The Relief of Ownerlessness
All things flourish without interruption. They grow by themselves, and no one possesses them.
Laozi, Daodejing (tr. Chuang-yuan Chang)
Wood. Is there anything more alienated than a wooden table? Carpentry is the ultimate act of kidnapping, unlike metallurgy- when we build of wood we literally build with dead bodies, thieves of bone and blood. Can you imagine being invited over to someone’s house only to find that the walls were built of bone? Yet our ancestors fed and clothed themselves with the bodies of animals. Animals were life inside them, and they lived their lives inside animals.
Heraclitus was seemingly right when he saw strife as fundamental to being, writing “all things happen according to strife and necessity.” Even if what Heidegger called the es gibt of being, its given-ness or its generosity, could be called a kind of inhuman love, there are endless skirmishes in the clearing of reality lit up by consciousness.
In the world of pure surfaces, things have only a human meaning. Tables are just “tables”, and more than that, “our tables”, not the stolen flesh of trees with history buried now in the grave of their human appropriation. Recalling their histories removes them from our ownership. When we no longer own them, they in turn no longer own us.
This dynamic was described by Max Stirner (1806–1856), the influential radical anarchist and iconoclast in his book The Unique and Its Property (Der Einzige und sein Eigentum). Stirner pointed out how the I, the individual, uses something external in a way which makes it “property.” In doing so, the individual defines that thing and makes it into a specific object- a table, a hammer, a glass. The thing, once given an identity and use, now has power over the owner, the very one who assigned it an identity in the first place. In the end the owner, now believing in the reality of the object it created, becomes the property of the object.
This is similar to the process of fetishization in Marx’s thought, though Stirner makes his analysis more fundamental and existential. It is the process of reification where a nameless manifestation of cosmic forces becomes a thing with a character and identity we wrongly believe inheres in the thing itself. To put it in Buddhist terms, we believe the thing has “svabhava” — inherent, or self-generated identity- when in fact it is “empty” of such a nature.
As a result of this we wrongly believe we can depend on that thing to be what we say it is. We also feel that we owe it a fidelity to its identity which we treat as though it came before us instead of being something we have created. Yet life will teach us that nothing is as we conjure or conjecture it to be. Nothing belongs to us, and our stories about what things are are not the final word.
When we learn about all the ways that things do not belong to us, we suffer grief and also liberation.
This is just as true in our relationship with people.
In early Buddhism there was a word for the realization of such ownerlessness as well, the subjective counterpart to the phenomenal reality of “emptiness.” It was called anatta. This is often incorrectly translated “no self”, influenced by later Buddhist thought, when in fact it means “not-self.” In the context of how the Buddha defines and uses the word, it is clear the primary meaning is “not mine.” The Buddhist doctrine of no-self, which denies the existence of an abiding identity in the human being, grew out of this doctrine, but was still centuries away when the Buddha sat under the tree of India and spoke about the simple impossibility of owning anything.
Although grief may follow this realization, in its train it bears relief. Many of us have felt, at least fleetingly, this relief of ownerlessness. Not being an owner is one of the great pleasures of traveling. I might take care of an object, like I would a hotel room, but what a relief for things not to be “mine”!
When something is mine I feel I need to control it, to take responsibility for it, in a way in which it’s really impossible to live up to. As Ajaan Chah (1918–1992), a teacher in the Thai Buddhist Forest Tradition said, a glass I pick up to drink from is “already broken.”
Contrary to this, however, our delusion is compounded. We believe the glass belongs to us, we believe it will last, and we believe, in the first place, that that particular collection of un-nameable energies is a glass.
Stirner called the identities we give things “spooks”, ghosts which haunt the world and rule over human beings. The Buddha too talked about releasing awareness from these spooks so we could rest in the bliss of letting go of them. So that we could live in a world suddenly become weightless. Maybe the “unbearable lightness of being” is only unbearable to those trying to hold on to something.
To understand our lack of ownership over anything is to walk through the door of grief and come out the other side.
This is hard, though. How hard is it to understand my lack of ownership over my child? Over my partner? Over my art, or my house, or my reputation? What about over the teeming earth itself, over all the human culture with which we have filled the world? We don’t own any of that either. We never did.
As Canadian poets Robert Bringhurst and Jan Zwicky write in Learning How To Die: Wisdom In The Age of Climate Crisis, the human project on this earth is ultimately doomed. Even were it not for our anthropogenic climate emergency, everything we do here will one day be consumed in the heat of an expanding sun en route to becoming a red star.
There is tragedy in our gambling so recklessly with our very limited inheritance, of course, and we are almost certainly in the process of bringing a lot more death and suffering to our human sojourn here on the back of Gaia than need be.
Nevertheless, perhaps we need to understand the ownerlessness of earth and of human culture because we need to walk through the door of grief and come out the other side with hands ready to preserve and protect, hands ready to reach out “like someone adjusting their pillow in the middle of the night.”
That line comes from an old Chinese koan (k’ung an), a “public record” of a dialogue between a master and student preserved for contemplation. The koan asks about Guanyin, the awakening being (bodhisattva) pictured in China as a woman of power who responds to the cries of suffering in the world.
Q: How is it with the thousand arms of Guanyin?
A: Like someone adjusting their pillow in the middle of the night.
Such hands cannot be trying to carry the unbearable lightness of being, they must have let it go.
As Jan Zwicky writes, “What use is it, to anyone, to lie down, immobilized by pain? Pain must be used to turn the soul toward the real, to reform both action and attention: to love what, in this case, remains.”
This is a revised version of an essay I published on Medium in February of 2019.