Posted: Mon Jan 10, 2005 4:31 pm Post subject: Clutter in Life
One of the recurring themes in the Ginans and all mystical literature is attachment to things, relationships and ideas that do not serve our ultimate objective in life. They become nuisance, hindrance and clutter. For example in the Ginan "Samee Rajo aave jangi Dhol Bajaave" Pir Sadardeen says: "Why store up wealth, brother, or gold and silver? Riches and wealth are snares."
The following article that appeared in today's Calgary Herald explains how to unclutter our lives.
Clutter busting: Getting tough with your stuff opens new opportunities in life, says organizer extraordinaire
January 10, 2005
Let's face it. When it comes to the offence of having too much junk, most of us can and should plead guilty.
We are referring to that pile of receipts from 10 years ago that you've pushed all the way to the back of your kitchen drawer. That rubber band collection accumulating on your desk. The piles of clothing you bought for when you finally lose 10 pounds -- only since buying them, you've gained 15.
And that's probably just skimming the surface of what you don't need, since most of us use only 20 per cent of our possessions at any given time, says organizer extraordinaire Katherine Gibson.
The Victoria-based author of Unclutter Your Life: Transforming Your Physical, Mental and Emotional Space (Beyond Words Publishing, Inc.), Gibson gives seminars across the continent on how to get rid of junk in all aspects of our daily lives.
The longer we live, Gibson says, the more memories -- and stuff representing those memories -- we collect. "It's important to remember that things are not people or events, and memories are what we keep in our heart," she says.
Being uncluttered has no parallels to being Martha Stewart, she says, pointing out a major difference between being uncluttered and simply being organized.
"Anyone can organize clutter," she says. "You can get baskets, put in shelves or new drawers and put all those things you don't want, need or like out of sight.
"But I don't have any clutter to organize. I just have around me the things I need."
A native of Edmonton, Gibson is a former elementary school teacher who specialized in working with gifted children.
Her major career and life change came 10 years ago when she gave up teaching to pursue a master's degree in education from the University of Victoria and started freelance writing.
A piece she wrote on life after giving up television -- a move she says has freed up 20 to 30 hours per week -- first ran in Homemakers magazine.
Then, after a similar story aired on CBC Radio, a publisher listening to the show gave her a call and offered her a book contract.
Unclutter Your Life was born, has been featured on a number of bestseller lists and is soon to be released in Asia and Europe.
Gibson is currently working on her next book, intended to be a companion for her first.
"Writing the book changed my life," she says. "I found that the more organized I became, the better my life runs. I've never regretted throwing anything away, and I couldn't tell you what was in any of the bags that I dropped off at the (homeless) shelters."
Letting things go helps open up physical and mental space for new things, adventures and relationships to come along. In this way, a spartan lifestyle helps to facilitate an attitude of abundance, says Gibson.
OK, you say. Easier said than done. How do you toss out that hideous crock pot warmer you got last Christmas without hurting poor Grandma's feelings?
And if people buy grilled cheese sandwiches on eBay, surely there's no harm keeping that piece of gum you saved because your junior high school crush gave it to you?
The answer lies in getting tough enough to keep your stuff from crowding you out of your own life.
"Getting rid of clutter isn't a sacrifice. It's a statement of who's in control of my life," says Gibson.
"When it comes to gifts, a person who knows you well will get you something that works with you. What we need to do is appreciate the spirit or intention behind the gift rather than the thing itself -- and then it becomes yours to do with as you like."
One man's junk is another man's treasure. So in this case, the best thing to do is recycle. Pass along what you don't want rather than keeping it around out of guilt or obligation.
"If someone who gave me the gift asks me about it, I say, 'Someone came along and saw this, and they absolutely fell in love with it -- so I gave it to them and now they're delighted,' " the author says.
So does that mean she's also tossed sentimental pieces like the very first drawings her kids made for her in kindergarten?
"Well, I have a couple of art pieces my kids did when they were small," she admits. "But they are in full view, and they are in my home and in my life."
Not tucked away in the attic or shoved in envelopes never to be seen again, like so many of us are guilty of doing.
To achieve ongoing order in her life, Gibson performs what she calls the "10-minute toss" twice a day.
She does it once at the end of her workday, throwing scraps of paper and anything she doesn't need into the garbage.
At home, she'll attack a drawer, shelf, corner or closet and go to work on it, doing the same thing.
"I take everything out and put back only the things I absolutely need. Things I don't like or have no purpose for have got to go."
There's a basket by her door that's filled on a daily basis with things she doesn't use or need, like novels she's read, enjoyed and is willing to pass along to whoever is lucky enough to drop by her home that day.
Gibson's home may be spartan -- but isn't minimalist. She enjoys beautiful clothes, gorgeous artwork and other things that truly delight her; the caveat is they must be simultaneously personal and useful to her or her husband.
"We don't deny ourselves very much," she says. "Life is a gift and a privilege -- so we engage only in what gives us pleasure."
10 tips to unclutter your life, physically, mentally and emotionally
1. Banish possessions that have no purpose in your life. Bag up everything that doesn't reflect who you are anymore and pass it on to others who can give the items new purpose.
2. Shop with intention. Cut down on impulse purchases by knowing exactly what you need, and resisting anything that lacks purpose or doesn't enhance your life.
3. Let go of guilt. Gifts you don't use and other people's expensive mistakes are clutter. Give them to others who can use and appreciate them.
4. Assess your priorities. A love of things can overshadow a love of life and the people in it. Don't let nostalgia get in the way -- things are just things.
5. Unclutter daily, even while waiting for the coffee to brew. Go through your purse or wallet, the trunk of your car, or gather up old newspapers; it only takes a few minutes.
6. Dismiss difficult people. Let go of people and activities that no longer nurture, inspire or support your life's view. Toxic relationships can clutter your spirit with negativity, stress and feelings of obligation.
7. Treat e-mail like regular mail. Check it at regular times in the day -- no more than four times if you receive high volumes of it. File, respond or delete immediately.
8. Get unplugged. Turn off the TV and eliminate one of the most potent sources of mental clutter. Watch your home become a quiet, calm refuge.
9. Choose action over procrastination. Postponing decisions creates mental clutter; resolve to deal with outstanding issues immediately. The relief you will feel is as therapeutic as taking a vacation.
10. File, don't pile. Sources say 80 per cent of what we file is never accessed again. Set up a system of Current Files, Inactive Files and Permanent Records.
When things in your life seem almost too much to
handle, when 24 hours in a day are not enough,
remember the mayonnaise jar and the 2 cups of
A professor stood before his philosophy class and had
some items in front of him.
When the class began, wordlessly, he picked up a very
large and empty mayonnaise jar and proceeded to fill
it with golf balls.
He then asked the students if the jar was full. They
agreed that it was. The professor then picked up a box
of pebbles and poured them into the jar. He shook the
jar lightly. The pebbles rolled into the open areas
between the golf balls.
He then asked the students again if the jar was full.
They agreed it was.
The professor next picked up a box of sand and poured
it into the jar.
Of course, the sand filled up everything else. He
asked once more if the jar was full.
