Exorcise Your Clutter Ghosts

We all have some clutter skeletons in our closets—purchases and behaviors that have junked up our homes, emptied our bank accounts, and perhaps even chained us to an unsatisfying work-spend treadmill.

And despite our best intentions, some of these demons continue to haunt us, sucking the space from our homes, the money from our wallets, and the joy from our lives.

In the spirit of Halloween, I propose an exorcism: let’s call out each of these clutter ghosts in turn, and banish them once and for all!

Novelty. If you find yourself idly browsing retail websites, paging through catalogs, stopping by the mall every weekend, or otherwise looking for things “to want,” the ghost of novelty may be haunting you. We all know, however, that the rush from acquiring a shiny new item is usually short-lived—and often followed by buyer’s remorse. Instead of shopping for entertainment, read a good book, go to the park, or have coffee with a friend.

Excess. Blame this demon for your overflowing closets, shelves, and kitchen drawers. Sometimes we go overboard in acquiring certain items—as if one more pair of shoes, or electronic gadget, will make our lives complete. The best way to exorcise this one is to consolidate and make an inventory of your “problem” categories; discovering just how many t-shirts or DVDs you own can be downright scary, and inspire a major decluttering session!

Sentiment. This ghost keeps us holding on to things we don’t want in the name of “memories.” We feel that if we let go of the object in question, the person, place, or occasion associated with it will vanish forever from our thoughts. We have to remember that our memories don’t reside in that thing, but in our minds—which is a much better place for them, as they can never be tarnished, stolen, or taken away.

Guilt. The ghost of guilt sure is a scary one! It keeps our attics stuffed with unloved heirlooms, our closets with unworn clothes, and our drawers with unwanted gifts. This monster can take several forms: guilt over failing to preserve our family history, wasting money on an impulse purchase, or getting rid of presents from loved ones. How to exorcise it? Realize that letting these things out into the world, where they’ll be loved and appreciated, can do more good than hoarding them away.

Laziness. Does the thought of your clutter keep you glued to the couch? Ignore this ghoul, and your problem will become all the more terrifying. The solution: don’t feel you have to tackle everything at once. Start small—a One-a-Day Declutter takes little effort, but can be incredibly effective.

Fear. Ah, the ghost of just-in-case and might-need-it! Think about all those things you’re squirreling away because you’re afraid they’ll be useful someday (even though you haven’t used, looked at, or even thought about them for years). Ponder what’s the worst that can happen if you don’t have that item on hand. You’ll likely conclude that it’s far from the end of the world, and hardly worth hoarding a hundred items in the slim chance you might need one of them.

Insecurity. If you’re buying stuff to show your “status,” or in an effort to keep up with the Joneses, you may be possessed by the ghost of insecurity. Always ask “why?” before you buy something—is it because you really need it? Or because you think it’s a symbol of your success, or similar to what your peers or neighbors have? Foil this demon, and free yourself of conspicuous consumption.

So while the kids are trick-or-treating this weekend, keep an eye out for ghouls and goblins of the clutter kind. The sooner you recognize them, the sooner you can dispel them—and the less frightening it’ll be to open your drawers, your closets, and your bank statement!

Is a particular clutter ghoul haunting you? Let’s do some ghost-busting in the Comments!

{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.}

Get Your Mujo On

One of the central tenets of Zen Buddhism is the concept of mujo. Mujo means impermanence, transience, ephemerality—in other words, everything is changing in every moment, nothing ever stays the same.

As minimalists, why is it so important that we get our mujo on? Because when we see that everything is impermanent, we become less attached to possessions and consumer goods.

When we embrace mujo:

* We let go of sentimental items and other reminders of “who we used to be,” instead of clinging to our past.

* We accept that our bodies change, and don’t hold on to the clothes that no longer fit us.

* We accept that our little ones grow up and leave the nest, and don’t preserve every item they used, wore, or created.

* We let go of long-lost hobbies and interests, instead of squirreling away their equipment and supplies.

* We pass on impulse purchases, knowing that they’ll have no lasting impact on our lives.

