To be thingless is to possess the world

A few weeks ago, I attended the John Pawson exhibition at the Design Museum here in London. For those unfamiliar with his work, he is the minimalist architect extraordinaire. I adore his aesthetic: white walls, open spaces, and minimum adornment, combined with natural materials like wood, marble, onyx, bronze, and granite. Simplicity, purity, grace, clarity – these are the words that come to mind when looking at his spaces.

At the exhibition was a long table, displaying the architect’s notes, articles, architectural renderings and models. This page of Pawson’s typewritten notes was the first thing I laid eyes on:



“To be thingless is to possess the world.”

The words struck me like a lightning bolt and burned themselves into my brain. Every day since, I’ve been repeating this mantra over and over in my head. I love it for its simplicity, its poetry, its philosophy, its expression of the very essence and joy of minimalism.

And, of course, I couldn’t wait to share it with you. :)

Like all things Zen, it shouldn’t be interpreted literally. In our modern times, it’s nearly impossible to be absolutely “thingless,” and none of us actually want to “possess” the world.

This phrase, rather, is a reminder that the less we’re attached to things, the more freedom we have. The less time and energy we devote to things, the more we have for experiences. The less walled-in we are by things, the more open we are to those around us.

In other words: when we’re not possessed by things, we can fully embrace the world.

And I’ll leave it at that, because nothing I can say is as beautiful, powerful, or inspirational as those eight little words.

{If you’d like to learn more about minimalist living, please consider reading my book, The Joy of Less, A Minimalist Living Guide, or subscribing to my RSS feed.}

26 comments to To be thingless is to possess the world

  • Just yesterday, I was thinking about the difference between appreciating beautiful things and spaces, and needing to own them. I can enjoy a park or garden, without needing a yard. I can walk around a museum (or beautiful store!) drinking in the beauty, without needing a mansion full of pretty things.

    It’s mostly at the thought stage right now – I HAVE a yard, and my husband likes it an awful lot ;) But thank you for inspiring such thoughts.

  • I love the last two sentences:

    “A man weighted down by things, he said, was like a ship into which water is pouring. The only hope of reaching safety was to jettison cargo.”

    So true. The only way to be truly free is to have no attachments. To be thingless is to possess the world.

    A great and inspiring post.

  • I love this and also think it is so true! It’s something I’ve been noticing that as I live with less and less, I am happier each day. I take joy in so many different things than I used to. Thank you for a wonderful post.

  • Fuji

    Thinning out our material possessions makes space in our lives. We need to make space for life itself. Being, not owning.
    Lovely post!

  • marie

    very good post. i have read of wabi, and this is a beautiful way of life. i have been stripping and divesting myself of ‘things’ all this year, and i definitely feel a sense of freedom. (by the way, there are some people in this world who do want to possess the world; they are the greedy, the rapacious ones. and some feel empty inside, so they attempt to swallow everything whole in order to fill the void within, never understanding the freedom and tranquility of wabi.)

  • Jan Vana

    I was lucky enough to spend few days as a guest in Monastery Novy Dvur (reader from Czech Republic) and it was just beautiful. I went there partly because of the incredible architecture, partly to spend some time alone in complete silence, which is really hard in todays world. I don’t really believe in God, but the monks were absolutely OK with it, everyone was very kind and hospitable. I’m going back in January and I can’t wait to see Pawson’s architectural masterpiece in snowbound landscape.

  • Great post! Thanks for sharing :)

  • What an amazing building and amazing photo. It radiates the peace of simplicity.

  • WOW. So profound. You’re right, Francine, nothing we say can make it more meaningful and powerful. It just IS.

  • Wow. That was incredibly beautiful.

  • This is so true Francine!

    Makes me inspired to get rid of more. It’s nice to know how mobile one can be if we just put our minds to it

  • anna

    Yes! When I see these reminders, I too want to get rid of more and more and… well, everything! Just a laptop and a vase and a loaf of bread to remain!

  • Ashley

    Thank you so much for sharing that insight (and the great monastery picture too)

  • Gary

    Joyfull poverty is an honourable thing (Epicurus)

  • […] ya, Miss Minimalist has an interesting piece on “To be thingless is to possess the world” […]

  • The image of the Monastery is breathtaking. A picture paints a thousand words – so minimal and yet so perfect.

  • Making a break from “things” is one of the best things we’ve ever done. It started several years ago when we made a break from needing the latest and greatest car. We now drive used cars and don’t feel that NEED to upgrade all the time. Once that was broken it became easier to break with other things. I think we just needed that one break to get the ball rolling. Now we are purging our house trying to get our belongings down to the items that we actually use on a regular basis. It feels great to break that relationship with stuff.

  • Absolutely beautiful architecture. So clean and open I’m drooling! Thanks so much for sharing!

  • […] This post at Miss Minimalist has stuck with me in a good way. The last thing that stuck with me was the movie Inception. Chris and I spent a few days trying to unravel the time lines. I think this is a sign that I need to up the quality and quantity of what I’m reading. […]

  • […] Find your enough point. I can’t emphasize enough how liberating it is to live from a place of “enough.” (I mean physical items and calendar items and anything else.) Take an hour and spend some time […]

  • Dante Iscariot

    To be thingless is to possess the world. I’m going to get that printed on a t shirt. If I start a minimalist blog (which some days I get very excited about imagining, but don’t because my minimalism is a blitzkrieg, I don’t get too philosophical about it lol, and there are many excellent blogs already such as this one that I would hate to take attention away from!) I would have that as my tagline. I still love Becoming Minimalist’s tagline: The best things in life aren’t things :) May have to get several t shirts made up lol

  • Tina

    I look for posts I haven’t read. This is beautiful. I am trying to give away as much as I can. My son wants a plant for his desk at work and I offered him a cutting of one of my jade plants. I have 2 jackets, a heavy one for winter and a lighter one for spring and fall. I keep my drawers half empty and most of my clothes were free or given to me.

  • Tina

    Every time we give away a bunch of stuff, I start filling another bag with more to give away. I have more to recycle and just got rid of 2 bags of recycling. The good side is we produce only 1 bag of garbage a month–not counting cat litter. This makes our home look spacious and clean and we are able to live easily on our small pensions and small social security checks. We took early retirement and take classes and do volunteer work and hobbies we enjoy.

  • I help people declutter and they make a donation to charity. We eat a lot of beans and rice and pasta. I try to eat red meat only 4–6 times a year. I am trying to make a small footprint. I buy used whenever I can. I found out the library was giving away annual reports from various companies. They are great for origami, making decorations and other paper crafts. Newspaper is another great resource.

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