Monthly Archives: January 2010

Zen and the Art of Minimalism – Part 1: Zen Philosophy

Image Credit Drue Kataoka

There are a great many articles, ebooks and blogs about how exactly to be more minimalist – how to step by step, get rid of stuff. But, I thought it would be interesting to break it down and explore the background of minimalism and what, if anything, it has to do with Zen philosophy.

No matter how small it may be, few people can deny that there is a ‘wave’ of minimalism happening right now. It has become such a big part of my life now that I wondered where minimalism came from.  From what I had gathered, for some, it was born out of necessity, they wanted to travel, get out of debt or move house, and therefore found it on their own. For others, they discovered it from admiring the lifestyle of the many great blogs written by some very talented writers or successful people. For me, it was a combination of these, plus some good books which eventually persuaded me to change my lifestyle to a different way of living that brings me happiness.

It is difficult to pinpoint exactly where minimalism originates. Some would say, as would I, that minimalism has some of it’s roots in Buddhism. Now, I don’t declare to be a Buddhist expert, but I do believe in a great deal of Buddhist principles, such as the importance of:

  • Letting go of attachment
  • Reducing suffering and increasing happiness
  • Mindfulness and focus
  • Kindness and compassion

A traditional Buddhist, such as a monk, lives an extremely minimalist lifestyle because their belief in these principles flow into their everyday life. According to Buddhist beliefs, everything is impermanent – everything is always changing. To (over)simplify it, Buddhists believe that attachment – the clinging onto objects – is what causes suffering because nothing will last forever. Think about your favourite mug. It is special to you because you have made an emotional attachment to it. But what happens if you break or lose the mug? The natural response is to be upset or angry, thereby causing suffering for yourself because of your attachment to it.

So, taking each of the above principles, I like to think minimalism can be connected to:

  • Letting go of attachment – to our possessions, because they don’t define who we are. Everything we own will one day be lost, stolen, broken, donated, outdated, sold or thrown away.
  • Our happiness – because it’s not derived from the things we own and our suffering shouldn’t be defined by the things we do not own.
  • Mindfulness – being aware of the consequences of consumerism and materialism and always wanting more and more. Also, being mindful of our choices, such as the thing we do buy. Focus – on what is important and essential to our lives.
  • Kindness and compassion – spending less time taking care of our things, or working in order to gain more, and instead using that time more wisely to develop our relationship with others or using the money to help those in need.

I don’t claim to be wise or experienced. I’m learning something new every single day. I’m just gathering from my own experiences and what I’ve learnt and am learning from others. In this case, I genuinely believe in the Buddhist way of thinking. So, for me, whenever I speak of minimalism, a little bit of Buddhism is always on the back of my mind.

However, you don’t have to be Buddhist if you want to live a minimalist lifestyle. This is just one way of thinking about it.

Another way to think about it is practically – reasons that one can apply to make their lives better today, so that they can:

  • get out of debt (or not get into it)
  • travel lightly
  • move house easily
  • have more free time
  • have fewer but more valuable things
  • have more space
  • be more productive
  • be greener
  • save up
  • spend less time cleaning
  • lose weight (minimalist eating)
  • accomplish more

All of these things are perfectly valid reasons for minimalism too, and I personally value many of these as I’m a) a poor student, b) not living at home (therefore moving around a lot) and c) about to travel abroad.

For some, it doesn’t matter so much where minimalism comes from, but what we can achieve out of it. You could say that the above reasons are not only the reasons for minimalism, but they are also the achievements themselves.

Or, as I have done, you can take a mixed approach that incorporates all of these reasons to become more minimalist and use them for motivation when you’re tempted to buy or keep something you don’t necessarily need.

Bringing it back to (Zen) Buddhism, I don’t have any hard statistics but from my experience, people who are interested in minimalism are so because they have taken on a selfless and more compassionate attitude when it comes to material things. To make a (potentially inaccurate) sweeping judgement, I think minimalists tend to be more aware, that their resources are better spent on other activities rather than the pursuit of material gain. And, in a spiritual sense, of the need for a higher, more genuine and longer lasting happiness.

This is part one of two of ‘Zen and the Art of Minimalism’. Next post, I’ll talk about what minimalism has to do with art.

I’d love to hear your opinions. Do you think there is a relationship between minimalism and Zen? How do you like to think of minimalism? Please comment below!

