One of the things I was looking forward to about heading out of London for a while was having to clear out some of my stuff. Although I knew I’d keep a fair amount of it, I also knew I’d be forced to sort through, and shed, some bits and pieces. When I did a similar thing in 2004, I remember it feeling quite hard at the time. Things can be so loaded with memories and it feels as if the recollections – and a part of ourselves – will disappear if the items are no longer around. But I was amazed about how quickly I forgot what I’d packed up and left in boxes and bags in a small room in Sheffield. I enjoyed the lightness of moving around with very few things and relished having to make careful decisions about whether to buy a new item on my travels. Could I carry it? Was it useful enough to warrant carrying?
Attachment to things
Thirteen years later, the process has felt like familiar territory. While I could have been more radical with my recent clear out, I had no illusions about how many of the things I was leaving in London would quickly seem more or less irrelevant. Now I’m on my way, I realise I could be traveling a little lighter: I found it hard to choose which books to bring and I probably have one or two t-shirts too many. But in general, I think that over the years my awareness of the drawbacks of becoming attached to things has increased.
Attachment to place
This extends to my awareness of attachment to places, too. So far on this trip I’ve said goodbye to London, to two lovely campsites in Kefalonia, and to a beautiful location in the south of the island where I was doing yoga for a week. Each time I’ve noticed a gentle emotional tug when it’s been time to take my leave. This has been followed by a flicker of recognition about how quickly I can get comfortable somewhere and, perhaps, begin put emphasis on a particular ‘place’ as ‘refuge’. While places can and often do offer this (particularly , of course, in the extreme – for example, a place at war compared to a place at peace), ultimately it is my own attitude which determines how at ease I feel, wherever I am. Reliance on being somewhere in particular or having certain things around me will not, after all, increase my sense of wellbeing. This kind of reliance will in fact challenge it – cause me dis-ease and suffering – when I can no longer be in that place or have access to those things.
Attachment to people
I was reminded of the ultimate significance of being able to relinquish control over possessions and places the other day when I was reading something a friend gave me when we were in Calais together last month. Steps Toward Inner Peace is about a woman, known as Peace Pilgrim, who spent twenty five years walking for peace. While there are turns of phrase in the tiny booklet that might appeal more to those of a religious bent, the overall message is one that I can only think of as being relevant to everyone, religious or atheist. One of the key points Peace Pilgrim expresses is that the better we become at letting go of places and things, the better we will be at living alongside people in both our smaller and wider communities: we will give up trying to possess others, to run their lives; we will pull back from imposing on others our way of living and seeing the world.
Practising non-attachment through meditation
For myself, as well as some life decisions over the years that I’ve been lucky enough to be able to make – from changing where I live to changing how I earn a living – I’ve realised that practising meditation regularly has helped me refine my relationship to attachment. I began to realise over time that each meditation session, however long or short, is a kind of laboratory where I try again and again to let go a little. Every time I notice I’m being drawn in to a well-worn thought pattern or re-running an unhelpful story in mind, I try to step back from this, to notice the process but not become caught up in it. Guided meditations from apps like Headspace use analogies to describe this, such as watching clouds roll by: we can watch the weather without being affected by it or becoming a part of it.
It’s not that lessening my attachment to things, people or places has happened overnight; it’s an incremental process, hardly noticeable day to day but significant enough to take stock of over time. Equally, I don’t think I’ve now become a distant and cold observer rather than a warm and engaged participant. It’s all relative but I think that, for myself, I’m just a little less inclined nowadays to form attachments of the kind that lead me to crave them when they’re not there, or try and control them when they are.
Lessons from history
I’m currently reading the brilliantly written The Silk Roads by Peter Frankopan. While what I’ve read so far is mainly a tale of wars and domination of entire peoples which often chimes depressingly with the present day, there is significant reference to periods of tolerance between cultures and religions. Typically, it was when emphasis was shifted to gaining greater riches and luxury goods that harsh subjugation was perpetrated.
Keeping on keeping on
Sadly, we see the effects of craving for wealth and power all too easily today but, for our wide and beautiful world, I take hope in the fact that there have been points in history when difference has been accepted and even, in some cases, supported, rather than crushed. For my smaller world, I’ll keep practising letting go in the different ways I’ve found have been working for me, from clearing out my clutter to doing a little daily meditation.