* We give freely and generously to others, rather than grabbing all we can for ourselves.

* We celebrate the cherry blossoms the two weeks they’re in bloom, knowing that they’ll soon fall to the ground.

* We are deeply grateful for every moment, without becoming attached to it.

* We are comforted that a bad situation will pass, rather than fixating on our troubles.

* We avoid frustration by going with the flow, instead of trying to control everything around us.

* We let people, possessions, and ideas flow into and out of our lives naturally, instead of grasping or hoarding them.

* We accept that our loved ones change, and encourage them in their growth and development.

* We realize that it’s often easier to embrace change when we’re not dragging around a lot of baggage.

* We welcome the person we are becoming, rather than trying to freeze our appearance, relationships, interests, or ideas in time.

Embracing the concept of mujo helps us live lightly and gracefully, approach each day with joy and wonder, and never take anything for granted. It motivates us to rid ourselves of distractions, and focus on what truly matters—because our days are as impermanent as the cherry blossoms, and just as beautiful.

How are you getting your mujo on? Please share in the Comments!

{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.}

Minimalism and Religion

I’ve always been fascinated by the philosophical aspects of world religions. As I mentioned in a previous post, I see many more commonalities among different doctrines than I see differences—and one of those happens to be their emphasis on simple living.

Across the board, the great spiritual leaders were not known for their riches or worldly possessions; rather, they led simple and humble lives, rejecting material goods in favor of teaching and service.

Jesus, usually depicted as owning little more than his robe and sandals, is quoted as saying, “If you want to be perfect, go and sell all your possessions and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” (Matthew 19:21)

Moses gave up “the treasures of Egypt” to lead the Israelites’ Exodus across the Red Sea. He relied on faith, not wealth or power, to sustain his people as they wandered in the desert, and they were bestowed with “manna from heaven.”

The prophet Muhammad is said to have lived with few material goods, patching his shoes, mending his clothes, and eating and sleeping on the floor. He advised, “Wealth is not in having vast riches, it is in contentment.”

Gandhi, the great Hindu leader, died with less than ten earthly possessions—including his sandals, watch, eating bowl, prayer book, and spectacles. One of his most famous quotes: “Live simply so that others may simply live.”

Siddhārtha Gautama, the historical Buddha, was an Indian prince who renounced his worldly possessions in search of spiritual enlightenment. He taught that desire is the primary cause of unhappiness, and that “joy comes not through possession or ownership but through a wise and loving heart.”

The Chinese sage Confucius abandoned a comfortable life as Minister of Justice to teach his doctrine of ethics. He said, “”With coarse rice to eat, with water to drink, and my bent arm for a pillow—I have still joy in the midst of all these things.”

Lao Tzu, father of Taoism, championed simplicity and humility with such quotes as “Manifest plainness, embrace simplicity, reduce selfishness, have few desires” and “He who knows he has enough is rich.”

So I can’t help but wonder: if so many people subscribe to these religions, and their leaders were such powerful proponents of simplicity, why are consumerist lifestyles so prevalent?

Now I know that starting an internet discussion on religion can be a dangerous thing. We all have our own beliefs, and we’re often quite passionate about them. However, I trust that we can share our knowledge here without resorting to “my religion is better than yours” or “my religion is right and yours is wrong.”

I’d like this discussion to explore the threads of simplicity that are woven throughout the world’s religions. I’m not an expert in any of them, and would love to hear quotes, stories, and other examples of minimalist living in different faiths. Above all, I’d like to celebrate this beautiful philosophy that so many religions share.

So if you’re game, tell us something about simplicity and your faith in the Comments. (And for those of you who don’t follow an organized religion, please feel free to chime in with how simplicity plays a role in your own brand of spirituality—be it centered on nature, the Universe, etc.)

Just please, please, please do me one favor: refrain from any negative comments on others’ beliefs, and focus on positive ones about your own! :)

The Thread of Connection

I spent last New Year’s Day in Bangkok, participating in the Thai tradition of visiting Buddhist temples and making donations to the resident monks. At one of the temples, a monk blessed me with a sprinkle of holy water and tied a simple white cord around my wrist. Eight months later, I’m still wearing it.

