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.
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?
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.
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?