Let’s commence this post with some relevant thoughts from the late great comedian, George Carlin:
Most of us love STUFF.
It’s amazing that there is an entire industry dedicated to storing our extra STUFF. And our appetite for stuff we don’t need is seemingly insatiable. I started thinking about the topic of this post after I read THIS PIECE by Richard Glover on The Age website this week, about our love affair with things, and this socially acceptable form of hoarding. We like to hold on to stuff. Stuff gives us a false sense of security, continuity, to blur the reality of impermanence and continuous cycles of change. We ascribe meaning to our stuff. We use stuff, even if we are not conscious of it, to give ourselves an identity and boost our self-esteem. We use stuff to gain the esteem of others. And we enjoy our stuff visually and sensually.
Because of this, it can be hard to relinquish stuff. Even when we know we have to, or when we have no need for certain stuff anymore, we sometimes find it hard to let it go. We can feel almost inadequate when we don’t have stuff. Our minds rationalise why we need to hang on to it: “I might need that later…” we might say. So we store our stuff away. This is fairly harmless if it’s just old furniture or mementos. But some kinds of stuff are just not worth hanging on to.
The STUFF we don’t love: de-cluttering the mind.
I love George Carlin. Truly. LOVE. I have loved him since I first discovered his comedy when I was 17. I found more wisdom and joy in Carlin’s work than during 13 years of mandatory public education. He gave me solid subversive laughs and simultaneously opened my mind, at a time when I desperately needed both of those things.
The VCE years were experienced as Dante’s Divine Comedy – in essence, HELL. I’m certainly not alone in that. During those years we moved into a rental property near white supremacists. Like, active white supremacists, who, despite never having introduced themselves formally or brought over home baked biscuits, let me know they were ‘in the neighbourhood’ thanks to welcoming stickers, love notes left at my bus stop and “Third Reich” themed messages carved into wet cement on a sidewalk.
Such nonsense would not phase me in the least today – I’ve been through enough STUFF in life, in general. Unfortunately, at the time we moved into this neighbourhood, I had secretly developed (again) quite serious anxiety – which I of course did not understand as such. The overwhelming feeling of being unsafe in my own house compounded the pre-existing anxiety, and, in conjunction with all the other challenges I was facing at the time (including physical symptoms of illness I was in deep denial about) the baggage on my mind was HEAVY. Making it difficult for me to give my best to my studies, my relationships, or anything else.
The important thing is, I got through it. I didn’t get through it well, though. Despite being told by teachers and counsellors I had an “intense” intellect that if I just focused on developing would serve me well, I didn’t believe them, and I certainly didn’t believe in myself. Consequently, I found inappropriate ways to escape, had uneven grades, and my relationships sucked. But I survived, and eventually was able to dump the psychological STUFF that this period of my life had cluttered my fragile mind with. That’s where Carlin went from amusing to mentor. Because one of the things that helped me do that mind de-cluttering was this: nurturing the natural ability I already had, that most of us have, to find humour in the most heinous and dark situations.
On the Philosophy page, I write that one of the important lessons I have learned in life so far from others and through personal experience is this:
Our realities and experiences are shaped by our perceptions. Much of the hardship and suffering we experience in life can be overcome simply by disciplined shifts in perspective.
This is essentially what finding the humour in a messed up situation is: Shifting your perspective. It’s not just a form of pain relief – it can be a spiritual practice, if you are able to find humour without suspending empathy or understanding. Carlin often failed on the empathy front, but when it came to looking at things from a different perspective, he was unbeatable. It takes a certain type of mind to be able to do that really well. In the past I was thus mostly attracted to men who’d lived through shit – real adversity of some sort – but could find light and humour in it too. Those who had a genuine understanding of the extremes of dark and light. Their humour had a depth of understanding, maturity and humanity to it. I’m still drawn to that, in general… a great perspective.
