Minimalism, the lifestyle that shuns clutter, complication and excess, is on the rise. Indeed, in many cosmopolitan centers around the world, minimalism is the “next big thing,” a social trend that is gaining followers in droves. What is it, and why are some people so drawn to it as a lifestyle? And, why are many social traditionalists against it? Finally, is the idea of simplicity inextricably tied to Buddhist history and culture, or did it arise from another, more obscure ancient source?
What it is, simply
Minimalism is neither new nor complicated. By its very nature it preaches a philosophy of simplicity. Modern city dwellers who feel the urge to reduce the mental and physical clutter around them can accurately be called minimalists. Anyone who feels overwhelmed by all the excesses of modern urban life, the advertising, the noise, the technology, has felt the inherent human urge to simplify.
More than any other religious tradition, Buddhism incorporates minimalist concepts into its philosophy of life. Japanese Zen in particular places an emphasis on an uncluttered mind, concise emotions and a healthy, pure body. Buddhism’s powerful influence in every Asian society from at least 2,000 years ago has left a mark. Today, the idea of “everyday simplicity,” the modern face of minimalism, is spreading like wildfire from East to West.
Trends and practices like martial arts, tai chi, tea ceremony, Zen meditation, yoga and herbal healing have already entered Western culture and established themselves as serious, beneficial pursuits.
Maximalists say, “More is more.”
Even so, there are naysayers. Some discount the simple philosophy as so much rubbish, a faddish aberration that won’t last. Maximalists, as they call themselves, have been around for hundreds of years. James Joyce is perhaps their most famous literary representative.
Unlike minimalists, who say “less is more,” the maximalist counters, “more is more.” Joyce’s later works are solid examples, as are modern illustrator Kam Tang’s works, all of which exude, and celebrate, excess ornamentation, a reveling in sensuality, an amassing of decoration. For some, the stark, simple life just won’t do. The maximalists want to immerse themselves in the world, taste and touch everything, do it all, and have it all.
How to be a minimalist
Naturally, becoming a minimalist is simple, but don’t expect to make the full transition overnight. True to the philosophy of simplicity, tiny steps are the best way to begin. Here are five effective ways to make your life less cluttered:
- Make a list: With a pen or pencil, on a sheet of paper, write down your goals about creating a simpler life. Maybe you want to get rid of the junk in a garage, basement or attic. Just put pen to paper and go for it. Don’t worry about grammar or spelling. Simply (there’s that word again) list a half-dozen or so ways that you want to de-clutter your life, your home or your mind. Once you have it written down, put the list in a place where you can look at it every day.
- Cull your wardrobe: This is a good early step because most city dwellers have too many clothes. Go through closets and drawers and discard anything you haven’t worn in six months. Sell or give away the rest. Use common sense when deciding about “special occasion” items like formal dresses and tuxedos. Remember, you’re reducing clutter, not joining a monastery.
- Deal with food. Decide on a standard breakfast and lunch that you can eat every day for a week or two. Select a few different, easy-to-prepare dinner menus. Try, as an experiment of sorts, eating this simpler way for two weeks. Most people are surprised at how much unnecessary variety there is in their diet. Plus, you’ll probably find that by eating simply, and learning to endure some culinary repetition, you will spend less on food and eat less junk food.
- Get rid of anything you have two or more of. Again, common sense should apply here. But, the sad fact is that most urban folk have way too much stuff, and it shows when we start enumerating the inventory. Do you have seven calendars and nine clock radios? Does your desk drawer contain four staplers and 19 highlighters? Put all the duplicate items in a container and store it away for two weeks. At the end of the 14 days, if you haven’t truly missed the items, sell them, donate them, or take them out to the trash.
- Make an hour-by-hour chart of how you use your time every day. This is like a diary but all you’ll be doing is logging what you do, not making comments. This is a way to do with your time what you did with your closet and food. It’s all about getting rid of what you don’t need. At the end of two weeks, study your “time diary.” Like most people, you will almost certainly be surprised at the amount of wasted effort that goes into a typical day. This part of the task requires a healthy dose of honesty. Do you spend an hour a day playing online games, reading worthless comments on news articles, or texting pointless messages to acquaintances? All the dead time adds up, and could likely be spent meditating, exercising or volunteering.
Frank Lloyd Wright: Minimalist hero
Architect Frank Lloyd Wright carried the torch for minimalist design, having been touched by the philosophy as a young man. Later, Wright would coin the term “organic architecture” to describe an obviously minimalist concept of building. Organic buildings are known by their simple, earth-connected creations that meld structure and nature into a beautiful, functional unit of beauty. The minimalist, organic methods developed by Wright influence builders today in every field of architecture from giant commercial buildings to small, private homes.
A tiny bit more about minimalism
Minimalism is not just a lifestyle. It’s also a type of architecture, art, music and literature. Practically every avenue of human expression has a minimalist version. One example of a minimalist art form is the ancient tea ceremony of Japan, in which matcha tea is the center of a Zen-oriented tradition that focuses on just a few gestures and words that convey deep, transcendent meaning. Even today, the ceremony itself and the matcha tea that forms its core ‘material’ component are surviving examples of the minimalist philosophy that suffuses Zen Buddhism and Japanese culture.