The students responded with a unanimous yes." The
professor then produced two cups of coffee from under
the table and poured the entire contents into the jar,
effectively filling the empty space between the sand.
The students laughed.
"Now," said the professor, as the laughter subsided,
"I want you to recognize that this jar represents your
The golf balls are the important things -- your God,
family, your children, your health, your friends,
and your favorite passions -- things that if
was lost and only they remained, your life would still
The pebbles are the other things that matter like your
job, your house, and your car.
The sand is everything else -- the small stuff."
"If you put the sand into the jar first," he
continued, "there is no room for the pebbles or the
The same goes for life. If you spend all your time and
energy on the small stuff, you will never have room
for the things that are important to you.
Pay attention to the things that are critical to your
happiness. Play with your children. Take time to get
Take your partner out to dinner. Play another 18.
There will always be time to clean the house and fix
Take care of the golf balls first -- the things that
really matter. Set your priorities. The rest is just
One of the students raised her hand and inquired what
the coffee represented.
The professor smiled. "I'm glad you asked. It just
goes to show you that no matter how full your life may
seem, there's always room for a couple of cups of
coffee with a friend."
Please share this with someone you care about. I JUST
Seek refuge in the attitude of detachment and you will amass the wealth of spiritual awareness. Those who are motivated only by desire for the fruits of action are miserable, for they are constantly anxious about the results of what they do.
-Bhagavad Gita 2:49-50
Excerpted from The Bhagavad Gita
He complained of his pain a hundredfold. God said, "Grief and pain make you modest and noble. Your real enemy is your own medicine, the elixir that seeks to win your heart. Flee from it to solitude and seek the help of God's grace. Your friends are really your enemies, for they occupy you and make you oblivious of God."
Translated by Aneela Khalid Arshed
Dreams that do come true can be as unsettling as those that don't.
-Brett Butler, 'Knee Deep in Paradise'
From "How to Be Happy, Dammit: A Cynic’s Guide to Spiritual Happiness" by Karen Salmansohn:
When you let go of unnecessary attachments, you pick up speed in heading toward your true goals.
For this reason, it’s always better to have a short bad relationship than a long bad relationship. Or a short unsatisfying career versus a long unsatisfying career.
The sooner the eagle flies the coop, the sooner the high-flying eagle livin’ begins. Though you also know it’s scary to let go.
What if you fall? What if you don’t have eagle wings after all…and cannot fly?
You must live your life using the same philosophy a mountain climber uses to climb a mountain: “Never look down. Keep looking forward and upward.”
You’ve read: most people are not risk adverse—but loss adverse. They spend too much time looking at all the dangers that can happen if they let go.
You consciously decide to stay focused on what you have to gain by letting go of that unsatisfying job or messed up relationship.
But you know that…it’s hard to let go. It takes great emotional strength and endurance to climb up to another level. You also know, the more you climb upward, the stronger you will get because you will be building up your emotional muscles over time.
Renunciation isn’t non-possession.
It isn’t a refusal of objects and experiences.
True renunciation is non-identification
with those objects and experiences.
> SATAN'S MEETING:
>(Read even if you're busy)
>Satan called a worldwide convention of demons.
>In his opening address he said,
>"We can't keep Muslims from going to Mosque. Christians from going to
>"We can't keep them from reading their Quran and Bible knowing the truth."
>"We can't even keep them from forming an intimate relationship with
>their Allah ."
>"Once they gain that connection with Allah, our power over them is broken."
>"So let them go to their Mosques; Churchs; let them have their covered
>dish dinners, BUT steal their time, so they don't have time to develop
>a relationship with Allah
>"This is what I want you to do," said the devil:
>"Distract them from gaining hold of their God and maintaining that
>vital connection throughout their day!"
>"How shall we do this?" his demons shouted.
>"Keep them busy in the non-essentials of life and invent innumerable
>schemes to occupy their minds," he answered.
>"Tempt them to spend, spend, spend, and borrow, borrow, borrow."
>"Persuade the wives to go to work for long hours and the husbands to
>6-7 days each week, 10-12 hours a day, so they can afford their empty
>"Keep them from spending time with their children."
>"As their families fragment, soon, their homes will offer no escape
>from the pressures of work!"
>"Over-stimulate their minds so that they cannot hear that still, small
>"Entice them to play the radio or cassette player whenever they drive."
>"To keep the TV, VCR, CDs and their PCs going constantly in their home
>and see to it that every store and restaurant in the world plays music
>"This will jam their minds and break that union with God
>"Fill the coffee tables with magazines and newspapers."
>"Pound their minds with the news 24 hours a day."
>"Invade their driving moments with billboards."
>"Flood their mailboxes with junk mail, mail order catalogs,
>sweepstakes, and every kind of newsletter and promotional offering free
>products, services and false hopes."
>"Keep skinny, beautiful models on the magazines and TV so their
>husbands will believe that outward beauty is what's important, and
>they'll become dissatisfied with their wives. "
>"Keep the wives too tired to love their husbands at night."
>Give them headaches too!
>"If they don't give their husbands the love they need, they will begin
>to look elsewhere."
>"That will fragment their families quickly!"
>"Give them story books to distract them from teaching their children
>the real meaning of prayer."
>"Keep them too busy to go out in nature and reflect on God creation.
>Send them to amusement parks, sporting events, plays, concerts, and
>movies instead. "Keep them busy, busy, busy!"
>"And when they meet for spiritual fellowship, involve them in gossip
>and small talk so that they leave with troubled consciences."
>"Crowd their lives with so many good causes they have no time to seek
>power from God."
>"Soon they will be working in their own strength, sacrificing their
>health and family for the good of the cause."
>"It will work!" "It will work!"
>It was quite a plan!
>The demons went eagerly to their assignments causing Muslims &
>Christians everywhere to get busier and more rushed, going here and there.
>Having little time for their God or their families.
>Having no time to tell others about the power of God to change lives.
>I guess the question is, has the devil been successful in his schemes?
>You be the judge!!!!!
>Does "BUSY" mean:
Melancholy may enter your soul, and ambush your happiness; but it will prepare you for true joy. Melancholy drives out all other emotions and feelings, so the source of all goodness may occupy the whole house. It shakes the yellow leaves from the tree, allowing fresh leaves to grow. It pulls up old bodily pleasures by the roots, allowing divine spiritual pleasures to be planted. Melancholy takes many things from the soul, in order to bring better things in return.
Reprinted from "366 Readings from Islam,"
Millions of Americans are sunk deep in credit card debt. But God can help pull them out, says author Kristen Johnson Ingram.
Interview by Laura Sheahen
Is overspending a spiritual weakness? Is being in debt a sin? Beliefnet spoke with Kristen Johnson Ingram, author of "Devotions for Debtors," about spiritual approaches to facing debt.
You wrote "Devotions for Debtors" because you, like many Americans, were in debt. How big a problem is it?
Every day the news gives huge figures. And I’m not completely out [of debt] either. I wrote the book, but I haven’t completed the cycle. Because it’s so easy to get in debt and it’s so hard to get out of it. And there’s a mindset that goes with getting out of it like, “if I tear up my credit cards, will I still be able to get the Internet?” People have a lot of unanswered fears about trying to do it.
