The Floating World

I recently came across an interesting quote from Ryokan, the Zen Buddhist monk and poet who lived in eighteenth-century Japan:

I see people in the world
Throw away their lives lusting after things,
Never able to satisfy their desires,
Falling into deep despair
And torturing themselves.
Even if they get what they want
How long will they be able to enjoy it?
For one heavenly pleasure
They suffer ten torments of hell,
Binding themselves more firmly
to the grindstone.
Such people are like monkeys
Frantically grasping for the moon in the water
And then falling into a whirlpool.
How endlessly those caught up
in the floating world

These old words of wisdom immediately brought to mind our modern consumer culture and struggles with credit card debt. How much easier it is to reject the lure of material excess, than to be shackled to unfulfilling jobs (“the grindstone”) to pay for things we don’t really need. For in most cases, those things are inessential to our happiness.

As Ryokan states, we suffer when we get caught up in “the floating world”–that is, the transient world of material pleasure. It’s sort of an ancient way of saying “you can’t take it with you.” Why spend this precious life in pursuit of money, power, or possessions—especially when the satisfaction is fleeting, or worse yet, causes the dissatisfaction of even greater craving?

So how can we resist falling into the materialism of the floating world?

* Avoid advertisements. When you don’t know certain products exist (or how wonderful they’re claimed to be), you don’t want them. There’s no reason to long for them, no pressure to buy them, and no stress to pay for them.

* Don’t follow trends. Magazines and marketers tout the new “must-haves” every season–and make you feel like you’ll be left behind if you don’t purchase the latest and greatest. Acquire things only to satisfy needs, rather than for the sake of novelty or social status.

* Want what you have. Most of us have so much stuff, it seems ludicrous to feel any sense of deprivation. When you’re tempted to acquire something new, spend some time thinking about, being grateful for (and listing out, if it helps!) what you already have.

* “Be” instead of “buy.” Marketers encourage us to identify with the products we buy, and shop as a means of self-expression. Remember: you are not what you own. When you break the spell of consumption, you gain freedom—from advertisers, from debt, and from the rat race.

{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.}

43 comments to The Floating World

  • Kido

    Beautyful poem of Ryokan. The rest is nothing news,I read this kind of stuff al 100 times on another blog’s.Maybe it wil be better you got start a mummy blog becouse your soul is no more in this one.

  • Wow beautiful words! Although I have bought excess in the past and chased false dreams I have always found adverts and trends a little obnoxious. I could never understand why I had to wear the same clothes as everyone else or buy a completely pointless gadget to help me with a job I never found a problem with. I find adverts useful as the more I watch them the more I see them for what they are which are just gimmacks

  • MV

    Hm. I’ve followed your blog over a year now and I’ve loved your warm, positive approach on minimalism. But this post and especially the poem left me with sad feelings. Yes, I agree with the issue Ryoga is talking about but I don’t like his style. It’s always so easy point other people and say how stupid they are but usually it doesn’t lead to anything postive. It’s much more difficult to try to understand why people react the way they do and then try to find something common with them. That can lead to mutual understanding and cooperation.

    So I hope that we as minimalists would not blame others for being greed or “slaves of stuff” but instead try to understand the basic human needs behind both attitudes.

    • CJ

      I think you make a really important point. I think with minimalism (and many other things) it’s easy to end up with two very segregated groups, neither of whom know how to identify with the others. Some extreme minimalists can forget what it’s like for others and affect a superiority lacking in empathy, and many non-minimalists feel repelled by lack of understanding, uncertainty or insecurity. Neither viewpoint is conducive to a productive two-way dialogue.

    • Perhaps the poem makes more sense if one understands the history of “the floating world” during the Edo period. It was a red light district, consisting mainly of brothels, teahouses (for sustenance between brothel visit, maybe?), and various entertainments ranging from the silly to the sublime. Thousands and thousands of young men ruined their lives and careers in the “floating world” and too frequent visits denoted debauchery. I think when read in that context, it makes sense that the poem is a sort of lament against worldly pleasures :)

  • Think I might have to use it to put above my desk at work,just to remind me if I fall off the wagon !

