A farmer ran up to Buddha and his followers and panically asked, “Have you seen my cows? I can’t survive without them!” Buddha replied, “I have not seen your cows. Maybe they went in the other direction.” As the farmer ran off in the other direction, Buddha turned to his followers and proclaimed, “You are all the happiest people on Earth because you have no cows to lose.”
I don’t believe in giving up all your possessions in order to be happy. I just don’t think it’s possible for most people to survive in a modern capitalist society. I’ve seen all the shows about minimalist living and I’ve attended enough webinars on ‘how I can live a happy life if I just give up everything’. While that’s great for some people, that’s not me. I am willing to bet that most people would not be happy with that lifestyle either; as much as we may think we need it.
I love my things. I love my shoes, I love my desk, and I love money. If Marie Kondo were to ask me, “Do they bring me joy?” I would respond with a resounding, “Hell Yes!”
Why must I give all those things up?
Good news! I don’t need to — and you don’t either.
What I believe the Buddha is saying is not necessarily ‘give up your possessions’, but release the control they have over you. Releasing this control may sometimes lead to having to give something up, but I believe most of the time we can simply change our perception of our possessions and choices.
For much of our lives we try to build an existence in this world through the choices we make and the things we acquire. Our jobs, our friends, our memberships, where we live, the phones we use, the shoes we wear — are all being internalized to help us present an external identity to the world. How many times have you said something like, “I can’t live without my iphone.” We give these ‘things’ weight every-time we use them as part of our existence. The more we give weight to something, the more we give up a piece of our internal power to that ‘thing’. The more pieces of our power we give something the further and stronger we become attached to that ‘thing’.
As I mention previously, I love money. I am not ashamed of that. Money provides me with the privilege to become financially stable. Money also provides me with other privileges that bring me joy — traveling, eating delicious food, donating, giving gifts, investing, etc. So when I lost my job during the pandemic, that power was taken away from me. I felt lost. I was angry. I was stressed and scared. I went from feeling powerful to powerless. The thing that made me happy became the very obstacle that prevented me from being happy when it was no longer there.
I used my job as a source of identity which put a lot of weight into my job. This weight gave away my power to my job. When my job no longer existed, neither did my power. I had to learn that I couldn’t give my power away to a job. To clarify, when I say “power”, I am not talking about status. I am also not condoning that people in powerful positions should do all they can to keep that power. I am talking about an internal power; an inner-strength that provides a constant balance of well-being in times of suffering. That is the type of power that all people can benefit from and not just the one with the power.
It can be hard to detach a feeling we get from something that provides us with that feeling; whether positive or negative. The loss of my job is not a reflection of me. I am not my job. While buying new shoes may bring me joy, joy is not new shoes.
I believe the teaching from Buddha about the farmer missing his cows was to provide insight into the 3 types of suffering:
- Physical/Mental suffering (Dukkha): The Farmer is distraught over missing cows.
- All composite things sooner or later must come apart (Anatta): The Farmer is getting older, making it harder to maintain a farm.
- Change is inevitable (Anicca): One day the farmer will wake up to find his cows are missing or dead.
This may sound depressing, but understanding these type of suffering will prevent you from giving your power away to things that are likely to cause more suffering. When I am feeling negative, or a negative event (losing my job) occurs, I have to remember to not give it my power. It can be hard to detach a feeling we get from something that provides us with that feeling; whether positive or negative. The loss of my job is not a reflection of me. I am not my job. While buying new shoes may bring me joy, joy is not new shoes.
By learning to detach a feeling from something is called, non-attachment. This does not mean we should become an emotionless zombie. Non-attachment means not letting something define you or control you. This comes back to our conversation about power. By not giving weight to something (a negative comment, a job, bad hair day) means you are not giving it power to control your thoughts or feelings.
If I reflect enough on the feeling of new shoes bringing me joy, I will find that joy does not simply come from only buying new shoes. Therefore, I must focus my energy from buying new shoes (external/impermanent), to joy (internal/permanent) instead. Joy is a feeling that I can only control from within. I choose to allow or not-allow buying new shoes to bring me joy. I can also choose whether or not to allow the loss of a job to control my anger and sadness. Understanding this type of control over your feelings can lead to a stronger and more powerful you.
Reflect on a feeling something gives you. Really focus and understand that feeling. Try to sit with it for as long as you can. By sitting and reflecting with a feeling, you are trying to understand what fuels this feeling. If you need to, write down the areas that fuel this feeling. By acknowledging this feeling and recognizing what feeds it we are able to find ways to prevent (if negative) or encourage (if positive) this feeling within ourself.