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The Material World – Shifting Our Attachments

Surviving the Holiday Season

Try as we may to make it otherwise, the holiday season has become a season of stuff. Our stores, our stomachs, and our stockings are literally stuffed to the point of overflowing in excessive celebration. Each year we struggle to get back in touch with what the season is really about, chiding ourselves for going over the top. We plan to do gift exchanges instead of buying useless gifts for every family member, we vow to donate to good causes, and we promise to teach our kids that the season is not about toys. And yet we always seem to fall short of these lofty goals, each year pacifying our cognitive dissonance by swearing that next year we’ll keep it simpler. How did we let it get to this point, this gluttonous festival of materialism, and how do we stop it? {author byline} by Dr. Carrie Hutchinson

Last week while participating in a neighborhood garage sale, I had a rare opportunity to view my “stuff,” all splayed out like guts on my driveway, while passersby picked through it like hungry birds. Although I didn’t plan it this way, the day ended up being an enormous lesson in attachment highlighting our complex relationship with things and reminding me to ground myself for the upcoming holiday season.

During the garage sale, the most popular items were the kids’ clothes. As the last patron walked away with my daughter’s tiny overalls from her toddler years, I felt something stir inside me that closely resembled the onset of a panic attack. It was like the woman was walking away with my daughter’s toddlerhood. Poof! It was gone. Just like that. I longed to run after her and grab the clothes back in a desperate attempt to preserve those precious years in my memory forever. If I didn’t risk embarrassing my entire family, I might have done it. I immediately recalled a similar panicked feeling during the last garage sale we had years ago when my husband sold an old beat-up bike. As the young new owner rode away on the bike we had affectionately named “Blue,” tears welled up in our eyes. Blue symbolized an era for us, back when we first met each other, pre-kids, pre-home ownership, pre-worries. After the regrettable sale of Blue we spent the next year trying to spot him around town just to have a glimpse of the past.

Giving up my daughter’s toddler clothes and my husband’s old bike both elicited feelings of emotional despair and loss, forcing me to ask whether it’s healthy to be so attached to material possessions.  The Second Noble Truth of Buddhism states that suffering arises because of attachment. Attachment to material things creates suffering because attachments are ephemeral and loss of the attachment person/object is inevitable, so suffering will necessarily follow. While I agree with this for the most part, I continued to search for various perspectives and found this from a common translation of the Bhagavad-gītā (1.30): “Excessive attachment to material things puts humans in a bewildering condition of existence.” Note: Excessive. This perspective really hit home for me, both explaining why my moderate attachment to objects of old memories may not be so harmful, and also explaining why we all struggle with the excessiveness of the holidays.

So here is my personal challenge this season, derived from some uncomfortable self-analysis during a garage sale: As the holidays approach, I am seeking to find or create gifts for loved ones that symbolize our relationship and history. Nothing expensive, nothing excessive, but something that they would be attached to just enough to not sell it at a garage sale.  I’m reminded of a friend who recently moved across the country, leaving me a CD of hand-picked songs she knew I would love, complete with a personalized label. It may have been the best gift I’ve ever received, it cost almost nothing, and you’ll never see it at one of my garage sales. Call it ambitious, but if you are in my family or circle of close friends, you should expect the same caliber of gift from me this year.

Dr. Carrie Hutchinson earned her PhD from the University of California Santa Barbara in Communication and Psychology. She is a professor at Santa Barbara City College and the author of Interpersonal Communication: Navigating Relationships in a Changing World.



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