Defying the dazzling power of possessions

February 14, 2016

Thirty-two years ago Madonna’s Material World pre-empted the all-consuming global passion for acquisition. At the time, her stance seemed humorous, cheeky almost; today it seems the norm. Some of us seem to shop simply as a hobby, and have a disposable attitude to fashions in clothes and household goods.

This is not wholly new by any means, but it seems these days that it is too easy to be defined by what we own, not who we are. No wonder the constant battle to acquire more and more has become so exhausting and fraught with tension. It’s difficult to be the one who stands back, and says we need to change our relationship with our possessions.

I wonder if that is what we need to do. We need to learn to focus not on having more, but on appreciating what we do have. So although I may enjoy owning a piece of furniture, I remind myself not to be attached to it because of the price tag, but through the sentimental value I give to it. Respect and love means caring for an object, looking after it.

I take the same approach to fashion, choosing items that are made by hand, which deserve care: brushing and pressing; dry cleaning and mending.

Marie Kondo, the Japanese author who has shone a light into the effects of over-consumption through her books on tidying one’s home and removing excess belongings, talks of keeping items only which “spark joy”. And this is important. We need to think clearly about what enhances our happiness, so that we do not collect possessions merely through uncontrolled greed.

Sometimes, of course, collection can turn to hoarding, as depicted brilliantly in The Dazzle, a play I was fortunate enough to sponsor recently. Written by Richard Greenberg, it is based on the true story of the Collyer brothers: found dead in 1947 in a Harlem mansion, buried under 136 tons of junk including 14 grand pianos and the chassis of a Model T Ford.

Who knows when the brothers stopped collecting items which “sparked joy”, and began drowning in their material world? We know that in Buddhism, our suffering in this life stems from over-attachment, whether it is to possessions, relationships or our own sense of identity. Pain comes from fear of these attachments being broken, and when those breaches actually occur.

We can have more freedom in our lives. This doesn’t mean letting go of everything, but just cooling down the intensity. When we experience loss, it should be less painful.

How do we get there? Through being mindful of what matters and engaging our sense of taste. From here we can build loving, respectful relationships with everything in our lives – and with everyone.

Bruno Wang, founder of the Pureland Foundation