The incongruity is not lost on me that my first public blog post, in a blog at least partly about Buddhism and Buddhist-type things, was a wish list of material things. I’m sure there’s no shortage of forum discussions on the internet about how Westerners seem to gloss over the teachings regarding non-attachment in their zeal to be enlightened. The whole point is to discover that you don’t need the thneeds* of our society in order to find enlightenment. It’s all between your ears waiting to be discovered. I get that. I also get that I’m on a path, not a single point. I’m relatively distant from my destination yet, and I’m willing to bet shedding the less desirable trappings of my Western life is going to take some time as I proceed upon my path. Small steps. Getting rid of old habits, bad behaviors, and negative patterns takes time, and I know personally that it can be potentially damaging to do so too quickly.
I recently quit smoking about a week and a half ago. Long enough for the nicotine to have been finally processed out by my body, but not long enough for my brain receptors to return to normal. That may take weeks. This time quitting, I know that, and expect it. The last time I tried to quit about a year and a half ago, I didn’t expect that, and I tried to change too many habits all at once in a very well-meaning effort to manifest some very broad change in my life. It was a little bit like learning how to drive and doing really well at low speeds, then suddenly deciding I could drive 80, with predictable results. I wasn’t just going to quit smoking, I was going to do it in the middle of a fairly intense dietary shift that involved not drinking coffee anymore (a really huge thing all by itself, as any Javacrucian will tell you) not to mention restricting a number of other areas of my diet that had been important to me. If I could go back, I would point and laugh at my hubris.
The day I tried to quit was devastatingly unpleasant to the point that my husband pointed out that this was far from the goal I had in mind and that trying to do that for much longer would be way more detrimental than getting a pack of smokes and re-evaluating what was turning out to be a disastrous plan. That’s the polite way to say it. Really, there was something of a look of desperation on his face as he plaintively asked if I might not want him to go get me some cigarettes since this didn’t seem to be turning out very well. At all. By any stretch of the imagination. Anyone who specializes in helping people quit smoking or any other addictive behavior will tell you that a positive setup is everything. Without it, you’re doomed. As I was.
Now, I’m certainly not equating the severity of nicotine withdrawal with trying to be less materialistic, but they can conjure the same feelings, because they’re both addictions. Addictions have claws. They like to dig in. If you want to get free of them, you have to treat them like freaked out cats and slowly pry their claws out of you to minimize damage, preferably with the help of a gloved friend. At least I needed help anyway. Not to mention time and patience, and if you can chill out the cat in the process, that’s even better. Willful dislodging of the offending addiction is so much better than ripping it out. I don’t know about you, but I’m just whiny and resentful when I’m in pain and am not very likely to get the gist of whatever lesson it is I’m supposed to learn. More specifically, I would never have been able to quit if I hadn’t engaged in a lot of inner and outer preparation so that when the time came, the lesson would not be lost in the roar of withdrawal. I didn’t do enough of that the first time, so when I tried to rip the angry cat off me, it really fucking hurt and it didn’t take long for me to give up.
I’m sure the same thing would happen if I suddenly tried to be a teetotaler with Stuff. Whatever lesson I would be trying to learn would be lost in my feelings of discomfort. Which tells me I’ll probably never be one of those people who goes off to northern India with nothing but my toothbrush in search of samadhi. It will take time, patience, and a lot of preparation, and I’m never going to be completely devoid of Stuff. Even the owner of my favorite yoga studio, which is based in Tibetan Buddhism, has a house.
So I’m trying to do with myself and my Stuff what I did with the cigarettes, which has been largely successful so far. That starts with a lot of introspection and radical honesty with myself. Why do I like my Stuff? Does it serve some purpose? What are those purposes? Do I have needs or do I have thneeds? See, I think a lot of more enlightened folk get upset when Westerners relegate that which is very important to them to the level of being a thneed. A statue of Buddha purchased so that he will complete the decor of a room is a thneed; a Buddha purchased so that his face helps instill peace inside you is not. A meditation pillow purchased because it was the most beautiful and the most expensive is a thneed; a plain one that assists you in being more comfortable and therefore more able to reach a heightened state of mind is not.
Maybe someday I’ll be the sort of person who needs nothing more than my yoga mat for doing yoga, meditating, karate, and napping in the Sun at the park. At the moment, though, I like having Stuff around that helps jolt me out of my usual zombiefied state of complete non-awareness. A teapot that reminds me to stop for fifteen minutes and enjoy the quiet stillness of preparing, steeping, and drinking a cup of tea. A pillow that sits in a prominent place that reminds me to sit down and meditate, if only for a few minutes. Sure, there are probably a couple of thneeds on my list, but they’re the sort of thneeds that give me that jolt, even the pen holder (slow down, write, don’t type). I’m a fan of anything that helps me remember what I’m supposed to be focusing on, even if it seems incongruous at the moment.