“It is not impermanence that makes us suffer. What makes us suffer is wanting things to be permanent when they are not.” ~ Thich Nhat Hanh
I’ve come to the opinion that our culture is obsessed with owning as opposed to renting. Maybe because Thom and I have a background in real estate, or because we do our best to spend time away from our home every summer when it gets really hot—a reoccurring question we’re asked is, “So when are you going to buy a vacation place?” To be clear, we’re not against owning property—we just prefer to rent our temporary homes instead. But it’s easy to tell that many people don’t understand that we’re perfectly happy renting and have no desire to own regardless of how much we like the properties or enjoy the location. And that got me thinking that perhaps our culture has gotten a bit too attached to owning things and forgotten the fundamental fact that everything in life is impermanent—and ultimately every thing is just a temporary right-to-use or leasehold estate.
Let’s begin by recognizing that ownership, especially home-ownership as we know it, has only been around for a relatively short period of time in the course of human history. As hunter-gatherer societies, and like most indigenous cultures that remain in the world today, it was believed that all living beings shared the land and everything upon it. Native Americans were actually shocked to discover that Europeans could “own” something that they considered a living being unto itself. Unfortunately, that belief made it very easy for those peoples to be manipulated and controlled.
Clearly, those from Europe and more industrialized and overcrowded parts of the world had discovered that whoever owned the land, controlled the land, and strongly influenced anyone who lived there. So, whether you were technically a slave or not, few were completely free when it came to land. However, in the U.S. for the first 100 to 150 years there was so much land available that most people (at least Anglo people) felt fairly grounded and content on a plot of property. With land came the responsibility and opportunity to farm, grow your own food and create a future for yourself and your family—and that led to many individuals feeling they owned their land.
Then gradually as more and more people moved to the city, farming became more industrialized and populations grew. Slowly the connections between wealth, power and land ownership grew more firmly entrenched in our culture. In an effort to develop and support a strong and healthy middle class in the U.S., the idea of home ownership was promoted and flourished during the mid-1900s and beyond. Individual farms were replaced by the suburbs. It worked precisely because people longed for a sense of “place” and the relative security that a home for a lifetime provided.
Naturally, after the mid-1900s people started learning from the rich and powerful that homes and property could be more than individual security and shelter. In a relatively short period of time, homes became an investment toward prosperity. Rather than live in a home for a lifetime, people started seeing homes as investments and mini ATMs. Meanwhile, banks and other investors recognized the money trough and began easing the rules for credit and promoting the idea of get-rich-quick with real estate—and soon everyone jumped on board. Surely I don’t need to tell you what happened then.
With all that said there is still another element of home ownership that is seldom realized—and that is that most people don’t actually OWN their home in the first place. The bank does! Even if you managed to escape the recent home mortgage crisis with a low loan-to-value mortgage—if you have any loan (or common area rules or associations) against your home, you don’t really own it—you have partners. You may have privileges that extend beyond a leasehold, but it doesn’t fully belong to you. And if you are paying more in your mortgage then what you could rent the property for—then you are going backwards—plain and simple. And never forget that the government is also your partner in every property ownership, because there are rules and conditions about what you can do on and with your property—and sometimes the government can even take it away from you.
But when it’s all said and done that still doesn’t address the impermanence of ownership in the big picture. Clearly the Native American’s (and those ancient others) had the right idea. We never really own anything that’s alive. We might control them, or break them or even kill them—but we never own their aliveness—be it a person, an animal or a planet. Whatever essense that animates a living being is something that can’t be owned.
Plus, beyond that is the awareness that all of life is in constant flux. Everything, I mean everything changes. Anything we own today will eventually belong to someone else. Our bodies will change, our minds will change, and our relationships will change. Everything in form will be different than it is today. History is filled with dynasties and empires that have crumbled—so why should your real estate holdings (or lack thereof) be any different?
The best news of all in this is that it isn’t cause for sadness and despair. Quite the contrary. Instead we have reason to rejoice in the now! The only thing we can hold on to is actually what is right in front of us, right where we are, right now. The property you are sitting in doing whatever you are doing is yours—now! The relationship you have (good or bad) is yours—now! The stuff you have accumulated is yours—now! All right now. That’s it. That’s all you really own in consciousness. So instead of worrying about what investments you should have made in the past, what you hope to accomplish or own in the future, perhaps the shear appreciation of now will make you the richest property owner possible.
So when Thom and I travel to Baja for a month and rent a condo on the beach, we are more than happy to just lease the time and experience of the place temporarily. We don’t have to worry about what will happen when we leave, we can leave repairs and maintenance to the landlord and the complex, we can forget the illusion of “equity,” we can walk away from a couple of the neighbors who have been less than welcoming, and we can move on to the next adventure. Sometimes consciously renting something can be the most rewarding (and wealthy) thing possible.
Is there ever a good time to own? Of course. Not only can a home provide a wonderful sense of place to a person—it can also provide a wonderful experience of connection, the feeling of security and individual expression. But as I’ve written about before, everything is a trade-off so every single thing you own—to an extent—owns you. That means you must not only pay for it, but maintain it as well. Whatever we claim in ownership becomes our responsibility and takes our time, resources and energy. So if a property doesn’t fit consciously into our big picture or one’s life or intentions, then it is probably SMART to just rent it.
Lastly, from a simple living or minimalist perspective we need to stay conscious of a desire to purchase and own things when we don’t really need them to begin with—that includes property or stuff in general. After all, most of the time when we want to buy something (anything) we are looking for a feeling that we think the purchase will bring us. A home to live in is particularly susceptible to this attraction. How many people end up buying a home or vacation property to feel proud and successful, only to have to slave at a job they hate just to pay for it and never even get to enjoy it? First identify the feeling—and then decide if there is a way to get that same feeling in a way that is more sustainable to your lifestyle. Always remember that everything you own, owns you to a certain extent. Sometimes renting is all we need.
A leasehold is a real estate term that suggests that you have a temporary right-to-use a piece of property. Remember—no matter how long or healthy we might live—none of us will get out of here alive. Regardless of what you believe comes after this lifetime or plane of existence—the leasehold of your life, this life, must be forfeited to embrace the next. If we celebrate what we hold right now in this moment, it makes sense that it doesn’t really matter if we rent or own.