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July 18th 2019
“God, this is a lot of work for something that is only going to last a few hours,” I thought. I was working up a sweat, covered in dirt, and my legs were starting to shake from squatting awkwardly for too long.
This, of course, is all in reference to giving Barry a bath this morning, when I found myself thinking about a recently reoccurring notion: attachment. Actually, washing the dog seemed like a perfect example of practicing non-attachment, working to achieve a goal (a clean, tick-free dog), only to have it quickly disintegrate with the next day’s monsoon. While I often try feebly to preserve the “clean dogness” by locking Barry in my room or rinsing him off when he comes inside, “nature” ultimately rains down (literally) to destroy the very “dogness” I was attached to.
The concept of attachment has been streaming through my daily consciousness, pouring in through questions from friends and impulsive actions. One such occurrence was a recent lunch I had with my friend Her. Her is from outside of Luang Prabang and just finished his first year at Bates College, my alma mater. Our experiences in Laos and our liberal arts objectivity often provoke introspective conversations: this particular day he asked, “How do you think materialism in Laos compares to the materialism of people at Bates?” What followed was a general consensus that although Lao people are becoming increasingly materialistic as they gain more access to the world, this does not hail in comparison to Bates College kids. Face it: we like Lulu Lemon, all have MacBooks, and decorate our dorm rooms according to the latest Pinterest trends. Contrastingly, when you are friends with novice monks who walk around with a cloth bag, a pair of flip flops and a book and spend your potential shopping time eating noodle soup instead, there is not a lot of space to become attached to possessions.
One might look objectively at a saffron robe-wearing monk and see the “ideal” of non-attachment. Acknowledging the potential of massive stereotyping here, a “western” mind might even jump a step further and idealize the lifestyle of the “developing” world as free from materialism and consumerism. Although there are obvious signs of materialism here—new shopping malls, night markets bustling with local people, a rise of technology—I must say that I no longer have qualms with giving away clothes, shoes, bookshelves, yoga mats, instruments, kitchen utensils that don’t belong to me, or any other possessions, partly because people around me are equally as unattached to the items they “own”. No joke, they aren’t even attached to their own money or food: street vendors will often ask their neighbor street vendors for change, and the only time it is acceptable to not have a family-style meal is when you are eating noodle soup (still, you share vegetables).
I am no longer attached to plans or even ideas, knowing fairly well that scheduling events comes with the inevitability of their change. All in all, I do feel less attached, and it feels great. So the big question remains: how does one maintain a sense of non-attachment in a world of making plans in advance, luxury exercise clothes and the soon-to-be iPhone 108.5 XXX? Even the thought of returning to America comes with thoughts of ah I will need to buy a new backpack eventually, and I hope that running race I signed up for three months early doesn’t get canceled because of this forest fire….
I have a friend who was a novice monk for four years. Yesterday driving back from a waterfall, he asked me “when do you think we are our best selves?” Immediately my response was to describe a generic scenario that was having fun with my friends in some capacity. This was the same friend who had previously asked, “Does money make you happy?” to which I also had a quick, visceral reaction of “NO”. So if we accept that our best selves are present when we surround ourselves with people that we love and try our hardest to fill our time with “fun things” that we love (even if its 20 minutes of sitting on the floor eating corn with your coworker’s two-year-old baby), then maybe we can see where attachment and materialism fade into the background of our lives. Like—when you have a smile on your face, does it matter that you have been wearing the same shirt for 3 days?
By WorkingAbroad Blog Writer Amy Katz
Image by Thomas Drissner from Wikimedia