Minimalism is enjoying something of a popular resurgence now. Renowned minimalists like the Japanese consultant Marie Kondo and The Minimalists (authors and filmmakers Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus) have introduced the philosophy and benefits of minimalism through their books, talks, blogs, documentaries, and TV series. Now, people everywhere are embracing opportunities to pare down their material possessions, releasing what doesn’t matter so they can focus instead on what’s important instead.
Interestingly, the philosophical concept of minimalism finds strong accordance with Buddhism. This article will explore the philosophy underlying the minimalist movement and why more people than ever are choosing to adopt minimalist principles.
The Buddhist Roots of Minimalism
Minimalism is both a design movement and approach to life epitomised by sparseness and simplicity. One of the Buddhist principles that underlie minimalism, as a lifestyle, can be found in the Second Noble Truth, as taught by the Buddha. The First Noble Truth is that life is dukkha (meaning unsatisfactoriness), while the Second Noble Truth describes the cause of suffering: craving. We suffer because of our cravings, because of our attachments. A central aspect of minimalism is the application of this teaching. By collecting material things and becoming attached to them, rather than become more satisfied in the way we think we will, we actually suffer more. This ties into another important Buddhist view of the world: that everything is impermanent. If we become attached to or crave that which is impermanent (which applies to all our material possessions), then we will suffer when such objects are lost, stolen, damaged, or broken.
However, Buddhism is not against owning possessions. You do not have to renounce all possessions in order to be a Buddhist. What matters, in a Buddhist context, is that one enjoys the pleasure that possessions bring, but without attachment. For some people, though, the act of decluttering and minimising what one owns can be a practical way of craving less and thus suffering less. Of course, paring back your material possessions can be difficult, given the habitual attachments you have developed towards them, but living this simple life gives you the opportunity to find satisfaction without indulging in craving. This helps to explain the ascetic lifestyle that Buddhist monks lead; it’s all about creating conditions that help to purify the mind. For laypeople who won’t realistically want to lead this life of near-total self-denial, a balance between asceticism and material consumerism can be struck – and for many, this involves adopting minimalism, including only the things that are essential (which may still include things that bring true enjoyment and pleasure).
The Third Noble Truth in Buddhism states that suffering can be extinguished, while the Fourth underscores the way to this cessation of suffering (enlightenment): the Noble Eightfold Path. This path includes eight limbs or aspects of the Buddhist path, the goal of which is enlightenment. In terms of this discussion on minimalism, a relevant limb or aspect of this path is Right Livelihood or Perfect Livelihood. Important to this fifth aspect of the path is the Buddha’s teaching on what one earns and how much one spends. As the Buddha says in the Dighajanu (Vyagghapajja) Sutta (a sutta being a discourse of the Buddha):
Herein, Vyagghapajja, a householder knowing his income and expenses leads a balanced life, neither extravagant nor miserly, knowing that thus his income will stand in excess of his expenses, but not his expenses in excess of his income.
Being neither extravagant nor miserly is what minimalism pretty much aims for. This is also the crux of the Buddhist notion of the ‘middle way’, which involves avoiding the extremes of both self-denial and self-indulgence. We may, therefore, view minimalism as the practical application of the middle way. It is difficult to construct any universal sense of what minimalism looks like that can be categorically applied to all people. The crucial task of anyone practising minimalism should be to take stock of what one owns and to think about what can honestly be eliminated without sacrificing any psychological well-being. Minimalism is about mindful reduction rather than trying to lead a monastic sort of life.
An interesting caveat here is that, like all well-intentioned aspects of the spiritual path, minimalism itself can fall prey to craving and excess. One may, for example, choose to strip down their life down to the bare essentials, yet of those things considered essential, one purchases the most expensive, lavish, and high-status varieties, becoming attached to fewer things, but still nonetheless attached. Or someone may desire to become a minimalist, treating it as a fashionable aesthetic, and spend exorbitant amounts of money on a minimalist home or minimalist interior design. This could turn out to be simply another form of conspicuous consumption (spending money and acquiring luxury goods to display wealth and status).
