Spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle explains how we teach a child (let’s say a girl, for pronoun simplification) that the words “I,” “my,” and “mine” mean that something “belongs” to her. But more than being possessive, these concepts cause the child to identify objects with herself. When the child loses “her toy,” she perceives that she is losing a piece of herself.
The toy had no inherent properties that make it part of the child, but the toy’s separation from the child creates distress in the child’s mind because she associates losing the toy with losing a piece of herself.
Tolle notes that the word “identification” means “to make the same” in Latin. When we identify with objects and people in our lives, we make them the same as us. This merging is what causes a deep sense of loss when someone leaves or when an object is taken from us. We feel as if a piece of ourselves has left, leaving us “less than” we were before.
When we identify with things, our sense of self-worth (and also our social standing) is determined by our perceived position in the world relative to everyone else’s things. We compare our clothes, car, jewelry, biceps, financial net worth, etc. to theirs, and we can almost always find someone who has something better than we do. Or if we have the best of something, it’s only temporary, and we must be vigilant to maintain our top position.
Obviously, material objects have a positive impact on our lives in a variety of ways. Books increase our knowledge and broaden our understanding of the world. Houses, food, and transportation provide our physical beings with security and sustenance. Computers and phones connect us to information and opportunities across the world. But we frequently focus less on the functionality of these objects than the status they impart by our possession of them relative to others in our peer group or society.
Our sense of possession of people can be equally challenging. When we become frustrated with someone meaningful to us, it is often because we “expect” something different from them than the behavior they are currently performing. The wish to control others in our life is implied by the statement, “I wouldn’t have done it like that! I would have done it better!” That is to say: “If I were you—if we were the same—you would have behaved differently. I feel like your behavior makes me wrong, so therefore I yell at you to make you wrong instead.”
The next time you find yourself feeling upset about something in your life, ask yourself: “What object or person am I making the same as me?”
When you recognize that “you” are a body and mind independent of other things and people (though still deeply connected to them), that realization gives you space to allow the things or people to leave with your love and blessing. After all, they were never really “you” or “yours” in the first place.
The idea of possession is a concept. Native Americans did not have a concept of owning land, of making it “theirs.” They saw themselves as living on the land and partaking in its abundance, but it wasn’t theirs to own.
The feeling of loss comes from the feeling of losing something of ourselves. If we realize that we can value and appreciate people and objects without making them part of our identity, then we can enjoy them without feeling devastated if they leave us. We also then don’t feel a need to change people when they don’t behave exactly as we would like them to behave all the time.
When we release identification with people and objects, we allow ourselves to appreciate them for what they are, and not for how they affect our social standing or sense of importance. This makes it easier to deal with their loss, which is inevitable since nothing in this world is truly permanent.
How do you deal with loss? Are there ways to appreciate objects and people without “making them the same” as us? I’d love to hear your thoughts in comments.