Photo by Russell Lee [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

‘To attain knowledge, add things every day. To attain wisdom, subtract things every day.’ – Lao Tse

As teenagers, my friends and I loved asking people their three favourite animals and why they liked them. So, let’s say I said: (1) a dog, because it’s faithful, (2) a cat, because it’s self-sufficient, and (3) a bear because it eats honey, then it would translate as: I see myself as being faithful, other people see me as being self-sufficient, and I want to be someone who eats honey. You get the picture.

Anyway, we found this hilarious because it was always eerily correct. Like the time a fashion model friend of ours said, ‘A camel – because it just sits around doing nothing.’

I still remember what I’d chosen for my second animal – a wild horse – because ‘it was free’. Everyone said it was uncanny, because that was how everyone saw me: as being free.

And while I like to think I’ve managed to dodge a fair number of society’s rules for women and have always tried to live by my own moral compass, I don’t know if I’ve felt really free.

That’s because I connect ‘freedom’ with ‘virtually no Stuff’.

I think we live by the script we have written for ourselves and I believe we strive towards a fantasy that we have similarly concocted. And my fantasy has always been this: I am travelling around the world by train. I have a small leather case containing the following – a pair of jeans and some t-shirts; a week’s worth of undergarments; a small washbag holding toiletries; a stack of my favourite books; a blank notebook with pencil; a camera and my Walkman (yes, this fantasy originated in the 1980s).

Over the years, the last four items have been replaced with: a laptop, a Kindle and an iPod.

The jeans and t-shirts have been replaced with: three black dresses.

And the washbag has recently been replaced with: a pot of honey, a bag of clay and a jar of oil (items that currently constitute my toiletries).

As you can see, I give this fantasy real weight and genuine consideration. All the time.

I did fulfil a version of this fantasy when, at age 20, I travelled with a backpack on a Eurorail pass for a month. And I did live out of one suitcase for 10 years until I settled in London just over a decade ago. But as I was still storing things with my family in the US and Bangladesh, what I carried with me were not my only possessions. And so the fantasy persists.

This is because I am absolutely fascinated by our relationship with Stuff.

The way we believe we ‘need’ so many things. This has become truly universal, no longer associated only with Western consumerism. My mother, when moving from her parents’ home to go away to college in another town at age 18, carried with her all her worldly possessions in one small case. She will soon be moving home again, and this time it will take an army of professional movers to shift a few streets down.

I am fascinated by how we often imbue meaning to physical Stuff when it’s the experience we actually want to stay connected with. A book is a glued bunch of paper with words on it. We become attached to the feeling we get when we read a story we love. Yet we often pile on the affection to the carrier of those ideas and feelings.

And I am truly fascinated by how we hide behind our Stuff. So many of us are driven by mindless consumption. We eat too much, drink too much, work too much, and definitely buy too much. We do these beyond our needs and often even beyond our desires. It has become compulsive.

I think we do this because it distracts us from the hole we have in our lives. If we think too long or too hard about this hole, then it will terrify us. So we fight it by ignoring it, by focusing on there instead of here. Perhaps even by creating other problems (one of getting high or gambling or whatever) so that we focus on that rather than facing what truly makes us ache: the hole.

What is this hole? I think it’s loneliness.

Instead of filling the hole with love – the only way we would be truly satiated – we stuff it with the latest gizmos, overstuffed wardrobes, and just More, More, More.

And so my fantasy of moving through this world with few possessions (and, with it, a lightness of heart) persists. To feel I am not tethered to my past or my future, but purely to the present. To not ‘need’ lots of random things except those that are carefully considered and deeply appreciated. To accumulate experiences, which become beautiful, fun memories I carry instead of a pile of Stuff. And, most of all, to not hide from myself, and to know to be surrounded by love.

And so I add the most important element to my fantasy: some darling companions for an exchange of laughter and ideas. With all this abundance, I believe I will feel truly free.

‘Not everything that can be counted counts and not everything that counts can be counted.’ – Albert Einstein 

Related Recommendations in books:

Clear Your Clutter with Feng Shui by Karen Kingston
The original book on decluttering, and still the best. I have given many copies of this to friends. There isn’t much about feng shui in here, you’ll either be relieved or annoyed to know.

Clutter Busting by Brooks Palmer
A powerful book that places importance on the person, instead of the things they own.

20 thoughts on “Stuff

  1. My favorite topic! Any given moment I have some sort of Minimalism or Zero Waste or Uncluttering tab open in the browser. Stuff and how people see them are so fascinating! Whole lot of human energy and lives are spent shifting,dusting,arranging and rearranging ‘stuff’!

    1. Saba, so happy you liked this.
      I had to stop myself from writing the equivalent of a book as I have SO MUCH to say on this subject!
      I’d be interested in reading any of the links you’ve found interesting. I always thought I was a unique sort of freak who is decluttered but really likes reading about decluttering… I’m glad I’m not alone!
      Also wanted your advice on something – will email you. Thanks.

      1. Oh Nupu apa,PLEASE write the book! Would also like to know more about the toiletries.I’ve recently started using Dr Bronner’s Castile Soap as a substitute to body wash/toothpaste/shampoo/ any other soapy needs but would like something more ubiquitous,natural and with even lesser packaging.Since my dream is to work on sustainable and fold-up housing for coastal Bangladesh and don’t think they have “Dr Bronner’s Castile Soap” there.