This again drives home the point that it is craving – not minimalism per se – that is the problem. So why can’t you just stop craving while still hoarding material possessions? The short answer is that this is very hard. For many people, craving something without giving in to that craving often means reducing or eliminating opportunities to indulge the craving. Over time, a person without the source of craving may realise they did not need it to feel an inner sense of fulfilment, which may be accompanied by the realisation that the need to indulge the craving was a source of suffering and wasted energy, time, and money.
Tyler Durden from the novel Fightclub seems to evoke the minimalist philosophy himself when he says: “The things you own end up owning you. It’s only after you lose everything that you’re free to do anything.” Of course, minimalism doesn’t demand that you give up everything you own, as already emphasised. The salient point is to be mindful of how clutter can clutter your mind, how your material possessions can consume too much of your concern, leaving less room to focus on the things that truly matter in life. Minimalism is all about living simply in order to discover that one can be content – and much happier, as many minimalists argue – with less stuff.
Minimalism is about reframing how we think of prosperity, by viewing wealth, not in terms of luxury goods, high-status objects, and the amount of stuff we own, but in terms of having less craving and more valuable assets, such as the time and energy to focus on more meaningful and fulfilling pursuits. Applying minimalist principles to design, we can also design our rooms so that they are simple and free from clutter, which is generally more conducive to a relaxed and calm state of mind, as well as focus and productivity. This is another way in which minimalism can help us prosper.
The Rise of Minimalism
After witnessing the last several decades of growing global materialism and its inordinate emphasis on growing wealth, it’s hard to say why the tide seems to be turning. Or perhaps it’s not so hard. Conspicuous consumption has no doubt been around for millennia, with the ownership and display of certain objects serving to designate one’s wealth, status, and position of power. But conspicuous consumption became an ever more present and important thing in people’s lives, largely thanks to the advent of consumerism and advertising. It seems, though, that people are increasingly cognisant of the empty promises of consumerism and conspicuous consumption, realising that they do not bring lasting satisfaction or any genuine meaning.
We can, therefore, view minimalism, in part, as a response to consumerism and conspicuous consumption; it is an attempt to free oneself from constant spending and accumulation of goods while seeking to prosper in other ways. Many people are now prioritising experiences over things, happy to own fewer material possessions and luxury, if it affords more opportunities for travel, for example. Minimalism represents a cultural shift in values, where success and prosperity are defined not in terms of a flashy and ever-growing assortment of goods but in terms of the intangibility of experience, meaning, freedom, social connection, and personal growth. In some ways, however, this growing trend of minimalism is not all down to a completely voluntary choice; it’s also become more of a necessity.
Especially now, as the world re-evaluates and recalibrates its values in the wake of an unprecedented pandemic, wealth and the traditional assumptions that accompany it hold less relevance. The COVID-19 outbreak has resulted in widespread job loss, income loss, restrictions on normal living, and a significant halt to the ordinary system of consumerism that we all got used to. We have been forced to live simpler lives, which is, of course, a shock.
This isn’t an ideal version of minimalism, as minimalism doesn’t call for minimising our social interaction, physical contact, or time spent outdoors, all of which involve real and troubling mental health consequences for many people. The more minimalist lifestyle that we have been forced into involves focusing more on the essentials than the non-essentials. However, it should be stressed that being forced into minimalism has its downsides, a couple of which have been pointed out by Joshua Becker, author of The More of Less, on the Becoming Minimalist blog:
- When people are forced into minimalism, it is less likely to have a long-lasting effect. It might, but that is a rare case. Instead, when someone is forced into minimalism, they begin to see it as a sacrifice, a trial, or a setback. And as soon as life can financially return to the way it was before, people will return to their previous lifestyle.
- Being forced into minimalism causes many people to adopt a disaster-focused mentality. Think of the generation that emerged from the Great Depression and their learned behavior to keep everything just in case they would need it someday.
There are, nevertheless, some benefits to the whole situation that can help to encourage a more minimalist way of thinking. Becker notes:
- We are spending more time at home than ever before and this is forcing us to confront our stuff and possessions, perhaps helping us to realise how much of it is truly clutter and unnecessary.
