The false hope of minimalist living
The secret of life unfolds when one acts not to become happy, but out of happiness
- Swami Viditatmananda
There is a rage sweeping the blogosphere and it’s all about minimalism. I stumbled onto an extreme variant of minimalist living after reading the 100 thing challenge in Times Magazine and first started thinking hard about minimalism after a conversation with my friend Darrick 5 years ago. If you do quick Bing you’ll see dozens of popular blogs out there talking about this topic.
Several years ago I was definitely in a phase of thinking I needed more stuff. This was in part because I had recently graduated from college and literally had nothing but a few suitcases, and old futon mattress and a couple of bicycles. After a few promotions at work and a positive balance in my bank account, I moved out of the small room I renting in a house and into a bigger place in downtown Seattle as gift to myself, complete with nice views of the Space Needle and Elliot Bay, and filled it with furniture and a bunch of other random nonsense and nice electronic gadgetry.
Darrick came into town and stopped by for a visit, the first time we had met in a long time. He walked into my apartment and set his large backpack down on the floor. He joked that my place was super nice, very “cushy” and full of stuff…a lot of stuff for a yogi...I joked that for an overnight stay he brought a more stuff than a Hollywood actress….especially for a guy that was supposedly “living the simple life” as I knew he was downsizing his lifestyle. He mentioned that this was literally all he owned! Everything else had been sold: his cars, homes, business he founded, everything. Over the course of a few years he totally simplified his lifestyle. It blew me away.
If he wanted to get a book, he would give one away since he only had room for 1. Same rule held true for clothing and other stuff, if he wanted to get something new, he had to let go of something old. I thought I had a pretty simple life, but looking around at my over-sized apartment I realized that he took things to a whole new level of simplicity. Darrick went on to travel around the world, and is still living in this way. I think he is on an island in the Pacific eating durian fruit at this very moment :) .
Since then there have been a whole host of bloggers coming up that talk about the benefits of minimalist living. There have been stories in the mainstream media about it. Many minimalists even have lists of all their possessions, with all kinds of rules around how they count the number of items they own (e.g. do you count socks as 2 items or just the pair? do you count every utensil or just count them all as 1? do you count every razor you own or just treat the batch as 1? etc.). It almost seems like living with few things is the goal, but I find that to be a shallow goal, one that can make it harder to be at peace and really happy over the long term.
I think that minimalist living carries with it a false hope. The hope is that getting rid of things and not wanting to consume will somehow make you happy.
This is the problem. You can never get rid of everything. You can get rid of all your possessions and even then you are left with your own thoughts! You can get rid of thinking and then you are left with your emotions. You can try to control your emotions and then you are left in the grip of needing to control everything. You can get rid of controlling tendencies and then you are left with a gaping void…the gaping void of not feeling complete because you think there is actually something that you can still rid yourself of that will make you even more happy, but you can’t find anything left to jettison. You continue to search endlessly. Minimalism becomes a crutch.
The false hope of minimalist living is the expectation that it will make you happy. Nothing can make you happy. You can only just choose to be happy.
Happiness is really just your true nature. You can be happy and content as a billionaire with lots of toys just as you can as a monk living in a cave in Bhutan.
What amazes me about my friend Darrick is that he got rid of things not to be happy…but out of happiness. He wanted to see the world and experience new places and people, and realized that the things in his life were just not needed for him to do that. They got in the way, so he got rid of those things. That’s a smart way of going about things. Minimalism should therefore not be a goal, it at best is a potential outcome one has in the process of realizing some deeper purpose. It is a side-affect that may come along as you move along your path.
Instead of trying to get rid of things to be happy and content…be content with whatever you are doing…and then if you have an intention to buy less and live more simply…fantastic…go for it by all means, but let go of the expectation that it will lead to nirvana, you are already there if you are willing to see it.