Monday, September 25th 2017

My golden rule for a post-Bush, post-Ike, post-Wall St. life…

sex and the cityGuidance from a homeless man on a beach and Thoreau: disasters, money meltdowns and loss are blessings in disguise

BY VAISHALI — I was talking with a loved one who rode out Hurricane Ike on Galveston Island on the gulf coast of Texas. The Island took a big hit with a 14-foot storm surge, 120 mph winds and torrential rain. As will happen in the aftermath of a storm of this magnitude, a significant amount of the residents’ possessions were destroyed.

Large piles of rubbish, that only days before had been coveted items of ownership, were now stacked into curbside shrines to the awesome power of Mother Nature or more appropriately, monuments to our insatiable appetite for mindless consumer spending. Household items were scattered everywhere, removed from houses in their owners’ futile attempt to salvage what they could by drying out what the mold and humidity had not yet claimed.

My loved one remarked in amazement at the sheer quantity of “stuff” everyone owned. It seemed unimaginable that people could squeeze so many “things” into their living spaces, once you saw the entire inventory on display. Everyone on his block had a treadmill! Most looked brand new. (If you could see the neighbors, most probably were.) Everyone was armed, and spray-painted signs on fences warned of the dangers of thinking this was a self-service yard sale. Possessions are possessions, even if they are worthless. One of the State Troopers, leading two looters into the back of his car, was overheard quoting Thoreau: “Most of the luxuries and many of the so-called comforts of life are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind.” I don’t think they got it.

But it is not just disasters that bring this clutter loving consciousness to the surface. How many times have you moved and asked yourself, “Where did I get all this crap?” In some insidious manner these physical objects gradually take over our lives. Do we own our possessions or do they own us?

My first summer between college years, I moved to a beach community. There was a man living there who I thought was homeless. I’d see him on bus benches always wearing the same clothes. Leaves stuck in his hair gave him the appearance that he had just awakened from sleeping on the ground in a park. Sometimes I would see him wandering around town. He seemed to walk for miles every day. Clearly he had no job. One of the locals branded him a casualty of the 60′s who took too much LSD and never came down. His brother, who lived in town, took care of him, making sure he had food and clothes.

One morning as I was running along the beach, I saw this semi-homeless man. He had dug a large hole that cut him off at the knees when he stood in it. The locals had assured me that the man was harmless, and there was no need to be afraid of him. As I ran up and down the beach I noticed he had a long stick, and he was drawing something in the sand. Curiosity got the best of me. On my last lap, I decided to stop by and see what he was so busy creating. Upon approaching, I introduced myself. The man looked up and smiled warmly. He had been absorbed in the task of drawing stick figures with the greatest of concentration.

I did not wish to appear rude, so I pointed at one of the stick figures and complimented him on how realistic his drawing looked. The man proudly smiled and informed me this was a portrait of his brother. Then the smile slowly faded and the man shook his head sadly and said, “It’s too bad about my brother.” “What happened to him?” I inquired gently. “He has a house”, came the simple answer. “He has a house?” I repeated, not sure I was following the line of tragedy. “Yes,” the man replied thoughtfully.

“My brother and I used to do things together and go places. Then he got a house, and now the house needs him to do things. He does not do things with me anymore, because he has to do things for the house, and he cannot go anywhere with me because the house has him.” The man continued to shake his head sadly. “I will not go into houses,” he said with resolve. “I will go to my brother’s house, but I will not go inside. Because once you go inside . . . that’s it . . . the house has you! It will always need something, and that’s how ‘it’ gets you.”

I never had the opportunity to talk with the beach artist again, but nearly twenty years later, I still cannot forget our conversation. Through what many might label a distorted perspective, this man conveyed a clear message with gravity and insight.

I have reflected back many times on that brief encounter on the beach and wondered where I was allowing the possessions in my life to own me. It has occurred to me over the years how interesting and revealing our use of the word “possessions” is. How many of us allow our lives to be possessed by our homes, cars or boats?

God knows the women from Sex In The City were clearly possessed by their shoe collections. But this is a human issue, not a gender issue. I have seen men possessed by everything from their baseball card collections, to their garages full of tools, to the love of their life – their car.

Over a hundred years ago Henry David Thoreau, the noted transcendentalist philosopher, wrote, “A man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can afford to let alone.” In his writings he warned of the dangers of inheriting even the fewest and simplest of objects as a way of opening oneself up to the type of possession we are discussing here, as another way of waking up one day to discover your life is overrun and polluted with the accumulation of “things”.

