By Leo Babauta
Eva and I and our two younger kids were in the process of moving back to California from Guam, where we had been living with family for 9 months.
As we packed our stuff, got some stuff ready to ship to California, and donate other things to charity… it was a great time to reflect.
Why do people have so much stuff?
Even though we have relatively little compared to most, we’ve still managed to accumulate too much, from getting gifts from other people to buying necessities (and non-necessities) along the way. Stuff just piles up over time—that’s the nature of stuff.
But most of it is not necessary. Most of the stuff we buy because of one feeling: the feeling of uncertainty. This is the underlying groundlessness, shakiness, insecurity we feel about the future and the present moment. It’s the uncertainty we feel all day long, every day, to varying degrees. It’s what causes us to feel fear, stress, anxiety, worry, even anger. It’s what causes us to procrastinate and put off our healthy and productive habits.
The feeling of uncertainty is the root of our buying too much stuff.
Think about these examples:
You are going on a trip, and you’re feeling a bit nervous about it, so you do research and buy a bunch of stuff to take with you to help you feel more secure, prepared, certain.
You’re going to attend a conference, and it brings up some anxiety, so you get some gear to help you feel more prepared.
You get into a new hobby, and don’t know what you’re doing so feel a lot of uncertainty, and do a ton of research for days, buying everything you can possibly think of to be fully prepared.
You are hosting a social gathering and this is giving you some stress, so you buy a bunch of things to make sure the party goes as well as you can hope for.
You are feeling a lot of disruption and uncertainty in your life, and find yourself procrastinating on things while doing a lot of online shopping.
You are feeling uncertainty about yourself, about your looks. To help with that, you buy a lot of nice clothes and gear to make you feel better about yourself.
I could go on with endless examples, but you get the idea. Uncertainty brings with it an urge to get certainty, control, preparedness, security. And so we buy stuff to try to get that feeling.
The Futility of Shopping to Deal with Uncertainty
We don’t like the feeling of uncertainty and insecurity—we try to get rid of it as soon as we can, get away from it, push it away. We have lots of habitual patterns we’ve built up over the years to deal with this uncertainty and insecurity, and buying things is one of the most common, other than procrastination.
Here’s the thing: it doesn’t actually give us any certainty or security. We buy things and we’re not really more prepared, in control, or secure. We hope we will be, and yet the feelings of uncertainty and insecurity are still there. So we have to buy some more stuff.
We’re looking for the magical answer to give us control and security, but it doesn’t exist. Life is uncertain. Always. It’s the defining feature of life. Read the quote from Pema Chodron at the top—it says it all, we have to accept the uncertainty of life. And in fact, this is the answer to our drive to buy too much stuff. If we lean into the uncertainty, embrace it, learn to become comfortable with it, we can stop buying so much.
We can learn to live with little, sitting with the uncertainty of it all.
The Practice of Opening to Uncertainty, to Live with Little
Imagine owning very little, living in a spare room, eating simple whole food, not being involved in social media, just working, reading, walking, spending time with loved ones. Meditating, drinking tea.
It’s a life of very little, and is beautiful in its simplicity.
But then uncertainty comes up, as it inevitably does. You have a trip, you have to go to a party, you have a new kind of project to take on, you are starting a new venture. You’re feeling insecurity and uncertainty.
Here’s how to practice with it instead of buying something:
- Notice you have the urge to buy something (or procrastinate, get control of everything, etc.).
- Notice that underlying the urge is a feeling of uncertainty, that you don’t want.
- Instead of rushing to follow your urge to buy something, pause and just sit with the uncertainty for a minute or two.
- Turn your attention to the physical feeling of uncertainty in your body. Where is it located? What does it feel like?
- Stay with the feeling and get really curious about it.
- Relax around the feeling. Be generous with it, giving it compassion, openness, gratitude, love.
- Notice that this is just a sensation, just an experience, nothing you need to run from, hate, or push away. You can be with it, even open up to it.
With this practice, you don’t need to fill your life with more stuff. This is my practice right now, as I see the effects of too much stuff that’s come into my family’s life. Sit with the uncertainty, embrace it, and fall in love with the groundlessness of my life.
Leo Babauta is a regular guy, a father of six kids, a husband, a writer from Guam (now living in San Francisco). He eats vegan food, writes, runs, and reads. He is the founder of Zen Habits which is about finding simplicity and mindfulness in the daily chaos of our lives. It’s about clearing the clutter so we can focus on what’s important, create something amazing, find happiness.
This article was originally published on Zen Habits and re-published with author’s permission.
Editor: Dana Gornall