By Steven Martyn
One of the gifts that spending time with people in their last days can bring to us is perspective on possessions. So, I’ve been meditating on the nature of ‘possession’. It’s certainly not the first time I’ve done this or likely the last, because this tree, from which so many forms of colonization grow, keeps bearing fruit of insight for me.
On the one hand I can justify feelings of possession and attachment by saying they are an evolutionary necessity. That in order to form pair bonds to raise children and form stable communities we must feel a degree of possession. But in another way, in the moment when I watch myself possess, it doesn’t feel necessary, right or mature. I can see it’s a contrived behaviour that grows from fear. We’re taught to placate our fears by surrounding ourselves with possessions. We ‘possess’, to shore-up what we imagine is our life, against the surging tide of uncertainty and death. But it’s futile, because when the tide actually turns we find our sandbags are full of straw and floating away with the tide.
To ‘possess’ is something we are taught. Children initially have no sense of attachment to things until the virus of possession is passed to them. Without even thinking about it we encourage them to think of things as their own. When children are brought up without a strong sense of ownership or possession and encounter it later in life they actually have a hard time understanding it. This was true of many First Nations people as well, who upon encountering European culture gave away much of what they had. They did this because in traditional indigenous culture your wealth was shown by what you could give and not what you had.
The origin of the word possess comes from french and essentially means “to sit as a master”. So clearly possessions have always been about power-over.
In reality even our ability to possess is a complete illusion. And with this insight it follows that anyone who would take the idea of possession seriously, must be fully delusional. Yet our whole culture, and much of our personal time and energy is devoted to this imaginary concept. It’s the barb that keeps us struggling on the hook of modernity.
In the west we are encouraged to possess everything, starting with ‘our’ body. Then ‘our’ spouse, children, friends, land, food and all kinds of other stuff. All the way down the line to possessing our emotions and thoughts. We may even possess our town or country, although that kind of tribalism is more rare these days. Now we have our phones and the conquests of inner landscapes they hold.
Even our language is possessive, so trying to think or write about things in a non-possessive way is like sailing into the wind. It can’t be done directly, we need tack. And because this backward way of thinking is built right into the language, we can assume its been there from the inception of English culture, and every other culture whose language uses possessives. To realize this is to begin to see how we’ve been semiotically programmed for thousands of years to think this way.
And yet, while we spend our well trained lives holding tightly onto people and things, we must realize on another level that everything we ‘have’ will be lost. Everything. They’ll be in someone else’s possession, or a dump shortly after our bodies die. And if we can see our life clearly, even for a moment, we must admit as Buddha did, that possession and attachment is at the heart of all suffering.
To loosen the grip of our possessive programming I think it is necessary for us all to deeply meditate on this subject. When we can see into its true nature, the illusion of possession pulls itself apart under our gaze. Let’s start with loosening our grip on this lovely thing we call our body. We can do this so many ways it’s not funny. But let’s go for what we know to be true scientifically. It’s a well known fact that there are far more independent cellular forms like bacteria, by weight, that make up our body than there are cells that could be considered as being endemic to our organism. So what part of our bodies is us? Where do they stop and we start? When we follow this divisive thinking down you find the dividing line between our bodies and the larger ecology doesn’t exist. Over and over, We are not there at all. And yet we are here.
We are along for an exquisite ride, on a mysterious whale crossing the seas of life. Our bodies are their own thing and not by any stretch who we are. But as it stands in this physical world, they are all we can see and we are nothing without them. Our bodies are our vehicle, without which we cannot move through life.
(This understanding is how the concept of a vehicle, like a canoe or car came to be. By first, understanding who we are relative to our bodies. Everything we’ve invented or ever made as humans is actually co-created this way, by relating first in a very intimate way with the inner dimensions, and then bringing back the insights we were given and physically realizing them.)
We even possess our emotional states. As though the movements of these gods we call emotions, whose very earth we stand on and are reliant, could be made or held by us. These ‘archetypal’ forms aren’t a symbolic part of us, they have their own life, their own ecology, that we live in! This ecology underlies the physical ecology as well and can be seen throughout nature. Many cultural systems of archetypal understanding have been expressed clearly through animal forms in particular. From the Zodiac to the first Nations Totems, it’s been well understood for thousands of years that these deities rule our lives whether we like it or not.
These days, if we think of these beings at all, we think of them as distant forces exerting influence on our life. But our ancient understanding was that these living energies lived through us and other animals. Seen this way, most of what we imagine is our ‘personal emotional life, thats made up of ‘’our’ emotions and our thoughts is actually their life too. In much the same way as ‘our’ physical body is not just our home but a meeting place for many life forms.
So, If we can’t even possess our body, or thoughts and emotions, how could we ever possess anything else?
While our inability to truly possess anything might be clear, most of us, even if we feel inspired are not going to willingly become Sadhus and wander the Earth without any possessions. In part this is because there is no socially sanctioned role for this in the west, unlike India that has a tradition to honour and feed people like Sadhus, who have sacrificed their personal life to embody the ‘Holy” for everyone. In the western world, if we practice spiritual poverty, we’re ironically considered ’homeless’. And instead of being fed for sharing our holy words, we’d likely end up institutionalized.
So we might agree that in today’s world we need some possessions to be functional in our society. And I think we can also agree that most of us could get by with a lot less stuff, for many reasons. Not the least of which is if we stop buying all that crap they’ll stop making it. But when we pare down our possessions, while this might be good for the environment, we may personally still be just as possessive of the few things we have. So then, when were checking in with ourselves, perhaps it’s not just how few possessions we have, but how possessive we feel about them?
Possessiveness can torture us or be a lovely gentle teacher. Every time we feel a pang of possessiveness, like a temple bell, it can remind us to find our centre. To know that our time here is short and letting go must be a constant practice in life. Then we can receive Her waves as they come to us, including death, with open arms.
While living our life to the fullest, and bowing to the pantheon of spirits who dance us through our days, we must also in every moment, forget everything. Forget our plans, our ideas of who we are and our small life. We need to do this in order to remember who we really are. And from here, to know how to act in the big play we’re all part of.
And when the ‘show’ is all over, those who were on stage and part of the cast will gather together to revel and laugh, at the poor and inspired performances of our ‘life’.
Find your part, and act.
Here’s a hint in case you’re looking in the wrong direction. We were not born to accumulate wealth or even make great works or achieve great things. Forget all that. We were born to care for each other and the Earth, and there are ten thousand different ways to do it. In this holy work lies our personal, social and collective salvation.