I’ve since googled this Thai tradition to find out its meaning. Apparently, the white thread is called sai sin, and is meant to represent the Buddhist Sutras (the word sutra is Sanskrit for “thread”). As such, it’s a constant reminder to act according to Buddhist principles—treating every living thing with respect, kindness, and compassion. (I love how this lines up with the teachings of Jesus and other spiritual figures; I think religions have many more commonalities than differences.)

The symbolism of the thread helps me remember that we are all connected. Everything I say, write, do, and purchase ripples out to affect the world around me. Therefore, I try to be extra mindful of the choices I make.

I’ll pass on the trendy top to avoid the possibility of sweatshop labor, and the leather handbag to avoid the slaughter of an innocent animal. I try to smile and speak kindly to everyone I meet, even if I’m feeling rushed or short-tempered. I try to write words with an uplifting message, rather than rants or complaints. In short, I try to make each interaction with the world a positive one, knowing that another person, or animal, or the planet itself is on the receiving end of my actions. I’m not always successful, but my little bracelet reminds me to try.

As Herman Melville wrote:

“We cannot live for ourselves alone. Our lives are connected by a thousand invisible threads, and along these sympathetic fibers, our actions run as causes and return to us as results.”

The science geek in me likes my bracelet for another reason as well: it makes me think of superstring theory (in which all of matter is thought to be composed of tiny vibrating strings), and how I am ultimately connected to the universe—from the tiniest subatomic particles to the vastest galaxies. There’s something incredibly peaceful about knowing you’re part of such a grand and beautiful whole.

In turn, these thoughts have strengthened my minimalism. I’ve found that buying and desiring less is a wonderful way to exist harmoniously in the universe—it’s one of the easiest ways to avoid harming the planet and other people. Buying less means consuming fewer of the Earth’s resources, and protecting them for future generations. Buying less means decreased dependence on cheap and exploited labor. Buying less means less “one-upmanship” with peers and colleagues, and more serenity and satisfaction all around.

But above all, this little white bracelet reminds me of the essence of minimalism: that it’s not material things, but our connections—to friends, family, strangers, plants, flowers, animals, atoms, stars, faith—that are our true treasures in life, and most deserving of our time and attention.

{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.}

Minimalism Around the World: Danshari

When I first started writing about minimalism, I thought of clutter and overconsumption as primarily an American problem. However, from the emails and comments I received, I soon learned that many in the UK and Europe were struggling with similar issues.

Still, I considered it mainly an affliction of the Western world, and never imagined decluttering would have much relevance in the Far East (which has a long cultural heritage of simplicity and restraint).

However, according to an article by Michael Hoffman in The Japan Times Online, there’s a new trend sweeping Japan: danshari.

Kanjiclinic.com included the word in its “2010 New Words” list, and defined it as follows:

断捨離 Danshari – “de-clutter.”
The three kanji in this compound mean “refuse – throw away – separate.”
Self-help author Hideko Yamashita, drawing on yoga philosophy, promotes a three-step system for de-cluttering one’s life (both physical and mental) in Japan:
1) refuse to bring unnecessary new possessions into your life;
2) throw away existing clutter in your living space; and
3) separate from a desire for material possessions.

I love it! One beautiful little word to sum up so many of the concepts we talk about here. Let’s break it down into its components:

断 dan – to refuse
This part is about being a good gatekeeper, and stopping the inflow of stuff into your home. How to put this into action?
* Practice minsumerism
* Seek alternatives to gifts
* Eliminate your junk mail
* Refuse freebies
* Engage in consumer disobedience

捨 sha – to throw away
Here we get down to the brass tacks of decluttering: eliminating all unnecessary items from your life. Some ways to do this:
* Purge at least one item each day
* Let go of heirlooms and sentimental stuff
* Pare down your wardrobe
* Streamline your kitchen
* Donate your castoffs to charity

離 ri – to separate
The final part involves cultivating a sense of nonattachment to your possessions. To achieve this, try the following:
* Break up with your stuff
* Realize you are not what you own
* Embrace the concept of enough
* Cherish space over stuff
* Live like a butterfly

Dan-sha-ri, dan-sha-ri, dan-sha-ri–it’s quite poetic, isn’t it? I think it would make the perfect chant while cleaning out a closet, or passing up an impulse purchase. :)

Danshari refers not just to physical clutter, but also to mental and emotional clutter. It holds the promise that once you’ve disposed of the excess and the unnecessary, you’ll have the space, time, and freedom to live more fully.