        1. SO interesting you mention the castille soap… I’ve been experimenting with clay, honey and oil (as mentioned), and skin is doing great (actually better than ever before) but hair is a bit of a sob story at the moment. Am told it takes several weeks of transition before it adjusts to not having the usual chemical gunk in the hair.
          While doing research on this, I see that the only ‘acceptable’ soap seems to be Dr Bronner’s, which – of course – I can’t get here (several recipes use that as a base for shampoo, before adding the other nice stuff). I may just need to wait it out before I start worrying (or reverting), so will keep you posted.
          I am, though, still using the standard soap for body, though I can technically use clay for that too (or ground chick pea flour), but I’m trying to make one switch at a time, so I can tell what’s working or, more importantly, what isn’t. So will write more on this in a month or so!

          1. Have you tried the “no poo” (baking powder and Apple cider vinegar)thing? I did and did not work out too well. It also takes adjustments but never followed through.
            Can’t wait for more Minimalism posts!

            1. No, haven’t – the most recent consensus seems to be that baking powder has the ‘wrong’ pH for hair… trying clay and ACV. Have written you a very long and rambling email about this!

        2. Also – I LOVE the idea of your sustainable and fold-up housing for coastal Bangladesh! Wow! How does it fold? Is it so people can move away when it floods?

                1. Super! Thanks so much. Hadn’t seen any of them. Going to explore them now.
                  P.S. I think you should write your book on eco/zero-waste/foldable living, and I’ll contribute a chapter on… toiletries! Or whatever you like.

                  1. I want you to write the ‘How to make people feel absolute best’ chapter, Nupu apa. You have consistently done it throughout our lives.

                    1. Awwwwwwwwwwwwww. Muah muah muah. You are too kind and generous, Saba!

                      Have been wondering how to put a framework for this blog, and while I don’t think I’ve done it myself particularly well, I am very curious in exploring how to do things better, live more consciously, be kinder, appreciate good people and ways of living, etc.

                      I want to write about Kindles as much as I want to write about using clay, honey and oil. But having a context will, I think, help me in terms of what/how I write here, and also be clearer to anyone reading. I’d love to know what you think about this, it would be very valuable to me.

  2. Sigh, this is the stuff that dreams are made of… How I would love to catch your train with a light bag. I somehow knew that my getting ‘settled’ would be stamped and sealed the day I bought a fridge (I had always rented one before). And so it was. After 28 years of flitting around, I settled in the city of my fridge for two decades. And now, have exchanged it for a new fridge this month – my second. Maybe it will release me, rather than keeping me in further bondage for another 20 years! A

    1. Annie my darling, you may come back to this fridge – an anchor rather than bondage – but you have travelled far more than I have in the past few years (um, cat-sitting in Greece? Do you count your blessings, dear child?). The burden you have is the same one my mother and others have in these parts – the heat and humidity break things down, needing your constant time, attention and money. That is not (necessarily) a reflection on you. Though I’m impressed your fridge lasted two decades!

  3. Wonderful piece, Nupu darling. I couldn’t agree more. I have been doing a whole lot of thinking about that hole you talk about. I think it is loneliness, but it’s also more than that. It feels to me like a soulful disconnect from meaning, as in Meaning of Life. Its offshoots include a disconnect from nature and a disconnect from each other but at the heart of it is a disconnect from ourselves; our pure nature, our own capacity for clarity, love and purpose. And the religion of Stuff is very much connected with it.

    Happiness isn’t about stuff. We all know that. In fact, it’s become a tepid article of faith for lefties. But we don’t really believe it, partly because it’s up against a vast, nee ubiquitous political economy that is reinforcing the opposite idea at every turn. It’s toxic, in so many ways. It’s not just that the machinery of ever-increasing production and consumption of all this Stuff is poisoning the planet and creating vast human inequalities and suffering; at one level that is merely a logistical or technological problem that can be fixed. No, there’s something deeper and more poisonous than that, something that speaks to a true “why” of many of our cultural problems. It’s the fact that the myth of the happiness-delivering properties of perpetual material growth and consumption has become so gigantic, so all-pervasive, accepted and ingrained in our psyches and systems, that it has cut us off from the subtler, truer, more pristine forces of wisdom and compassion in our own hearts. It has created an impenetrable static in our relationship with the natural world and stunted our development and self-awareness. It’s like a magnet, holding us collectively at the surface of our consciousness, keeping us from easily knowing the richness of the treasures further down. It’s why we can know intellectually that happiness is not about Stuff whilst never fully believing it, such that we are effortlessly compelled to bring our consumption under control. (Your integrity to your vision being an exception to the rule here, I think. :-) )In other words, the ninety thousand years of genetic and cultural learning that we each carry in our minds and bodies is systematically drowned out by the incessant screech of competition, one-upmanship with each other, and the insatiable clamour to hoard that defines modern consumerism.

    For me right now, relief comes in the form of meditation and studying Buddhist philosophy. Been doing a lot of that this last year or so. It makes a lot of sense to me. But to move away from the almighty Me for a sec, I do think you have hit the nail of a major social malaise here. Do you know this guy, Charles Eisenstein? He looks at this with an economists eye. I like him.

    Rant over.

    As you were.

    1. Thank you, my sweetheart, for your brilliant thoughts.

      Yes, I totally see how it’s also about disconnection. And how we’ve been sold (everyone, everywhere) that ‘meaning’ can be found in all the places that true meaning will never reside. What kills me is that even when we see it’s not satisfying us, we think that it’s because we’re the ones not doing it properly – instead of seeing the structure of this fabricated desire as the problem. It is definitely toxic.

      I’m very intrigued to hear about your doing meditation and studying Buddhism. I took some classes at a Buddhist centre in London this past summer, and while meditation still rather terrifies me, I think I’m over my aversion to it. I actually think that’s probably the only long-term solution here. To keep coming back to what’s inside, and go with the peace.

      Did you get into the meditation through classes or by doing it yourself? I’d love to hear more.

      Thanks so much for the beautiful link to Charles Eisenstein. Much food for thought.

      Yours, with loving kindness.

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