The previous articles in this series on my seven years of lily padding—a combination of location-independence and letting the Dhamma take the lead—described how the practice of tonglen, metta, and shoshin can help dissolve various fears encountered along the way. This month, I look at how lily padding has taught me to travel light, both physically and metaphorically; or, in other words, how it taught me to embrace the fear of emptiness.
A few years ago, Marie Kondo took the world by decluttering storm with her charming bestseller The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. Though not overtly Buddhist, in essence it encourages readers to create Zen-like homes by releasing attachment to anything in their surroundings that doesn’t spark joy. Moving every few months as I do, downsizing and digitizing have proven invaluable and—in the process—evolved into my own next generation 2.0 version of Marie Kondo’s original life-changing magic: that of lightening up.
Over the last seven years, I have occupied spaces as small as a single room with just a bed and as enormous as an unoccupied hotel with its own private lake and forest. Some lily pads were located in very economically deprived areas, and others among the most affluent; some were in very remote areas, and others were very urban. Each jump re-calibrated what possessions I needed, and I soon discovered that the lighter I traveled the easier it was to adapt to my new situation on arrival and to move on on departure. And the more I found that I needed less, all was provided for in ways I could never anticipate.
I now travel with a large backpack that I bought in 2004 to walk the 500-mile Camino de Santiago pilgrimage, and a smaller daypack for daily use. As I wrote at the start of this series, homeowners can have all sorts of understandable doubts and fears about entrusting their home to a stranger. And last month’s article described the reactions I face as a constant newcomer. However, what still surprises me most are the weird and wonderful reactions to how little I “own:” some look at me abject terror (“What? You don’t have a base? Something in storage somewhere? How do you cope?”), while others sigh in dreamy relief (“Please, please, please teach me how to downsize like that!”)
When it comes to giving general inspiration about lightening up, I often point people in the direction of Courtney Carver and Tom Shadyac. A multiple sclerosis diagnosis forced Courtney to simplify all aspects of her life, and the underlying message of her inspiring Be More With Less blog is “simplicity = love.” And a near-death experience led film director Tom Shadyac to create his inspiring downsizing documentary I AM.
After a few of these conversations, however, it dawned on me that we were discussing more than just “stuff.” Perhaps their real question was, “How do you cope with the fear of emptiness?”
What follows are two stories from each extreme.
The first story was related to me house sitting on the outskirts of Edinburgh, Scotland. The homeowners were one of the country’s first civil partnerships, and it followed that nearly everyone I met that lily pad happened to be gay. One evening, one of their oldest friends—a man in his sixties who had only recently come out—invited me to his flat for a tea after a group dinner. The space was a minimalist’s dream and, as I walked around in awe, I laughingly deferred to him that it made my backpack seem cluttered! He smiled and went on to tell me about the first time he went to a gay night club.
Growing up, his fundamentalist Christian family had gone to the extreme of having his homosexuality exorcised. Feeling pressured to conform after that impossible ordeal, he married and had children. Once they were grown, he found the courage to ask for a divorce. He came out, moved out, and began exploring Zen.
His first time out out, he got friendly with a young man and invited him home for a drink after the night club closed. They were sitting in the living room (just as we were now), and he offered to make them tea. When he returned from the kitchen, his guest had disappeared without a trace. The vanishing act remained a mystery until a few months later when their paths crossed again on the street. Apparently, the young man took one look at the near-emptiness of the flat and in his drunkenness panicked that he’d been lured to a vacant property . . . and certain murder!
The second story is set in a Berkshire home I was looking after with a very temperamental alarm system. On the way to the local gym for a swim one morning, I received a text alert that it had been activated. Before I could run back, the keyholder neighbour contacted me to say she and her son were home and would go investigate.
When I opened the house door, I found her in the hallway shaking with laughter. When she finally caught her breath, I asked what was so funny. “We’ve searched the house top to bottom to check what caused the false alarm, and I can’t actually tell which room you’re sleeping in!”
I grinned and told her a glass of water on the nightstand was my usual tell-tale giveaway. That image set her off again, and she begged me to teach her how to downsize. What neither of us knew at the time was how prophetic her request would prove to be.
Not soon after the false alarm, we met for coffee and a walk in a local nature reserve. As we sat on a bench looking out over a peaceful lake, she shared that she had reestablished contact with her estranged sister. They had fallen out some 15 years ago after their mother’s death over the division of her estate. She confessed that this sister was the one person in the world she truly hated. Surprised, I asked her to tell me more as I knew her to be a deeply kind and compassionate church-going Christian.
