02 March 2011

Environment: The Things We Own

As I meditated on what to write about today, it occurred to me that perhaps I should clarify what I mean when I use the word environment. Environment is a big word that encompasses several parts. There are the macro-level or public parts: the earth and nature, with their own issues including climate change, pollution, and overpopulation. There are the micro-level elements or personal spaces including individual homes, offices, studios, and cars. The in-between environments: neighborhoods, community centers, covensteads, markets, cities, towns, temples, parks and other places which share characteristics of both public and private environments.

For the purposes of this blog, I intend to begin with and focus on personal spaces. Eventually, I will include the spaces shared by community in the discussion, but my interest lies in the environments of a more personal nature. As a practitioner of magic and as a Pagan whose religious practices are primarily within my home, I feel that this type of personal space has the deepest impact on my psyche, health and ability to comfortably commune with divinity.

You might notice that I do not include the body as a part of personal environment. I reject the assumption that the body is merely a meat vehicle for one's spirit. I reject the concept of the body as dirty, sinful or an otherwise source of problems and pain. I do believe my body is me; it is not the total expression of me, but it is me. Your body is you, and should be respected as such. I will address this further on Friday, when I discuss health, where I believe it is appropriate to discuss this magnificent, complicated and fascinating expression of self called a body.

Humans form attachments; it is part of the human condition. The Buddhists claim that these attachments are the cause of all suffering. We form attachments to other people, ideas about ourselves, outcomes and expectations and even inanimate objects. While I agree with the Buddhists that we should cultivate more consciousness around our attachments, we part ways when it comes to a solution. Ideally, Buddhists would like to develop a compassionate, detached relationship to all. I however posit that it is in our best interest as humans to develop discernment as to which attachments will best serve us and to discard the rest. Knowing that pain and suffering may be the result of becoming attached to a lover, a beloved pet, a precious object is a risk I take gladly for I have glimpsed the great rewards of loving attachment.

Have you ever lost a precious object? Broken a favorite item? Had a cherished belonging stolen? The anguish we experience when we are deprived of our things is a result of our attachment to them. Yet, when the things we love are whole, we treasure them and take great pains to care for them. We keep them clean and in good repair; we carefully store them, even purchasing special cases or boxes for precious objects; we insure them and guard them protectively.

Have you ever stopped to consider how much emotional and mental energy is spent on tracking the things you own and love? How much money, time and effort do you spend to maintain treasured belongings? It probably doesn't occur to you to calculate those costs of ownership, because it is a labor of love. We seem to automatically care for the things we love. But what about objects you don't care about so much? An old, chipped coffee mug; a pair of pants that no longer fit; a never-been-used waffle maker. These are objects that you have in your home, but seldom use and have no sentimental value.

Then there is the clutter; the electrical cord to who-knows-what, dried out pens, junk mail, rubber bands from produce eaten long ago or the Sunday paper. It is stuff you put in the "junk drawer" or in a pile on a desk or table or in a basket or a closet. You tell yourself you might need it someday, or someone else might need it someday; someday, someday, someday. Sometimes, we cling to outdated or outmoded objects because they remind us of a time in our lives we deem to be happier or more vibrant. I suspect some people keep things that are no longer useful, but may be useful to others in conjunction with an attachment to an identity or story about themselves they wish to retain. They want to be the person with all the great stuff that no one else has, as if they will be called upon to be the props warehouse for community ritual drama.

You have a relationship with all the things you own, whether or not you love them, use them, or even remembering having them. All of these relationships require mental and emotional energy - even the clutter. Some things are useful, some give us joy, but others still require the mental energy to ignore them and then later hide them when company comes over. If you live in a large home and own lots of things, the burden of many objects is great. One can also have an enormous amount of mental clutter--we will cover this in a later blog.

Some things to consider:
  • Clutter makes us run in circles
  • Clutter makes us feel depressed
  • Clutter makes us "fight" all the time
  • Clutter steals our freedom
  • Clutter wastes time
  • Clutter causes stress
  • Clutter takes our space
  • Clutter makes us inefficient
  • Clutter costs us money
  • Clutter causes us embarrassment
  • Clutter causes safety hazards

Some questions to ask yourself:
  • Do you find yourself spending a lot of time looking for things? 
  • Do you sometimes find things in your home that you forgot you owned?
  • Do you feel tired, lethargic or otherwise run-down and have no other medical reason for feeling this way? You might be suffering from too much stuff.
  • Do you argue or fight with the people with whom you live? Do you have a contentious relationship with your neighbors? If you find that you have a lot of conflict in your life, it is probably caused by excess.
  • Would you be able to save money on your housing costs if you could move? Have you been stuck in your present home because you can't bring yourself to consider packing all your stuff to move house?
  • Are you frequently late to appointments because you can't find your keys, your gloves, your bag, etc.?
  • How much money could you save if you had less things and could live in a smaller home? How much money do you spend each month on storage?
  • When is the last time you entertained in your home? If you haven't had friends over to visit recently, you may find that you're too embarrassed by your clutter to invite friends and family to your home.
  • How often do you find that you trip over your stuff? If you had a house fire, how quickly could you get your pets, your family members and yourself out?
Next week, I will describe some strategies for decluttering your home, office and car. For now, I suggest you spend some time considering your relationship to the things you own. Bring your attention to how you feel when you see or use your things. How is your breathing? Is it shallow and quick? or relaxed and deep? Do you smile when you look at your things? Do you feel drawn to touch or handle your things? or do you tend to ignore or not see your belongings?


  1. I just went through this with my boyfriend. He moved from a four-bedroom house where he had accumulated 15 years worth of stuff to a smaller condo. I was stressed out just watching him try to let go of some of his stuff, most of which he rarely, if ever, used. He still has way too much stuff in the new place, but I'm hoping he'll eventually figure it out on his own.

  2. Thanks for your comment, Daghain. I feel your pain; my parents are currently dealing with the perfect storm of excess stuff. My step-father's parents died recently and they are trying to sort through the house full of stuff they left behind. As survivors of the Great Depression, they saved everything from packets of sweet & low to bolts of fabric. It's a tedious process.

    I'm going to talk a bit more next week about de-cluttering. It might take a more active and supportive role on your part to help your boyfriend sort through and get rid of his clutter. Do you have ideas as to why he is so attached to his stuff?

  3. Oh, boy, do I. He moved probably 50 times until he was about 15. There was apparently one incident where his parents actually got rid of his and his brother's toys because there was no room in the moving van (to hear him tell it it happened all the time, but his mom says ONCE; I'm more inclined to believe her). He's going to have to work his security issues out on his own, but I have gotten him to let go of quite a bit of it. Baby steps...