I awoke this morning to a drizzly grey sky. After a few days of rain, the marine layer had rolled in and decided to hang out for a while. Snuggled in the warmth of my bed, I could relate to the fog’s reluctance to leave … or perhaps its willingness to stay. Either way, its presence created the kind of lazy weather that drew me inward with an invitation to hunker down and write a bit.
The rain is a welcomed gift for the parched earth of our drought-stricken state. Earlier this year a massive wildfire raged through Northern California. It burned over one hundred thousand acres of dry forest and farmland, claiming the homes of thousands of families in the process. In the midst of the fire I sent a note to a friend of mine, a Zen teacher, who lives in the area to check on him and his home. His reply probably shouldn’t have surprised me, but it did: “It’s been a big deal and I know people who’ve lost their homes … I’ve made some efforts to prevent my house from burning down, but if it does, well … I’m not my stuff.”
Those are the words we might expect from a Zen master. But for most of us this is a hard sentiment to embody. I’m not my stuff can be a bit of a spiritual cliché — something we’re taught makes us sound holy, like we get it when we say it. It’s the kind of response you get from someone after a yoga class when you comment on the beauty of the car they’re loading their Lululemon yoga mat into: “Thanks, but you know, I’m not my stuff.” As creatures of matter though, it’s hard to mean I’m not my stuff even when we wholeheartedly say it because in so many ways we are our stuff: our skin and bones, our family albums, our achievements, and the trophies we proudly display as proof of those achievements — all the stuff we use to understand ourselves and describe to others who we are.
Maybe another way to look at it is, “What part of me is my stuff?” Perhaps this is more authentic and in line with our human nature. This contemplation has left me with different answers on different days. At times, in the midst of spiritual study and meditation, I’ve felt more aligned with my spirit, the part of me that is less stuff, a bit more air and light than matter. On those days, floating in the wind of my consciousness, I wonder if any of the stuff even exists or if it’s all a figment of my mind. My friend, a monk, once told me of a similar experience he had as a young student in the monastery. He shared this sensation with his teacher, that perhaps life was nothing more than a dream. The teacher smiled knowingly and then, without warning, struck him on the back with his bamboo walking stick. As my friend winced from the sting of the blow, his teacher smiled slyly and asked, “Was that a dream?” In moments of physical pain or struggle we tend to identify with the body and might feel we’re nothing more than skin, bones, nerves, senses, and the pain we experience in them. It’s hard on those days to imagine something more. In those times a wise teacher might ask us to identify what part of the body we are. Or inquire if we were to cut off our hand would we still be ourselves? How much of the body can go before we’re not who we think we are? These questions and their answers cause us to realize, like the whack of a teacher’s walking stick, that more is going on than we can perceive in that moment — that maybe we’re more than we think we are. Not exactly a dream, and not all skin and bones. Not our stuff and yet … not totally not our stuff either.
The Shaolin Temple in China, where I was first introduced to Zen philosophy and still have many teachers and friends, was recently in the news. The abbot there was accused of the sort of situation we in the west are used to seeing powerful men get themselves into — sex, money and fancy cars, a good old fashioned, “I can’t believe it … he’s supposed to be a holy man” type of scandal. After seeing the breaking news scroll across the bottom of CNN, I emailed my friends to see how they were doing. One of them responded with the vulnerable eloquence of a simple monk: “We have some hard times right now. But we still have love in our hearts. I think, Jason, that’s what matters.” In other words, I’m not this stuff that’s going on.
Asking what matters to me? is another way of looking at our relationship to our stuff. We might have a lot of things, but little of it really means something. I realized this recently as I moved houses and was forced to pack up all our belongings, and then again as we wearily unpacked it all into the new house. I remember thinking how little I cared about those things. I thought of giving it all away, and did in fact donate much of it; yet today as I look around my home, our stuff neatly arranged, I realize that in part, it’s that stuff that makes this new house feel like our home.
It can be hard to figure out what matters in a noisy world infiltrated by commerce at every turn. What experiences resonate in our heart? What things in life touch our soul? What brings a smile to our face, or causes a tear to slide down our cheek? We’re taught to overlook big questions like that and instead find contentment in a bowl of Wheaties, a Happy Meal, or a Coke and a Smile. It’s tempting, in this way, to think that Zen teachers and monks have it easier than we do — living in a temple, meditating day in and day out, surrounded by like minds and hearts. But then there’s a fire or a scandal and we see the truth beyond the robes and prayer beads — that we’re all human, it’s never easy, that peaceful places can become chaotic in an instant, that our stuff can be burned and our faith can be shaken. Perhaps at the core what we really are, then, is our practice: those activities we perform day in and day out.
The first time Guru Singh asked me what my daily practice was I had no idea what he meant. I thought back to my not-so-illustrious high school sports days. I remembered the two-a-day practices in the summer sun preparing for football, or running drills again and again in basketball. Those days seemed so long ago, almost belonging to another Jason in another time. But that’s what daily practice is all about — the things we do on a daily basis to prepare us for the life we say we want. In sports we want to perform under pressure, to remember when it counts, to win the prize. In life we want the same, only with a slightly different prize. We want to be happy. We want to feel fulfilled. We want to be safe and loving and loved. We want these things. We tell ourselves and our friends that this is what matters. And yet our practice tells a different story.
We stay up late binge-watching Game of Thrones. We wake up early and check our email. We, and our families, rush through the morning. We eat a breakfast devoid of nutrients. We scramble out the door, on our phones for the first call of the day, dragging our children behind us as we drop them at school on the way to work. We work all day, we hold our breath, we get lost in our heads and we invest our being in what we call making a living, which is a funny way of describing this practice we have of never truly living. And then we do it all again, and again, and again. We identify with our stuff because beyond that we don’t really know what else we might be.
Annie Dillard wrote in The Writing Life, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” Moving beyond our stuff is a matter of changing what we spend our days practicing. It’s the same skill we use in creating a daily work routine or tuning in to the nightly news, only instead of placing our attention on external activities we give it to ourselves. We bless ourselves with the gift of paying attention to what really matters to us and making it habit. Physical health might be practiced by eating nutrient-dense foods, a morning smoothie, an afternoon walk around the office building. Emotional well-being can be practiced by remembering to breathe throughout the day, by being mindful to our breath and the beat of our own heart, by playing with our children or resting our heads on the pillow and connecting with our spouse. Spiritually we practice by connecting to those less physical parts of our being: we meditate, we do yoga, we rest our tired bodies under an oak tree and breathe … we give ourselves permission to simply be amidst all the doing. With time and daily attention, we find our practice fills our heart and takes on a meaning beyond the stuff that fills our lives.
This week I invite you to begin the process of building a practice that represents who you aspire to be in life. Start by pondering some of the big questions: Who am I? What really matters to me? What is my practice? What kind of practice would prepare me for the life I want? Commit to beginning a new routine that reflects those answers. This can begin slowly, in a way that isn’t overwhelming or stressful, and build over time. If you want to meditate start with a few minutes a day, see how it feels and then, when it’s comfortable, add a few more. If you want to add nutrients to your diet, find something you like, look for a recipe that increases its nutrient value, and slowly do this item by item. If you want to do yoga, start now by breathing deeply as you reach for the sky and stretch, then touch your toes and breathe again, and with patience find new postures to include. Build a practice of showing up for yourself, or saying you care by being there. We may not be our stuff, but we are what we practice … I invite you to practice the stuff that matters.
Big hugs of love,