Minimalism: more than a buzz-word

This is a special guest post by our friend, Owen Baker.

Minimalism has become something of a buzz-word in the last few years; if you haven’t already heard of the movement in some way, shape or form, you soon will.

Of course every buzz-word comes with some sort of baggage. For Minimalism, it may be that magazine image of the pure white apartment, lived in by insufferable hipsters who have made their homes look like smug, real-life equivalents of the Ikea showroom.

Or else it’s some kind of monk-like existence, where you own nothing but a bowl, a meditation cushion and the robes you stand in.

Whilst I’ve got nothing against monks, and I’m self-aware enough to know that I’m the insufferable hipster in some people’s eyes. These are just caricatures of modern Minimalism, which is about an earnest attempt to live a more meaningful life.

For a number of reasons, Minimalism is an idea whose time has come:

  • Enforced austerity – the 2008 crash has made a lot of people re-evaluate their lives and has curbed the rampant consumerism that peaked in the early noughties. I know that my personal value system has adapted to place more emphasis on financial stability and less on the accumulation of items. (Of course, this could just be an age thing.)
  • Increased ecological awareness – fast fashion, plastic in the oceans and the ridiculous carbon footprints of long, unsustainable supply chains – these are the things that have driven such initiatives as Freecycle, and have made people into more conscious consumers who maybe put a little bit more thought into how much oil had to be taken out of the ground just to make a single product. (I think the time has come for us to think of oil the way we think of asbestos; it’s fine when it’s left in situ, but disturbing it is seriously bad news).
  • Technological advances and increased access – MP3 players, online newspapers, streaming services for music and video – we live in a golden age of being able to access media without all the hardware we once required. My Spotify account dumps on what I once thought was a very impressive CD collection of a hundred or so albums.

A lot of Minimalism is common sense, and it’s been in the culture for some time. In the 1980s, comedian George Carlin did a piece for Comic Relief about the importance of “stuff” in our lives; it’s a hilarious five-minute exploration of how our neuroses about our possessions borders on the absurd.

For me, one of the funniest and most profound parts of the skit is the realization:

“Oh my God, we’ve got more places than we’ve got stuff. We’re going to have to get…MORE STUFF!”

Tyler Durden in Fight Club was also a Minimalist.

“You’ll wear leather clothes that will last you the rest of your life.”

Then there’s that scene where Edward Norton’s character (what is his actual name?) talks about the things in his apartment giving him a sense of validation as a person.

Of course we know most of what we’re being told already: that it’s nicer to live in a tidy, clutter-free environment, that we often have buyer’s remorse but leave it too long to return the item for a full refund, that we can’t take any of this stuff with us when we die.

But sometimes we just need that external push to crystallize the thoughts that have been nagging away at us for a while.

For me, that came when I watched the Netflix show, Minimalism: A Documentary About The Important Things. Spoiler alert: the important things don’t turn out to be objects.

This was just the tip of the iceberg though. These guys have a regular podcast and a blog, and their underlying philosophy is coherent. They address all the obvious concerns and objections someone might think of:

  • What about presents or sentimental items?
  • What about “just in case” items? (I have no use for twenty alum keys in the same size now but you never know, one day, that need could arise!)

They’re down-to-earth and they don’t take it too far, and their overriding concept is simple and pragmatic: keep the stuff that adds value; throw away the rest. There’s an anecdote in the documentary about a man who approaches The Minimalists after one of their talks and completely misses the point. He has this collection of books; he loves reading and re-reading them, he loves handling them and having them on the shelf. He doesn’t want to throw them away.

The Minimalists answer is simple: then don’t. If they add that much value, keep them.

And then there’s Marie Kondo, a minimalist in disguise as a tidying expert. Her maxim is: only keep the items that spark joy. How do you know whether an object sparks joy? It should give you a tingling sensation when you handle it. (This is all a bit woo-woo for some people’s taste, but it makes sense. The items that you really value, that you definitely should keep, make themselves obvious when you pick them up.)

Marie Kondo also has a famous method for folding clothes so that they stand up by themselves. The advantage to this over laying them flat, one on top of another, is that you can see what you have every time you check the drawer. There isn’t the opportunity for a T-shirt that you never really liked anyway to get buried at the bottom of the drawer and continuously avoid being discarded.

Another excellent Minimalist resource is Fumio Sasaki’s book: Goodbye, things. He has one of the best tips I’ve come across for helping us to let go of those things we’re on the fence about, the ones we really have no further use for but can’t quite let go of because they’re too tied up with some kind of emotion. Simply take a photo to remember the item by. Keep the photo: ditch the object (preferably in an ethical and sustainable way).

This ring is a classic example. It was bought for me by an ex-girlfriend and now that I’m married, I have no intention of ever wearing it again, but it feels wrong to just toss it aside, as if I’m deleting a memory, something that’s a part of me. (It’s weird how emotionally attached we can become to possessions.) But once I took the photo, it was possible to donate it and give someone else a chance to get some value out of it.

What’s interesting is that Sasaki goes on to say he has a whole digital folder full of these photos, but he hardly ever bothers to look at it.  

I have a feeling it’s going to be the same for me.


Thanks to Owen Baker for this special guest post!

We welcome ideas for guest posts on our blog – email if you have an idea you think would fit. Some of our favourite things to talk about are mind, body, spirit; meditation and mindfulness; nature; tarot & astrology; yoga; environmentalism; veganism; art therapy; social activism – all the things that help improve our planet and our spiritual journeys through this life!

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