Happiness

How I moved with two suitcases…

One year ago, I moved from London to Melbourne with only two suitcases.

We couldn’t pay the shipping for all our things. But we also felt it was time to leave the old stuff behind, start a new life, get rid of everything that weighed us down. Admittedly, this resolution was taken after a few glasses of wine. The bottle of red had made me feel brave and adventurous. Hey, I didn’t need anything but my passport and a plane ticket!

As a yoga practitioner, I was also under the illusion of having practised enough “non-attachment” over the past years to let go of my books from school, pants that became too small years ago, make-up I never put, books I would not re-read and, anyway, which I didn’t like when reading them the first time (but you do look well-read with Ulysses on the bookshelf, and yes, I got at least until page 10), gifts I never had any use for (but was too embarrassed to give away – what if the person in question popped by for a visit and the gift wasn’t displayed!?) – the list was long.

They say you should travel light. But what about moving continents?

They say you should travel light. But what about moving continents?

But there was one thing I hadn’t reckoned with: Attachment. No, I wasn’t attached to the items. I was attached to the memory they evoked. Remember that crappy class with teacher Ms Smith where we laughed so much while reading this boring school book? And the crazy party where I wore this pants, now two sizes too small, the last time? And the book I bought in France, in another crazy attempt to learn French, never opened, but kept on the book shelf as a memory of the road trip across French countryside, past cows, wineries and lavender fields? And my 30th birthday, where my friend offered me this ridiculous vase, never used, but displayed on the shelf, evoking memories? Gosh, we had such a good time that day!

And whoops, I had fallen into the trap. I had mistaken the items for the memory linked to them. Throwing out stuff was like spitting on the memory, devaluing it, throwing it out, too. Did I really not care about my past? Was my past not what made me be the person I was today? What if I’d be forgetting all about it, without the things that made me remember?

Darling, I think there might be a problem.

In the end, the moving date approached more rapidly than we thought, and the two large suitcases I dragged down from the attic were much smaller than I remembered. And damn, did they fill up quickly!

I cried a lot. I got into a fight with my husband. I resisted. I was scared. I was desperate, and shared my fear and anger publicly online, with strangers like you. Eventually, I packed about 5% of what I considered to be crucial for survival, and threw away the other 95%.

Recently I realised that all this has happened almost exactly one year ago. Sorting through my wardrobe, I tried to remember what I threw away during these few, painful days. I remember every detail. It was exceptionally hot in London. The walk to the charity shop took about 20 minutes, and I didn’t have a car. There was no bus where we lived. I stuffed everything in these large, yellow Ikea bags you can buy for 20 pence at the cashier, and I made about ten trips with two bags each (it was so much, I had to spread the stuff between numerous charity shops, the public library, and recycling containers in several places). The plastic handles were cutting into the shoulder flesh, and I was sweating a lot.

Now, what was in these bags?

I racked my brain, and the shocking conclusion is: I CANNOT REMEMBER. I don’t remember one single item. I know there were books. And clothes. And other stuff, probably bed sheets, kitchen items. But not one thing comes back to me, no matter how hard I think about it. And the other shocking realisation: I have not missed anything since. Not one day in Melbourne did I get up, opened the wardrobe, kitchen cupboard or any other cupboard, thinking: Oh, if now I just had this or that thing from London, the very thing I threw out that day. NO. NEVER.

Twenty large bags full of stuff that I had to throw out. Remember, I cried? I got aggressive, whiny, depressed (in that order). Then I was so busy reorganising my life in Australia that only now, with the one year anniversary of moving abroad, it all came back to me.

So what’s the life lesson I learnt?

We create pain in our lives mainly by two things: Attachment and Resistance. We are attached to things, or even to situations, and we resist when we have to let go of what we’re attached to. Really, we’re like babies whose parents took away their toys. We mistake the toys for our lives. We mistake the outer shape for who we are. We think that if we let go of what we own, we let go of a piece of our self.

But then, everything in life is impermanent. If we cling to outer shapes, we are attached to something that is bound to vanish. We identify with something external and give it a sense of self.

So, in short: I’m not my books. I’m not my clothes. No, I’m not even my kitchen items. It sounds ridiculous, but that’s exactly the pattern of resistance I went through, and it’s exactly this belief that created so much of my pain.

Do I handle things better now? I’m not sure. At the moment, I simply follow a path of avoidance. What does it mean? Simply not buying stuff so that later on I don’t have to throw anything away. I try to keep my possessions to a minimum, ready to fit it all in two suitcases when necessary.

I guess it’s a step on the way. My yoga teacher in India used to say: “It’s okay to own things. Just don’t get attached to them.” To be honest, I’m not quite there yet.

