All that we keep

This week I’ve been devoting considerable mental bandwidth to wrestling with yet another paradoxical facet of my human nature. On the one side is my desire for simplicity. I did a stint as a Buddhist monk in Sri Lanka years back, that’s how much I dig the minimalist lifestyle. But this ascetic existence didn’t really work out for me in the end, as I also love stuff. Not a lot of stuff, but nice stuff. It’s hard to be a renunciant with a Brooks Brothers card, but it is possible to reconcile this contradiction in a way that allows us to enjoy all the pleasures of material wealth, without indulging in it for its own sake.

I'm telling you, Sanjit, the high definition screen with surround sound will change the way you watch television
I'm telling you, Sanjit, the high definition screen with surround sound will change the way you watch television

I’ve had this folder on my computer for many years called “Stuff I Want”. I regularly update it and browse through it at least weekly. It’s like my ultimate lifestyle guide: Bell & Ross vintage watch, 1947 Chris Craft Runabout, Giant Trance dual suspension mountain bike, Arcteryx Alpha storm jacket, the mid-century modern house on 53rd Ave in West Seattle. And there’s stuff my wife Nam likes that I want for her too: Mayaguana ring from Dora Tam, Mercedes SLK 55 AMG, Leica D-Lux 4 digital camera, and a Glock 29 subcompact 10mm pistol, which I’m making her promise never to point at me.

When I look at this wish list, it strikes me as moderately snobbish. It’s very brand-centric, which shows how much I am influenced by marketing, but there’s nothing on it that’s terribly extravagant. A Rolls-Royce or 7,000 square foot house doesn’t thrill me. As I frequently ask myself with regard to Stuff I Want, “If I could have any ___, what would it be?”, my answers are very specific but not really excessive. The things I love are not the most expensive of their kind, but they do have a classic style and performance that resonates with me. Nam can have the SLK, I’m keeping my ’98 50th anniversary edition Land Rover Discovery until I die.

At which point I hope someone else who appreciates its enduring British design will have it and enjoy it as much as I do. If my son, like Charlie Babbitt were only to inherit one thing, I’d rather it be a classic car than a pile of cash. He can earn money himself but the car will always remind him of me. In a good way, I hope. I can hear myself now, “1949 Buick Roadmaster convertible. Only 8,000 production models made. Straight-Eight. Fireball Eight.”

There is a big part of me that finds this fetishistic obsession with things absurd. I know all these possessions are only extensions of my inflated sense of self, which completely gets in the way of any kind of spiritual progress. In an awakening college course in Tibetan Buddhism taught by Dan Cozort, we read the landmark book, Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism (Shambhala, 1987) based on a series of a series of lectures in the early seventies by Shambala Press founder Chogyam Trungpa.

Spiritual materialism is exactly what I am engaging in with my Stuff I Want pursuit. It is all about building ego, or a sense of a solid self, while fooling myself into thinking that I am developing spiritually. Stuff I Want is the opposite of spiritual development in the Buddhist sense, because my preoccupation with physical comfort and amusement distracts from direct perception of “what is”.

Like booze or pills, the endless cycle of getting and spending dulls our senses and takes its toll on our soul, ultimately killing us early. In consumption-driven economies, materialism is a religion and consumerism its ritual. Advertising is its liturgy and brands its golden idols. We learn to measure success is by what we have acquired; knowledge, authority and shiny objects. Materialism has co-opted our other belief systems and left us filling the spiritual void with more stuff.

If we can become comfortable with the cognitive dissonance of spiritual materialism, we come to realize that while all of it is an impermanent illusion, it is a joyful one. Once we recognize ourselves within the Matrix, it’s a really fun place to play. Through creative engagement in doing what we love, we acquire more sophisticated means to enjoy ourselves, and perceive ever-higher level distinctions in our experience. In my design work, I sometimes think back to a blanket fortress or appliance box spaceship I enjoyed creating and paying in as a kid. Simplicity is beautiful and complexity equally so.

Cutting through ego and attachment is the path to salvation, but it is as sharp as the razor’s edge. The austere life is not for most people, and I believe that the great balancing act is enjoying all that we have, while at the same time knowing it is not us, it does not belong to us and understanding at a fundamental level that our wealth is all just an illusion. Most of us fail to notice that we fail to notice we are creating this illusion, so to become conscious of it and still enjoy it, that to me is liberating.

Every day I walk the line between a thing of beauty is a joy forever and less is more. I am happy embracing the contradiction of spiritual materialism, because I am clear about my purpose, which is to enjoy life as fully as possibly, bring that joy to others and leave an inspiring legacy. My happiness is not dependent on my Stuff, but rather comes from enjoying the creative process. Everything else, all that beautiful stuff that we consume to feed our hungry souls is just empty calories that we savor for a moment.


“You can’t have everything. Where would you put it?” — Steven Wright