There are a great many articles, ebooks and blogs about how exactly to be more minimalist – how to step by step, get rid of stuff.
But, I thought it would be interesting to break it down and explore the background of minimalism and what, if anything, it has to do with Zen philosophy.
So, where does minimalism come from?
While it’s challenging to pinpoint the exact origin, one can’t ignore the influence of Buddhism on this lifestyle.
Buddhism, particularly its Zen branch, emphasizes the virtues of simplicity, detachment, and living in the moment—values that are at the heart of minimalism.
Now, I don’t declare to be a Buddhist expert, but I do believe in a great deal of Buddhist principles, such as the importance of:
- Letting go of attachment
- Reducing suffering and increasing happiness
- Mindfulness and focus
- Kindness and compassion
A traditional Buddhist, such as a monk, lives an extremely minimalist lifestyle because their belief in these principles flow into their everyday life.
According to Buddhist beliefs, everything is impermanent – everything is always changing.
To (over)simplify it, Buddhists believe that attachment – the clinging onto objects – is what causes suffering because nothing will last forever.
Think about your favourite mug.
It is special to you because you have made an emotional attachment to it. But what happens if you break or lose the mug?
The natural response is to be upset or angry, thereby causing suffering for yourself because of your attachment to it.
So, taking each of the above principles, I like to think minimalism can be connected to:
- Letting go of attachment – our possessions don’t define who we are; we’re bound to lose, donate, sell, or throw them away someday, anyway.
- Our happiness – our suffering should not be defined by the things we do not possess, as true happiness is not derived from material possessions.
- Mindfulness – being conscious of consumerism and materialism’s consequences, we should avoid the impulse to acquire more and more. Mindful choices, like what we purchase, can help us prioritize what’s truly essential to our lives.
- Kindness and compassion – by spending less time acquiring and maintaining material possessions or working to accumulate wealth, we can instead choose to invest our time in developing meaningful relationships with others or contributing to those in need.
I don’t claim to be wise or experienced. I’m learning something new every single day. I’m just gathering from my own experiences and what I’ve learnt and am learning from others. In this case, I genuinely believe in the Buddhist way of thinking. So, for me, whenever I speak of minimalism, a little bit of Buddhism is always on the back of my mind.
However, you don’t have to be Buddhist if you want to live a minimalist lifestyle. This is just one way of thinking about it.
Another way to think about it is practically – reasons that one can apply to make their lives better today, so that they can:
- get out of debt (or not get into it)
- travel lightly
- move house easily
- have more free time
- have fewer but more valuable things
- have more space
- be more productive
- be greener
- save up
- spend less time cleaning
- lose weight
- accomplish more
All of these things are perfectly valid reasons for minimalism too, and I personally value many of these.
For some, it doesn’t matter so much where minimalism comes from, but what we can achieve out of it. You could say that the above reasons are not only the reasons for minimalism, but they are also the achievements themselves.
Or, as I have done, you can take a mixed approach that incorporates all of these reasons to become more minimalist and use them for motivation when you’re tempted to buy or keep something you don’t necessarily need.
Bringing it back to (Zen) Buddhism, I don’t have any hard statistics but from my experience, people who are interested in minimalism are so because they have taken on a selfless and more compassionate attitude when it comes to material things.
To make a (potentially inaccurate) sweeping judgement, I think minimalists tend to be more aware, that their resources are better spent on other activities rather than the pursuit of material gain.
And, in a spiritual sense, of the need for a higher, more genuine and longer lasting happiness.
What’s more, a lot of people think minimalism is synonymous with depravity.
These people are confusing minimalism with frugality.
Not all minimalists are frugal, and some invest quite a bit of money on higher quality and longer lasting possessions, which can be simple, but very beautiful. Each item is chosen with intention and care, just like how an artist chooses colours and carefully mixes them together, so that they all work in harmony with each other.
On a superficial level, there is little doubt that minimalism has a lot to do with aesthetics.
Getting rid of stuff, means that there is less clutter and more space, which in my view, is more aesthetically pleasing. For me, there’s nothing more beautiful than empty space, clear surfaces and simple design.
And just like most pieces of art, minimalism is all about what is essential. The really exquisite pieces aren’t tainted with superfluous flourishes or ostentatious garnishes. Each line, carve or brush stoke is done intentionally because each one has a direction, meaning and purpose.
When you eliminate the excess, you’re left with what has more than ordinary significance.
Having only a few things that you know you can’t live without means that you are bound to cherish them more than if you had a house full of clutter.
Minimalists may look like they don’t care for clothes, gadgets or books because they own so few, but we do care.
Everything we own matters to us in some way, otherwise we wouldn’t still have it.
An elegant painting begins with a blank canvas. Each brush stroke is precious, building up, around and intertwining with each other to create an exquisite masterpiece.
It could take a short time, or it could take a lifetime. But your home, or your life, is like a large rock or a white canvas waiting for you to express your own unique brand of art on it.