The other thing I’ve learnt is this:

Relocating is great. It means you’re discovering new things almost every day. Just walking in the city centre makes me go “oh” and “ah” at every corner. I’m observing nicely carved features on building facades. How the afternoon sun is reflected in the glass windows of the office tower across the road. How the cappuccino at the local eatery is prepared – with so much love! How people smile at strangers, for no reason at all except that they’re happy.

Observing how yoga is practised and taught on another continent provided me with the amazing and rare opportunity to challenge my preconceived ideas. Yes, certain postures are done differently here. And different postures altogether are done here. Teachers put together sequences I hadn’t seen before and give different verbal cues to guide students through them. At the same time my students tell me they’re getting fresh ideas for their home practice from my classes.

It’s just so inspiring – for BOTH sides!

So what’s my point? Well, after being terribly overwhelmed for about a month after my arrival in Australia, paying attention to every detail, be it the people, the architecture, the customs and habits – I realised that I had entirely lost this capability at home.  I wasn’t able anymore to be impressed with “my” city. To let the place form an impression on me – to let the city impress its image on me, every day again. I had my preconceived ideas about what my home town “was like” and could summarize it in two sentences for anyone who cared to know.

I didn’t look at the place anymore. I just looked at the image I had of it. Watching tourists walking around London with their guide books always made me smile – they were discovering the city, how exciting!, I thought. But as far as I was concerned, well, I had seen it all.

Do we still allow ourselves to be surprised by…everyday life?

But – really? Had I seen it all? Constantly reassuring myself that there was no need to look at things I had already seen once, I lost my capability to take a fresh look. It took moving to another continent to find it back. I realised that no actual change happening in my city could really change my image of it.

The thought scared me – could this be true for other things in my life as well? How about my friends? Have they changed without me acknowledging the change? How many people talk about “reinventing themselves” when moving abroad? Does that mean it can’t happen at home because as adults we lost the capability to adjust our idea of things (and people!) to a changed reality?

How can we approach something we’ve done hundreds (thousands?) of times in a new, fresh way? How can we observe how this actually feels TODAY, and not how we think it should feel according to memory? How can we try something without preconceived ideas, not thinking: ‘Oh I’ve tried so many times and always failed…’

Next time I go back to the place where I grew up I’ll buy a guide-book, take a good friend with me and we’ll have a tourist weekend in “my city”!

How about you? What’s your secret for constantly taking a fresh look at things?

And what is your approach to owning things? Did you ever have the feeling your things actually own you?

~ Andrea

32 replies »

  1. Hi Andrea, i can soooooo relate to your article and thank You for sharing your personal feelings with the community.

    I moved over a year ago, completely on my own to NZ…pretty much the same, i couldn’t afford shipping my stuff, hence i gave all my stuff away and packed my life into 3 suitcases….there were times when i seriously missed my stuff i gave away, whether it was clothes, shoes, books, kitchen utensils, furniture you name it….and agree it was the memories, comfort zone….or when i caught myself during a conversation with friends that uh yes i have, well had that as well and got sad remembering that i gave it all away….. It took me some time to de-attach and totally glad not having all the baggage with my anymore, especially as i am about to embark to my next destination, melbourne….sooo much easier to change location with little baggage :-) and realising even more so what truly is important in life…..

    Thank you as well Andrea for your Melbourne Yoga guide, well needed in order for me to find a new studio and meet some fellow yogis and new friends :-) excited to my next chapter

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    • Hi Bianca, thanks for reading and a very warm welcome to Melbourne! It’s a fantastic city, I’m sure you’ll love it! It’s been nominated as the most liveable city for a few years in a row now :)

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  2. I love this and can completely relate. When I moved to Australia in 2006 (and since moved back to the US in 2009), I went with 2 suitcases also. And that’s just it–everything else is just STUFF. It just kind of follows you around if you bring it along, or gives some sort of comfort when we haven’t had a purge and stay in one place. But it really doesn’t matter. :)

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  3. Hi Andrea, sounds so familiar. I think read your other post a while ago. We left Canada about 16 months ago with six suitcases, ten boxes and twenty paintings. My lesson? Never again will I move with that much stuff to another continent. Not sure yet if we will be doing that again, however, the only thing I have missed so far was my pepper mill which I thought I packed. :) I also try the avoidance thing at the moment, only buying things we really need. I am still eying things I should have thrown out but didn’t because they were old! So good on you for going through with it!

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      • Lol, my husband had the idea and I had all the work. :)
        The funny thing is, one year away from all the culture shock and stress, my mind is slowly edging towards new horizons… but I will take a couple of years to draw out the details this time!

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    • Where did you land? After a year in Bali, (I sold everything and came empty handed) I am looking for a permanent residence here. One of the things I look forward to most is acquiring STUFF to feather my nest!!! I am delighted I’ve had no encumbrances while making the transition, and I think I’ve edged over into the minimalist camp. But the pull of the beautiful and exotic in art forms and furnishings, lures me!

