My daughter was seven years old when my grandmother died. We attended the graveside service on a sunny spring morning. The casket rested on a wheeled frame on one side of the grave, and a blue tarp covered a pile of dirt on the other. My daughter pointed to the bulging tarp and squeezed my hand. “Is that all her stuff?” she asked.
Imagine: that we take all our stuff with us when we die! Rationally I know this isn’t true, but maybe my daughter was on to something: when I look at how I’ve clung to certain belongings or my financial status, I wonder how much of my identity is entangled with my possessions. Wisdom traditions tell us that attachment binds us to a cycle of suffering. One desire breeds another and another. Maybe our attachments to material possessions can bury us.
Two years ago, I was neck-deep in debt from my own law degree and my now-grown daughter’s college education. I lived in North Carolina, where the jobs available couldn’t begin to cover my bills, so I took a series of temporary positions in New York City, leaving family, friends, and a comfortable home. I lived in a studio apartment and worked more than 60 hours a week, including Saturdays. I did yoga and meditation practice, went to work, came home and slept, then did it again the next day. I expended energy only on what I needed to do to remain healthy and meet the demands of my job.
After the initial adjustment, I found that I felt balanced and happy, and needed much less than I was accustomed to having. Owning exactly one pot, one pan, and a couple of glasses and plates felt liberating. I began to view all non-essentials as clutter, not only in terms of the amount of space they occupied, but in terms of the attention and time they required. With my tiny Manhattan apartment, my tight budget, and my demanding schedule, if something was going to be added to my living space, expenses, routine, or attention, it needed a strong justification. As a practitioner of meditation, I began assessing any potential addition to my life in terms of its ultimate value: how will this object or experience contribute to my peace of mind?
Through self-observation and meditation, I was able to witness how desire sneaks up quietly—a piercing, dogged thought that aims directly at some perceived lack in myself. It’s a process of self-deception—a false belief that if I have some desired object or experience, I will feel complete, happy, loved, respected, or safe. The desire may be as mundane as wanting that new pair of designer shoes; as financially sophisticated as wanting shares of stock; or as deep-rooted as the desire for a child, a soul mate, or a spiritual teacher.
We all think that the thing we desire will give us a sense of satisfaction or wholeness. But I have learned that inner peace is a function of how I manage my mind, which points me toward staying healthy and doing spiritual practice. Nothing external, whether it’s a new possession, a stock portfolio, or a child, is going to bring me inner peace.
By adopting an attitude of abundance—and regarding each experience as a gift—I can replace anxiety with contentment.
This shift in perspective has been helpful whenever I’ve found myself on the New York job market between temp positions. By adopting an attitude of abundance—and regarding each experience as a gift—I can replace anxiety with contentment. If I can’t find work, I look for the positive side of being unemployed: I have time to rest, catch up on reading, and enjoy a walk through the city. Because I am living in one room far from family and friends, I cultivate appreciation for the solitude and silence of my apartment, and how it has helped me simplify my needs.
I was blessed to have been introduced to yoga and meditation in my teens. Despite some choices over the years that led me down many a rabbit hole, yoga and meditation have been a constant in my adult life.
For people who are not familiar with yoga and meditation, the idea that our net material worth is ultimately meaningless can be unsettling. After all, we are subject to a constant barrage of messages from our culture telling us that our possessions, wealth, and status are our very identity. Stepping out of this mind-set can be challenging. But once we experience the deep relaxation of a yoga class, or the de-stressing effects of deep breathing, we gain some insight into the possibilities of being present with ourselves, calmly observing our mind and emotions, instead of being dragged around by constant desires.
The daily practice of meditation connects me with a deeper layer of being that is free from the ups and downs of news reports and bank statements. It brings me a sense of serenity and connection with something larger than myself that carries over into the rest of my daily life, providing a sense of balance and abundance—no matter how much or how little I have.
Time and again, my grandmother’s grave comes to mind: a solitary casket and a pile of dirt—the only material remains of what a person has been or accumulated. When I feel stressed about money or drawn to acquire something non-essential, I remember my daughter’s graveside question, and focus on connecting with the quiet that I find in meditation—an inner wealth that is undisturbed by material gains and losses.