Anyway, it’s encouraging to see minimalism rising in popularity in the East, as well as the West. According to Hoffman’s article, books and seminars on the subject are quite popular in Japan, as people seek freedom from consumerism and the clutter that accompanies it.

I’m thrilled that the idea of living with less is spreading throughout the world, and fascinated to hear how the concepts of minimalism and decluttering are taking form in various countries and cultures. I’d love it if some of our Japanese readers can elaborate on danshari, and other international readers on similar movements/trends in their own countries. Please share with us in the Comments!

{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.}

A Haiku Life

I’ve always been a big fan of haiku, the ultra-compact poetry of Japanese tradition. I appreciate its elegant form, its economy of expression, and its emphasis on limits: 17 syllables total, in lines of 5, 7, and 5.

Haiku typically celebrate the natural world and our intimate relationship with it. They show sensitivity to the changing seasons, and an appreciation for nature in its smallest details. They remind us that the most beautiful things in life have nothing to do with money or stores.

In a haiku, every word is precious, evocative, and chosen with the utmost care. As a minimalist, I can’t help but wonder: what if we put the same effort into choosing the words we speak, the activities in which we participate, the possessions we own?

With that in mind, here’s some key principles to living a haiku life:

1. Limits. Take inspiration from haiku’s seventeen syllables, and embrace the concept of limits. For example, if five pairs of shoes are adequate, limit your footwear to that number. Do the same for books, gadgets, plates, cups, shirts, pants, etc.—even your activities and commitments. Consider extending this to the written and spoken word as well, expressing yourself as succinctly as possible (ie., sending a short and sweet text instead of gabbing for hours on your cell phone).

2. Curate. When you limit what you own, every item counts. When you limit what you do, every action counts. When you limit what you say, every word counts. Therefore, it’s important to choose your possessions, actions, and words with deliberation and care.

3. Quality over quantity. Haiku is a wonderful example of “less is more.” Making these poems longer or wordier would detract from, not enhance, their artistic merit. When it comes to haiku, it’s a matter of striving for the right words, not more words. Similarly, when it comes to our households, we should focus on the right possessions (what we need, love, or use regularly) rather than more possessions; and when it comes to our schedules, the right commitments (what we find fulfilling) rather than more commitments.

4. Beauty. Haiku isn’t merely a handful of words with the right syllable count; it’s a mindful selection and arrangement, meant to evoke beauty in its expression. I feel similarly about minimalist living: it’s not about living with 100 items, but rather stripping away distractions to reveal the inherent beauty of life. It’s not about counting your possessions, but rather using your extra space and time to discover what delights your soul.

5. Humility. Haiku is never flashy or showy; it’s modest and humble and down-to-earth. We should similarly strive to live without pretense. Instead of flaunting status symbols or keeping up with the Joneses, embrace a life of simplicity. If we’d all stop one-upping each other, we’d live significantly more serene and pleasant lives.

6. Nature. Seek beauty outdoors, instead of in shopping malls. Realize that trees, flowers, and clean air and water are extraordinary gifts, and do everything in your power to respect and preserve them.

In summary: a haiku life means being mindful of every possession, word, and action in our lives. It’s living lightly and gracefully, and celebrating beauty in everyday experience. By following the spirit of these exquisite little poems, our lives too can be sparkling jewels, full of meaning and with nothing superfluous.