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      • I hear ya. We are still in some kind of student set-up, with only the bare minimum in furniture and piles of stuff in corners that we don’t have storage room for…
        We are now in Jena, Germany. It is a great place, I grew up here. Will I stay here for the next 30 years? Probably not. Once you start wandering….

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  4. Hi Andrea, Thanks for following my blog, I may not have found you otherwise.
    I love the similarities in our stories and I wish you all the best in your journey. I’m looking to hearing more from you :)
    Namaste,
    Lesley Hobbs

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  5. Every one would have been saints if it they were detached to everything they owned. Like you, I learned hard way to not gather so much stuff that weigh us down.. so it is definitely hard to let go of the possessions but sure is possible and Yes of course it is the most difficult thing to do.

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  6. LOVE THIS. Every time I move I do a mini version of this, I think “Do I ever use this? Do I even like this?” and usually in my annoyed and over it attitude during moving the answer is usually “Nope”.

    I never thought about it like you put it here but it makes so much more sense now…and you did it on a much larger scale than I could ever imagine pulling off, reading how you dealt with it made me feel a little more relieved!

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  7. Hi Andrea,
    I loved your post. Not long ago, we travelled for a year with just our pack sacks on our back and I thought I could do that forever and avoid the lure of buying stuff. Merely a year back, and it ain’t so.
    I don’t know what it is with the back to a schedule more sedentary life that makes you want to get a new mirror ( very cool one in a peace and love shape), a radio (I missed listening to CBC) and a kettle (got tired of boiling water in a pot). I felt like I deserved those things because I had a crappy summer because of our relationship on the brink…. So, I tried to practice detachment from my hubby to stop the suffering, but it seems that I have launched myself in the material realm…. A work in progress…. Lol. Thanks!

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    • That’s a really crucial point you’re making: The tendency to buy stuff to comfort or even compensate. It seems there’s an enormous mental presence required not to just fall into the shopping trap!
      A work in progress :)

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  8. The only thing I am really attached to is my guitar. It will go with me wherever I go. I know this is material attachment but I spend such good moments playing it….I guess I am not attached to the object itself or the memory but the pleasure attached to playing it…

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  9. Like you, we moved from one continent to another 9 years ago. And like you, I own tons of books I’ve kept since childhood.
    Unlike you though, I wasn’t courageous to let go. Never exposed to yoga then, I am a koala bear clinging to my books. And some other stuff.
    And unlike you, I had them shipped via FedEx. I said then, if my books are not going with me, I’m not leaving.
    I’ve moved twice around here within 3 months. The books still came. But from 5 bookshelves, I’m down to 2. Am I getting there to where your yoga teacher in India said…?
    Nope. Hardly.
    I haven’t really let go.

    When the time comes to move again, you will be my muse to guide me that I am not my books. And I am good with two suitcases.
    Plus a dog. ;)
    Awesome, awesome post!! =)

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    • I’m not sure my tactics of avoidance is any better :) Now I go to the book store to browse, but whenever I love a book I don’t buy it, but borrow it from the library. I also own a kindle now which solves the problem on the surface, even though it doesn’t deal with the root of the issue (wanting to keep everything) ;)

      Thanks so much for your encouraging words and good luck for all your future moves!

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  10. It took me a year to divest of everything. In my previous life I was an interior designer and I had beeeaaauuutiful ‘things’. The house disappeared in the divorce, but I still had my delicious furniture. Sell my Ralph Lauren dining table and the four Guy Chaddock chairs upholstered in Old World Weavers tapestry? I would rather cut off an arm. But the buyer paid my asking price and it covered airfare and two months in Bali. The rest was easy. It’s a trust issue. Did I believe there was something better for me than clinging to the illusion of security? I hoped so. Come to find out, there was joy beyond my wildest imaginings. Now I live in Bali full time and, like you, I haven’t missed that furniture or anything else. Not once.

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    • That sounds like an amazing journey! I imagine you’re now surrounded by beautiful things nonetheless, but the difference is that you don’t have to own them to enjoy them (like exotic flowers, nature, the sea…).
      As you say, trust is so important – trusting in that we will be able to live without all that “stuff”!

      Thanks for reading,

      Andrea

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  11. Great post. It seems like you accumulate stuff until midlife and then all you want to do is get rid of it. Although I haven’t been presented with an opportunity like yours to move to another continent, I am constantly looking around the house to see what I can toss. I love to throw things out. What’s important is the memory not the object. I suppose this is easier said than done though, because when it comes time for me to downsize, the sentimental stuff will be hard to part with.

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    • It’s so interesting you call this an “opportunity”. At the time, it felt like a challenge because I was totally unable to see the opportunity the situation created (it took me about a year to realise this!)

      Andrea

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  12. Oh how I love this post! I just moved and got rid of a lot. Even though looking around I could have left so much more.

    Attachment and desire are tough for me.

    Thank you so much for writing about it!

    Om shanti.

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