So now you have seen examples of things seized upon by my acquisitive nature, and the reasons I will not get them. You’ll keep seeing them for a while if you keep coming to this blog; I am dismayed to admit that, as far as I can tell from my Amazon wish list, my desire for stuff is effectively infinite.
But when I stayed at a convent for a week, I learned just how little I needed. I correctly thought I didn’t need to bring much with me, but I couldn’t pack less than two heavy bags. However, what I discovered was that in addition to what the convent provided (bedding, towels, alarm clock, food), all I really needed was my watch and a few changes of clothing; comb, toothbrush, toothpaste, and foot powder; prescriptions, CPAP machine, and eyeglasses. I was vain enough to use unneeded antiperspirant, sunscreen, and lip sunscreen.
What was so striking was that apart from antiperspirant and sunscreens, I didn’t feel anxious at being deprived of my unneeded stuff, as one might expect of a hoarder-clutterer-packrat; nor did I feel relief at being freed from the burden of my excess stuff; I just didn’t need it so I didn’t think about it. I even stopped missing email after three days, and even that urge did not halt with a loud screech and the smell of burnt rubber; rather, the feeling just melted away silently.
Since coming back to “the world,” as monastics call it, I have puzzled over this a great deal. Why do I feel I need so much stuff at home, when I could live with so little in the convent?
Having my mind on higher things is glib to say, and untrue. I thought rather a lot about food that week, because the nuns were not only pescetarian (they cooked fish exactly once during the week I was there, and ate it up in two meals), but they also were on on a low glycemic load diet for their health. I did find difficult the admirably healthy but ethereal diet. I felt deprived enough that one day I got into the fridge and had a luxurious solitary meal of cottage cheese, boiled eggs, and peanut buttered bread washed down with whole milk, giving me a firsthand understanding of why monastics in my religion forswear “secret eating,” which had always mystified me until I did it. So I did have a clear craving — for food, just not for my stuff.
I think what allowed me to do without stuff was the specifics of the radical environmental change. I did need to eat, so I continued to crave food. But I didn’t need to do much but pray and do the simple work assigned me (tasks hard for a guest to mess up, such as weeding under a tree or grating some cheese). I didn’t need so much as a purse to take to the office or a lipstick to make my perpetually rumpled self look “professional.” There were no stores and no Amazon wish list to stoke the flames of my cupidity. And I was surrounded by renunciants who had taken a vow of poverty.
One might ask why my blog is not about examining my current possessions. However, I find that over the years with constant effort I’m gradually getting better at getting rid of stuff. The malfunctioning fire sprinklers in my storage unit do help quite a bit. The problem I find more acute is that even though I indignantly deny being a shopaholic, I still acquire things faster than I get rid of them. So I’m a shopaholic not in a budgetary sense but in terms of still letting myself buy more than I need and have space for. I’ve made progress in unstopping the bathtub drain, but I have got to do something about the leaky faucet that even at a fast drip is filling the tub faster than it empties.
I can say self-righteously and in self-delusion that I don’t listen to radio or TV (except dorkily turning the laundomat TV to Bloomberg – see, I turn it to a money channel, not a nature channel) and I don’t go to malls (except for spending time on Amazon, eBay, Etsy, and any number of commercial websites, bigger than any physical mall). The fog of my greed, no matter how subtle and fine, slips through every little space to cloud my will. I need to practice admiring something yet letting go of my fantasy of how fine it would be to own it.