Next week my son heads off to France for a gap year between high school and college. He is pretty excited about it, and we have begun planning which suitcases he will bring, buying him a new suit for his internship, and figuring out how he is going to get all of his stuff from here to there.
And while we were planning, I remembered a time when he was ten years old and we went on a two-day trip to Cleveland, a half-way point to meet my sister and her family coming from Michigan. As we were loading the van with everyone’s bags, my son came bopping out of the house and started to climb into the car. Thinking he was being forgetful, I asked him where his bag was. He answered that since it was just a two-day trip, he had his toothbrush in one pocket, a fresh pair of undies in another, and wasn’t bringing anything else. With complete sincerity, he asked me why he would need anything else. He planned to wear the same clothes and, if he did shower, he would use the hotel shampoo and soap.
I have never forgotten that moment. It was an inspiration for me and became a touchstone for my own life. I sometimes ask myself, if I were a ten-year-old boy, what’s the least I could get by with in this situation? Of course, I often bring too much anyway, but remembering how very little we really need helps me limit what I tote around.
In one of the fourteen mindfulness trainings that were part of my Buddhist ordination, we commit to “living simply and sharing our time, energy, and material resources with those in need.” And I find that it’s actually easier to share my time, energy, and material resources with others when I am living simply and carrying less baggage. When I have too many things to manage, I don’t have the time or space to be generous with others. I’m too busy taking care of my stuff.
When I look around my house, I realize how challenging it is to live simply. By world standards, or even by DC standards, our house and its contents would not be considered “simple living.” I seem to have the habit that whenever I see or hear about something interesting, like a good book, or I see something beautiful, like a piece of clothing or a piece of art, I immediately want to bring it home, and to own it. And once I own it, then what? Then it becomes another thing that prevents me from having the space to connect with others or myself. Each piece of my stuff reduces my freedom to engage with my immediate experience.
The Buddha told a story about a man who owned a dozen cows, and one day they got loose and he was devastated. He came to where the Buddha was teaching and asked the monks and nuns whether they had seen his cows. When they said no, the man was so upset that he suggested that he might kill himself. And after he left, the Buddha said to the monks and nuns, “We are the happiest people in the world. We don’t have any cows to lose.”
Thich Nhat Hanh comments on this story:
That is why, in order to be happy, you have to learn the art of cow releasing. You release the cows one by one. In the beginning you thought that those cows were essential to your happiness, and you tried to get more and more cows. But now you realize that cows are not really conditions for your happiness; they constitute an obstacle for your happiness. That is why you are determined to release your cows.
We have to ask what is really essential to our happiness. We believe that things are essential to our happiness, but we have to look again. Many of us have cows, many cows that prevent us from being happy. That is why to release the cows around us and to let go of these preoccupations inside is a very essential condition for happiness. That is the space we are talking about when we practice. I am space; within and out. I feel free. Freedom is the real foundation of happiness.
When we start to unbury ourselves from our internal and external stuff, we will find more access to our experience, and more space to move, dance, and play. In addition to feeling lighter with less to carry, we will have more time to spend with others, and more energy to contribute to the world as well.
May we release all our unnecessary cows and meet each day with only a toothbrush and a fresh pair of undies.
with much love and spaciousness,