Books and identity

I had a conversation the other day about books, downsizing, and identity.

After my divorce some years ago, I had to downsize my book collection dramatically. Over a couple of decades, I had systematically built up a small library of books by and about mystics, psychology, shamanism, Native American cultures and mythologies, vernacular/natural/sustainable architecture and design, permaculture, art, and so on. I bought two or three books a week, mostly from amazing used-books stores in Madison, Eugene, Portland (Powell’s Books!!!), and the Bay Area. So I assume the collection was between two and three thousand books, and mostly books you won’t find in most libraries.

It was painful for me to lose these books. Partly because I had made extensive notes in many of them and planned to use them as references for my own future book on mysticism. And equally importantly, because I had used them to build up and reinforce a certain identity.

In my mind, I could tell myself: Look at this cool book collection! Look what a cool and interesting guy I am who has all these books and has read almost all of them!

Collecting books is not the most terrible addiction out there, and using them to build up a certain identity is also not the most terrible thing we can do. I still love books, but it is good to be aware of what we use to build up and reinforce our identity and see what’s behind it.

Do I have a sense – and identity – of not being enough? Am I trying to fill a sense of lack through books? Or in other ways including other collections, clothes, titles, and so on?

Would I rather have kept the books? Yes. Am I grateful I got to more viscerally get how I used – and partially still use – books to build up and reinforce an identity? And that I am doing so to compensate for a sense of lack and not being enough? Yes, of course. In the bigger picture, that’s probably far more important than having an impressive book collection. It’s less visible and potentially more transforming.

Losing what wasn’t mine

Over the recent years, I have lost many things: health, house, money, belongings, opportunities, and so on. If I think these things were mine, it hurts.

In the moments I go into the story that these were mine and life took them away, I experience anguish, regret, pain, fear, blame, inability to move on, and so on.

Fortunately, there is another side to this.


Is it true these were mine? Is it true I can, truly and honestly, own these?

What I find is that I can never own any of these. I cannot own any object any more than I can own any of these thoughts, feelings, or insights, or any distress, clarity, or confusion, or even this body.

Of course, in a conventional sense, I can own certain things. But that’s a convention. It’s something we agree on and it’s reflected in the law.

The reality is different. The reality is that I cannot own anything. The closer I look, the more the idea doesn’t even make any sense.

All phenomena live their own life. I don’t have the ability to ultimately control what stays and goes or when it goes. We intersect in time and space and then move on in different directions.

In a very real sense, they are all visitors. I am a visitor in their lives.


To the extent I find what’s more true for me, and take it in and allow it to transform me, I find peace. It opens my heart and mind to find genuine gratitude for what happened. I see the genuine gifts in it.

It’s not enough to take this on as a philosophy. It may be a good start, and the transformation happens when we sincerely and honest look at it and find what’s more true for us, and keep exploring it.

We may find this over time if we have some receptivity and get tired of the struggle and suffering. We can find it with the help of pointers from others – whether from their own life or words. And we can find it through a more intentional and systematic exploration, for instance, guided by structured inquiry.


I have moments where I experience frustration and some distress around these losses, but it’s not so often. More and more, I get – in a felt sense – what I write about here.

I didn’t lose anything because I never owned them in the first place.

And I know that insight and reorientation is also not mine. It too is a visitor. I am visiting it right now.


I thought I would say a few words about the context.

Why can’t I truly own anything?

Ultimately, it’s because there is no “I” here to own anything.

When I find myself as capacity for the world, and what my field of experience happens within and as, I find that what I am cannot “own” anything. It all lives its own life. There is no ultimate “I” here to own anything.

Also, what brings anything into or out of my life is life itself. It has innumerable causes going back to the beginning of this universe and out to the widest extent of this universe.

Does this mean I don’t need to take care of what I have?

Not at all. If anything, recognizing we can’t ultimately own anything can help us be a better steward of our life and what’s temporary in our life. It highlights how precious it is because it won’t stay.

What are some of the gifts in this?

It’s specific to each loss. The loss of my health – and the fatigue and brain fog – has brought me back to the essentials. I have had to deepen into all the things I write about in these articles. It has simplified things. It has shifted my orientation from finding it cool and fascinating to having to deepen into it out of necessity. I have had to take it more seriously.

