finding identity in material possessions

“We go on multiplying our conveniences only to multiply our cares. We increase our possessions only to the enlargement of our anxieties.”

           -Anna C. Brackett.

When it comes to material objects, we all have our weaknesses. For me it used to be long sweaters from Free People, oversized sunglasses, and hand-me-down jewelry.  Such materialism didn’t stop when I began a yoga practice; I simply began collecting new objects. Funky yoga pants and incense sticks felt as though they were connecting me to my practice, and frankly, myself. When I ran saw the new apparel in the studio I’d think, “I need those! The more pants the more yogi-like I’ll feel!” I still sometimes feel that way. Those are the moments when it’s time to check in.

It doesn’t matter whether it’s a car, emerald earrings, or a yoga mat; all of these items are simply things. When we identify with these materials, we are not identifying with the object themselves, but with the content. We feel that if we own certain objects, it will add something special into our lives, such as independence or freedom, and so we buy more and more to fill the empty space.

Echkhart Toll touches on this idea in his book, A New Earth. In the text, he connects the desire for things with the power of the ego. Essentially, our ego latches onto objects in its nonstop search for approval and identity. “Ego-identification with things creates attachment to things, obsession with things, which in turn creates our consumer society and economic structures where the only measure of progress is always more.”

In my case, this means more yoga pants. Toll continues, “You can value and care for things, but when you get attached to them, you will know it’s the ego. And you are never really attached to a thing but to a thought that has ‘I’, ‘me’, or ‘mine’ in it.” In short, we begin to mistake our possessions for ourselves.  

That’s not to say that we don’t need things. Transportation, shelter, food, and clothing, are all necessary objects in order to maintain a healthy and functional life. And that also doesn’t mean you can’t go shopping with your friends or buy a new necklace from time to time. What is important is to not place your identity or worth in these items. If they were ever to be lost or broken, our essence would not be damaged. But it can feel like that if we give an object the power of holding all of our worth.

This goes for sentimental objects as well. Years ago, my friend and I bought expensive, matching chakra bracelets while on vacation. We treasured these little bracelets, comparing them and admiring them in the sunlight, excited over the new tangible symbol of our friendship. When hers broke, she was devastated. They were one-of-a-kind, and could not be replaced. But the actual friendship between the two of us had not changed. She had not changed. There was no loss in either our essence nor in our friendship. Though it held special meaning, it was simply a tangible item that had faded away.

“A carefree life is possible only with a well-controlled mind, one that is free of anxiety, one without personal desires or possessions.”

           -From The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, translated by Sri Swami Satchidananda

We do not need items to bring joy into our lives. More yoga pants does not make you a stronger yogi. Having more candles does not make you a more sensual person. Collecting an overwhelming amount of objects can actually clutter our apartments and our minds. By creating space, and not putting our worth in material goods, we are better able to create literal and metaphorical space, and tap into our most genuine selves.

Of course, detaching ourselves from items is not an overnight fix. To start, develop some awareness over your attachment to the material items in your life. Practice by giving some of your possessions away, either to friends or donation shelters. While you may temporarily miss that t-shirt, that is simply the ego searching for an object to latch on to. In time, you’ll find the lightness of being free from attachment.

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