It turned out her sister was now not only morbidly obese, but had also become an extreme hoarder to the point where she slept in her downstairs living room because the stairwell and three upstairs bedrooms were too crammed to access. My friend felt too ashamed of both her own feelings and her sister’s circumstances to ask any of her church congregation for help.
We visited her sister several times with the help of a third friend, each time clearing small paths in more way than one. A year later, her sister died suddenly naming my friend as the executor of the will of a hungry ghost in every sense of the term. Her house, garage, and holiday caravan took over a month of daily efforts to fully empty.
At the start of the clearance, the three of us, who had visited the sister while still alive, tackled the attic. My task was to hand things down the hatch while the two below triaged what to keep, to give away, to trash, to donate, or to sell. There were enough Christmas decorations to rival Santa’s North Pole Grotto, accessories for every fad diet TV infommercial from the last decade, crockery and barbeques to host a banquet for at least 50 (with enough suitcases to send them on holiday afterwards too!), audio and VHS cassettes for now obsolete audio-visual equipment, several aquaria for non-existent pets, more clothes than on the racks of the average high street shop, and more books than on the shelves of the local library.
I felt like the opposite of Mickey Mouse in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice: rather than contending with out-of-control mops and soapy water, each time I returned from handing something down the attic hatch yet another box or bag of stuff would magically appear from the dark corners. At the end of that very long day, I vacuumed the now-empty space with aching arms and emerged back into the daylight looking like a coal miner from all the dust. When my friends jokingly asked me if there was anything the minimalist me would like from our finds as a thank you, I teasingly chose a daypack as the zipper on my own had burst a few days earlier. I still use it to this day.
When I called my friend to check on progress a few days later during a heat wave, she admitted that the only thing keeping her going was the prospect of being able to retreat to the now Zen-like attic with a big pitcher of water. Now it was my turn to shake with laughter, and remind her of the day of the false alarm.
Before the clearance month was over, help slowly seeped in from many unexpected sources: her church congregation helped organise a lovely funeral, friends she worried would be judgemental instead offered car journeys to dispose of stuff to charity shops or the dump, and neighbors offered to buy the bigger items of furniture.
Another unexpected benefit of downsizing was how much time I freed up, and my hermit’s diary attracts similar reactions to my backpack. A German mother of two toddlers I housesat for in Berlin declared me a Zeitmillionarin (a time millionairess) in pure envy, and many newly-retired homeowners often furrow their brows asking, “But what will you do all day while you’re here?” My answer? Be present in more ways than one.
More meditation time helped me embrace emptiness when it appeared in my own life at two very serious moments.
In 2014, I discovered I had two uterine tumours. They thankfully turned out to be benign and I opted to have them embolised. Before the keyhole surgery, the surgeon sent me for an MRI scan. I had never had one, and arrived expecting to feel claustrophobic like many patients report. I then remembered Buddhist monk and teacher Matthieu Ricard’s amazing writing on MRI experiments comparing the brain activity of meditators and non-meditators, and tried mindfulness instead of panicking as I was slid into the tunnel of light.
Within minutes, the technician told me I was the stillest patient they had ever had and would I mind if he got some interns to come in and practice on me? I found I loved the emptiness and brightness so much, I agreed and stayed as a sort of life model in yoga’s corpse pose for the afternoon while the students learned to use the scanner.
A year later, I faced my own version of maranasati. Paring down my possessions included going paperless by digitising photographs and paperwork. One day, my laptop randomly slipped from my hand and fell at such an angle that it (and the attached external hard drive) exploded in a firework before my very eyes! It was a frustrating loss, but I reassured myself that I still had everything archived in a cloud account as well. When I accessed my cloud account later that day on my phone, ALL my files had been wiped there too. I contacted the provider’s customer support, and it took engineers days to discover a freak coding glitch that had never happened before and meant everything—all proof of who I was, of everything I had created—was lost. For good.
This version of “identity theft” by the Dharma surfaced every emotion under the sun from hysterical laughter to deep grief. However, after a month of sitting with the loss and piecing together what I could from hard copies and third parties, a new sense of spaciousness unexpectedly emerged. Perhaps, rather than stealing my identity, this was the Dharma’s version of “defragmentation?” It certainly freed up a lot of memory in every sense!