Wow, how deep, subtle, and unconscious is the attachment to each and every possession we have. We are learning that it’s not just the logistical process of letting go that is the difficulty; it is the quantum threads that literally stretch from the smallest possession to the synapses of our brains. For some things that thread is quite weak and breaks easily; but for most things the attachment is through multiple threads, thin and unseen, but like the web spun by a spider, stronger than steel. Why else is that vase still sitting in the corner of the room when I have already decided I don’t need it anymore.
As we prepared for an “Estate Sale” this past Saturday, we began to feel a growing sense of freedom within us. The day before the sale, however, a neighbor visited us with a conversation of well-meaning advice on how to make the most money from such a sale. By the time the visit was over, our confidence and freedom had faded. We found ourselves caught in the cultural myth of “trying to get all we can” while the customer “is trying to pay as little as possible.” Thus goes the economic dance that fuels our culture. The morning of the sale, however, a wonderful message came to us in the form of thoughts about the “Potlatch” tradition of the Original Peoples of the Pacific Northwest, Canadian, and Alaskan areas.
For centuries the potlatch was the economic foundation of these peoples. It was a deeply spiritual celebration of equality and generosity in which each family presented all of its possessions for neighbors in the community to take. It was a true “redistribution of wealth” built into the spiritual fabric of the people and celebrated with dance and ceremony that lasted for days. To accumulate more than one’s neighbors was seen as disrespectful of the Spirits and the potlatch was developed as a way to commemorate this principle. It was not a “yard sale” in which unneeded items were sold. It was not the dumping of junk at the nearest “Thrift Store.” It was a true giving of prized possessions with no return whatsoever, except for the continued strengthening of the bonds of the community.
The Canadian government, however, saw the potlatch as a threat to its policy of “assimilation” and in 1884 passed an amendment to the Indian Act which made the potlatch illegal. This was done largely at the urging of missionaries and government agents who considered it “a worse than useless custom” that was seen as wasteful, unproductive, and contrary to ‘civilized values’ of accumulation. Missionary William Duncan wrote in 1875 that the potlatch was “by far the most formidable of all obstacles in the way of Indians becoming Christians, or even civilized”. It was not easy to enforce such a ban. Communities were scattered and could usually operate “under the radar” of the Indian Agency. The ban itself was not lifted until 1951 and the celebration has gradually gained a renewed place among the Original Peoples of Canada.
The Spirit of the potlatch came to us the morning of the “sale” and totally transformed our experience. As people came we welcomed them as neighbors and friends. If someone seemed to want an item, we made sure they left with it. We abandoned the “economic value” of everything and, though we did not have a true potlatch because we did take money for some items, we did not ask anything near the “value” of each item. If we sensed a person was mired in the “how little will they take for this,” we simply let the item go to them for a few dollars rather than do the bargaining dance. Often we had the joy of saying, “Please, take it. It’s yours,” and seeing the delight spread over the countenance of a child or older person.
Items that had been weighted with the cultural idea of “possessions,” were transformed, not into money, but into the energy of release. It felt like the threads of attachment fell away and a Spirit filled the atmosphere with freedom and joy. Now we sit in a much emptier house. There are still items that will find their way to transformation, but we trust that process will continue to be in the spirit of the potlatch. I tell you, friends, it is freedom!