The accidental ascetic

The burden of gifts

My sister loved Christmas because she loved opening the mounds of presents. I hated it. My mother and her parents loved Christmas. Their goal each year was to have a heap of presents with a wider radius than was the tree tall. To have more presents to open, if a toy required batteries, they would wrap the batteries as a separate present. They would purposely give us the batteries first–so we would anticipate some other gift that needed batteries.

During the years when our small family spent Christmas together, it would take eight hours for all of us to open the presents. We would start early in the morning, stop for breakfast, open more, stop for lunch, and open even more. My sister would squeal in glee with every present–even the batteries. She cherished every present. It was beautiful to see her happiness and her gratitude.

As I opened each present, I felt more guilt. I still do not understand it. I could see how each present–every individually wrapped Barbie shoe–made the receiver and the giver happy, but I could not change my feelings. Each gift was a burden to me. Especially once I received a gift I loved–a book, a game, Legos–I did not want to open anything else. I was happy with what I had, and when my family gave me more things, I did not feel happier, I felt burdened with guilt.

Even for a precocious child, I could not understand my feelings at nine-years-old or at thirteen-years-old. I was confused. I felt guilt, and I felt that I was bad because I did not squeal with glee like my sister.

No desire for possessions

When I was 24-years-old, in 2000, I made more money than I could spend: US$52,500 per year. But I could not purchase the things that other people would normally purchase. My bed was inflatable. My blanket was threadbare and had been given to me two years prior–when I did not have money or a blanket. My walls were bare, my couch was inflatable, my dining table was a folding table and chairs. I owned all of the possessions I wanted or needed. My girlfriend (in the picture) was more valuable than anything I could purchase, and I did not want any more objects.

Some have called me Spartan, others ascetic. I read about non-attachment and asceticism in Hinduism, Buddhism, Daoism, and even in Christianity. I never tried to practice detachment, non-attachment, or whatever word sounds holy. I simply lived the way that felt right for me. My sister still shines when someone gives her the smallest gift. I do not think that makes her materialistic or bad or wrong: I think it makes her happy. Her happiness hurts no one; it cannot be wrong. I am not better than she is, nor am I worse. I think that because she is true to herself and because I stayed true to my feelings, that both our lives were better for it.

My life is shattered

I went to law school, and I graduated in the top 3% of my class. Everyone else who graduated in the top 5% had a starting salary of at least $125,000 per year. I had already discovered that money would not make me happy, and instead of looking for a job with a large salary, I looked for a job that would fulfill me. My starting salary was $42,000 per year, and my job was extremely fulfilling.

During my one year of employment, I could not afford to pay the interest on my students loans, so my debt load increased by $16,000. But I did not mind. Then I was fired. I lost what little savings I had, my retirement savings, my shelter, my car, and every possession that does not fit in my backpack.

I do not mind having lost my possessions, but I do not like that the loss of many of those things has made my life much more difficult.

Non-attachment for survival

Buddhist non-attachment to desires mentioned starting at about 4:00

Non-attachment to worldly possessions or to outcomes or to desires, according to the holy teachings, is freedom from suffering. He who saves will suffer heavy loss. 道德經 [Dao de jing; also “Tao Te Ching”] (Instructions on The Way and Integrity) I have never practiced non-attachment, so I do not know if the books are right or wrong.

I cling to the last few things I have: a little medicine, shelter, food, my integrity, and my desires. My desires to make the world a better place, to be a good person, to love, to be loved, and to be happy. It is true that most of my suffering is from guilt and grief–from attachment to what I have lost, attachment to the people I have lost, attachment to the desires I feel.

It seems that if I am to survive, I must release my last desires, including, paradoxically, my desire to see the outcome of my survival. Hundreds of millions of people believe that my path (道 [dao]) will lead to enlightenment. I do not feel enlightened yet, and I am not seeking enlightenment.


On 1 November 2015 in Oaxaca, Mexico, my backpack with everything I own, was stolen. The only things I have left are the clothes I was wearing and the things that were in my pockets. The accidental ascetic theme continues: almost to the fullest extent.

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