These days meditation is the primary daily practice that helps me regain a healthy perspective and unburdens my mind. But a solid laugh has power to burn off psychological debris. I recently met up with old family friends who have been living in PNG for the past 14 years. I listened as they told stories of multiple family tragedies, village hardship, and dangerous living in Port Moresby, interspersed with hilarious anecdotes about the seedier side of PNG’s capital, and it’s extremes – for example, a church that is a house of hypocritical worship by day, and drinking hole at night. Catching up with them hammered home two things for me:
1) I am friggin lucky to be living where I’m living now; and
2) Find the funny in everything. You’re going to go through hard, trying times. You’re going to grieve, feel pain. Don’t resist it. But as soon as you can, try and find what’s funny. It’ll make your way through life that much easier.
Living with less STUFF.
For spiritual and material reasons [explained in the post ‘Live Simply‘], I’m consciously striving to keep things light both inside and outside these days. I have gotten rid of a lot of material STUFF I just didn’t need or want, and am continuing to “streamline” my living space and routine. Accumulation is an impulse I don’t seem to have anymore – perhaps this is related to the meditation practice? I can’t be sure. Although I have tremendous respect for and truly admire the artistry and craft involved in making jewellery, I personally don’t wear or own “bling”. My daily uniform is a pair of Jasper Conran glasses, Issey Miyake perfume (clearly not completely non-materialistic), Aveeno moisturiser, blouse, dark jeans, and boots. I like consuming books and DVDs, but I mostly borrow them from public libraries. I don’t own or drive a car, and recently gave a whole heap of useless clothes away. I have no intention of changing any of this once I secure more regular and substantial income sources (other than the car/driving part). I want to continue living as simply as sociably acceptable, keeping the bulk of my resources for work things, fun things, family things, and charity. As Notorious B.I.G. said: “Mo money mo problems”. I like having less STUFF to think about, quite frankly. Frees my mind up to contemplate the bigger questions.
If you’re interested in lightening your load of STUFF in 2012, both inside and outside, here are some resources that can help you start the process…
For decluttering tips:
From Zen Habits.
From The Art of Manliness. Don’t ask me why I occasionally drop in on this site.
For selling or giving away your stuff:
The recycle superstore.
A re-use and upcycle website that allows you to give away items you no longer need – haven’t used this but know someone who has.
For instructions on how to start a veggie patch when you’re short on space:
Brilliant book from two lads raised in Italian households. They also run a successful business installing edible gardens. They know what they are talking about.
For EXTREMELY simple recipes:
4 Ingredients aims to SIMPLIFY all forms of cooking by creating quick, easy and delicious recipes made with 4 or fewer ingredients that can be easily found in your local supermarket. This would have come in handy when I was share-housing.
For minimalist inspiration:
A blog that celebrates minimalism in art, architecture, industrial & graphics design, fashion, and music. I like. Currently trying to find a good minimalist ecodesign site. There’s got to be one out there somewhere…
The Simplicity Collective is founded upon the idea that a ‘simpler life’ of reduced resource and energy consumption is a viable and desirable alternative to consumer culture. Philosophy + facts + consciousness raising intellectual fodder right here.
Not really about minimalism at all, but simply brilliant. Vasili’s Garden, the grass roots gardening show that explored some of the most epic food gardens in Australia, IMHO. Books + DVDs available. And recipes. Wholesome, unpretentious, GOOD.
“I saw an exhibition of Miro once. Miro the painter. His very last painting was a dot. I was wondering why everyone says he’s a great painter. I can make dots. Yet he is a great painter. I looked at his evolution. First I thought he couldn’t draw. Then I saw his early drawings, and they’re works of art. His figures are full of detail, his landscapes. It’s like looking at a photograph. So I looked at his evolution, and saw that gradually there were fewer details. He was paying less attention to the external, and more to the internal. I thought about it, that little dot, and I understood. Everything else was false, he had just retained the truth.”
Other than watching Yamakasi again, last night I somehow found myself reading about simple living.
By this I mean the phenomenon, in many western countries, of people making a voluntary, long-term lifestyle change, one that involves accepting significantly less income and consuming less. The phenomenon is also known as downshifting, or the ‘quiet revolution’.
The 2003 Australia Institute Survey Into Downshifting found that 35% of downshifters – white collar and blue collar – were doing so to spend more time with the family. This was the most common reason for downshifting. They were swapping long hours to fund consumption-heavy lifestyles with fewer hours, simpler living and more time with their loved ones. Psychologist Jim McKnight’s research into downshifting found the same: that a major motivation for downshifters was to regain a sense of community with their family, friends and neighbours, and the broader community.