  • Colette

    It’s interesting that people in 18th-century Japan experienced the same angst about consumerism, materialism, etc. that we do now.

    Thank you for sharing this and all your wonderful insights every week. Your soul IS definitely in this post and in everything else you write about. :)

  • Tracie B.

    LOVE this and thanks for sharing it. I’m going to print it out too and hang it above my computer. All these feelings and thoughts for so many years have filled my head and people have seemed to think I must be nuts. Your blog helps me consolidate it all and definitely feel like I’m NOT nuts. :)

  • Very powerful poem!

    Yesterday I was listening to a podcast about minimalizing expenses while starting up a business, and one thing they said applies to minimalism in general as well:

    “Buy something when you cannot live without it.”

    So if you’re considering a new laptop, for example, get it when your old one breaks and cannot be repaired (or when repairing it would be more expensive than the cost of a new one). Don’t get a new one simply because your old one is “old” or you’re attracted by the new and shiny.


    Inspiring quote! I had also printed it out and hang it on my desk (the desk provided by my sometimes seemingly boring, senseless corporate job) :)
    Thank you!

  • Sarah

    Great reminder! You put it a different way I could relate to: “Marketers encourage us to identify with the products we buy, and shop as a means of self-expression.” It’s so true- I think if I only had certain clothing, I’d be happy with my minimalist wardrobe, because it would then be a true expression of who I am. I hate shopping, hate spending, but will still lust. Shamefully, I also tend to look down my nose at others who give in to their desires. It’s the same old story, but we NEED to learn to be content with who we are first, and then with what we have.

  • Claire

    Love this poem, Francine; thank you for sharing it! It is so right. I can’t say I’m immune to the siren song of the floating world, but now I know how to tie myself to the mast and remind myself that buying something won’t remove the angst I sometimes feel about time slipping through my fingers, or that “emptiness about the heart of life,” that Virginia Woolf so aptly described. I remind myself that it’s okay to feel those things because it’s part of being human. Buying something may numb that feeling temporarily, but it won’t make it disappear, and my wallet and the planet’s resources will be further depleted because I can’t squarely face my humanity. Time to go hug my kids! ;)

  • Sky

    I am printing this so I can read it often! So simple yet so powerful.

  • Grace

    Don’t window shop for entertainment or browse catalogs,yard sales,magazines,internet… Wish I’ld had this reminder yesterday at a wharehouse store. “;( Forgot all about wanting an insulated cooler bag until I saw it. I need to put this poem on my car visor.

  • April

    Most of the concepts of minimalism are nothing new. If you look back to bible times, you can see these concepts taught even then. It’s nice to have constant reminders and practical applications for today. It’s important to remember what our true desires are which for most people aren’t actually things. I find it sad that people can be so critical of others. Being a mom is a beautiful, rewarding, completely amazing experience. It’s natural for moms to talk about their children and parenting. The love and bond we have with our children is like no other. But just since someone has a baby doesn’t mean they loose who they are. Moms still have other interests and philosophies of their own and still can discuss topics other than children. I don’t believe anyone should be put into a box of what they can discuss. Francine, I like your blog, and I love that you can talk about minimalism and children both together and separately. Children are the world’s future.

    • I agree completely! But you should know that being a mom WILL change you. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. People assume that mothers, and “mommy blog” writers are dull, mainstream, and rather vanilla types of people. I don’t know where they get this! I did not become a minimalist until after my daughter was born, and I wasn’t nearly adventurous before then (I had only been sailing once–it became my passion AFTER Jelly Bean came into the world!). Mommies are awesome, and don’t be ashamed of being one!

      Trolls may say what they want (and I say that having your blog trolled is a compliment–it means you’re big enough to be trolled…). I, personally, have enjoyed watching your journey as you mix minimalism and parenthood.