- More of us are working from home and us such, we may realise that we need to declutter where we work in the house, and the house in general, so that it is conducive to focus and productivity.
- People are having to reassess their finances and budgets, which may lead to discoveries about the wastefulness of certain spending habits.
- Facing legitimate concerns about life and death may lead people to think more deeply about what things in life truly matter, and which things don’t, what is meaningful and in contrast, and what is meaningless.
- ‘Re-entry’ into the world post-lockdown may be a more intentional affair, with people considering whether they want to return to the busy and hurried life of before. The outbreak is twofold in terms of stress, both increasing it in some ways, but also lessening it as people are living much more simply. People may now understand the benefits of this simplicity for the first time and wish to retain it when the COVID-19 outbreak resolves.
The COVID-19 pandemic is not the only factor that has forced people into living a more minimalist life. Before the outbreak, millennials grew up in the shadow of a recession, with wages stagnating relative to inflation, significant student debt, and a housing crisis. This has forced many to define prosperity less by the accumulation of wealth and possessions, and more by degrees of social engagement, financial responsibility, and autonomy. In light of financial struggles, many people have sought to downsize their lives and their home. This has partly influenced the rise of the tiny house movement, which promotes the benefits of living in a home big enough to meet your essential needs, comfort, and enjoyment, avoiding unnecessary space and possessions.
The growth in minimalism in the West is also connected to increasing concerns about the environment. After all, accumulating lots of goods has an environmental cost. Fast fashion, for instance, is unsustainable, requiring the use of large quantities of resources. Rather than constantly buy new clothes, minimalists will try to buy fewer clothing items that last. This clears up space, saves money, and has a smaller environmental impact. Moreover, as minimalism begins to reassert its hold on popular consciousness, it seems that empty status symbols like cars, clothes, and jewellery are losing their popularity in favour of responsible financial practices, partly out of need and partly out of a shift in cultural values. Even before the unprecedented financial losses of the current pandemic made financial responsibility crucial, many young people had begun approaching these fiscal goals from several directions.
On the spending side, a recent boom in the resale market attests to an urge toward social and fiscal accountability. All those clothes that people remove from their closets using the KonMari Method (Marie Kondo’s method for keeping the clothes you need and eliminating the rest) are being resold and bought via platforms like Mercari, Depop, and Poshmark, saving landfill space while fuelling a massive upcycling market trend.
On the earning and saving side, popular focus has shifted toward saving money, building solid credit, and avoiding debt. Earning extra cash with side hustles is also a trend that shows no sign of stopping, as part-time side jobs help sustain about 45% of working Americans. We can think of this kind of fiscal responsibility as a shift towards the middle way as outlined in Buddhism, with people seeing the benefits of achieving a healthier balance between income and expenditure.
Whether it’s the necessity of young adults living with their parents after school or the resurgence of homebuyers doing DIY renovations on fixer-uppers, it’s clear that our housing patterns have been undergoing some streamlining in past years. For example, many homebuyers saddled by debt have reverted to the prosaic strategies leveraged by self-sufficient previous generations to achieve their real estate dreams: instead of spending beyond their means to buy a new house, they purchase an older home in need of work.
Then they go DIY on the whole project, salvaging and upcycling surplus materials, borrowing sweat equity from friends, and saving thousands in the process. In the end, they have not only a home customised for their tastes, but also the satisfaction of having done the job themselves. The growing trend of DIY and reuse of old materials is another example of minimalism at play, as this involves avoiding buying and owning what is unnecessary.
You don’t have to be a devotée of Buddhism to grasp the benefits of a minimalist mindset; the peace of mind you feel after even cleaning out a junk drawer can provide a tiny but clear example. And as the planet settles into a time when millions will likely be forced to minimise whether they like it or not, it can be helpful to begin adopting minimalism sooner than later. That way, the picture of prosperity can look a lot more complete, even without so many things inside the frame.
This article was co-written by myself and Jessica Larson, the owner of The Solopreneur Journal.