Other motivators included the need to overcome illness or depression, a desire for greater life balance, and, for a minority, the desire to live ethically by rejecting consumerism and adopting an environmentally friendly lifestyle. For a tiny minority, downshifting involves a more radical change than simply reducing working hours, choosing more fulfilling work, and making the necessary income determined consumption sacrifices. These radicals do things like sell possessions, move into alternative communities, or find creative ways to sustain and support themselves outside of the conventional workforce.
People choosing to downshift in this way are sometimes referred to as “post materialists”- those who go beyond materialism, explicitly, as a matter of principle. They may be involved in what is known as the voluntary simplicity movement.
Samuel Alexander, a part-time lecturer and doctoral student at the University of Melbourne Law School, is the founder of the Life Poet’s Simplicity Collective. It is a grassroots network founded upon the idea that a simpler life of reduced consumption is a viable and desirable alternative to consumer culture – one that is good for our lives, the lives of others, and the planet. Samuel defines here voluntary simplicity as a way of life that “rejects the high-consumption, materialistic lifestyles of consumer cultures and affirms what is often just called ‘the simple life’ or ‘downshifting.’
There are three main reasons for choosing voluntary simplicity: 1) a desire not to add to environmental degradation caused by Western-style consumption; 2) the unethical nature of high consumption lifestyles in a world of great human need; and 3) the meaninglessness of extravagance and acquisitiveness – “the meaning of life does not and cannot consist in the consumption or accumulation of material things” he writes.
Samuel articulates the lifestyle, the philosophy, and addresses the misconceptions (prejudice, really) about Voluntary Simplicity beautifully on the Simplicity Collective website here. You will find many other thought provoking posts. I recommend reading all the pages. So happy to have stumbled upon the Collective’s website – the Introduction he wrote to the anthology, Voluntary Simplicity, is titled “Voluntary Simplicity: The ‘Middle Way’ to Sustainability” (read the Philosophy page of this blog and you will understand why that’s a cause for excitement). I’ve got some more reading to do!
Many in the mainstream regard those engaging in ‘Voluntary simplicity’, those moving to alternative communities or “going bush”, as just plain weird. The more radical choices some people are making in order to live according to their consciences do not resonate with me. All the activities I want to continue doing are fairly urban oriented: writing and sharing ideas, blogging, film storytelling, supporting Pacific and community Arts, basketball, and community activism. But, in our own way, my small household and I are endeavouring to simplify and bring balance to our living – for the perceived financial savings and, more importantly, life. Simplifying is also a constructive response to the consumption-related degradation of the environment. You don’t need to erect a hut from found objects to downshift. There are things you can do to make your city life – and city mind – simpler, cleaner.
DOWNSHIFTING IN THE SUBURBS.
I grew up in a tiny rental home, and never felt lacking in anything. Similarly, today, I have few possessions, as does the household. I mostly take public transportation, which in my city is relatively clean, affordable, and mostly wheelchair accessible. I take local taxis when I need one – being in a wheelchair, this is sometimes essential. My household is moving from sourcing our groceries from big supermarkets to locally grown produce, and we also have a small, no frills, evolving food garden, that has produced some great bounties over the last few years (including the sweetest cantelope I have ever tasted, a surprise picking we did not plant deliberately). Like many households that took advantage of the former Rudd Government’s solar power rebate program, we have solar panels, and are trying to be more economical with water usage. Keeping things simple, unostentatious and green, paradoxically, makes us feel richer. I really wouldn’t have it any other way.
PHILOSOPHY OF SIMPLICITY.
As Samuel discusses on the Simplicity Collective’s website, simple living is not just about a lifestyle. I think it resonates with a deeper need that some are recognising within themselves, to buck the values and underlying assumptions of the dominant economic culture, cut out all the extraneous noise in their lived experience, and focus mind, body, and (what some would call) “spirit”, on what is nourishing to all of those three. Nourishing, too, to human community, and non-destructive to the natural systems and processes that allow us homo sapiens to, you know, exist. But meeting this need, I think, would require a radical re-thinking about the way one constructs a sense of self.
I’ll try to explain this with my own example.
