At many mom and pop buffets, you'll see a sign: Take All You Want, But Eat All You Take. Then there's the old English proverb: Waste not, want not. More canonically there's the deadly sin of gluttony. In short, we have a litany of admonishments about excess, but somehow they always seem directed at someone else.

At many mom and pop buffets, you’ll see a sign: Take All You Want, But Eat All You Take. Then there’s the old English proverb: Waste not, want not. More canonically there’s the deadly sin of gluttony. In short, we have a litany of admonishments about excess, but somehow they always seem directed at someone else.

All of this in turn points to something about the way we are taught to regard material possessions. The possessions, rather than any memorialized figures being considered, become the de facto objects of worship. The popular television series Hoarders provides a disturbing paradox of this orientation — after a point, all the stuff owns you.

This gets to a fundamental question about the human condition: What do we really need? The Jain religious tradition in India provides an answer from the extreme opposite end of the continuum.

The Jain are generally divided into two sects: the Digambara or “sky clad” sect and the Svetambara or “white clad” sect. Of the two sects, the Digambara lead lives of greater deprivation. Digambara monks live completely naked. Nuns are permitted clothing. The Digambara believe they must adhere to a code of extreme poverty including: no ownership of worldly possessions, not even bowls with which to beg alms and; by demonstrating indifference to earthly emotions, including shame, as demonstrated by their nudity. In some instances, Digambara may own only two possessions: a pichhi (a peacock-feather whisk-broom used to sweep insects out of one’s path) and a kamandalu (a wooden water-pot).

With good reason, there are likely few among us who would forsake the La-Z-Boy, the flat screen and the Doritos for a wooden pot and a feather. Moreover, a society could not function if everyone lived in such mendicant austerity.

As we pass out of the greatest era of economic decline in two generations, we must confront those habits that led us to that terrible lowly point. Again, Hoarders is instructive. All one need do is watch a single episode and an immutable trend emerges. These poor souls, held captive by the stuff they’ve amassed, were chasing pain and attempting to fill a void in their lives with things.

Of course you don’t have to be poor to be a prisoner of possessions. Hip-hop artists, professional athletes and even old money elites all succumb to the gilded cage. Even Mr. T, television icon of the 1980s, eventually reasoned the gold chains that once symbolized his own escape from bondage, were still a form of tether.

There’s a passage in an Islamic sacred text, the Sahih Bukhari, “the Prophet said, ‘He who slaps his cheeks, tears his clothes and follows the ways and traditions of the Days of Ignorance is not one of us.’”

As so many of us have forcibly discovered, life requires fewer baubles than we had once thought. As emancipations go, emerging from the ignorance of material gluttony is a good place to start.