December 31, 2009 posted by

Do We Really Need All That Stuff?

If you didn’t get everything you wanted for Christmas maybe it’s a good thing. As some motivation for negotiating the world recession in style, enjoy these “Lao Tsooians ramblings”(his description) from my brother, who resides in India. And Happy New Year!

Dear Steve,

At last the cool weather has descended on East India, and day after day sojourns away under the pleasant unchanging sunlight. I miss the wild drama and fauna of the rains, but the even cool temperatures are welcome still. The heartbeat of India are these two alternating seasons–the wild heat, rains, and storms of April to October, and the even, dry pleasantness of November to March. So many of its ancient cycles are based around it. For example, the Buddha and his followers would wander the country throughout the year as solitary mendicants, then in May they would gather at Varanasi for the “Raincloud of Dharma”, 4 months of living together as a single mendicant community, followed by 8 more months of wandering. In Bengal the monsoon months peak in the heat at the end of September, when the whole city goes crazy in worship of Durga, the mother of the Universe.

On a personal level, one thing that has astonished me so far in my Indian sojourn is how each thing that I really need has been presented me as a gift. We have met a large variety of relatives and old friends, all of whom knew Ashna as a child and wondered who the lucky man might be. Each such meeting seems to end with a gift for both of us, and in my case I can’t think of anything given me that has been useless. A variety of nice Kurtas and pajamas has kept me smartly dressed. From one family I received a beautiful hand-woven fine wool shawl that can be worn long down to the feet in lighter weather and in the current cold of Bengal’s winter, wrapped tightly around the head and shoulders it makes an excellent sort of flexible sweater. For those Western dressy occasions like the Calcutta club, Atiya had a suit tailored for me from an old friend that contacted her out of the blue. Then due to the weight loss of the high quality fresh veg low sugar diet, and regular yoga, I’ve trimmed down such as that lovely blue suit Kay and Don gifted me years ago now fits ever so well again, so with my alternating blue and grey suits smarting the Calcutta club I get lots of nods of approval as “The one that won Ashna.” Finally, when our old friends Evrim and Mary visited, they left us with a simple yoga mat, which allows us to do yoga on the dirtyfying roof. Simple gifts, but perfectly suited to one’s simple needs.

This makes me wonder…is the passionate collectivism and shopping fever that so grips the industrial world necessary at all? Does one really need all this “stuff?” When I compare the life, mind, and advice of the “poor” here, such as our servants, who have to stretch every rupee just to handle the skyrocketing price of lentils*, these “poor” servants, in health and general well being, look much healthier and fitter than many of their rich salt lake masters whose houses are filled with things they rarely, if ever, use. Part of this is, of course, the virtue of hard work, which makes leisured folk look rather flabby in comparison, but it also is the general health of their inherited way of life. For example, there is a little fruit here called Amla, which rich people almost never eat (except us special ones of course!) but the poor eat it all the time. It’s like a hard little green golf ball that is incredibly sour at first, but by the time you finished it leaves your mouth coated with a strange substance that turns water into honey which coats your throat in sugary warmth all the way down. It turns out one of these little fruits also has the same vitamin C as 20 oranges. The villagers eat these often and traditionally ascribe it as a cure for just about anything. They only cost about 1 cent each, but the “enlightened” modern Indians hardly even know they exist anymore and think they are useless. What truly is useless?

As with everything I suppose it is that elusive happy balance, which demands an alert, critical, and above all evolutionary spirit to live happily amidst all this foolishness. I chanced across some Lao Tzu yesterday that spoke the spirit of all this to me.

To hold and fill a vessel to brimful
Is not so good as to stop before the limit.
Hone a tool to its sharpest state,
And its keenness cannot be long preserved.
A hall filled with gold and jade
Can hardly be safeguarded.
To show pride in one’s wealth and high rank
Is to pave the way for one’s own doom.
Thirty spokes converge on the nave of a wheel:
It is where there is hollow space
That the usefulness of the wheel lies.
Clay is molded into a vessel:
It is where there is empty space
That the usefulness of the vessel lies.
Doors and windows are hewn out to make a room:
It is where there is open space
That the usefulness of the room lies.
Therefore, while things are valuable
No things are what is useful.

In other words, in chasing things people mistake value for use, and in a world crowded with things, it is perfect usefulness that is really sought, not value. Since I’m so close to China, I’ll brave adding a moralistic closing comment that the great sage must have forgotten;

Don’t be so ready to fill the empty cup
Linger in the valley to more enjoy the distant mountain.
Doing so, one’s heart becomes a river
Easily wends its way to Oceans of wealth.



* India’s increase in business and transport structure has brought an unexpected curse–now its food produce can compete on international markets and much of its copious food production that used to be used up at home due to transport costs, now is exported, and the “poor”, though lacking a roof over their heads or electricity nevertheless in previous years ate in a way that could be the envy of the rich in most countries. Now these poor folk are getting to the point where they cannot even afford that staple of India, the lentil and are really being ground down to substinance level by the huge inflation of staple food costs here. Imagine someone working 16 hours a day to earn 4 British pounds paying the same price for lentils as a Brit who earns 56 pounds a day at minimum wage!

Everything has its balance in the earth. Its not so hot as too keep us modest and not so cool as to keep us happy.– Me


  • What a great friggin' letter. I think I'll go walk in the hills with the dogs and enjoy the simple moment. My New Year's resolution, still taking shape, is to consume less – yes this includes alcohol and food. Since resolutions, in order to have any hope of success, need to be specific I'm still sorting it out. I have 11 1/2 hours until it needs to be finalized; but the basic concept is there.-Josh

  • Thanks for sharing that. It was an interesting read, and he made several good points.

  • I'm in for less consumption. Already eating less maybe I'll go a year without buying a bike. 5 hours left to come up with a plan.

  • hello… hapi blogging… have a nice day! just visiting here….

  • Your blog keeps getting better and better! Your older articles are not as good as newer ones you have a lot more creativity and originality now keep it up!

  • Funny, most of my friends say it's the opposite. Technically, it should improve, right? Oh, well. We can't please everybody so I'll just keep posting and hopefully some of you will remain amused.

  • And thank you, Anonymous!

  • nice post. thanks.

  • No more Chevron Hot dogs?

  • google…


  • google…


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