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Why You Love The Things You Love

Last month, it snowed. A lot. This photo was the view outside my dorm. It had been piling up for a few days, and got pretty deep. One morning, I was rushing to university when I very nearly fell flat on my face. Thankfully I saved my dignity by doing an ungracious twirl with about the skill of a ballerina with two left feet. Luckily, I was with a friend to laugh it off with.

Just a few minutes before I had been complaining about how sick of the snow I had become. That’s when I realised.

The good things in life, the things we love and enjoy, we cherish them because they don’t come around very often.

Even the little things that pass us by everyday without us noticing.

We play in the snow like kids and have snowball fights because the roads and gardens are only covered in a beautiful white blanket of snow once a year, if that.

We feel a bit superhuman when we manage to pass a green light, or reach the crossing just when the green man shows, only because most of the time it is red.

We bathe in the sun, have picnics and go for walks in the summer because it’s hot, and because it’s not summer all year around.

We can’t help smiling when our favourite song comes on the radio, because most of the time they’re playing something else.

We laugh when someone tells a good joke, because it’s hard to find a good one you haven’t heard before.

We love weekends, because they come less often than weekdays.

We love our mother’s cooking because there is only one place you can have it, at home.

We love our friends and partners because there is nobody else in the world quite like them.

How often do we forget to celebrate these tiny victories?

We can’t have our favourite dessert all day everyday because then it wouldn’t be our favourite any more. We love the things we love, because we don’t have them very much or often. That’s what makes them special.

Minimalism is about having fewer things – so we can cherish each and every one of them. Appreciate their usefulness, design, durability, versatility and value.

Did something happen to you today that made you smile?

Inspired by 1000 Awesome things blog

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Can Minimalism be Measured?

Just yesterday I read a post by Charley, writer of the blog ‘You, Simplified’ and he made a very interesting statement:

There’s a fair amount of talk in Minimalist circles about the prospect of Living with 100 Items

Some want to live more consciously, some want to escape the stranglehold of consumerism, some want to lighten their footprint, some want to live out of a bag and travel the world, some want to break their attachment with anything considered materialistic (and there is a whole spectrum that measures the magnitude of this).  All are worthy, and I won’t dare judge or question anyone’s motives.

What I want to be careful of is that it doesn’t become the litmus test of whether one is a minimalist or not.

Let me first say that I really admire the people who manage to live with 100 things or less, especially if they’re married/have children etc. which no doubt makes it a bit more difficult to do so. I also really admire the people who are minimalistic in the way they act – they are mindful all (or most) of the time – and constantly practice awareness and focus.

But I would be saddened if these things do become litmus tests for whether or not one is a minimalist. Of course it’s possible for everyone to get rid of stuff until they have 100 things, or force themselves to slow down and be mindful all the time, but the simple truth is that it would be so difficult for some that it would distract them from the things they really want.

Right now I am trying to earn a degree – I want to have fewer things so that I can focus but I still need to use paper, stationary, books, utensils and clothes. I want to slow down and take my time but I’m being bombarded with work and doing so will almost certainly cause me to fall behind.

I may sound like I am trying to make excuses, but I am just being honest. The line between ideal minimalism and practicality is different for everyone. However, I still don’t buy nearly as much as other people, and I try to slow down and focus whenever I can or need to. In other words, I try my best.

I think what I’m trying to say is that there is a time and a place for minimalism; where, when and to what degree it applies to every person is arbitrary, and I don’t think it can be measured with numbers like ‘100’.

I think of minimalism as a lifestyle that you adopt because it makes your life easier, not so that you can spend your time constantly obsessing over it. It would be a shame if ‘minimalism’ was defined by how many things you don’t own instead of how may things you’ve achieved because of it.

Justin, hit the nail on the head when he made a comment on my last post:

In my opinion, the value of minimalism is dependent upon the context of the individual. For that reason I don’t think the absence of things necessarily constitutes a minimalist way of life; instead, the ability to understand the value of what is and is not important to you and your life will ultimately (hopefully) lead to a more “free” way of life. In other words, I don’t think a minimalist way of life is determine by the absence of “things” or “stuff” – instead, I think it depends on understanding them and their personal value – and then getting rid things that don’t have as much value or purpose.

So perhaps you haven’t managed to get everything down to 100, or even 200. What matters is that you have what is valuable to you, you are not attached to things that are unimportant and you are doing your best for your situation right now.

