This simple question is the foundation for countless Zen-living articles and books. Its answer is complicated by how we are wired nowadays. In fact, I don’t think people realize how complicated it is, because in order to really see it, most people will have to create a massive contrast situation to compare to the way they live.
Answering this question from a place of truth takes boiling life down to its essentials. A lot of fear must be confronted along the way—deep fear that lives below the decisions to get rid of stuff, in a place where you don’t fill the holes this stuff leaves but instead get comfortable with those empty spaces.
You can do this by gradually stripping things away, or like I did—by honoring a life-changing wave and passing, with minimal possessions, through a wormhole of unknowns into an entirely new set of circumstances. This drastic approach requires leaving behind everything you once took for granted as day-to-day living norms. Not everyone can do this, especially with responsibilities and family.
But hey, that's why I am writing this.
It's been almost a year since I left a comfy and "stuff-filled" life in Doha. An expat, I was making six figures; driving a car of my choice; living in an apartment that faced the a royal Iraqi Palace and daily yacht traffic along the turquoise blue Gulf; snuggling with my white cat in a white room after any day I wanted a moment at the beach, and enjoying the mind space to never think twice about the monetary value of anything I wanted or did.
Although my company was collapsing due to a creepy national cutback, I could have gathered my wits and found another job in the bubble of luxurious yet perversely deluded living, but I didn’t. I wanted to leave for a year at that point and surrendered without a second thought.
357 days later, as I write this, I’m still living on only 37 kilos of my possessions, and can say this for sure:
A person’s life and priorities become much clearer when they establish the difference between what they (as a unique soul) need and what they (as an ego gratified by many a passing trend) want. It's not that you don't get what you want, it's that you understand the difference enough to make decisions that inspire contentment rather than a continued chase after unfulfilled desire.
I can also say with confidence that this exercise (parsing out of what really counts for your own sustainable contentment in all areas of your life) is about way more than “things." In fact, it’s about what those things represent and how you define yourself by all the things you do and have. It’s a really huge deal to detach from all that defines you. Like getting naked in front of everyone, including the most judgmental person of all—yourself.
Answers to the following questions emerge day by day, morphing gradually until the questions themselves evaporate into the air of your experience.
Do you need everyone's approval?
Do you need constant stimulation?
Do you need to have children? Why?
Do you need to be the best?
If so, at what? Why? Who will determine this?
What if you didn’t even know what that was?
Would you still want to be the best at it?
Why do you care so much about XYZ?
Are you surprised to find you don't really care about it much at all?
What DO you care about?
Do you need that gadget?
Do you need that pair of shoes?
Do you need that sweet-tasting thing?
Do you need that second helping?
Do you need that habitual Starbucks?
Do you need that next clandestinely-snide remark that sounds so smart so that you can hold your social standing?
Do you really need any of it so much?
Or does your ego need it more--so it can get nice and fat and ride on your back for free while you pay?
Who are you if not for all of these wants?
What do you really need? What is it? Really.
I remember at one point walking in a supermarket in Lima a few months ago, when a bolt of logical lightening struck me. I looked around and realized that all of these extraneous pursuits that we engage in boil us down to wanting real connection with people who have the capacity to understand, emotionally support and challenge us; perhaps a family unit or a tight community of trustworthy friends; a clean, comfortable and safe environment; good food, and a work (challenge)-life (relaxation/pleasure/play) balance.
I looked around me and imagined everything everyone doing for that cause. And I noticed that a lot of the things we do today move us further away from that aim—but why?
In fact, the truth is, it's hard to remember what you really need with so much "happiness" marketed to you all day, every day.
Do you see? You are the wizard of your own Oz, not all these companies.
You choose. Ironically, that’s what you have to want more than anything else before you really start getting to the point of this whole gig called your life.
A.K.A. “my life.”
I traveled long and far with very little--stripping my ego of all its toys to really get a feeling that I'm trying to share with these words, which fail me ... but anyway, I try.
I turn around now and see that I was really fooling myself about some things a year ago. Still am, but less so.
There’s an awkward silence when my ego makes an outworn assertion. A pause. I find my mind go blank sometimes and allow it. I used to lunge toward things and silently complain about things that inspire zero action on my part anymore. It’s fascinating. My actions are from the inside out, somehow.
I can't be told, because I can tell.
And you know what the greatest thing of all is? The less you want, the less you fear, because the less you have to lose. On the road to peace we can find ourselves at dead ends. Deep feelings refrain the truth. In the quiet wake of less stuff, they become a compass.
I think Life was gentle to show me because it saw I finally wanted more of the same things I really truly needed.
"Our lives improve only when we take chances--and the first and most difficult risk we can take is to be honest with ourselves." ~ Walter Anderson