{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.}

Minimalist Inspiration from Millionaires

A few days ago, a reader sent me a wonderful article from The Seattle Times: Young tech millionaires keeping 1-bedroom lifestyle. It focuses on some of Silicon Valley’s most successful young entrepreneurs, and how they’re rejecting traditional status symbols like mansions and luxury cars. Why? They find more value in funding startup ventures and social causes than engaging in conspicuous consumption.

For example: Aaron Patzer, the founder of Mint.com, who sold his company in 2009 for $170 million. He lives in a 600-square-foot, one-bedroom apartment, and recently replaced his 1996 Ford Contour (with 150,000 miles) with a $29K Subaru Outback.

Another one: Joe Greenstein, cofounder of Flixster, which was purchased by Time Warner for $80 million. He’s happy living a “modest life” in his studio apartment.

The two founders of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg and Dustin Moskovitz, are also featured. According to his Facebook profile, Zuckerberg’s interests include “minimalism” and “eliminating desire.” Moskovitz has a similar philosophy:

“Things can’t bring you happiness,” Moskovitz said. “I have pictured myself owning expensive things and easily came to the conclusion that I would not have a materially more meaningful life because of them.”

What a refreshing alternative to the typical lifestyles of the rich and famous! I love the message these guys are sending: that wealth can be put to better use than big houses and fancy cars. And that just because you’re wealthy, doesn’t mean you must have those things.

When I first started this blog, I occasionally received emails and comments to the effect of, “I’m sorry, you must live that way because you’re really poor” or “I lived like that when I had no money, too”—as if someone with suitable finances would never choose to live without rooms full of furniture and giant screen TVs.

Similarly, when my husband and I first started living minimally, acquaintances didn’t know what to make of our lifestyle. While peers in our income bracket were buying McMansions, we bought a small, fixer-upper bungalow. While they were leasing luxury cars, we drove our old, high-mileage cars into the ground. While they were shopping for home theater systems, we chose to give up our cable.

Why didn’t we indulge in such things if we could afford them? We simply had different priorities. It’s not that we didn’t spend money—it’s just that we spent it on experiences (like travel) rather than stuff, or saved it for things that really mattered to us.

Which led to an interesting dichotomy: while some people were concerned about our financial well-being (“you’re welcome to the couch in our basement”), others suspected we’d had some sort of financial windfall. We’d hear, “Oh, it must be nice to be able to jet off to Europe!” or “I wish I could afford to quit my job and write all day.” Well, yes, you can do those things when you don’t have a $400K mortgage, a $50K car payment, and tens of thousands in credit card debt. ;-)

I’m certainly not saying that our choices are better than anyone else’s—they’re simply different. They’re what’s right for us, and what makes us happy.

And that’s why I love this article. These young millionaires are completely uprooting the notion of keeping up with the Joneses. They’re subverting the message that Madison Avenue has been sending us for decades: that success equates to status symbols and conspicuous consumption. They’re setting an example that you can want less, no matter what your net worth, and use your money in ways that are important to you (rather than as society expects).

So what does that mean to those of us many rungs below on the economic ladder? Use your resources in the ways you find fulfilling, no matter what anyone else thinks. Don’t hesitate to keep driving your old junker, and spend your paycheck on art classes instead. Feel free to put money into your kid’s college fund, rather than upgrade your living room furniture. Live your dream of travel, instead of taking on a big mortgage. Donate to your favorite charity, instead of splurging on the designer handbag all your friends have.

Bottom line: whether you have $10 or $10 million, there’s much more to life than things.

[Note: the one issue I have with this article is the quoted assertion that “being concerned with appearance, shopping for clothes and decorating your house are feminine values.” I think that’s an unfortunate stereotype we can do without.]

{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.}


Drifter {definition}: a person who goes from place to place, job to job, etc., remaining in each for a short period.

Two years ago, when I moved to the UK, I thought it was pretty impressive that I lived out of a duffel bag for six weeks.

Ha! I’ve been doing it now for over three months.

My husband and I gave up our flat in February, and decided we didn’t want to commit to any long-term housing options. Therefore, we’ve been in and out of hotels, sublets, and extended stays ever since.

