One of the core orientations of the mind is toward that of possessing, amassing, acquiring. This is a natural, very human tendency to gather up and stockpile all the stuff we believe will offer protection. Of course, on the hunt for things to safeguard our interests, we don’t stop with objects. We also try to attain other people—in the form of companions, friends and even employees; we prize our accredited knowledge, plaques and diplomas from institutions that stamp us as the real deal, and other personality assets, such our terrific sense of humor , our taste and refined opinions about this or that.
The drive to collect and procure has, of course, some downsides that most advertising and entertainment vehicles will not call to our attention. First, there’s the abiding problem that anything we have we can lose. What we’ve earned might dissipate or disappear, and that’s worrying; all things are vulnerable to change, for they become worn down or outmoded. In time we’ll grow tired of our iGadgets, apartments, job titles and accoutrements and have to suppress that awkward awareness that possessing things is ultimately a hollow endeavor. Secondly, to hold on to anything in life requires us to give weight and creedence to the subject which owns, the ‘I’ or ‘me’ that keeps track of all the stuff we’ve accumulated. This subject not only has to look after things, it frets about how it compares with other subjects-who-own. ‘Hey, that guy has more stuff than me! What’s going on here?’ So search for external accomplishment can be constantly undermining. And finally there are small, abiding problems known as old age, sickness, pain, separation and death. What safety and ease will a car, house, diploma, awards or lifetime of approval from others do in such circumstances? Little.
So in acquiring and attaining there is no completion or ultimate gratification; one is granted the shortest of rests before the anxiety of the possessing mind arises and forces us back into the distracting hunt for more. (In professional sports, teams that win titles rest for a few days before preparing for the next season; its the same with all our accomplishments.) While seeking the perfect, transcendent thing, that-which-will-allow-me-to-rest, we’re engrossed and diverted by the surface attributes of what we’re trying to attain; we don't like to think about what's behind the facade; we’re kept from realizing that the search itself is what’s creating our sense of unease and need for more. In this way, hunting and gathering for anything beyond food and shelter is a feedback loop more stressful than rewarding.
Of course, there is a way to step off the treadmill; there’s another direction towards which we can orient the mind. The Buddha’s renunciation, his relinquishment of the palace life, allowed him to focus on the deeper meanings inherent in being alive. Whereas all external things must pass, the mind itself is capable of sustaining awareness that brings us peace. What brings about this state? Kindness, compassion, gratitude, generosity, appreciation, harmlessness. In letting go of grabbing onto this or that, in putting aside the false belief that something is missing that’s needed for serenity, we take the first step towards these divine states of mind and begin to establish what the Buddha called Nibbäna, or the deathless (that which does not end): “a realm of lasting peace that is not created or or dependent on things.”
When confronted with the idea of ‘letting go’ and ‘putting this or that aside’ will bring about a new direction in life, most of us will nod, agree, then back away slowly. We’ll return to the cycle of looking for the missing piece. The notion of giving up asks too much of us, it goes against all we’ve been taught by, and practiced in, the world. Fortunately, as lay practitioners, we are not required to put our flat screen TVs and iPhones on the street, watching glumly as our cherished possession ferreted away. It’s not essential to take up robes and live in remote jungle huts, nor is a trek up a nepalese mountain. We can simply start by understanding that nothing is missing, and that everything we have—whether its still nice to look at or wearing thin—is ultimately beside the point, superficial. When we turn away, we can greet all the meaninglessness and unease at the core of being and, with a consoling mind, accept all that we’ve been smothering with more and more stuff. Be warned, this state does not grant us a life of constant delight or freedom from pain; it does not protect us from illness or death, nor even get us on the subway for free. But its the real deal.