  • Victoria P

    Consumer debt is relatively modern, but the desire to establish ourselves in the hierarchy of a painfully unequal world has been around since just about forever. Have expensive stuff in large quantities and you must be doing something right – something other people can’t do. You must be more valuable to this world.
    Stepping away from that definition means defining value for yourself without relying on outside opinion. We all add value to the world. We just need to be ok with not building a tower of PROOF in order to accept that value in our own mind.

  • I find it interesting that even in earlier times people felt that there a limit, a point that was “too much.” They would be shocked by today! When I visit museums or read anything historical that depicts the personal belongings of past peoples, I am constantly shocked and humbled by what they owned. Of course, there have always been excesses, both possession based and of the “floating world” kind, it’s just so much easier for us to become sucked in these days as we are being bombarded on every level. Great post, Francine, and ignore the negativity. Behind every post of yours I always sense purpose, mindfulness, a sense of real beauty, and sincerity.

  • Angela

    I agree with April. I think your blog is even more interesting now that you are a parent. It is much more challenging to maintain a minimalist lifestyle with children and it’s interesting to read about how you are adjusting and growing now that you are a mom. Too often minimalists seem anti-child, as if maintaining perfect empty spaces and a nomadic lifestyle are superior to raising children, who may mess up their self-centered lifestyle. Why should you be forbidden from writing on minimalist motherhood on your own evolving blog? It just adds depth. Many of us do have families, after all, and are happy to hear about yours.

    • Lydia

      Agreed 100%! I don’t want kids myself, but I really enjoy reading about how you and your family are figuring out balance as you go along re: minimalism with kids. Your writing style is fantastic, and I appreciate the unique things you find to share with us (like this poem, which is beautiful and profound, and which I probably never would have discovered if not for reading this blog.) And it’s great to know that having kids doesn’t have to mean going crazy with consumerism and buying into all the crap that advertisers and society in general say you “need” when you start a family.

  • Gayle

    Another point to the “floating” analogy is with credit….it “floats” money that you don’t have out there somewhere so you can get something you “need” now. Then all of a sudden you’re rushing down the rapids of crushing debt! :-) The take-away I get from most posts on minimalism is that there needs to be something happening in your mind FIRST. Thinking about your wants, needs, what’s essential and what’s not, what lifestyle you want to share with your children and grandchildren, what message you’re sending to the world, etc. I think when we really sit down to ponder those questions we will find we aren’t as susceptible to advertising and other draws on our time and resources, and we will willingly pass up buying things just because they’re there, or they’re the “new and shiny” version. It all has to start in the mind!

    • Lydia

      Great point. It’s amazing what you can learn, and what kinds of changes you’re driven to make, when you start by asking yourself “what do I *really* want?” Usually the answers don’t have very much to do with “more stuff”. (Although the last time I asked myself that, I did end up buying a harpsichord. :p )

  • DawnW

    Wow,the very first comment is a criticism! Didn’t see any reason for that. Sure,I’ve seen these tips before,but I can always use a reminder. :)

  • iola

    The Japanese and Buddhists are definitely cultures which embrace minimalism to great effect! However, this poem is not about that.

    “The Floating World” (Ukiyo) refers to “entertainment”…specifically prostitutes, geisha and the like. It is not about material possessions. The Floating World was a concept Ryokan would have been familiar with, having lived in the same time period.

  • kaori

    hi everyone
    Francine, congratulations and best wishes and many thanks for continuing with the blog!

    a very interesting discussion – esp for me as i’m japanese and grew up in the japanese education system which means reading a bit of Ryokan and other Buddhist poets on a regular basis.

    one of the things Ryokan addressed and that the modern japanese have trouble over – is the concept of solitude. Ryokan spent most of his life alone (after all, he was a monk) and claimed to feel nothing but quiet joy in the company of himself. on the other hand, he always disciplined and controlled himself so he would find himself pleasant to be with. he also took care not to engage in too many conversations or familiarize with the villagers because human contact was “unsettling” and ultimately damaging to the soul. i used to puzzle over that and felt Ryokan was ultimately cold, distant and self-serving: hallmark traits of the typical japanese male…LOL! but then i found out that the term “loneliness” had nothing but positive connotations in Ryokan’s time and it only became an undesirable state after japan opened its doors to the west in the late 19th century and modernization flooded the gates.

