POSTED 10-FEB: 2016
Awakening in is a parachute jump from the dream / Freed from the choking vortex, the diver sinks toward the green map of morning. - from Prelude by Thomas Transtromer
I recently searched out an old photograph, a picture of some of the things I once owned before my great give-away five years ago. Five years ago I enacted a "dispossession." I sold and in many cases simply give away most of my possessions. Most of the things I gave away held, at least at one time, great meaning for me and many were gifts or family heirlooms and furniture I inherited, quite the opposite of mere consumer items. Only later did I understand I did something my psyche was not fully prepared for. Periodically I have experienced great regret. Regret was an emotion my psyche insisted I experience. Many times I awoke from dreams in which I still owned the possessions I gave away: I still had my grandparent's embroidered chair, I could still admire the hand-carved mask I bought in Mexico, I still owned the indigo blue vase my mother gave me. Waking from these dreams was perhaps a smaller version the moment of regret suicide victims must feel an instant after pulling the trigger - the irrevocable shock of realizing something infinitely precious is now irretrievably gone.
Many influences led up to my dispossession. I've recalculated them many times. Like trying to solve a lopsided equation with too many variables, I cannot determine the value that follows the equal sign. Was the result of my dispossession a positive or negative number? I do not know. Was it spiritually advantageous to so radically simplify? Sometimes I think it was, and sometimes I think I committed a crime against my own humanity.
The variables of the equation include the fact that I got rid of almost all of my clothes. What was I thinking? At the penultimate moment, while living in Istanbul, I believed I'd metaphorically died and that I needed a new wardrobe in order to walk into the new life that was unfolding before me unencumbered by fashions I'd previously worn. Since we always are dying there was truth in my mania. Perhaps, too, there was a karmic truth, ingredients and forces of previous lives (not necessarily my own) spilling into consciousness. A burning up of karma if you will. At the time I couldn't have been happier living from a suitcase and I'd well learned that one can create adequate variety of dress with only a few items of clothing to rotate through. It was only after my mania became three bouts of psychosis followed by depression did I begin to feel the deep loss of having divested myself from so much of the history-in-possessions of this lifetime (I say "psychosis" speaking of one side of the coin, though on the other side was, I believe, a kind of spiritual unfolding I went through at the time, confused as it was, the aftermath of "following the dralas").
. . .
Like any loss, I've gradually begun to accept it. At first I had no regrets. It took three years for the loss to sink in, and during that time I experienced the three psychotic episodes just mentioned. I went through major readjustments, to say the least! In order to deal with the loss I had to retrace my steps in order to understand it and to accept. I had to go back further than five years, back to the time twelve years ago when I took my pilgrimage around the world, a longstanding dream I had when I turned fifty. It was the pilgrimage to Italy, Turkey and Southeast Asia that prepared me to own less, that demanded I simplify.
On my pilgrimage I traveled to such place as Assisi, Istanbul and Luang Prabang with two small pieces of carry-on luggage. I carried an extra piar of pants, a laptop, a camera, a yoga mat, a copy of the I Ching and Henry Miller's The Colossus of Marusi. My daily life consisted of seeing marvels of human civilization alongside contemporary examples of how seven billion human beings survive on our planet. Each afternoon I would wander, then meditate in my room the next morning and, after that, write about what I'd seen the previous day. Yoga mat to meditate on, laptop to write with, fresh clothes to change into, I truly was carrying all that I needed.
After completing the pilgrimage I returned home, to my trailer in Boulder. I unlocked my front door and looked upon the things I owned for the first time in ninety days. I appreciated what I saw. At the same time I was detached, as if I was seeing a dream landscape. I was seeing clearly, I do believe that. All that I owned was only a waystation, no more "mine" than beds and sidetables in the hotels or guesthouses I stayed at in Istanbul or Phnom Penh. In that moment, something told me I wasn't going to grow old looking at the beautiful things I owned, much as I loved to look at them. Something told me to walk away from it. Something told me that if I did walk I would walk a more genuine path.
. . .