How does this look in the wider world?

The idea of ownership is a convention. It’s something we collectively agree on. And that means it can and will change. For instance, is it wise to allow individuals to accumulate resources from the commons far beyond what they need and could ever use? If we recognize that all resources are from nature and belong to the commons, how does this change how we regulate ownership?

Read More

Shams Tabrizi: A Sufi is thankful not only for what he has been given

A Sufi is thankful not only for what he has been given but also for all that he has been denied.

– Shams Tabrizi

How is it possible to be thankful for what we have been denied?

I am far from always and immediately grateful for what I have been denied, especially if I have – understandably and unwisely – invested an idea of future happiness in it and assumed it would happen.

When I look at it for myself, I find three angles into exploring this:

Aligning with reality, finding trust, and making it my own.


Do I know that what I want is what I need or what is good for me?

Not really. I cannot know anything for certain. I cannot know how my life would have been different.

I have several examples of where I got something I wanted, and it came with a big shadow side. And I also have several examples where I didn’t get what I wanted, and something else came in that perhaps was better.

This is what the story of the Chinese farmer points to. And it’s undeniably true, even if some parts of us don’t like to admit it.

Who decides what’s better or worse?

On the same topic, we see that our ideas of what’s better and worse are our ideas. It’s not something we can find outside of our ideas. It’s not inherent in reality.

Our ideas come from our conditioning – as a human being, as a child in a family, as a member of a culture, and so on. This conditioning is not the final word, and although it may reflect conventional wisdom, it does not reflect deeper wisdom.

Focus on what we have and not what we don’t have

If we are denied something we didn’t already have, it just means we are where we were. In reality, not much has happened.

In general, a part of good mental hygiene is to focus on what we have and not what we don’t have, and see that what we have – life, food, shelter, family, friends etc. – is a blessing and not a given.

What’s the upside of the loss?

This is partly dependent of the situation. In most or any situation, and with a more open mind and heart, we can find genuine examples of the upsides of what happened.

There is also something universal here. When we don’t get what we (thought we) wanted, we get to see what’s unhealed and unexamined in us. We get to see what emotional issues are triggered, what beliefs and identifications the loss rubs up against, and so on.

If we take it as an opportunity to befriend these parts of us, it’s an obvious blessing. We can listen to these parts of us. Be a good friend to them and ourselves. Examine the stressful stories behind them. Find love for them.

Finding what we are

When we find what we are, we see that all our experiences happen within and as what we are. Although we have our very human preferences, it all also has one taste. The more we recognize this, the more we’ll meet situations with some equanimity. And the more our center of gravity is in what we are, and not only who we are, we’ll easier find not only peace with what is but appreciation.


Another side to this is trusting the divine or life.

How do we find this trust?

We can inquire generally into some of the topics mentioned here. Can I know anything for certain? Do I really know what’s best for me? Do I know that getting what I wanted would have been best for me?

We can inquire into our most fearful beliefs and identities, see what’s already more true for us, and support these in softening and healing.

We can befriend and find love for our fears and hangups.

We can reorient to life in general through heart-centered practices, and find love for life as it is and ourselves as we are.

We can find trust of the divine through devotional practices.

We can find a sense of centeredness, grounding, and trust through body-centered practices – tai chi, chigong, yoga, TRE, Breema, and so on.

It helps a lot to heal central emotional issues and traumas in our system. The fear that’s stored in our system makes it more difficult to trust life.

We can see perfection in all as it is through discovering and becoming more familiar with what we are.

Over time, we may also find trust in that life and the divine always gives us exactly what we need – to heal, grown, and continue exploring the divine.


It’s not enough to read about this or understand it in a conventional sense. And what I have written about here is very incomplete and from my own bias and limited experience.

We have to investigate it for ourselves. We have to test it out. See what we find. See what approaches work for us. See what’s honest for us, and have the courage to follow truth rather than our conditioning and unloved fears.

Read More

Loss and what’s left

I have lost a lot over the last ten years. Loss strips life away to the essentials. And that helps us see and value the essentials.

Some of these essentials are shelter, food, clothing, family, friends, and nature.

Another, if we are lucky, is our life- and romantic partner.

And this amazing human body with its senses and ability to take in our surroundings.