After sustaining the injury that bound me to my wheelchair (the culmination of multiple personal crises) I detached from any desire to participate in “the rat race”. I stopped judging myself against cultural norms of fashion/beauty. I stopped caring about academic award or superiority, and stress-inducing considerations linked to prestige, “productivity”, competition, superficial attractiveness, and “value” in a worldly sense. I know this is atypical. It is normal to derive a sense of self, in part, from others – a sense of self that is dependent on who we are in relation to others, relationships, or recognition. Many derive their sense of self entirely from external conditions, recognition, achievement and “stuff” – consumer culture would not exist without this ego. For me though, life experiences have forced the very opposite to occur. External circumstances have repeatedly provoked a natural tendency to go deep within for answers, healing, and, crucially, for a sense of self and self value that isn’t dependent on anything or anyone external to me.
I think this is more common amongst people who’ve experienced severe loss, or who must live out their lives on the ‘outside’, in some way. It is a curious example of how something seemingly bad can be enriching on a deeper level, if you figure out how to transmute it. More than once, I have found myself with absolutely nothing, bereft and alone. And more than once, I have found myself physically grounded, unable to move. Under those conditions, I could do nothing more than search for a place within to retreat to. After my injury, I found this place. I feel a sense of timelessness and blissful peace here. And when I live from here, my mind is balanced – I feel centred. The simplest of daily chores becomes a meditation, and nothing is mundane. Rather than being isolating, being with people is even more awesome – one is able to be present and give unconditionally with ease.
Staying here, however, whilst still interacting with a mass culture that isn’t, is a challenge. Simple living as a philosophy, to me, thus involves practicing a degree of detachment from the externals in the midst of them; without that, one is vulnerable to being knocked off-centre, by mistaking the externals (people, objects, external judgments) for everything that is simple, pure, and true. Not surprisingly, the manic depressive episodes of the last two years coincided with such a corruptive disturbance to my psyche. Thankfully, I truly am getting my bearings again. Adopting a simpler lifestyle and philosophy requires an outlook that values inner needs more than outer judgements, eg. the need for family and community overrides ego-sating in the form of high priced goods, and admiration they attract. Ones centre inevitable shifts from outside to inside.
THE GOAL IS A STATE OF BEING.
Many people, upon realising they want to live simply, find themselves having to drop or change their goals and dreams in order to fulfil their new dream and vision. I have not given up on my goals, on activities related to them. However, the hunger to attain any of them is dissolving as I go deeper into the simple philosophy. With this dissolution, a sense of peace is slowly being restored – a peace I have known at other times when I’ve had to completely let go of attachment to an outcome. I’m no longer attached to them, to some future mythic place where I’ll finally be happy, or successful, or less lonely. My attention is turning to the present, to within, once again. My swings of mood are becoming less severe. The static noise in my head is quieting. I’m shedding the baggage, the perceived judgements of others and of myself. The externals.
Having said that, I realised not long ago that all my life goals/dreams are actually aligned with simple living – perhaps a wise thing for people to do, although this was not a conscious decision on my part. I formulated my goals & dreams after a few weeks of self-imposed depressed isolation, recovery. Once again, outside events provoked me to go within. I found myself meditating one day. Nothing fancy, just breathe awareness until my mind went from batshit incessant chatter to stillness. After this, I wrote down, without any hesitation, a list of things I felt. The list came through so pristinely. Number one had nothing to do with anything material, or external – not a relationship, nor a thing, nothing to own or have. What I really wanted, more than anything, was a state of being. I wrote down I wanted “Peace in my mind & body. Enlightenment.” Essentially, the state of being free.
And this is what simple living, I think, boils down to: a state of being, of awareness. Cutting out the B.S. Not filling ones life with material goods or ones head with destructive thoughts, destructive attachment. Not crowding ones mind with utterly useless information, but focusing ones awareness now, and using ones intellect and wit as tools on what is really, truly, important. That is, not just what is going to bring financial reward, or win admiration, but that has real potential to improve the quality and richness of life, raise people’s consciousness, encourage civility, and preserve nature (for our own sake). Such awareness – I have experienced at a previous time – is also a great condition for creativity. And it is the foundation that allows for unconditional love.
It’s worth returning here to another line borrowed from Simplicity Collective: