  • Some years ago I enjoyed collecting items such as; Faries, Tea pots, crystals etc. My husband collected also, well we were in a big flood and we lost everything! Right then to help myself and my family I began to say oh it’s just stuff, trying to get everyone on the same page mentally.
    As time went by we all finally reach a goal of not being so materialistic about anything. Let it go and let it be!

  • Fabienne Ekpe

    I,m Not a bouddhist but i Love to live with so less as possible of Material possessions. I feel so free. And i,m not attached to anything that i own. My only Big problem is that i would like so so much to have this non-attachment with food. I,m overweigthet and very sad that its only in this matter that i cannot let go. Hope that One Day it will be possible.