One day, the legendary Chinese recluse Xu You watched a mole drinking water from a pond. He then realized that the mole, when thirsty, only drinks a bellyful: no more, no less, but exactly the quantity it needs. The mole doesn’t encumber itself with excesses, because that would only impede its movement.
Unlike humans, who often tend to consume much more than they need. We may not drink water in excess, but we often overburden ourselves with all kinds of material possessions, buying much more than we need to stay alive and thriving.
Consumerism comes with a price as well, as it requires resources to keep up with the other consumers. Therefore, many people are willing to work themselves into an early grave, and simply accumulate, what we could call, ‘extensions of themselves’; extensions of their egos. “I have more, so I am more,” they tend to think, so by increasing their possessions they increase their sense of self.
But there’s a counter-movement to the consumerist society we’re living in, known as minimalism. Minimalists are people who turn their backs to overconsumption and decide to live with no more than necessary.
Aside from it being a lifestyle trend today, minimalism is a concept that people have been practicing for centuries. There’s a sense of freedom in simplicity, and not owning much, which many sages and philosophers have experienced throughout the ages. They saw that possessions don’t define who we are and that the ongoing pursuit of external things prevents us from experiencing life to the fullest.
This article examines the philosophical side of minimalism and explores why more is less and why the ability to let go is true wealth.
Minimalism: the wrong way
Minimalism can be interpreted in different ways. Essentially it points to living with the bare essentials, reducing the clutter in our lives, and refraining from overextending ourselves. In other words: to keep it simple.
But there are certain modes of minimalism that slightly miss the mark. First of all, there’s extreme asceticism, which is geared towards going below the minimum.
For example, when prince Siddharta Gautama lived as an ascetic he only ate one grain of rice a day, and hardly had any flesh left on his bones. In a way, consuming below one’s needs is a very ‘minimalistic’ thing to do, as it hardly requires consumption. Also, such a way of life goes together with the renunciation of possessions, which leads to a simple life. But in the case of the extreme ascetic, less isn’t more, but truly less, as it’s a road to self-destruction. Siddharta Gautama concluded that the punishment of the body won’t lead to enlightenment. So he quit the ascetic lifestyle before he became the Buddha.
Second of all, there’s a fashionable, wealthy form of minimalism, which focuses more on getting rid of unnecessary, and often, ‘cheap’ objects, while maintaining a selection of very expensive things. For example, a minimalistic living room in a two-million-dollar apartment. In this case, minimalism is still used as a means to display wealth, as the absence of cheap, obsolete objects accentuates the expensive things we do have. Thus, we can see this as a sophisticated form of consumerism, as it still revolves around status and possessions, and thus, one still needs a lot of money to obtain and sustain this lifestyle.
Such a stance goes at the expense of the true power behind minimalist living, which is that our baseline happiness (or contentment) is achieved with a minimal amount of resources, and is detached from the burden of status and extreme wealth. But this idea is difficult to accept when the basic ideology of the consumerist culture we live in is that less is less, and more is more. This has everything to do with how we collectively value social status. And that social status isn’t measured by one’s virtue or spirituality, but by the car one drives, the house one lives in, the furniture one possesses, and the clothes one wears. What we have seems to determine our place in the dominance hierarchy.
So, in a society in which holiness is wealth, the church is the shopping mall, and prayer is consumption, those who dare to reject these ‘sacred elements’ will be regarded as blasphemers. Nevertheless, the joy of simple living can far outweigh the negatives.
The joys of not having
Emperor Yao regarded the recluse Xu You with the utmost respect; so much that he was willing to give up his throne to him. However, Xu You (who lived a solitary and quiet life by the riverside) refused, telling the emperor that he did not need “all under heaven”, and said to him: “When the tailorbird builds her nest in the deep wood, she uses no more than one branch.”
The story about Xu You can be found in an ancient Chinese text attributed to the Taoist philosopher Zhuangzi. The recluse who lives in poverty gets handed something that many people can only dream of, which is a whole empire under his command. But the story tells us that he chose to live as a hermit in a solitary place. Xu You probably realized that power comes with great responsibility and that ruling an empire will not allow him to live a simple, quiet life.
The less you own, the less you can lose, and the less you have to worry about. Lao Tzu wrote the following passage in the Tao Te Ching, and I quote:
If you overvalue possessions, people will begin to steal.Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching, 3
Do not display your treasures or people will become envious.
Having a lot of possessions requires adequate protection. That’s why we see that outwardly rich people often live in fear, hidden behind walls in gated communities. By not owning much, on the other hand, we save a lot of time and energy. We don’t have to look after our expensive things and they don’t distract us either. And we’re still able to find joy in the world, as we don’t have to own what we enjoy.
Why do we need a 1000 square feet garden, if we can go for a walk in the woods? Why do we need a 6-bedroom mansion if we can live in a small cheap house, and enjoy the world outside for free? This is what American transcendentalist philosopher Henry David Thoreau must have thought as well when he decided to live in a cabin in the woods near the Walden pond. Thoreau deliberately chose a simple life because he believed that this could lead to spiritual growth.
In essence, a minimalist life facilitates equanimity. When the living expenses are low, we don’t have to work like dogs and can spend more time enjoying the world around us, with a sense of contentment; this joy of not needing anything more than this moment has to offer. Isn’t that what freedom is all about?
Defining our needs
So, what do we truly need? Where lies the golden middle path between asceticism and consumerism that a minimalist is looking for?
In the course of history, there have been several philosophers who shaped their minimalist lifestyle in their unique ways. Take, for example, Diogenes the Cynic who lived in a barrel without possessions. The story goes that for a while he owned a drinking cup, which he threw away when he saw a child drinking from his hands, and remarked: “A child has beaten me in plainness of living.” Aside from that, Diogenes didn’t have shame, and couldn’t care what people thought about him. His state of detachment from worldly goods as well as other people’s opinions made him invincible; no one could hurt him.
But, for those who don’t fancy living in a barrel on the streets, and rather live a more integrated life that doesn’t make you into an outcast, there’s a more practical recipe for minimalist living, which was invented by a philosopher named Epicurus. Epicurus created a hierarchy of needs, that shows us which desires we should pursue and which we shouldn’t. Natural and necessary desires like food, shelter, and human connection, are the ones we should focus on. Moreover, these natural desires are generally easy to obtain and also have natural limits, which means that they’re satiable. The desires that we should avoid, he called ‘vain and empty’ desires, which include power, wealth, and fame. These desires he considered unnecessary, unnatural, and impossible to satisfy as they don’t have a natural limit.
Now, Epicurus also urges us to cherish what we do have and stop focusing on what we lack. Or as he stated: “do not spoil what you have by desiring what you have not; remember that what you now have was once among the things you only hoped for.”
Letting go is true wealth
There’s great joy in having little. As opposed to the lives of those seeking to consume to infinity, painfully exchanging their very lives for boosting their self-esteem, so they feel accepted in a world where the amount of stuff we have is how we define how worthy we are.
For a minimalist, this is the very definition of a miserable life. In minimalism, one lets go of the conventional ideas of wealth and status, knowing that true wealth lies within and social status is not only an unnecessary luxury; it’s also difficult to obtain, easy to lose, and, for a great part, out of our control. Instead, minimalists choose to live simply, as they know that the ability to let go of all these worldly goods is where the true wealth lies; the joy of a simple, easy life. For them, simplicity is the ultimate form of sophistication. As Thoreau stated:
“I am convinced, both by faith and experience, that to maintain one’s self on this earth is not a hardship but a pastime if we live simply and wisely.”Henry David Thoreau
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