This summer, I will be going abroad for a year. I have no doubt that my needs will change and I will shift towards more minimalism – which means it’ll be just me, a few clothes, a camera and my laptop. In the mean time though, I am going to play my guitar while I can still carry it and read all of the books that I can stuff onto my shelves.

I’d love to hear what minimalism means to you, if it can be measured or what you think about the ‘100 things’ challenge. Leave a comment below!

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Why Minimalism Brings Happiness

When I was packing for university, I found it extremely difficult to let go of some of the things I owned. I knew I couldn’t take everything with me, but I kept asking myself ‘how could I possibly throw this away?’. What if I need it one day? What about all of the memories?

Now that I’ve moved, and left that stuff behind, I don’t even miss it. Whether or not I got rid of it, it barely makes a bit of difference to me now.

I’ve learned that over time people forget, or their need for a particular object eventually diminishes. Either they store it away or they get rid of it.

You might think nostalgically about the toys you cared about when you were a child, but what is making you smile now is not the thing itself but the memory of it. I’ve heard it a hundred times, “you don’t need things to make you happy”. It takes something life changing like moving across the country to realise how true this is.

Speaking of which, for a lot of people, minimalism is about being able to move. It’s about being able to go almost anywhere at any time because you don’t have many possessions to carry. When you keep things you don’t need they become a burden that tie you to a place. Moving to university was a good time to let go of a lot of stuff. And when I visit for the holidays, I’ll probably get rid of even more, to lighten the burden.

Of course, there are exceptions. There are some things that are irreplaceable, very rare or expensive or we simply love and cherish for some reason or another, we are human after all. But after we keep those, how much is left that we don’t really need?

Hence, minimalism. And why does minimalism bring happiness? This was a bit of a roundabout way of saying that it’s because what really makes me happy is freedom. And the key to freedom is minimalism because minimalism reduces our attachment to things.

Attachment to too many objects create clutter and can severely hinder our freedom to do whatever we want, whereas minimalism helps us start new projects, move, travel, learn new things, meditate, work, expand, be debt free, be healthy – really living life to our full potential.

I left the nest to fly onwards and upwards, I can’t do it with old things weighing me down. And that is why I have adopted minimalism with open arms.

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5 Steps to Minimalist Web Surfing

It’s hard to live without the internet if you’re a student. Amongst many things, you probably need it for checking email, receiving updates from societies, arranging meetings with course-mates, keeping in touch with old friends, Skyping your family, getting in touch with your professors, checking out the library catalogue and of course, for research (maybe I should have put that one first).

If you’re planning on living a more minimalist lifestyle, consider letting that attitude flow into your web experience. Here’s how.

1. Firefox Add-ons. Perhaps it is a little paradoxical to claim that adding things on can help you become more minimal but if you use Gmail and Firefox, you will love an add-on called Greasemonkey which allows you to run scripts within Firefox. All you have to do is install it so that you can run little scripts such as HelvetiMail, which gets rid of all the words and boxes that just clutter up your inbox, as well as pasting a very minimal white theme on top. Here is the final result:

2. Adblocker. This is also a Firefox add-on but it is available in Chrome (known as Adthwart) and it so important that it gets its own step. Adblockers get rid of all the flashy ads that can clutter up web pages. As much as I want to support the sites that I use, I would never click on the ads anyway. I mostly ignore them, but I can’t resist how clean and simple pages look without ads.

3. Google Reader – If you read a lot of blogs, a great way to get them all in one place is to use Google Reader with the Greasemonkey script, Helvetireader. As minimal as Google interfaces tend to be, the Helveti guys make it even more simple. Also, having all of your RSS feeds go into one place saves time and makes keeping up with blog posts easier and more streamlined.

4. Time tracking. These last two steps might help if you want to minimalise the number of hours you surf the interweb. If you count them, you may be more inclined to reduce them. Extensions such as Meetimer or Time Tracker can help you see how much time you are spending and there are even tools that you can use to block particular websites after you have spent a pre-allocated amount of time on them.

5. Cut social networking. For me, social networking takes up a very large proportion of my web activity, and it is probably the most wasteful as well. Reducing the number of hours I spend on sites like Facebook and Twitter definitely counts towards a minimalist experience.

Other little things I like to do include keeping my inbox empty (see screenshot), cutting down the number of blogs I follow to a few high quality ones and if I’m really desperate, disconnecting once in a while.