There is a rich and soulful emphasis in the world's wisdom traditions on respecting inanimate objects. Many Christians see the sacramental value of things as signs of God's presence; Jewish mystics speak of the divine spark that resides in everything; Hindus take great pleasure in ordinary objects as manifestations of Brahman; Sufis kiss cups and musical instruments as part of their practice of adab; and Native Americans and Confucians show courtesy for all things as part of their way of living.
Somehow in the push and shove of our days we have lost this reverence for possessions. Instead, we hear about the over-emphasis upon materialism in modern societies. This is a valid ethical critique but there is also another perspective which does not get as much play. Both Shaun McNiff and Thomas Moore, two of our Living Spiritual Teachers, are advocates of a "soulful materialism" where the objects in our homes are appreciated and cherished for their beauty, expressiveness, life, and creativity. They, along with the French Catholic priest Teilhard de Chardin, challenge us to reframe our ideas and habits in light of the recognition that "things have their within."
Poets and painters have been of great service as we shift our perspective on things. They encourage us to pay closer attention to the commonplace objects that surround us. Spend some time with the paintings of Vincent Van Gogh where he conveys the beauty and the energy of a coffee-pot, a pair of worn-out shoes, and a pipe and pouch. The poet Rainer Maria Rilke reminds us that we give new birth to objects by gazing upon them with delight. Like us, things need love and affirmation.
Instead of cultivating an "I-Thou" relationship with the things around us, regarding them as companions and friends, many of us still act out what spiritual teacher Larry Dossey calls a "thing apartheid" whereby our possessions and the tools of our trade are seen merely as resources to be exploited and discarded when they are of no further use. This philosophy is reflected in the lack of care we give to our lamps, the refrigerator, the television set, the rugs, and the toaster in our homes.
When we aspire to adapt a new attitude toward the things in our lives, we remember the robot in the movie Bicentennial Man whose motto is "One is glad to be of service." Our things are providing us with services, and we owe them our gratitude.
In our hurry sickness society where we rarely have time for family and friends, the sensitive maintenance of our possessions may not seem like a high priority. But as many spiritual teachers have told us, when we love, cherish, appreciate and handle our things, we are renewed and transformed by their energy, beauty, and uniqueness. Here are some practice suggestions to help you handle your things with care.
1. Create a Welcoming Ceremony for a New Possession
Express your appreciation for the new object and acknowledge its importance or meaning to you. If so inclined, say a prayer over this new possession acknowledging its Divine origin and noble place and purpose in creation.
2. Respect Your Things
In the Sufi practice of adab, objects are seen as manifestations of the Beloved and so in humility and gratitude dervishes kiss the tea glass from which they drink or the carpet on which they have just prayed. According to Sheikh Kabir Helminski, a dervish doesn't "put out" a candle, s/he "puts it to rest." Come up with your own set of informal practices in which you demonstrate your respect and love for your things.
3. Annoint Your House with Beautiful Things
In 101 Ways to Have True Love in Your Life, Daphne Rose Kingma writes: "Fill your life with beauty. . . . Annoint your house with beautiful things: objects, fragrances, movements, moments, sounds, emotions. . . . Beauty in this life is a reflection of our souls." Make a list of the most beautiful things you own. Reflect upon the emotions and feelings they draw out of you and others.
4. Bring a Bit of Enchantment to the Office
In The Re-enchantment of Everyday Life, Thomas Moore contends that offices are often lacking in human touches and things of beauty. If you work at a desk or have an office, be sure to create enchantment in this working place with objects that carry beauty, energy, or emotional vibrations from those you love. It will make all the difference in the world to have these things with you.
5. Appreciate Wabi Sabi
Leonard Koren is an expert on the Japanese aesthetic of Wabi Sabi which he defines as "a beauty of things imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete. It is the beauty of things modest and humble." We have a chipped tea pot which we have had for years and still it has a special place in our hearts for its flawed beauty. Identify a few favorite objects in your home that have Wabi Sabi.
6. Hold a Party for Your Things
Gather all the electric gadgets and give them a good cleaning. Check to see that the chords are in good shape and if any filters need changing. As part of your party fun, give out "Exceptional Service Awards" to signify your gratitude for what these things do for you.
7. Apologize to the Offended Object
In Thirsty, Swimming in the Lake, David K. Reynolds ponders the courtesy that should characterize our interactions with inanimate objects. He writes: "If you slam a door you must return to it, open it, and close it properly, and apologize to it for your insensitivity. . . . If you kick up the corner of a rug or otherwise behave thoughtlessly, particularly if you are in haste or angry or otherwise upset at the time, you must correct the behavior and apologize to the offended object." Make the expansion of your courtesy to things a special emphasis of your spiritual practice for this week. Notice how many times you have to apologize.
8. Be Generous to Those Who Maintain Your Things
Maids, gardeners, pool-maintenance workers, and other service providers are often the ones who take care of the upkeep of our possessions. Since money is the medium that conveys our thanks, be generous with tips for these folk. If you do not employ such workers, then reward the hotel workers who make beds, vacuum rooms, and clean the bathrooms while you are away from home.
9. What Not to Do With Things
In 365 Zen edited by Jean Smith, Zen teacher Robert Aiken talks about the absolute value of all things and the respect which must be given to them: "To truly practice Zen therefore means not leaving lights burning where they are not needed, not allowing water to run unnecessarily from the faucet, and not loading up your plate and leaving food uneaten." Make a list of bad habits that are harmful to things that need to be changed in your household. Work on at least one a week.
10. Pass on Your Things to Others
In his book How Now, Raphael Cushnir reveals that another way of honoring things we no longer use is to let them go so that others can appreciate them. Here is a practice you may want to do once a year:
"Give yourself a day to open every drawer, cupboard, and closet in your home. Inventory all your stuff with an eye toward letting it go. If you absolutely need something, leave it where it is. If you haven't used something in a year and have no emotional attachment to it, put it in a "recycle" pile. If you haven't used it in a year but do have an emotional attachment to it, put it in a "maybe" pile.
"Spend a little time with each item in the maybe pile. Let the feelings connected to it flow. Notice whether the attachment is one that seems to shut you down or open you up. If it's the former, consider adding that item to the recycle pile.
"Then, when you're all done, recycle everything you're ready to let go of, and revel in your new-found spaciousness."