When I write people get upset with me. I received an email from a close friend today asking how I could put down her beliefs in public. I didn’t know I had done that. But when my words cut across her bow, she sure as hell noticed.
I’m in a strange position of not believing half of what I say. I tend not to commit strongly to beliefs. I’m not even sure the world is real, let alone my pet hopes. I pretend this makes me much more objective and reasonable. Then again maybe I just had a bad experience with authority growing up.
All my life I scoffed at asceticism. The Catholic church told me that the poor are going to heaven, and the rich aren’t. Bollocks. I decided young that I would much rather aim for riches. I can sort it out with God later.
I was fascinated with medieval times though. I read the stories of the great mendicant monks, and the vow of poverty that the saints all took (except the ones who were, you know, kings). When I studied Hinduism the Vedic ascetics awed me. Many Indian men retire from their worldly lives by renouncing all comfort. They live as beggars on a spiritual quest.
Although I understood the idea behind it, I didn’t agree with it.
I’ve always looked down on paths of renunciation as too extreme, missing the point. Sure you can concentrate better on your spiritual goals when you have no job, spouse, kids, or cravings distracting you… but what if you just kept it all and pursued those goals anyway?
Ascetic practices have been made palatable for the world again by hot young things with bank accounts and frequent flyer miles. They call it minimalism. I prefer to call it minimalizing because it’s an action, not an ideology. When you get rid of everything you don’t use routinely—all the books, clothes, kitchen gadgets, furniture, mementos—and stop buying new ones to replace them, you’re minimalizing.
When you stop rating happiness by material belongings, you’re minimalizing.
NB: This doesn’t mean getting rid of everything. Lex mocked me for being a minimalist and still having 3 huge suitcases worth of stuff. Some minimalists have families and kids and own a whole lot of stuff. But only if they use it routinely.
Unsurprisingly, one of the leading minimalist voices on the planet was also a yogi. Not a bearded old Hindu guy in a robe but a 20 something New Yorker in designer jeans. Aside from the jeans and the laptop, he gave up all but a few dozen possessions. He’s so minimalist he even gave up minimalism. Of course he’s a yogi: you can’t tell whether he’s insane or divinely inspired.
I minimalized because I wanted to be able to travel. It was an act of endurance. “If I do this, I can travel.” Grit your teeth and get rid of that stuff. I was shocked to find that I don’t have to grit my teeth at all. The more I got rid of my stuff, the happier I was.
I do not like to admit it when Puritan zealots, cloistered abbots, fanatical crusaders, Jesus Christ and elderly Hindu fundamentalists have a good point.
But they do have a point.
I wasn’t naturally inclined to “untether” and get rid of my stuff. I feared it, and sometimes still have cravings. I wish I had a prettier computer. I wish I could take sports coats on my Adventure. Silly things, but I want them.
But I can’t argue with the reduction in stress, and increase in happiness, from untethering.
In other words even people who think they would never, ever enjoy a radical lifestyle change can still benefit from it.
And that puts me in a hard position. Every day I talk to people who feel: stressed, lost, uncertain, unhappy. They keep pursuing the same stuff and they keep coming up feeling empty inside. The friend who wrote me? She spent 10 years feeling unfulfilled in a nonprofit job. Seeking to improve her life, she’s now applying for similar nonprofit jobs that pay more. Make a prediction on whether she will feel happier in 12 months.
But to suggest to people that they should give it up, that they should just try something new and different from their unhappy life—that’s sacrilege. How dare you presume to know who I am, what I want, what will make me happy. How dare you think you can template what worked for you onto my life.
Sure, no one way works for everyone. But sometimes things work that you never would have guessed. I want you to question what really makes you happy.
There is a spirit inside you that wants a life of freedom.