You're not talking about student loans or mortgages, right? You’re talking about impulse buying.
Sometimes it isn’t even impulse, sometimes it just seems like it’s the only way. That’s the biggest falsehood in America, that there’s no other way. That you’ve got to get in debt to be an American.
Your book offers biblical passages and spiritual support for debtors. Is the implication that being in debt is a spiritual failing? Is being a shopaholic a sin?
I can’t speak for all shopaholics, but for people like me, the major sin is lack of trust in God---that I won’t get what I need, God won’t give me what I need unless I go in debt for it. That’s a real fundamental problem in a lot of other sins. People commit sins because they don’t really believe God is going to help them.
Your book says that when you start facing up to debt, your vision of God changes. In what way?
The minute you start trusting, your relationship with God changes. The more you can relate to God, the more God’s image changes in your mind. It’s one thing to have a judge, and it’s another to have a friend.
I felt that God was with me in the effort to get out of debt, offering me solutions to things and reminding me that I didn’t really need something.
What kind of solutions?
Like having things refinanced. Because of the ["Devotions"] book, we got a much lower interest rate on our home mortgage. We began to feel powerful rather than helpless. There are people who need almost like a 12-step program where they have to admit their helplessness over shopping. That is not my problem, but I sure know a lot of people who have it.
Powerlessness is an American illness right now. We feel powerless over the government and over money. I know lots of people who no longer vote. "Why bother? It’s going to happen the way they want it to happen anyway." And it’s the same thing about money—"I can’t control it." The terror of layoffs and jobs ending may have made people think they have to buy everything now. "I’d rather buy it quick before I lose my job or something."
Your book says that winning the lottery isn't the answer. What should people ask for when they pray about debt?
They should ask for wisdom and for a sense of having enough. I mean, the definition of what’s enough anymore is really pretty expanded. There has to be the individual response, "OK, I’m not going to do this anymore."
Of the Bible verses in your book, which ones have helped you most in your struggle?
Maybe the most important was the very first one [read the devotion], "don’t take a staff, don’t take any extra clothes." Because that means you’ve got to get down to the absolute basics of what you need and you’ve got to trust God for the rest. The idea that you could travel that light is really freeing.
What are other spiritual suggestions for debtors?
I’m learning how to get rid of stuff. I’ve always had a rule that if I buy a book, I have to get rid of a book. The same thing with clothes—if I buy a garment, I try to get rid of one. I find that very freeing. To say to myself, "I don’t need this, I don’t want it, I’m getting rid of it."
I give money to beggars, too. In fact, I am getting to be fairly famous around this town, for handing money out my window to people with signs. I am a member of a lay religious order called the Order of Saint Aidan. I took my vow of, they don’t say poverty, they say simplicity. I took the sixth chapter of Luke literally: it says to give money to anyone who asks you.
I’ve got to say, I’ve never missed any money that I gave away. Ever. In fact, I think God really replenishes it, though I don’t want to do it for that reason. But I usually find money in my pockets and purses that I think God’s sneaked in there.
I go on spending fasts where I don't spend any money at all. I make do out of whatever is there. Sometimes it's very inconvenient, because I've got something due, and I need a new cartridge for my printer. But if I'm in a fast state, then I have to wait.
How long do your spending fasts usually last?
I think the longest one I ever took was three months.
Did you buy food?
No, I didn't. There's enough food in this house. We bought bread and milk. We had a lot of dried fruits and things that I love to buy.
You also said you watch yourself for "trigger times"—times when you're tempted to buy something. When that happens, you go for walks, pray, sing hymns…
Make tea in my grandmother’s teacup or something like that. I used to take my pleasure in small things, and I’m learning to do it again. I don’t know when I started going, I want, I want, I want. But all my friends, want, want, want too. We talk about this a lot, saying what mechanism is triggered here.
How can we fight it spiritually? How can we fight wanting?
Praying is really the biggest answer: asking God to show me what I really, really need. That doesn’t mean you can’t have any luxuries at all. But for instance, when we were going to take a long trip through several states and our car wasn’t wonderful, we talked about buying a new car. Then I said, “No, let’s rent a car for 2 weeks.” And we did that, and we paid it off very quickly. God always always offers an escape for us going in debt.
Envy is really a serious problem. You see something that someone’s got and they may have worked for years to get that. And sometimes I want the same thing and I want it now. And so envy comes out of what I consider the satanic sin, the longing for power.
If you have money, then you have power, usually. And the kind of power that God offers is a lot different from what the world, the flesh and the devil offer. It’s the power to be a whole person.
What spiritual encouragement would you give couples when one spouse's spending has put both in debt?
[The spender] needs to confess what they are doing as sin. Either to each other or to another friend or somebody. I am an Episcopalian, so that isn’t too hard for me, because I’ve got the clergy. Then we also need to confess to each other when we’ve spent money. A lot of people kind of halfway hide their spending from their spouses. Should there be any half lies between you?
I talked to a lot of people when I was writing the book and they confessed, so the first thing that couples need to do is be absolutely honest with each other. You’re in this thing together, and if you got in debt, even all by yourself, you need each other to help each other out.
You mention having a debt partner, like a buddy system. How does that work?
I have a dear friend, and she and I often sit and talk about, "OK, how do we do this? How do we keep from doing that?" Instead of going to really nice lunches, we’ve started going to McDonald's and getting a salad, where normally we would have spent probably 10 bucks each. All those small things make a difference. God has said, when you’re faithful with small things, you’ll be trusted with big ones. I’m not sure I’m ready for big ones yet, but I’m working on it.
Usury used to be a sin. Do credit card companies have a moral responsibility in this?
Part of the problem is with the hype of companies. This morning I was looking at the news, and I can’t tell you how many things could have made my life easier if I was willing to go buy them, like a Swiffer mop and a bunch of stuff.
They’re constantly hyping us with “You need this to make your life complete.” There are a lot of people who don’t think their lives are complete, especially if they don’t have a strong spiritual life of any kind. They are going to have the feeling that things are the answer.
What would you tell someone who was in deep spiritual despair about debt?
I would first tell them that there is no debt in the world that is worth their life, whether we are talking about suicide--and I know a couple of people who have attempted suicide because they were so deeply in debt.
And maybe they’re losing their life just by being so miserable. And I’ve seen some real misery in people and I tell them first of all, you’ve got to spend more time in prayer. I don’t just mean saying, “Help me God, help me God, help me God.” You’ve got to do some praying where you’re allowing God to talk to you and listening for that really small voice that is so encouraging.
I remember years ago I was at a Bible study. I heard a woman say something that I’ve repeated many times. She said, “He’s so for us.” And God is so for us. Almost like a nervous lover, you know, “What do you need? What do you want?”
The worst thing that can happen is that you lose everything you have. And that’s not so awful after all. Your life is worth more than that.
The second thing we need to do is to find something that gives us joy, whether it’s painting or digging in the ground or whatever. The more simple joy you put in your life, the more you are able to pull yourself away from stuff. You can get a bird book from the library and start watching birds. If you can’t afford bird food, you can at least go sprinkle your breadcrumbs outside and watch the birds.
If you can find yourself even for ten minutes feeling joyful, that’s a start.
Well, another Buy Nothing Day has come and gone, and I have to confess: I bought stuff.
It's not quite so easy here in Canada. You see, we have a unique place in Buy Nothing Day, and not just because the idea of spending one day a year aggressively de-commercializing was invented here.
The timing is not quite right. For the rest of the world, BND was Saturday, Nov. 25, and that might have made sense. But in the U.S. and, for the purpose of synchronizing events continent-wide, Canada, it is always the day after American Thanksgiving, which is that country's biggest shopping day.
To us, however, it's just a Friday, and not a particularly shopping-intensive one. Thus it doesn't come with an extra-special reason to rage against the machine.
That's partly why I've noticed some things during Buy Nothing Days past. Such as, it is technically impossible to buy nothing, since not a day goes by where one isn't servicing a loan or at least burning natural gas. Also, it's a worthless excuse for getting a ticket when you fail to plug the parking meter.
Some activists like to frame the significance of the day in global terms, how 80 per cent of the world's resources are consumed by 20 per cent of its population. But for the man who came up with the idea in 1992, Vancouver graphic artist Ted Dave, it was much more an act of self-preservation. The constant coercive nature of modern life simply stressed the man out. "I was getting exhausted," said Dave, "and I thought it would be really nice if we could take a break."
Like Ted Dave, I, too, am inclined to observe at least the spirit of BND for personal reasons. Namely, I'm sick of having too much useless junk floating through my world.
In the last few years I've had the onerous duty of clearing out several homes, and that's when you really see it--a lifetime's accretion of material nonsense. What were we thinking?
It's in one's family home where it manifests itself most poignantly. Toys I once thought were the coolest thing in the world, and then later held onto for sentimental reasons, now merely nauseate me when I ponder their fate as landfill.
I suppose I could unload them in a garage sale, tedious and unproductive as those are, but then I'd only be encouraging someone else to shop for them. And unfortunately my usual solution of dumping it all at the Sally Ann has the same ultimate effect.
The only real alternative, therefore, is to not acquire dross in the first place. Sure, my old stuff is crappy. But I have to remind myself that, in a few short weeks, my new stuff will be crappy too.
I now invoke Buy Nothing Day every time I find myself contemplating a purchase. I ask myself a simple question: What happens if I don't buy this? The answer, more often than not, is that I'll get by with my existing equipment, imperfect though it may be, or better yet, I'll have a pretty good life without ever enjoying whatever miracle that product is promising. As such, I feel that I am reducing the amount of time sorting, boxing, and unboxing that I'll have to endure in some future housecleaning binge.
That's why I don't take snapshots. Books and crates filled with red-eyed images from the dim past are perhaps the greatest example of folderol we should never have collected in the first place.
Obviously, retailers and the Kodak company hate people who are as bric-a-brac-o-phobic as me, especially at this time of year. To them I can only say that I don't foresee ceasing all purchases any time soon. It's just that my typical Christmas gift is far more likely to be a wheel of cheese rather than a brand-new Parcheesi set. Does that make me a communist?
One hundred years ago, "burned out" referred to the campfire. "Chronic fatigue syndrome" occurred only in insomniacs. People described an automobile on ice as being "out of control," but they wouldn't refer to their lives that way. Times change. Our lives get cluttered. As we face an ever-increasing pace of life governed by email, instant messaging, and 24-7 busyness, we may become paralyzed looking at the options. These tips, based off of Christian principles, are designed to help you uncomplicate your life. Click here for the first tip...
People weep for their spouses, their children, and their wealth, but who weeps for God?
While a child is engrossed with its toys its mother attends to her household duties, but when the child throws the toys aside and screams for its mother, then the mother puts down her cooking pot and takes the child in her arms.
September 2, 2008
Rich Man’s Burden
By DALTON CONLEY
FOR many American professionals, the Labor Day holiday yesterday probably wasn’t as relaxing as they had hoped. They didn’t go into the office, but they were still working. As much as they may truly have wanted to focus on time with their children, their spouses or their friends, they were unable to turn off their BlackBerrys, their laptops and their work-oriented brains.
Americans working on holidays is not a new phenomenon: we have long been an industrious folk. A hundred years ago the German sociologist Max Weber described what he called the Protestant ethic. This was a religious imperative to work hard, spend little and find a calling in order to achieve spiritual assurance that one is among the saved.
Weber claimed that this ethic could be found in its most highly evolved form in the United States, where it was embodied by aphorisms like Ben Franklin’s “Industry gives comfort and plenty and respect.” The Protestant ethic is so deeply engrained in our culture you don’t need to be Protestant to embody it. You don’t even need to be religious.
But what’s different from Weber’s era is that it is now the rich who are the most stressed out and the most likely to be working the most. Perhaps for the first time since we’ve kept track of such things, higher-income folks work more hours than lower-wage earners do. Since 1980, the number of men in the bottom fifth of the income ladder who work long hours (over 49 hours per week) has dropped by half, according to a study by the economists Peter Kuhn and Fernando Lozano. But among the top fifth of earners, long weeks have increased by 80 percent.
This is a stunning moment in economic history: At one time we worked hard so that someday we (or our children) wouldn’t have to. Today, the more we earn, the more we work, since the opportunity cost of not working is all the greater (and since the higher we go, the more relatively deprived we feel).
In other words, when we get a raise, instead of using that hard-won money to buy “the good life,” we feel even more pressure to work since the shadow costs of not working are all the greater.
One result is that even with the same work hours and household duties, women with higher incomes report feeling more stressed than women with lower incomes, according to a recent study by the economists Daniel Hamermesh and Jungmin Lee. In other words, not only does more money not solve our problems at home, it may even make things worse.
It would be easy to simply lay the blame for this state of affairs on the laptops and mobile phones that litter the lives of upper-income professionals. But the truth is that technology both creates and reflects economic realities. Instead, less visible forces have given birth to this state of affairs.
One of these forces is America’s income inequality, which has steadily increased since 1969. We typically think of this process as one in which the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Surely, that should, if anything, make upper income earners able to relax.
But it turns out that the growing disparity is really between the middle and the top. If we divided the American population in half, we would find that those in the lower half have been pretty stable over the last few decades in terms of their incomes relative to one another. However, the top half has been stretching out like taffy. In fact, as we move up the ladder the rungs get spaced farther and farther apart.
The result of this high and rising inequality is what I call an “economic red shift.” Like the shift in the light spectrum caused by the galaxies rushing away, those Americans who are in the top half of the income distribution experience a sensation that, while they may be pulling away from the bottom half, they are also being left further and further behind by those just above them.
And since inequality rises exponentially the higher you climb the economic ladder, the better off you are in absolute terms, the more relatively deprived you may feel. In fact, a poll of New Yorkers found that those who earned more than $200,000 a year were the most likely of any income group to agree that “seeing other people with money” makes them feel poor.
Because these forces drive each other, they trap us in a vicious cycle: Rising inequality causes us to work more to keep up in an economy increasingly dominated by status goods. That further widens income differences.
The BlackBerrys and other wireless devices that make up our portable offices facilitate this socio-economic madness, but don’t cause it. So, if you are someone who is pretty well off but couldn’t stop working yesterday nonetheless, don’t blame your iPhone or laptop. Blame a new wrinkle in something much more antiquated: inequality.
Dalton Conley, the chairman of New York University’s sociology department, is the author of the forthcoming “Elsewhere, U.S.A.”
“The beat of my heart has grown deeper, more active, and yet more peaceful, and it is as if I were all the time storing up inner riches…My [life] is one long sequence of inner miracles.” The young Dutchwoman Etty Hillesum wrote that in a Nazi transit camp in 1943, on her way to her death at Auschwitz two months later. Towards the end of his life, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “All I have seen teaches me to trust the creator for all I have not seen,” though by then he had already lost his father when he was 7, his first wife when she was 20 and his first son, aged 5. In Japan, the late 18th-century poet Issa is celebrated for his delighted, almost child-like celebrations of the natural world. Issa saw four children die in infancy, his wife die in childbirth, and his own body partially paralyzed.
I’m not sure I knew the details of all these lives when I was 29, but I did begin to guess that happiness lies less in our circumstances than in what we make of them, in every sense. “There is nothing either good or bad,” I had heard in high school, from Hamlet, “but thinking makes it so.” I had been lucky enough at that point to stumble into the life I might have dreamed of as a boy: a great job writing on world affairs for Time magazine, an apartment (officially at least) on Park In the corporate world, I always knew there was some higher position I could attain, which meant that, like Zeno’s arrow, I was guaranteed never to arrive and always to remain dissatisfied.
Avenue, enough time and money to take vacations in Burma, Morocco, El Salvador. But every time I went to one of those places, I noticed that the people I met there, mired in difficulty and often warfare, seemed to have more energy and even optimism than the friends I’d grown up with in privileged, peaceful Santa Barbara, Calif., many of whom were on their fourth marriages and seeing a therapist every day. Though I knew that poverty certainly didn’t buy happiness, I wasn’t convinced that money did either.
So — as post-1960s cliché decreed — I left my comfortable job and life to live for a year in a temple on the backstreets of Kyoto. My high-minded year lasted all of a week, by which time I’d noticed that the depthless contemplation of the moon and composition of haiku I’d imagined from afar was really more a matter of cleaning, sweeping and then cleaning some more. But today, more than 21 years later, I still live in the vicinity of Kyoto, in a two-room apartment that makes my old monastic cell look almost luxurious by comparison. I have no bicycle, no car, no television I can understand, no media — and the days seem to stretch into eternities, and I can’t think of a single thing I lack.
I’m no Buddhist monk, and I can’t say I’m in love with renunciation in itself, or traveling an hour or more to print out an article I’ve written, or missing out on the N.B.A. Finals. But at some point, I decided that, for me at least, happiness arose out of all I didn’t want or need, not all I did. And it seemed quite useful to take a clear, hard look at what really led to peace of mind or absorption (the closest I’ve come to understanding happiness). Not having a car gives me volumes not to think or worry about, and makes walks around the neighborhood a daily adventure. Lacking a cell phone and high-speed Internet, I have time to play ping-pong every evening, to write long letters to old friends and to go shopping for my sweetheart (or to track down old baubles for two kids who are now out in the world).
When the phone does ring — once a week — I’m thrilled, as I never was when the phone rang in my overcrowded office in Rockefeller Center. And when I return to the United States every three months or so and pick up a newspaper, I find I haven’t missed much at all. While I’ve been rereading P.G. Wodehouse, or “Walden,” the crazily accelerating roller-coaster of the 24/7 news cycle has propelled people up and down and down and up and then left them pretty much where they started. “I call that man rich,” Henry James’s Ralph Touchett observes in “Portrait of a Lady,” “who can satisfy the requirements of his imagination.” Living in the future tense never did that for me.
I certainly wouldn’t recommend my life to most people — and my heart goes out to those who Perhaps happiness, like peace or passion, comes most when it isn’t pursued.
have recently been condemned to a simplicity they never needed or wanted. But I’m not sure how much outward details or accomplishments ever really make us happy deep down. The millionaires I know seem desperate to become multimillionaires, and spend more time with their lawyers and their bankers than with their friends (whose motivations they are no longer sure of). And I remember how, in the corporate world, I always knew there was some higher position I could attain, which meant that, like Zeno’s arrow, I was guaranteed never to arrive and always to remain dissatisfied.
Being self-employed will always make for a precarious life; these days, it is more uncertain than ever, especially since my tools of choice, written words, are coming to seem like accessories to images. Like almost everyone I know, I’ve lost much of my savings in the past few months. I even went through a dress-rehearsal for our enforced austerity when my family home in Santa Barbara burned to the ground some years ago, leaving me with nothing but the toothbrush I bought from an all-night supermarket that night. And yet my two-room apartment in nowhere Japan seems more abundant than the big house that burned down. I have time to read the new John le Carre, while nibbling at sweet tangerines in the sun. When a Sigur Ros album comes out, it fills my days and nights, resplendent. And then it seems that happiness, like peace or passion, comes most freely when it isn’t pursued.
If you’re the kind of person who prefers freedom to security, who feels more comfortable in a small room than a large one and who finds that happiness comes from matching your wants to your needs, then running to stand still isn’t where your joy lies. In New York, a part of me was always somewhere else, thinking of what a simple life in Japan might be like. Now I’m there, I find that I almost never think of Rockefeller Center or Park Avenue at all.
[Editor's note: an earlier version of this post included an inaccurate reference to the constitution of Japan. It has since been removed.]
Pico Iyer’s most recent book, “The Open Road: The Global Journey of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama,” is just out in paperback.
But the more stuff I shed, the more I realize that we de-clutterers feel besieged by more than just our possessions. We’re also overwhelmed by the intangible detritus of 21st-century life: unreturned emails; unprinted family photos; the ceaseless ticker of other people’s lives on Facebook; the heightened demands of parenting; and the suspicion that we’ll be checking our phones every 15 minutes, forever. I can sit in an empty room, and still get nothing done.
It’s consoling to think that, beneath all these distractions, we’ll discover our shining, authentic selves, or even achieve a state of “mindfulness.” But I doubt it. I’m starting to suspect that the joy of ditching all of our stuff is just as illusory as the joy of acquiring it all was. Less may be more, but it’s still not enough.
Why Simple Living is the Forgotten Key to Self Actualization
For the past ten years I have been pretty much into personal development. Well, as a teenager I was already a bit interested in not-so-mainstream topics such as the power of the human mind, psychic phenomena and plenty of other metaphysical topics. It comes to no surprise that my peers thought I was a bit weird, you know how it is. So when I got hooked on to personal development topics later on in life, I was already primed for certain ideas and insights. It came easier for me to hop on from one book or one topic to another without needing a stretch of time to digest certain ideas. I got pretty sucked into it. I read heaps of books, started off my blog Soul Hiker and wrote a few hundred articles to share my insights and experiences with others following the same path.
In those ten years of learning and practice, I did come a long way with a wealth of inner growth but also many pitfalls. What is more relevant is that I have also arrived at a solid practical realisation – a kind of a key that unlocks some doors without having to knock them down really. That key is Simple Living or the idea of simplifying life in order to shed away what is unnecessary, inauthentic and a hindrance to your life purpose. The concept might seem obvious but somehow hidden none the less. Personal growth, or rather actualising your highest potential and becoming the best version of yourself, requires shedding off and letting go of things which are not authentically in line with your Soul agenda rather than putting in a lot of effort to learn or acquire something else. It’s energy-wasting spending hours, days and weeks trying to relearn habits, boosting your confidence, visualising your goals, improving your creativity, doing soul searching, etc without first simplifying your life. Yes all these things and others are important personal development tools but I have realised that by doing one thing – engaging in a path of Simple Living – will make everything else effortless. This is particularly true to your goal of self-actualisation or becoming the best You.
So in a way, if we only tried to make life simpler and nothing else, it’s already a hundredfold better than trying hard to do other self-improvement stuff – some of which perhaps fail, we give up on or take us a lot of persistence and struggle to achieve. I strongly believe that the message of Simple Living is a very important one and here are some of the reasons why:
Less Noise & Clutter:
In an online course I created about Simple Living, one of the most important lectures is one which has to do with clearing and decluttering spaces. Not just physical spaces around us (although this is also important) but our inner spaces too. In a way living a simpler life means managing your time and space better. Very often our spaces become cluttered and disordered, making life more difficult than it has to be.
On a physical level, this can be seen in cluttered living or working spaces, rooms in our homes or perhaps disorganised drawers, closets and desks. On an emotional and psychological level, this manifests as mental noise, unclear paths of action, conflicting ideas and lack of a clear purpose. So decluttering our inner and outer spaces will literally clear the obstructions for us (or others: hint) to move freely through them and this will resonate on all other levels of our life. Clearly there is much more to decluttering than routine – it is a way of opening up to life.
Understanding what is Relevant:
Another important concept of simple living is understanding what is necessary vs. what isn’t. It is about distinguishing between our real needs and socially suggested wants. Of course everyone is able to distinguish between the two but we don’t most of the time because we live in a collective trance of consumerism and mass media.
When we start becoming more aware of how much our actions and decisions are influenced by society and culture, we start standing back from it all. It becomes more and more clear that a lot of the things we were made to believe were needs are nothing more than wants and we can do without because they are not authentic to our purpose. This clarity brings with it a sense of power and freedom. In itself it is the spirit of simple living.
So in a nutshell living simply involves being clear about what is relevant, necessary and needed rather than living in a haze or worse living out a social program just like automatons.
The last point naturally brings forth a more interesting topic – that of living an authentic life. But what does living an authentic life really mean? In my view, living authentically means not being limited or confined to live out someone else’s life or a social template laid down to us through our socialisation. It means being free of the fear of being judged or disapproved of by your peers and authorities. It means being free to follow your passions and purpose without being infected by those fear-based thoughts transmitted by others.
Creating Space for Inner Creativity:
Of course authenticity walks hand in hand with creativity. It is natural that creativity requires a degree of freedom from constraints and limited thinking. Free-thinker, artists and bohemians are considered to be creative because they live outside the norms and behavioural rules of society. They are often nonconformists because of this reason. But more importantly, creativity arises when there is enough space for it to flow through and also here I mean inner and outer space.
So having a simplified and clear environmental and inner spaces is conducive to more creativity. The reverse is also true. Try to work in a messy store room with machinery noise going on and see whether creativity comes knocking on your door!
Life Purpose in Focus:
People often ask me how is it that they can find their life purpose. Many times I jokingly reply that they are asking the wrong person since it took me a long while to discover mine but I know that a good part of the answer lies in simplicity. In other words, the less physical, mental and emotional obstructions one has in life, the more clear his or her life purpose comes into focus. There is no real mystery here. The perfect analogy to vision is obvious. If you try to look for something – say your TV remote control in a disorganised and overcrowded room – it is going to be more difficult then if there was nothing else in the room besides the remote control. In this scenario, the more you start shedding away the junk and stuff in the room, the better are the chances that what you are looking for comes into view. Same thing with your life purpose. If you are trying to be approved by others by living other people’s goals and standards, the less chance you have of coming close to understand what is authentically your life purpose.
On the other hand, with less obstructions along the way, what genuinely drives you becomes clearer, which brings me to the next point.
Understanding Yourself and Motivations:
Finding your life purpose might not always be a direct result of simplifying your life although a lot of times it is. Sometimes simplifying life brings us first closer to understanding ourselves and our inner motivations which then sheds more light on our true purpose.
Sometimes our motivations and drives are not clear because very often the mind and heart are in conflict or out of sync. With simplicity comes less noise and conflict which in turn makes it easier to have a better understanding of ourself and our motivations.
More Time or Better Management of It:
The natural companion to decluttering spaces is managing our time better. Admittedly, I was always at a loss when it comes to managing my time. But then I found that time is much easier to manage when you take away all those things, chores, pressures and activities which server no purpose. In reality when you are living a simpler life, time management is not so much of an issue anymore. Time management is more relevant when you are bombarded with a thousand chores and activities, the hallmark of a complicated and stress-laden modern lifestyle.
Simple living is moving in the opposite direction to this. So when you are doing only those things and activities which springs out from an authentic sense of passion and belonging, time management is simpler. Of course some time management skills still apply even in simple living – in fact in my course I have also reserved space for this – but it is not the rat-race time management sort of thing; it’s more of a further optimisation to an already focused and simple life.
I recently wandered across a review of the New York Times bestseller The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing by Marie Kondo. Within moments, I bought the Kindle version and within hours, I had read it cover to cover, decided I needed a minimalist wardrobe and set to it. Aly found me that evening surrounded by a storm of strewn garments and trash bags, muttering to myself.
(This happens often. When I find an idea I like, I take to it immediately and wholly with little regard to what consequences such a decision would have to my day-to-day reality.)
The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up is built on a simple idea: that decluttering your home happens only once and definitively, by discarding all possessions you do not need. To determine which items to keep or discard, one must hold or touch each item and answer honestly, “Does this item bring me joy?” If the answer is yes, keep it and assign it a space within your home – any other answer means you must discard it, either by trashing, donating, or selling the item. This process is called the KonMari method.
The KonMari Method is built on the premise that you should only keep those items in your possession that bring you pure unadulterated joy, and discard the rest. The possessions you keep must then be assigned a ‘home’ within your home – a place or space where it will reside when not in use. Thus if you ever remove the object from its home, it must be brought back. And if you come into possession of new objects, the same two steps must be followed – ask yourself does this object bring me joy? and then if it does, designate a new home for it. This way you only have to truly tidy up once, ever.
You may be thinking, what about bills? Heirlooms and gifts? Extra towels for guests? Marie Kondo has an answer for everything. She reasons with you like a stern nanny, telling you what you need to hear, often times ignoring what you want to.
Needless to say, in regards to my wardrobe alone (not counting the rest of my home), I produced four 13-gallon trash bags full of clothing to donate and sell, and another such bag for shoes alone. To say my closet was considerably lighter would be an understatement. I had left myself with about 40 pieces of clothing, including shoes and accessories, with about two of each kind of garment – two long sleeved shirts, two short sleeved shirts, two sleeveless shirts, two dresses, two workout pants etc, etc.
I stepped back and eyed my handiwork. I felt strangely in love with my (pardon the pun) stripped down closet and drawers, but I couldn’t place my finger on why.
The next couple of weeks flew by. I attended a birthday party, a two-day engagement party, a BBQ, a graduation and spent nearly every evening at my local jamat khana (church). I had long hours at work, three days volunteering at a local elementary school, a couple of work happy hours, and I worked out 5 days each week. Through all of that, I never once had trouble getting ready or picking out what to wear. I never once missed my discarded clothing or regretted my decision.
In fact, in the past month, I was astonished to find:
No one noticed. Not a single person in the last month has noticed my repeated outfits. No one knew I’d worn the same handful of tops all month with the same two cardigans and the same two pairs of pants (one of them jeans) in various combinations. This is a matter I’m very self-conscious about. I was admittedly fearful of the idea of someone noticing I was wearing the same things and passing a comment. The fact that no one did, and frankly, no one could care less, was refreshing.
I felt better about myself, physically and emotionally. I was only wearing a handful of my clothes prior to clearing out my closet. After wasting a significant amount of time looking through all my options, I’d select the same tried and true articles again and again. I constantly struggled with my self-image – putting on the rarely worn garments and lamenting on how I didn’t fit in them, or they made me look lumpy, before changing back into my usual picks. The strewn clothes on the floor after such difficult decision-making drove me nuts, and I hated having to pick them all up and put them back on hangers. I’ve had occasions where I’ve chucked a shirt or dress across the room in frustration. I had no idea how much time and energy was going into this daily process, or how much negativity about myself (ugh how can I look so disgusting in this?), my possessions (who the hell makes such restrictive pants?! I hate these!), and my home (I need a bigger closet, this isn’t enough!) I was generating. It was only when I downsized my wardrobe and experienced a complete lack of these instances that I realized how much lighter I felt. I got dressed in two minutes rather than twenty. As soon as I took off my work clothes I hung them where they belonged and got into my home clothes. No pants on the floor. No clutter. It dawned on me that all the clothing I was left with, no matter how few, were items that did bring me joy – I loved how they looked and felt and fit. This obvious fact was news to me. I only possess clothes I love to wear. What a novel idea!
Decluttering my closet decluttered my mind. The thoughts once occupied with “What do I wear?” and “How do I look?” and their subsequent lamentations that followed, now had time and space to turn to other inquiries: “Can I get in a yoga sess before work?” “How about we meet earlier and catch up before the dinner party?” “Perhaps I could write a blog post on mindful eating?” “Will Tyrion meet the Queen of Dragons?!” In addition, I feel this has reduced my “decision fatigue”. Every morning, we have a set amount of decision-making abilities that is utilized throughout our day. This is why we often make the worst decisions by the end of the day when we’re exhausted and fatigued from deciding what was needed earlier in the day. Thus, minimizing decisions needed for other parts of our life saves our decision-making skills for more important things (i.e deciding what to wear vs. decision whether to work out or what to write). This is why Steve Jobs always wore the same thing day after day – he simply didn’t want to waste time thinking about it!
In the larger scope of things, this idea of limiting my wardrobe evoked an epiphany. Limiting my wardrobe had, in many ways, liberated me. Could this idea of “liberation in limitation” be applied to other aspects of my life? Could I use it to truly enrich my life?
The answer, I was surprised to find, was: it already had.
Now before you go rolling your eyes about me bringing up my vegan diet again, hear me out. Let’s be real. Going vegan – going whole-food vegan – is no easy task. You do feel limited, if only initially. This new lifestyle is a vast departure from everything you’ve ever known or done. It creates a rift, a divide between you and your past self, your loved ones, your traditions, your social navigations. This is a difficult and oftentimes painful process. Like downsizing your wardrobe, downsizing your diet can be daunting. You no longer have the safety net of familiarity you once did. BUT, it is also a vastly enriching experience.
Since going whole foods, plant-based vegan, I have: far less bloating, more restful sleep, less general fatigue and more energy, a bearable and normalized menstrual cycle, no constipation and frequent motions, clear skin, shiny hair and strong nails. My mental focus has improved tremendously. I am no longer pre-diabetic, I rarely get sick and if I do I heal fast, and I recover faster from heavy workouts. Within the confines of this diet, I’ve learned to detect nuanced ingredients and subtle flavors, to recognize quality foods and use them to heal myself. I no longer emotionally eat or feel guilty for having an extra dessert or too many carbs, and I finally understand and take the time to really savor the process of eating and nourishing my body.
Knowing my thoughts and actions are aligned in my belief that no animal should be harmed for my benefit is the icing on the cake. There is a genuine peace in that, and I value it far more that I value the taste of a cheeseburger or the comfort of consuming the same foods my family does. I would have been unable to have these results and realizations by eating the way I used to: whatever I pleased.
Similarly, I would have never realized how much self-hate I was generating with an excessive wardrobe that did me no favors, or recognized what styles I loved, or noticed how much time, energy, and money I was wasting when I hadn’t limited my wardrobe. I wouldn’t have gained the same kind of self-assurance or confidence I have now that my personality speaks louder than my clothes.
You may think this excessive, too drastic a change, but consider the why and how of it: Why and how are limitations beneficial?
Limitations foster focus and understanding. I can tell you 20 different uses for coconut oil. I now know what nutritional yeast, rhubarb, and psyillium husk are. I can tell you when polyester would be more useful than cotton, and how to pack the lightest, tightest suitcase you’ve ever seen. Having a limited scope forces you to focus on the options that are available to you, and learn more about them.
Limitations foster discipline and self-control. I’ve always had trouble making decisions. I sway when the wind blows. I’ve been told various times that I lacked a certain conviction. Placing limitations on myself allows me a sense of direction, and provides a stance to which I can adhere. It also lessens my decision fatigue, as mentioned earlier, in that I know I have limited options to choose from. Standing firm in my diet and my wardrobe (among other things) prevents me from reaching for that appealing, processed ice cream or for that far too expensive pair of shoes I know will give me blisters. This self-affirmation overflows into other aspects of my life where I am more apt at developing and sticking to my beliefs. This is so very important to me.
Limitations foster adaptability and flexibility. I know how to dissect a menu when I go to a steakhouse with friends.When you can no longer eat meat or have dairy, you find creative substitutes. Tofu and seitan provide the chewy texture you miss. Coconut yogurt pairs with your morning granola. Cashews find their way into every creamy concoction. When you have only one black dress shirt and one white dress shirt, you find new ways to spice them up with various accessories, make up, and jewelry. I know how to wear the same things five different ways. These skills have developed from limited options and availability. I travel often, and when I do, I’m not surrounded by my usual comforts. Even so, I am confident in my ability to adapt to new cultures and gastronomies, and be flexible when what I wish to eat or wear or do is unavailable.
Limitations foster creativity and innovation. From the ability to adapt stems the ability to innovate, to come up with creative solutions to problems that arise from limitations. For example, Aly’s mom loves making samosas – usually made of beef. Everyone in our family enjoys them and I did too at one point. She always wishes I would eat them now, and of course I refuse. Recently, I stumbled across an Asian-inspired crumbled tofu recipe that functioned as a variation of scrambled eggs. I thought, why not use that as a filling for samosas? So mom and I experimented, pressed and crumbled tofu, and marinated it in all the usual samosa spices, green onions, chilies, cilantro, etc, then wrapped the stuffing in the samosa pastry. When they come out piping hot from the fryer the result is incredible. Golden crispy on the outside and perfectly spiced and chewy on the inside, just like ground beef. Mom and I high-fived we were so thrilled with our experiment! This idea of making new associations within set boundaries has been true in all aspects of my life, including making art. When I have too many options I fail to be creative, to make any thought-provoking move. Within limitations, however, I find that I draw new connections, coming up with more creative and compelling ideas.
Limitations can evolve into lifestyles. When we practice our limitations everyday, they become a habit, and soon they are no longer limitations but simply our way of life. The beautiful thing about self-limitations is that they are self-imposed and are subject to change. My journey into veganism began with a 30-Day challenge and mild curiosity, just to see if I could do it. It was a simple short-term self-imposed limitation that opened a whole new world for me. Likewise, I’ve adopted various other challenges: to drink more water, to meditate, to practice yoga simply to attempt to create a habit out of these things I wish to have in my life. To turn down coffee, or soda, or alcohol in favor of water may seem limiting at first – but what have a I gained from it? A daily habit of ensuring I’m hydrating enough, even if I do indulge in other drinks.
Tidying up my closet is a small part of the puzzle. I wanted a clean room, and I wanted to save time, effort and money. By down-sizing my wardrobe, limiting myself to a smaller selection and preventing myself from obtaining new additions, I’ve achieved some semblance of those goals.
I believe self-limitation is the key to unlocking the life you truly want for yourself. It’s about forcing yourself into a box so that you can focus and discipline yourself into creating a better version of yourself – one that can adapt to new situations, innovate on the spot, and do so with the grace of understanding. “We are what we repeatedly do; excellence then is not an act, but a habit.” – and you have the tools to create it.
In this country we’re raised to go for the gusto, to try new things and savor the smorgasbord of life’s possibilities. As Oliver Wendell Holmes put it, “The chief work of civilization is just that it makes the means of living more complex. Because more complex and intense intellectual efforts mean a fuller and richer life. That means more life. Life is an end to itself and the only question as to whether it is worth living is whether you have enough of it.”
This striving for fullness and variety has always sparked a counter-impulse toward simplicity and naturalness. Benjamin Franklin wore an old fur cap in Paris to exemplify a natural unaffected virtue.
Henry David Thoreau made a fervent protest out of simplicity. Most Americans lead lives of quiet desperation, he argued. The things they call good, like riches, are really bad. On the other hand, “as you simplify your life the laws of the universe will be simpler; solitude will not be solitude; poverty will not be poverty, nor weakness weakness.”
Puritans, Quakers, Orthodox Jews and many other groups have always favored ascetic living and high thinking as a way to clear out those material things that might distract them from humility and grace, compassion and prayer, the spirit and the Lord.
Today’s simplicity movements are different from what they were in the past. Today’s most obvious simplicity impulse is the movement to declutter the home. Marie Kondo’s book “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up” now ranks at No. 2 on Amazon among the best-selling books of 2015. There are thousands of members of the National Association of Professional Organizers. Magazines and websites are stuffed with tips on how to declutter your living areas. (Everything that can be folded should be folded! Open the mail while standing over the recycling bin!)
Cleaning out the closets and paring down the wardrobe has become a religious ritual for many — a search for serenity, a blow against stress, and a longing for a beauty that is found by pruning away what is not.
The second big tendency in today’s simplicity movement involves mental hygiene: techniques to clean out the email folder and reduce the incoming flow. For example, Mailwise is a mobile email product that cleans out repetitive phrases so you can read your emails more quickly. (Woe to the day they invent a version for newspaper columns.)
As my Times colleague April Lawson points out, many of us are on a wireless hamster wheel, running furiously to keep the inbox in the same place. Something special like a dinner party or a museum visit is hollowed out when your mind is on your screen or at five places at once. After a while there’s an ache from all the scattered shallowness.
So of course there’s a mass movement to combat mental harriedness, the epidemic of A.D.D. all around. Of course there’s a struggle to regain control of your own attention, to set priorities about what you will think about, to see fewer things but to see them more deeply.
One of the troublesome things about today’s simplicity movements is that they are often just alternate forms of consumption. Magazines like Real Simple are sometimes asking you to strip away your stuff so you can buy new, simpler stuff. There’s a whiff of the haute bourgeoisie ethos here — that simplification is not really spiritual or antimaterialism; just a more refined, organic, locally grown and morally status-building form of materialism.
Today’s simplicity movements are also not as philosophically explicit as older ones. The Puritans were stripping away the material for a closer contact with God. Thoreau was stripping away on behalf of a radical philosophy. It’s easy to see what today’s simplifiers are throwing away; it’s not always clear what they are for. It’s not always explicit what rightly directed life they envision.
Still, there’s clearly some process of discovery here. Early in life you choose your identity by getting things. But later in an affluent life you discover or update your identity by throwing away what is no longer useful, true and beautiful. One simplicity expert advised people to take all their books off their shelves and throw them on the floor. Only put back the books that you truly value.
That’s an exercise in identity discovery, an exercise in realizing and then prioritizing your current tastes and beliefs. People who do that may instinctively be seeking higher forms of pruning: being impeccable with your words, parsimonious but strong with your commitments, disciplined about your time, selective about your friendships, moving generally from fragmentation toward unity of purpose. There’s an enviable emotional tranquillity at the end of that road.
In a world of rampant materialism and manifold opportunities, many people these days are apparently learning who they are by choosing what they can do without.
A version of this op-ed appears in print on November 3, 2015, on page A29 of the New York edition with the headline: The Evolution of Simplicity. Today's Paper|Subscribe
It is of the small joys and little pleasures
that the greatest of our days are built.
- Mary Anne Radmacher
Think big thoughts but relish small pleasures.
- H. Jackson Brown, Jr.
Life is made up of small pleasures.
Happiness is made up of those tiny successes.
The big ones come too infrequently.
And if you don't collect all these tiny successes,
the big ones don't really mean anything.
- Norman Lear
A table, a chair, a bowl of fruit and a violin;
what else does a man need to be happy?
- Albert Einstein
The secret to a joyful life is Simplicity -
saying NO to the latest this and the most glamorous that -
saying NO to chasing an overly-demanding career -
saying NO to the stressful demands upon your time and energy.
- Jonathan Lockwood Huie
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