Six months after my pilgrimage, I experienced an intangible but dramatic message that urged me to return to Cambodia, one of the countries I had visited. This lightening strike of certainty was confirmed when I did return (this time with even less luggage, this time without even a laptop or camera). Besides experiencing a remarkable spiritual journey and transmission (written about elsewhere) I also lived for five months amidst simple Cambodians. This stint of time was characterized by being with people who essentially owned nothing. A reed mat to sleep on, maybe cooking pots and stove, maybe even an old barely serviceable TV but otherwise nothing but the clothes they wore, family wedding photographs and a couple of keepsakes. When you earn a dollar or two a day there is not much opportunity to own much, but in that non-owning was a precious variable, the freedom that comes with it. Because there is such a freedom, a kind of existential joy occurs that wouldn't be believed from a distance but seen up close is quite convincing, a variable that says human being don't need a lot of possessions, and when they own a lot the elusive joy mutates into something less appealing.
After five months in Cambodia I returned home and again unlocked my front door. Again, I had the same experience of detachment. Again, I could feel something was calling me to leave everything I owned. Since then I traveled back to Cambodia five more times, but also to Istanbul, Bursa, and parts of France and Romania. Between 2006 and 2011 I traveled abroad numerous times, nearly annual multi-month doses of being a wanderer and witness to the places I wandered to. While traveling as well as upon returning "home" I felt a distinct human/spiritual need to simpify, culminating in my give-away.
By June 2011, I had sold my trailer and reduced down a five-by-five foot storage locker - all that I still owned neatly organized within it - and single suitcase. When I closed the door of my storage locker I felt I'd completed a task the dralas and my spiritual lineage asked of me. It might seem like grandiosity - and indeed this is one of the variables I freely admit to the equation - but I felt that something was asking me to be an example for others of how to simplify, that I was among the pioneers of living with fewer objects to care for (it can be argued that we are responsible for each thing we own and while they are in our possession we should have a conscious relationship with them - the opposite of having a "junk drawer"). In the face of my subsequent regrets and episodes of acute mania, it does bring warmth and courage to my heart to acknowledge the archetypal or societal dimensions of my simplification, to know that I was, at least in part, called to do this.
. . .
Part of my original inspiration to reduce my possessions was something I once heard the Tibetan teacher Jetsun Khandro Rinpoche say in answer to a student's question, "What represents progress on the path?" Rinpoche replied, "You've simplified your life and you experience more devotion." As I simplified I felt more and more fiercely devoted, and I felt accompanying blessings that gave me much confidence. Ultimately, the blessing that came in my hotel in Istanbul and asked me "to get rid of it all" also became a source of acute regret. Perhaps I made the blessings into something too solid, too literal, perhaps I simply made too much of them. Tricky business interpreting messages, blessings and omens.
Now I'm at a crossroads. On the one hand all the possessions-with-meaning that I let go sometimes still haunt me, especially as I periodically take up the station of temporary householder and find I need such things as spatulas and chairs. Also, letting go of so many things I inherited from my parents has left me feeling even more orphaned. On the other hand, I've accepted the decisions I made and the course my life has taken in their wake. I'm preparing to travel to Cambodia and I won't think about the things I gave away over there, living out of an even smaller suitcase than I did in Istanbul, living out of simple guest-houses and taking my meals from streetside vendors. I've gotten grounded again, I hope. I am experiencing the balance between vertical and horizontal time that human life requires. I feel I am integrating my self-enforced loss of possessions and subsequent manias with the existential reality of needing to go on as I am, someone who shot his own foot off and yet is seemingly walking, without even a limp.
In the fall of 2013, I was fortunate enough to undertake a three-month meditation/writing retreat in a small cabin in Vermont. The cabin belongs to a friend who lives in a similar cabin next door. As it turned out, being in proximity to this friend (who I shall call Walter) and getting to know him a little better was perhaps the most rewarding part of my retreat.
Walter was inspired to experiment with how a modern-day Thoreau would create his own Walden Pond. He had enough savings to have a simple cabin built for himself that was aesthetically pleasing but wrapped in utter simplicity. The cabin has a loft but no bedroomÑjust a mattress that he unrolls at night.
Walter does not have a car or a computer or a television. No smartphone either, but plenty of shelves groaning with books. The only somewhat modern technology in his cottage is a land-line telephone, gas stove, and water heater. He has a typewriter on which he does his writing and a bicycle that he uses to visit friends and shop for groceries. Read more...