In two weeks, we’ll be moving into our fifth “home” in less than a year (“home” being somewhere we’ve stayed longer than a month).

Last summer, my home was an 800-square-foot two-bedroom flat. That’s where I started this blog, and wrote my book.

Last fall, my home was a 390-square-foot one-bedroom with high ceilings and enormous windows. That was my first taste of tiny living.

Earlier this year, my home was an extended stay studio with yellow walls, green carpeting, a red sofa, and a small kitchenette. That’s where I filed my tax return.

Right now, my home is a 1200-square-foot apartment in a grand old Victorian mansion. Architecturally, it’s one of the most stunning places I’ve ever lived, but is filled top to bottom with someone else’s stuff. (I fantasize at least once a day about emptying it out and painting it white!) That’s where I’m writing this post.

Next month, my home will be a small one-bedroom in a converted warehouse, in close proximity to a lovely park.

I know it sounds like a royal pain to be always on the move, and hunting for new digs. Fortunately, though, we’ve been lucky enough to find nice accommodations; and moving day has been reduced to stuffing our bags in a cab and taking it across town. To be honest, this nomadic life has been quite easy and carefree—and dare I say, it’s begun to feel “normal.”

I remember when my husband and I bought our house back in 2003. It took about a month before it really felt comfortable to me, before I could walk around in the middle of the night without bumping into things.

Since then, my adjustment period has drastically decreased. Now it takes me all of a few hours, from the time I first plop down my duffel bag, to think of a new place as home—even if it’s furnished with stuff I’d never choose, or the closets are packed with someone else’s clothes.

I’ve become accustomed to (and quite fond of) the fact that the sum total of my possessions are in packing cubes in my duffel bag, a toiletry case in the bathroom, and a handful of cooking implements on the kitchen counter.

I’ve almost forgotten what it’s like to put my clothing in a closet, my books on a shelf, my spices in a drawer, or my lotions and potions in a medicine cabinet. It feels like ages since I’ve slept in my own bed, or received mail at a regular address. I’ve become adept at tracking things down on an as-needed basis: I’ve borrowed office supplies from hotel reception desks, cleaning supplies from housekeeping, and kitchen supplies from various landlords.

Furthermore, I now analyze the portability of every potential possession. I buy shampoo, laundry detergent, and olive oil in the smallest bottles possible. I calculate whether I have room in a packing cube for a new shirt or pair of socks. And yesterday, I passed on buying a bag of flour because I didn’t want the hassle of moving it in two weeks.

Most importantly, though, drifting from place to place has changed my way of thinking. Lately, I’ve been contemplating, do we ever really own anything? Whether it’s books, clothing, tchotchkes, cars, or even houses, things feel radically less permanent to me. In the grand scheme of things, it seems they’re all on temporary loan until we can’t (or don’t want to) use them anymore—at which point we pass them along, or they get passed along for us.

As such, I think material things deserve far less attention than we tend to give them. I’ve become more and more enamored with the notion of the itinerant monk, wandering with only what he can carry and meeting his needs on the go. Sure, I’ll never reach that level, but I like it all the same. :)

I’ve become acutely aware of how possessions can needlessly complicate things. If I were carting around a houseful of stuff, this past year would have been nothing short of a nightmare. However, it’s been just the opposite: minimalism has made this experience surprisingly pleasant and enjoyable. As someone who thrives on change, I love the novelty of trying out a variety of neighborhoods and living arrangements. I like the idea of not knowing where I’ll be three months down the road.

I can certainly see the value of having roots, a community, a permanent address. But given our current situation, it’s just not in the cards right now. We’ll likely be drifting for the foreseeable future, and to tell you the truth, I don’t mind a bit.

{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.}

Messages from Japan

Kaori, a reader from Tokyo, left a very thought-provoking comment on last week’s Real Life Minimalist post. I know that many of you don’t subscribe to the RSS Comments feed; therefore, I thought I’d share it in today’s post in case you missed it:

hi. I’m writing from Tokyo, Japan where as a city we’re having to rethink our priorities in terms of stuff, power and fuel. As you may know, this country is in the midst of the greatest national crisis (earthquake, tsunami, nuclear plant meltdown) since WWII and as I write, tens of thousands of people are stuck in evac shelters with no cash, no home, no job and a dark, uncertain future. Those of us in Tokyo send money and supplies and go out on weekends to volunteer. It’s nowhere near enough, however and it seems like we go from day to day clinging to a bizaare hope that tomorrow or sooner, things are bound to get better.

What’s crushing for myself and many others in Tokyo is that we had let ourselves be lulled into an unforgivable state of complacency. We had convinced ourselves that to work 14 hour days and shop like crazy was the norm and prerequisite, for living in one of the wealthiest, glitziest and convenient cities on the planet. The reality is that there are 10 – count ‘em -10 nuclear power plants in the northeastern region of Japan, mainly to feed and fuel this one, particular city. Nationwide, there are 53 nuclear power units, any one of which could be seriously damaged and leaking radiation in the event of another major quake.

How did we let this happen? The Japanese are natural minimalists; living on less and the desire not to own stuff is embedded in our DNA – borne of a long history of constant civil strife and the knowledge that in a country with zero natural fuel sources, the best option was to live with nature instead of against it. Yet, in the pursuit of wealth and convenience and the need to become a global contender, Japan ditched a lot of hard-won wisdom for short-term gratification. Tokyo has a lot to answer for, but at this point in time we don’t even know where to start. Individually, people are trying to save on power. Individually, many are abstaining from spending and excess. But we’re told that to do so will wreak havoc on an already wilting economy. Ironically, the more we work to try to survive, the more we use fuel which gives the electric company and the government more of an excuse to keep those nuke plants operative which tips the scale that much further to trigger another catastrophe.

Personally, I want off the grid. For me, the first step to real minimalism is to let go of worries over what other people think and to liberate myself from the dictations of the status quo. I’m hoping that the majority of the city will come around to the same conclusion – causing us all to turn off the main switch, open all the windows and see what happens.

I also received a poignant email from Mitsuko, who was affected directly by the disaster:

I am a minimalist in japan. On March 11th, we had huge earthquake in our country. Many many people died, lost their houses, their things, and lost their loved family. Now, we had still rolling blackout, so we can’t use enough electrics. And we have strong fear about broken nuclear plant.
Now, among Japanese, there are many change of the way of thinking. Though we had worked hard, and had bought a lot of stuff, these stuff actually useless when we met such a disaster.
We had latest TV, DVD, New huge houses, but now, everything had gone.
Of course, many people are  overwhelmed by  this situation now.
They can’t stand up to take care of themselves now.
But, many Japanese people found that their prosperity are depend on those people life who live near the nuclear plant.
We try not to use extra electronics, eat less, and buy less.
My house has broken because of this earthquake, and our family had to move new house. We lost many chinas, furniture, my favorite plants. But I can start over, because I am a minimalist.
I hope it will be a chance that many japanese will reborn as minimalists.

First of all, my heart goes out to Kaori, Mitsuko, and the Japanese people—they’ve experienced unimaginable losses, and continue to struggle with the aftermath of this terrible tragedy. Let’s remember that they still need our help.

I think we all have something to learn from their words. In our pursuit of wealth, of stuff, of status symbols, what have we lost sight of? How many hours have we given up with our families by working overtime? How much of nature’s resources have we squandered away on trendy clothes, new tech gadgets, or tchotchkes to decorate our homes? How much time and resources have we wasted consuming goods and entertainment, instead of enjoying nature or participating in our communities?

I only hope that such an event brings us all a new mindfulness—of our lifestyles, our actions, our principles, our priorities.

I truly believe that minimalism can lead us down the right path. Each time we decide against a frivolous purchase, make do with something we already have, or engage in other acts of consumer disobedience, we give a little gift to the planet. Each little action may seem inconsequential, but our efforts ripple out to effect positive change in the world.