    and now few of us are as serene with ourselves as Ryokan or his contemporaries – the discomfort, sadness and confusion that can assail the solitary state is something relatively new in japanese history. suffice to say: we ain’t used to it. i’m finding that it can clutter the mind and rouse dissatisfaction just as much as material stuff. and solitude is maybe more complicated because you can have a family, be at a party, have drinks with friends and still feel lonely as hell. maybe that’s what Ryokan meant? it’s a question worth pondering but Francine’s post reminds me of other things Ryokan wrote about, and find a little reassurance in being okay with not being okay about being lonely.

    • Ayo

      Ryokan was zen master. One has to practice zen (zazen) to really understand his words. Not understand with mind, but with whole body (zazen). I don’t want to sound too much “weird” and pseudo-zen, but I just have to write it. Maybe it will help a little. :-)

  • This is a great inspiration for me. I am just changing me life to minimimalis and it is not easy for me. However, I strongly beleive that if I keep doing small changes one at a time one day I’ll have a much simpler and happier life.

  • Vee

    Omg so true! I love it. This post has helped remind me why I started my minimalism journey in the first place. <3

  • mary

    thanks again for the reminder. I come back to this site every week for inspiration. Otherwise, I’d fall back into the habit of shopping for unnecessary things.

  • Beautiful poem, thank you for this!! As a couple of other people have said, I think this one will have to be printed out and stuck up in my study somewhere as a constant reminder.

    My husband and I are about to embark on what we are calling ‘Project Simplify’ as we try to declutter our home and our life. I’ll pass this on to him too!!

  • Sarah Connor

    “You are NOT what you own” is a sentence that we should have marked by fire in our lifes. If we were starting to assume that we are not what we own but a lot of other things, we will be able to be much more happier.

  • Elizabeth

    And don’t forget to Opt Out.

  • Ellen

    I work at a clothing store at my local mall, and this reminds me of all the people that come into the store. Even one of my coworkers is always shopping, always buying something new. Although, she lives with her mother and is in college, so I don’t think she really understands the price of living in the real world.

  • There is a wonderful album from the band Anathallo that is a concept album called “Floating World” that is inspired by this philosophy and poetry. Definitely worth a listen!

  • […] realize that you don’t need all that stuff to be happy. In fact, all that stuff could actually be perpetuating your unhappiness. Learn to be content with what you […]

  • […] realize that you don’t need all that stuff to be happy. In fact, all that stuff could actually be perpetuating your unhappiness. Learn to be content with what you […]

  • Tina

    I was looking at possible treats for myself because my husband wanted to buy me a gift. I couldn’t find any “thing” I wanted or needed. I will give money to a non-profit instead. I have things to give away in the back of my car.

  • Tina

    Rereading some past posts. Thinking of more I could do without. Life is easier with fewer possessions.

  • Tina

    I found a store at a mall that had accessories in all kinds of colors very cheaply. There were greens, blues, yellows, pinks, all 2 for less than $5. Then I looked at the regular priced merchandise, it was the same things in browns, oranges, and reds. The exact same things. Women were buying armloads of bracelets and it wasn’t just teenagers.

  • Tina

    I visited my brother and cleaned his basement, linen closet, and kitchen cabinets. Last time, I cleaned one closet and found 10 garbage bags of clothes to give away. This time I found sheets that were the wrong size for the beds, table cloths that didn’t fit any table and big, empty boxes. I also recycled a whole bin of papers. I had a great time.

  • Tina

    I was talking with a group of women who all had on those decorated ” Christmas” sweaters. I thought about how you can only wear those for a few weeks each year. I have some holiday earrings but at least they take up very little space.

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