Materialism and the art of letting go

Anne Ku questions why we should be owned by what we own. Is materialism really materialism or just sentimentalism? How does one let go of attachments to things?

In this age of post-911, post-2008 financial meltdown, nobody likes to be described as “materialistic.”

When I was trying to decide whether to stay in London or move to the Netherlands, my friend Jackie observed,”You’re not materialistic, Anne. What are you going to do with all the money you earn?” With that, I decided to stop earning money and earn time. I moved to the Netherlands to study music.

Sightreading thesis and piano duet sheet music, San Francisco, May 2011

Today I reassured a friend who made shopping a ritual: “You’re not materialistic. You are sentimental. You are attached to what the things represent. You want quality things. So you take your time.”

Equally, I have asked myself why I should find it so difficult to let go of things when I have been described as being NOT materialistic.

In 2003, I threw an open house one weekend to sell my things so I could leave London with less luggage. The only things I moved to the Netherlands were my sheet music, Laura Ashley dresses, and house plants.

Now I need to do the same with all that I have accumulated in the Netherlands. But every time I see something I recognise, like the photograph of a hand-made white vase for a single rose, I’m reminded of where it came from and how it came to be. It’s a present for such and such occasion. It was given under such circumstances. Because it’s a gift, I should not sell it or give it away. But why should I keep it?

A physical object may remind us of an occasion, a relationship, a conversation, a place, or a moment in time. When we attach ourselves to an object, we are relating to all that it represents.

When we walk into a stranger’s home, nothing has history or represents anything meaningful to us. In contrast, our own homes are full of objects that bear meaning.

Buddhism talks about detachment and emptying oneself. I never understood it until now. Why be owned by what we own? Should we be slaves to objects? I would rather spend my time with people and talk about ideas. How can we detach ourselves from objects that consume our time?

Clean up your house. Adorn the walls with unfamiliar art work. Play music you’ve never heard of before. Distance yourself from what is familiar, or make what is familiar unfamiliar by all these measures. Detach yourself. These are the ways to help you let go of what was once dear to you.

Is it regret that you fear? That if you let go, you will regret doing so?

I have a dozen boxes of sheet music that took 20 to 30 years to collect — an activity I rewarded myself in the basement of a bookstore in London. The music is worth nothing to anyone else but everything to me. How can I possibly let it go?