From Therapeia 1: Impossibility, Suggestion and the Contentment of Poverty. Letter to students 2018.
The Contentment of Poverty:
The Certainty of Loss Makes Us Wealthy
Like an anchorite or monk, we might live joyfully with very little but that only works when we have much stored elsewhere. ‘None is rich excepting in wisdom. None is poor excepting in wisdom’ is the Talmud’s take. If a person is deeply nourished by their imagination, their faith, trust and love, or sustained by their learning, creativity, life work and so on, they are more likely to be sincerely content with less ‘stuff’. This is more difficult in the West, especially over the past few centuries, where who a person is, is often defined by what they have materially or how they look, to themselves and to others. Most commonly, this has the effect of wanting more, without limit, way beyond what anyone actually needs, and a continuous reshaping of one’s superficial appearance to conform with whatever the ruling definitions of ‘attractive’ might be. In the West, this belief finds expression in the supreme value of the ‘hard facts’ of physical matter, scientistic materialism and more recently, a smug atheism. If I cannot see it, hold it and potentially own it, it’s not real. Not much place for the imagination, poetry or mystery, unless those can be monetized.
In Japan, the annual cherry blossom festivals celebrates the transient and that which, by its very nature, does not and cannot sustain. The aesthetic refinement, called wabi-sabi, is the mindful practice of finding beauty in the impermanent, the imperfect and the incomplete. Kusozu is the fine art of depicting the beauty of decomposition of the body after death. While the graphic depictions of the various stages of disintegration of a human body are often used in Buddhism as a meditation to avoid attachment to the world, this is also an invitation to celebrate life in the fleeting fullness of the moment. These graphic depictions are a reminder that the natural rhythms of change and continuity carry on even after death. Life and death are viewed as aspects of the continuum of existence and the invisible and non-material dimensions of existence are valued as much as the more substantive and manifest.
There is a poignant kindness in acknowledging the limits of material existence. Beauty is revealed and experienced precisely as the display of a single moment, for both the witness and what is witnessed, conjoined in an instant and then it passes. The glow of sunset when everything looks more intense, the flight of birds across the sky, the smile of your beloved, the taste of clean water, a person reading a poem, the scent of sweat of someone attractive, dancing together when there is no music playing, a flower in a glass vase catching the light, and an infinity of instants of images that cannot be captured or owned by anyone.