There is a kind of tradition in many of the world's religions, especially in the East, for one to undergo a process of letting go of all material possessions. For a Westerner this might seem odd, as one can hardly imagine what can be gained in living like a hermit. But there is a very strong philosophical and psychological purpose behind this practice.
This is not something one does on a whim, and is preferable for one to undergo an examination of the emotional states while the process of letting go is happening. This can be very interesting and can lead one to the realize that all psychical attachment is an attachment to the mind, and that the first attachment and the "last" attachment were the mind's inability to let go. Yet what is the purpose of knowing this?
We all heard of the sayings and beliefs that material things do not bring happiness. Yet still most feel and know that, should they have a bunch of money, they could do the things they've always wanted to do. They could get the things they want. On one end, one feels that material things are not the true source of happiness, yet he or she is compelled to gather things and objects despite this knowing. They in fact do seem to bring a sort of contentment. But where does it come from? Is one content to have the object itself? Not exactly.
The letting go of possessions serves a deeper meaning. With each thing you let go, you may come closer to realizing just what it is that makes you happy and content about possessing a thing in the first place.
This can go on for a while. You may end up being left with nothing, and still the lesson will not become clear to you.
Most who attempt this, the ultimate desire may be to reach a state of having no desire. A state where you wish to have no thing and are content with having no thing. Admittedly a state that his hard to reach for people who have been surrounded and submerged in a world of things and objects and the desire to have specific things and objects since first your realized that they exist. And yet the desire to reach this state is already desire. In a very real sense, one desires not to desire. But the practice of letting go can make you see something other that the very basic desire not to desire is already desire. In this letting go and giving away, you may realize that no thing will make you as happy as simply being here, now. Allow me to explain why this happens and what exactly this means.
Even after letting go of all the material things and being left with nothing, one is still faced with the very basic problem because of which he began this practice. The desire to be able to let go is still there. There are no material things left to give, and yet the mind still grasps at itself and its own ideas and knowledge.
Being left with nothing, one may realize the initial desire was not to give things way, but for something to happen in the mind. A shift, a realization. So the fundamental issue of desire remains: you want something specific. What that is you may not have been aware of when you began this.
The superficial mind is ruled by whims, wishes and emotional fulfillment, which can manifest in the need to possess a thing or person. This can become an intense desire too; I want that, I want her, I want him. Usually we want things now.
But what happens when one gets the object of desire?
The person is content, for the most part anyway.
The trick which was done by the mind, however, was to make you believe happiness is in the thing which you possess. And yet contentment does not come from possessing the thing, but from being free of the desire to have it. You no longer have the desire for the object or subject because you now hold it, and so for a while you are free of craving and in a sense free from the mind.
The mind operates on a reward-based system. You want something, you get it, you are rewarded by feelings of contentment and a release of endorphins. And yet because the object and the subject are so intertwined, and you have just gotten the object, you do not realize the subject's contentment comes from emptiness, from absence of desire, and not from fulfillment of desire in the form of the thing or person. Instead it comes from a state of brief freedom.
The most basic analogy is the consuming of drugs. You may think that it is the reward system of the ego and the release of dopamine which is in itself the reward that makes the user crave and seek out these substances. But the mind is much more subtle than this. In the moment where the drug is consumed, or even before this, in the ritual of preparation, the mind already knows the object of desire is gained, and you are free of the desire which binds you to a certain substance or the use or abuse of it. You are in the moment, free of desire now.
You might, however, say that the object is happiness, for it can bring you joy not just when you get it, but later as well. But if one examines how long this "happiness" lasts, he or she is quickly confronted with the truth that contentment lasts for as long as there is the absence of desire. It lasted for as long as there was not any other desire to take its place. When the desire is gone and you are free from the mind's grasping, able to be in the moment, you are content.
This is not the euphoric state one feels in a dopamine rush, which is often confused with being happy, but a happiness one feels from contentment that stems from inner peace and stillness.
But this is still not the lesson letting go seeks to teach. What it does is very simple: Do not renounce the things of this world as if they are bad and controlling. Do not renounce your own desires for things and people, but realize that, just like the subject, the object and the desire for it, are impermanent. That they exist as a play which you are acting upon for a brief and very limited time, a play which you have been programmed to take as seriously as possible.
Today it would be rather silly for a material being to completely renounce the things of material, as one is also material. This kind of renouncement thus becomes almost a renouncement of the Self. And yet knowing this, the process of letting go, and the examination of the Self while letting go, can be very fruitful.
Impermanence may teach you the ultimate truth of your own death. It is a grim lesson, perhaps, and most of us know it, but do not feel it. It can propel you to be here, now, and to see your own suffering not as true suffering, but a nuance of existence. Being here, being you, is, after all, the only thing you will ever truly possess. Everything else, and the thought that you possess anything else, will be an illusion.
Image by Jie He
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The Self as a Temporal Illusion
Happiness and Desire
Ego Loss and Higher Self
Is God Real
The Illusion of Duality