Minimalist living isn’t a trend or blog-flavor-du-jour; it’s a conversation we need to keep going. Because the less we “need” (and the more we talk about it), the better our chance of changing the current paradigm: from one of rampant consumerism and resource depletion, to one of conservation and sustainable growth. Let’s stop the mindless work-and-spend cycle, and start to appreciate the beautiful, symbiotic relationship we have with each other and our planet.

Let’s put buying on the backburner, and focus on being instead; or, in Kaori’s words, “turn off the main switch, open all the windows and see what happens.”

Thank you, Kaori and Mitsuko, for your wonderful messages.

Minimalist Philosophy: Sophrosyne

sophrosyneA few weeks ago, while researching my post on areté, I tripped across another interesting concept from classical Greece: sophrosyne.

Sophrosyne (pronounced suh-FROSS-uh-nee, if you’d like to impress your friends) is an ancient ideal involving healthy-mindedness, balance, and moderation. As you can imagine, I was immediately intrigued. :)

According to Wikipedia, sophrosyne “is perhaps best expressed by the two most famous sayings of the oracle at Delphi: ‘Nothing in excess’ and ‘Know thyself.’ The term suggests a life-long happiness obtained when one’s philosophical needs are satisfied, resembling the idea of enlightenment through harmonious living.”

Unfortunately, the word has no direct counterpart in English, and an in-depth understanding requires a reading of Plato’s Charmides, The Symposium, and The Republic. But if you don’t mind a little armchair philosophy, I’ll give you my interpretation of the term, and how it relates to our minimalist journey.

As I see it, there are three main facets to sophrosyne:

  1. Self-knowledge
  2. Self-restraint
  3. Harmony

Or, in my minimalist interpretation:

  1. Knowing what’s enough for you
  2. Choosing enough over excess
  3. Finding joy in enough

Sophrosyne, then, isn’t about self-denial. Rather, it’s avoiding overindulgence (like doing, buying, owning, or eating “too much”) because it truly makes you happier to do so.

Some examples:

Sophrosyne isn’t skipping the Doritos or a second helping, and feeling miserable about it; it’s eating healthy foods, in healthy proportions, because it makes your body feel better.

Sophrosyne isn’t denying yourself that new handbag/gadget/car, while continuing to yearn for it; it’s being excited to preserve some of the Earth’s resources, or put that money into your child’s college fund instead.

Sophrosyne isn’t giving up your TV because it’s “a minimalist thing,” but because it gives you more time to pursue the activities you love.

Sophrosyne isn’t throwing all your stuff away in a no-holds-barred decluttering session; it’s questioning whether each item you own adds value to your life, or if you’d be happier without it.

Sophrosyne isn’t about choosing moderation because you think you should, but because it feels right and delights your soul.

A common misconception about minimalists is that we ditch our material possessions in some bizarre attempt to deny ourselves the “pleasures” of consumerism. I think what critics don’t get is this concept of sophrosyne: that we reject overconsumption because we get more pleasure from not owning three closets of clothes or a houseful of knickknacks. We derive more happiness from saving our space, time, money, or the planet, than acquiring more possessions.

Sophrosyne isn’t about self-restraint for its own sake, but rather the joy it brings us. It’s living a wise, graceful, and balanced life because we wouldn’t have it any other way.

In the time of Aristotle and Plato, sophrosyne was of supreme importance, a virtue to which people aspired. Unfortunately, it’s been lost in our modern age. Today, our society rewards the big, the loud, the radical, the extreme; sophrosyne, in contrast, is all about quiet elegance. I hope, however, that the growing popularity of minimalism—living beautiful lives with less—will spark a new interest in the concept.

Having sophrosyne is like being a finely-tuned instrument, with all our thoughts, values, and actions in harmony. But it goes beyond that: mastering our desires, and avoiding extremes in consumption, attitudes, and behavior, doesn’t benefit only ourselves. Like the melodious note from a plucked string, sophrosyne radiates out to the rest of the world, helping us live in harmony with nature and each other.

I hope I’ve been able to explain this wonderful concept with some coherence. Is anyone else as enamored with sophrosyne as I am?

{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.}