‘Reject the basic assumption of modern civilizations, especially the importance of material possessions’ – Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club (1996)
I like to draw parallels between contemporary culture and ancient yoga teachings. When I see something happening in the big wide world or trending in social media, my brain cogs turn and I have a moment of realisation where my experiences link things together. To me, this reconfirms the truth in the teachings.
Starting on the minimalist path nearing the end of 2016 with plans to see the world, Rochelle and I went through a de-cluttering with the aim of stripping back and getting rid of everything we owned (that wouldn’t add value to our travels) so that it would all fit into our backpacks. We started with what a typical western couple might have, a lot of Ikea furniture, kitchen stuff, lots of clothes, books, hundreds of CD’s & DVD’s etc. We had a series of weekends where we would post stuff online for sale or for free. Then after a couple of months thinking we had gotten pretty far, the day came to pack up. My stuff alone just about fitted into an estate car with the seats down! But I thought hey, it used to be a couple of large van loads! So I was fairly happy with that. The rest of the stuff was going to stay at our parents houses whilst we were away. I suppose you could call this rush to minimalism easy, as we had a need to get rid of things, de-clutter and only keep the things we needed for our travels. It’s when you don’t have a reason or need, it becomes harder, say for example if you have three kids! So where do you start?
A good place to start, is to understand what minimalism actually is. Typically you might think of a minimalist as someone who lives with a lot less stuff than your average person. Someone who might meditate a lot and who lives in a tree house. But really to me it is more of a mind-set. The Minimalists – Joshua Fields Millburn & Ryan Nicodemus put this idea of what minimalism is beautifully in this quote: ‘Minimalism is a tool to rid yourself of life’s excess in favor of focusing on what’s important—so you can find happiness, fulfillment, and freedom.‘ You may have seen their 2017 trending documentary on Netflix called: ‘Minimalism’. I love a good documentary, so I thought I’d have a watch. I found it inspiring and thought it was great that they were promoting an anti-consumerist and “living with less is more” message. But I left with the feeling that I had heard this all before. And yes, indeed minimalism is nothing new. Look back thousands of years and you’ll see a world more focused on spirituality and survival than material possessions. In Yoga, Aparigraha (the concept of non-attachment, non-possessiveness and non-greed) has been around since (if not before) the Yoga Sutra’s were written – between 1,700 – 2,000 years ago. In more recent history; the 1960’s saw the rise of Minimalist art, with artists such as Robert Morris and Carl Andre. Their work would inspire modern Minimalist music, with artists such as Brian Eno. Despite these teachings and movements pushing against the acquisition of things, in today’s world you see a very different picture: a world obsessed with material possessions, driven by mass marketing and advertising. It seems now more than ever minimalism is something we all should learn to cultivate. So that instead of having lives based around consuming and decadence, we can focus on the important things, the things that make us happier.
So how does this link to yoga? As touched upon briefly above, in yoga there is the concept of Aparigraha (non-attachment, non-possessiveness and non-greed). And what is yoga? Patanjali the author of the Yoga Sutras wrote in response to that question: ‘The restraint of the modifications of the mind-stuff is Yoga’. (‘Yogas’ citta vrtti nirodhah’). Simplified – To stop the mind chat. Or yoga stills the mind. Meaning Yoga is a physical tool you can use to calm the mind. In a nutshell: By practising yoga – the postures (Asana), the breath control (Pranayama) begin to bring into your life a physical system that gives stillness to the mind. With enough practise you begin to notice how your thoughts come and go. With more practise still, you become much more aware of how your thoughts are connected to your actions and behaviour, eventually you may come to the realisation that the thoughts are separate from yourself, you become an observer of the mind, rather than being controlled by it. Yoga is a methodology of liberation for your mind. This separateness is called Pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses). This withdrawal eventually gives rise to the belief that – if my thoughts aren’t real, just products of my mind, and I act on those thoughts in the physical world, if this is so, is this physical world just an illusion? This idea that the physical world is an illusion in yoga philosophy is known as Maya. With this realisation, yoga can be used to as tool to live more consciously, slowing down your thoughts and allowing space for you to make more rational and less impulsive decisions. In my experience this has helped with myriad of things – what I buy, what I eat, how I act, what I say etc. But the draw is, once I stop practising even for a few days, the monkey mind starts up again, making me more susceptible to buying that nice pair of trainers, snazzy socks or a cafetière and wanting more, more, more! Taking me back to a mind full of swarming thoughts and mindless consumption. For me this quote sums up my feelings about this current paradigm, it sums up the struggles I have with the status-quo and it gives me a good perspective on the material things we feel attached too:
“…Houses and cars, titles and clothes, even your body because the fact is everything I clutch and consume and hold is going to go back in the box and I’m going to lose it all. You have to ask yourself when you get that ultimate promotion, make the ultimate purchase, when you buy the ultimate home, when you have stored up financial security , when you have climbed the ladder to the highest point of success and the thrill wears off , and it will wear off then what? How long do you have to walk down that road before you see where it leads, surely you understand it will never be enough, so ask yourself the question what matters?”– Dr. James Dobson in the movie ‘Zeitgeist Moving Forward’ (2011)
In cultivating minimalism when buying things, we should be asking ourselves – do we really need this? Is this giving value to my life? Because the truth is, one day you will die and the clutter and the unconsciously consumed crap you have bought will become meaningless and probably end up in a landfill. I would much rather my life to be about the things that truly matter, rather than how much stuff I own.
To sum it up, in practising yoga, you can create a calmer mind and thus, if you desire a more minimalist lifestyle, having a calmer mind can have a myriad of benefits. One of the biggest benefits in this context for me, is it allows me to have the mental head space, whilst at the same time creating a mind that is less impulsive, which allows me to think about what really is important. For example buying a new Laptop or saving that money on going to see friends and family. It also allows me (sometimes) to live in the moment, taking advantage of what is happening right now. If you want to live a more simplified, stress free, clutter free and happier life, without filling the void with material possessions – allow yourself the time to practise yoga, to calm the mind, and in doing so you’ll notice which thoughts to pay attention to and which thoughts to let go of. With practise the rest will come.
With love & light,