Freedom Is Having No Thing
Thich Nhat Hanh wrote You Are Here. A beautiful little book seemingly full of simple ideas, but deeply profound in unexpected ways. In the chapter of Healing Our Wounds and Pain, Hanh tells a story about the Buddha having lunch in a field with some monks, getting ready to teach. A farmer came by, distraught, asking if his cows had come through the field. He was devastated by the loss of the cows and his recent crops. He wished his life to end. The Buddha had compassion and comforted the farmer. When he left, the Buddha told the monks that they are happy because they do not have cows to lose.
In modern society, most people see “freedom” as being wealthy and able to buy anything. With an abundance of money, we can buy any material thing we want, vacations, and time. We can pay people to do work for us, so we then have an abundance of time.
But does having an abundance of anything grant a person happiness?
If a person has endless money or time, what happiness can it bring if the spending of it holds no value? The saying “Money Can’t Buy Happiness” is a truth reminded to us by those with awareness. There must be something behind the use of the money, time, or things. There must be a purpose. The purpose is happiness — not the money.
A few years ago, a hurricane visited my neighborhood. We’d watched the hurricane build for over a week, with dire predictions from all interested scientists. It was to be a massive, damaging storm. Flood predictions said my town could be in real danger. Most of my neighbors did not fully prepare because weather forecasters can sometimes be like the boy who cried wolf. They didn’t believe them.
The storm came and stayed over our town for 4 days. Rain and more rain poured down, and our rivers rose. All over the city, there was flooding, and my town, especially, had mandatory evacuations in several areas. Civilian boat rescues were stopped at one point, and the military took over, rescuing those in apartment complexes (including mine) and taking people to shelters.
I managed to self-evacuate just as the final exit from my town was closing due to the flood waters. I had a lifted vehicle, and was able to get to safety. After 3 days, the waters receded enough for me to go look at my apartment complex. I lived on the second floor, and the waters must have stopped just before breaching the 2nd landing. I did not have flooding in my apartment, though my downstairs neighbors lost everything.
My friend and neighbor was a dear lady who lived alone. She lived on the first floor. I put on rubber boots and gloves and a mask, and helped her scavenge her apartment for items she might salvage. As there was a sewage leak in our area within the flood waters, there wasn’t much that could be saved. The smell was horrendous. I looked at her apartment full of furniture and a lifetime of belongings and things. I felt horrible sadness at her loss. She was an unusual, beautiful spirit, and kept her attitude calm and grateful. She saved some things that mattered to her, and she packed up what little she had into a small UHaul truck. She was heading for Colorado for a fresh, new start.
Joy in a Future Without Baggage
I watched her UHaul leave. I looked at her apartment still full of all those things. I looked at my apartment, knowing I had only 3 days to pack, fill a UHaul, and move myself. None of my things were damaged. It was exhausting, considering the work ahead. And I was jealous. I was jealous of my friend who’d just driven away from all of her worldly possessions. That was freedom. I saw it, felt it, and was happy for her.
That sentiment was not understood by anyone I tried to share it with. People won’t admit it, but being a victim can sometimes feel nice. Those affected by drastic change that we see as “tragic”, get a lot of sympathy, pity and commiseration from others. That sense of community and understanding feels good. Warm. Comforting.
But I saw the truth. I saw my friend’s freedom from the things that chain us to our own stories of what defines “us”. The things we cling to as if our life depended on them.
What do we feel when we accidentally lose our phone for a moment? Pure panic. What if we left it somewhere?! How will we go on?
Our addictions to the possessions that define us, enslave us. The material rewards we work so hard for, become our masters. We work and work to qualify for the fancy car, party boat and 2-story suburban dream house. Then we work and work some more, to keep paying the bills for those things that we now have no time to enjoy. We traded time for the money to buy the things that are meaningless.
The Buddha had it right.
The farmer defined his entire life by his possessions. When the possessions were lost, he was lost. He had no other sense of himself besides the identity as a farmer.
We are the same. We become identified with our role, our home, our community, our material possessions. So much so, that we can’t see who we are beyond them.
In truth, we are limitless beyond our stories we’ve created. We can create stories over and over again. That’s the joy of the truth of humans as creators. We are here to create.
And if we don’t get trapped by an idea of only one way, one path and one story? We can create magnificence again and again. Reshape ourselves, our lives and the lives of others. Creating and letting go. Once we’ve created one thing, we can be grateful, look at it with pure joy, then let it go. It doesn’t define us. It doesn’t make us who we are.
True freedom is not having more and more stuff. It is having or clinging to no thing. It is letting go, and moving on to the next beautiful creation.