Who we are and the wholeness and richness of who we are as a human being in the world.

The adventure inherent in life and being a human being in the world.

The quiet bliss inherent in just being.

Noticing what we are – that which all of these experiences happen within and as.

And there is always yet another.

Loss and its many gifts

You will lose everything. 
Your money, your power, your fame, your success, perhaps even your memory. 
Your looks will go.
Loved ones will die. 
Your own body will eventually fall apart. 
Everything that seems permanent is absolutely impermanent and will be smashed. 
Experience will gradually, or not so gradually, strip away everything that it can strip away. 
Waking up means facing this reality with open eyes and no longer turning away. 
Right now, we stand on sacred and holy ground. 
For that which will be lost has not yet been lost, and realising this is the key to unspeakable joy. 
Whoever or whatever is in your life right now has not yet been taken away from you. 
This may sound obvious but really knowing it is the key to everything, the why and how and wherefore of existence. 
Impermanence has already rendered everything and everyone around you so deeply holy and significant and worthy of your heartbreaking gratitude.

Loss has already transfigured your life into an altar.

Jeff Foster

Loss is a gift in so many ways. 

It’s what allows this universe and anything to exist in the first place. This universe, living planet, and us and all we know is here because the universe is always in transition and changing. What was before is gone so what’s here now can be here. 

Loss – in the form of change – is how life (the universe, existence, the divine) continues to express, explore, and experience itself in always new ways. 

When we take in the reality of loss, we find that what’s here is infinitely precious. It’s a gift. It won’t ever come back in this way. It’s a unique and precious gift. Even that which our personality and mind doesn’t like very much is an infinitely precious gift. It’s how the universe (life, the divine) presents itself to itself here and now.

When we sober up to the reality of loss and change, it’s easier to live with loss. We won’t fight it as much or perhaps not at all. We may even find genuine gratitude for it. It will still break our hearts. It breaks our heart open. 

Sobering up to loss is an invitation to notice what everything happens within and as. And to notice that’s what we are. 

So loss is what allows everything we know. It’s essential to the play of life – Lila. Sobering up to it allows a profound appreciation for what’s here. It makes it easier to live with. It breaks our heart wide open. And it’s an invitation to find ourselves as what we already are – that which all content experience happens within and as. (That which we may label consciousness, or love, or even the divine.) 

Jeff Foster: All that can be lost, will be lost

All that can be lost, will be lost.

– Jeff Foster

To really take this in makes a difference. It brings me more into alignment with life and reality.

It brings me into alignment with the freedom that life already has in creating and removing any particular form, any particular content of experience.

Loss of heaven

As a child, I had memories of how it was before this incarnation – all as a golden divine presence with infinite love and wisdom, a sense of being deeply at home. Later on, I remembered – or at least had images of – a group (of 12 or so?) beings/presences, a knowing that it was time for me to incarnate again, and that the first half of my life would for mainly for my benefit (growing, maturing), and the second mainly for others (service, guidance). And at some level, although knowing it was the right time and for the good, I resisted. I pretended to resist.

There are other images, including of a profound sense of loss when I incarnated, and of deep disappointment in my mother, my father, life, the world and God.

How could they do this to me? Why can’t my parents live up to or match the infinite love and wisdom from before incarnation, or at least show they know? I’ll show God he (she, it) made a mistake by having me incarnate. I’ll show my parents my pain and disappointment they couldn’t match what I had. I lost something of infinite value to me. I am unfairly treated. I am a victim.

And I notice that loss is a theme in my life. The pain of losing what I tell myself is most important to me, whether it’s people, places, situations or opportunities, and the expectation of future and continued loss and pain.

This all happens within my own images now, of course.

Inquiring into this, I have found that I did agree and want the incarnation, and that what I remember from before incarnation is something I can find here now. (It’s happening here, it’s reflected in a thought, another thought says it happened in the past, and noticing that I can find it here again.) And I notice there is something still left around loss, something left to feel and see, and find as love and find love for.

Read More

When you lose something

When you lose something, you’ve been spared—either that or God is a sadist. How do I know I don’t need the money? It’s gone! I’ve been spared: what I would have done with that money would obviously have been much less useful for me than losing it.
– Byron Katie

Read More