Thoreau did not define poverty consciousness the way most of us do today when he wrote, “However mean your life is, meet it and live it: do not shun it and call it hard names. Cultivate poverty like a garden herb, like sage. Do not trouble yourself much to get new things, whether clothes or friends. Things do not change, we change. Sell your clothes and keep your thoughts.”

Consider that this warning came long before our ability to microchip our entire music collection on a single iPod or our entire business on a laptop. Our ability to condense our valuables into smaller and smaller spaces has only fueled our prowess and vulnerability to becoming increasing more possessed by our possessions. High-tech possession for a high-tech world.

Perhaps there is a blessing within these life-riddled catastrophes such as floods, relocations and fires that force an involuntary purging of possessions. Thoreau offers words of wisdom for those who may find themselves unwillingly separated from a lifetime of property they have worked hard to amass: “As you simplify your life, the laws of the universe will be simpler; solitude will not be solitude, poverty will not be poverty, nor weakness weakness.”

Another unexpected gift of finding oneself materialistically stripped naked is the opportunity to revaluate what is truly important and really valuable to us. To consciously update what we want to surround ourselves with and to reconsider what is authentically worth our investment. As the great Oscar Wilde once said, “We know the price of everything and the value of nothing.”

For those readers who may be piecing their lives back together after an unexpected loss, may I leave you with one more priceless non-material gift from Thoreau: “There is no value in life except what you choose to place upon it and no happiness in any place except what you bring to it yourself”… and to my semi-homeless beach buddy out there, wherever you are, may you continue to be as free as the day you were born.

Vaishali is the author of Wisdom Rising and You Are What You Love. She is also a national health & wellness speaker, radio host on KTLK (greater Los Angeles & Santa Barbara) and KEST (San Francisco). During her twenties and thirties Vaishali suffered from a vast array of emotional/medical problems, including a terminal diagnosis two times, domestic abuse and financial devastation. Her astonishing and compete recovery of the mind, body and spirit gave her the unique ability to make universal “big picture” wisdom relevant to our everyday lives. Visit or email

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3 Comments on “My golden rule for a post-Bush, post-Ike, post-Wall St. life…”

  1. this article is more than timely with on going economic crisis that is hitting much of the world and with christmas looming. it seems that our whole economy in the us and canada is based on making and selling items that we don't really need. how many new cars does a family really need, how many articles of clothing, shoes, how much new furniture, how many toys?

    i finally put my summer clothes away yesterday and brought out all my winter gear. i have two closets full of clothes that i hardly ever wear...i have enough clothes for 10 people! yet i usually wear the same items that i feel comfortable in.

    maybe we can learn from the economic crisis, maybe we can learn from how other people in other countries live that don't have all the possessions that we have. we've been sold a bill of goods by our capitalist, consumer based economy based on nothing *real* as far as i can see.

  2. When I worry, this reflection you wrote acts like a meditation for defusing the machinery of the mind. We 'think' the mind, and all its clock-cycles, is *all*. It's a tiny, tiny fraction of experience. Thank you for sharing your process, and induction!

    For those readers who may be piecing their lives back together after an unexpected loss, may I leave you with one more priceless non-material gift from Thoreau: “There is no value in life except what you choose to place upon it and no happiness in any place except what you bring to it yourself”… and to my semi-homeless beach buddy out there, wherever you are, may you continue to be as free as the day you were born.

  3. I was reminded first of George Carlin's monologue on "Stuff", then on Eckhart Tolle's comments on "ownership" in "A New Earth". Too many of us define ourselves unconsciously by the things we think we own. As your homeless man points out, more often than not, those things own us.

    I have to admit to an ambivalence to possessions. The question I try to ask is "Will this really enhance my being alive long-term or is it for a short term 'high'?" Tolle points out how the Ego "wants". We get a certain high from buying. I feel it when I buy a new piece of gadgetry. But I try to be motivated from a deeper place by the actual usefulness of what I buy. My high-quality digital camera brings me joy for years as I photograph nature on my journeys and when I share or review my pictures as screen-savers on my computers (lap and desktop). My iPhone is clearly a different matter. While very useful, I have become possessed by it, partly tied to all the emails it pulls in and partly addicted to the web it connects me to. Our posessions ought to be a constant source of soul-searching. And it would be good for all if we got rid of or ceased to acquire those things we don't really need to live fully - and "what we need to live fully?" is the deepest soul question.

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