Things: We Own Them, They Don't Own Us

This article discusses the importance of buying only the things we need or love.

Things: We Own Them, They Don't Own Us

How do we become more skillful in our relationship to things? Much of our lives is spent purchasing, returning, taking care of, cleaning, putting away, moving, and getting rid of things. We acquire possessions through purchase, gifts, and inheritance. Once we are owners, possessions demand a large portion of our life energy. What do we do with the things we no longer use and the things that belonged to the people we loved dearly? Our choices about possessions shape our lives.

Most of us experience a complex range of intense emotions toward possessions. As Americans, we are trained consumers. We often purchase with mixed feelings, however. We know we have too much stuff. At the same time, we often feel, in fact are conditioned to feel, that we don't have enough.

Gaining a deeper understanding of your relationship to the material world can enhance your enjoyment of the things you have. It helps to recognize that you're conditioned to want more things. Unquenchable desires power our economy. An American Buddhist teacher, Sharon Salzberg, tells a story about a friend who said that when she was learning to talk, her favorite phrases were: "I need it! I want it! I have to have it!" For many of us, this is an ongoing mantra of our lives. Understanding both the will to own and the impact of owning can free us to let go of things we no longer want or need.

Desire does not by its nature have to become greed. It is a life force propelling us to move toward people, experiences, and things that we want. One great challenge of desire, however, is that it can slip into greed very easily. Greed is a passion that can blind us to reality and our true needs. Then, we might find that we are making huge decisions about our lives in order to fulfill our greed. Working skillfully with desire means learning to distinguish between need and greed, and learning to hold our desires more lightly, not take them quite so seriously.

We can use our possessions artfully to create places and spaces that nourish us. Traditionally, possessions represented years of savings and were passed on through generations. Yet, because we have become accustomed to the disposable nature of most things, we are less aware of how profoundly our possessions can shape our environment. Working skillfully with our possessions means that we can derive great benefit from each thing that we have and let go of the rest.

Tools to Help You Pause Before You Purchase

  • Shop from a list. Remember, you will want more than you need. Wait a couple of days or a week before you buy something that seems very compelling. In a week, you may have forgotten about it. Buy it if it's been on your list for several weeks.
  • Buy it only if you really love it, not sort of love it.
  • Buy it only if you have a place for it. Whether you are buying clothes, toys, books, tools, or kitchen equipment, remind yourself that everything you bring into your home or office needs a place. It's best to identify the place for this purchase beforehand. If you don't have space for it, either don't buy it or choose something else to get rid of.
  • Make a list of things that you really want but think you can't afford. Include a special vacation or a beautiful piece of artwork. Perhaps you want to take a workshop or course.
  • Keep that list with you when you shop.
  • Put the money you don't spend on the clothes or equipment that you don't really need into a savings account. Save the money for something that you really want.
  • Get skillful at comparing the allure of the new thing with the piles of unused belongings in your house.
  • Examine your beliefs about ownership. What does ownership mean to you?