One of the benefits of being in a spiritual tradition is that it allows us to build on the experiences of thousands of years of people who have gone before us. We don’t need to reinvent this ‘human thing’ from scratch on our own. And yet oddly this ancient wisdom is often lost on us until it gets repackaged as something new and exciting. This seems to be the case right now as the venerable spiritual virtue of simple living has been reintroduced as a stress-busting, calm-creating, meditative wonder-aesthetic known as minimalism. I thought this week I’d explore this trend and what spiritual lessons I might learn from it.
In this year of exploring different sacred practices, I’ve found that what makes a practice sacred is the intention and attention with which one does it. This means that to some extent, all spirituality is a form of mindfulness — no wonder then mindfulness has become such a buzzword this century; it can encompass pretty much anything under its gaze.
The current trend towards minimalism fits this sensibility well. As many in the West are choosing to live with greater attention and intention, it makes sense that they would also take stock of their relationship to their possessions and resources. And as they do, they find that they need far less than they thought they did.
In this way, minimalism isn’t about living with less, but about living with what is important and meaningful. This distinguishes it from both extreme asceticism, which is about living with as little as possible, and poverty, which is usually involuntary. Reasons for engaging with a minimalist lifestyle are varied, ranging from a desire to improve health and to have better work-life balance to personal style and aesthetics to social and environmental justice.
Proponents of minimalism claim the lifestyle has many practical benefits, including: decreased stress (“Outer order, inner calm” is one famous mantra), increased self-understanding, greater meaning, more opportunity, and improved self-control.
What is it?
The goal of simple living is to be more intentional about what we have and do. Some steps I took this week were to:
- Clean clutter, closets, and repurpose, reuse, recycle, give away, or throw out things I don’t want, need, or use.
- Define what isn’t working in my space.
- Reflect on what isn’t working in my life.
- Define what I care about, what makes my life meaningful, and who are the people to whom I am connected?
- Reflect on what is distracting me from these things.
The primary way I engaged with this practice this week was clutter and closet cleaning. But the practice also provided a great opportunity for me to reevaluate the relationship between my possessions, my space, my time, and my values.
One example of this is a large printer I purchased about four years ago. I bought it because I was doing a lot of poster art and wanted to be able to print large posters at home. The printer also had some symbolic value at the time I bought it because it was the first major purchase I made once my finances had started to recover from my move and ten-month job hunt. While I still do some illustration periodically, I so rarely have cause to print anything that whenever I do need to use the printer, the ink in the expensive cartridges has dried. The printer is also bulky and heavy and so it just sits on the floor beside my desk collecting dirt and limiting how I use that space. Clearly, the printer is something that has served its purpose in my life. I can thank it (or thank God for it) for what it did and meant and then let it go. As lovely as it is, it’s time to give it away. The funny thing is that before this week, I hadn’t once thought about getting rid of it.
In terms of closets, because I don’t buy a lot of clothing and also have an aversion to throwing things out, most of what this meant for me wasn’t finding things to give away, but finding things that just need to be either repurposed (e.g., old sweaters with holes that weren’t able to be patched that needed to be turned into cozy additions to my rag bag) or thrown away (e.g., several old, worn through pairs of shoes and boots I’d held on to simply because I don’t like throwing things away).
The bigger questions about what’s working in my life and my values were less vital for me this week, primarily because they’re questions I’ve been asking myself quite a bit lately.
While I’d never consider myself a minimalist, I have been motivated for quite some time now by many of the things that drive minimalism: a discomfort with consumerism, concern about the ethical and environmental impacts of my purchases, a sense of ‘outer order, inner calm’, and a desire for the things with which I surround myself to be meaningful. This last motivation has been particularly true since I moved to Toronto. In the process of selling or giving away almost everything I owned, including over 95% of my books, before my move, I became disgusted by how much I actually had and I told myself I would buy only meaningful things when I got settled again. So, while I’m not a minimalist, a lot about minimalism still strongly resonates with me at a deep level. This week was simply a time to be more intentional about these motivations.
The question that resonated with me the most this week was “What isn’t working in my space?” What stood out to me with this question — particularly in light of my reflections last week — was how much it was my body that answered this question. Every time I opened the front closet and saw the tub that is ostensibly where I put off-season outerwear but which had become a graveyard for unwearable boots and shoes, and every time I noticed the massive printer on my floor, I felt my shoulders tense up. I hadn’t noticed that these two areas of my apartment were actually a source of stress for me. In a different way, every time I looked at a large unadorned section of my walls I felt my energy drop a bit. This was a reminder that I still want to find something beautiful and meaningful to decorate that space.
A word that kept on coming up this week as I reflected on the practice was ‘meaning’. The point of minimalism isn’t to have as little as possible, but to make sure what I have is as meaningful as possible. And so, my apartment is decorated mostly with photos I’ve taken from my favorite places; similarly, I rarely buy a book unless I’ve read it and loved it. (Libraries are my friend.) This connection with meaning, however, makes me think about the current craze towards valuing experiences over possessions. While I appreciate a lot of the sentiment behind the trend, it seems to me that acquisitiveness of experiences isn’t all that much better than acquisitiveness of things, and that FOMO (‘Fear of Missing Out’) — which is for my generation seems to have become a dominant motivator — could even be more destructive to the human heart than ‘Keeping up with the Joneses’ was for previous generations. Just as I think that the point of minimalism is to have meaningful things, not fewer things, I think it can be applied to life more broadly: the point isn’t to have fewer experiences, necessarily, but to make sure that the experiences I’m having are as meaningful as they can be.
At the end of the day, I’m not sure minimalism truly delivers on the lower-stress, spiritually free life that it claims to enable. But I think taking the opportunity to be intentional about how what I experience and own connects to my values and to meaning is incredibly beneficial. There isn’t really any “life-changing magic” to it, despite the rhetoric, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t beautiful, meaningful, and positive in its unique way.