“Minimalism is a tool that can assist you in finding freedom. Freedom from fear. Freedom from worry. Freedom from overwhelm. Freedom from guilt. Freedom from depression. Freedom from the trappings of the consumer culture we’ve built our lives around.”
-Joshua Fields Millburn
Minimalism is a buzzing topic among today’s goal achievers and lifestyle designers. Minimalists find important and powerful advantages in different areas of their lives by deciding to do without, rather than with. There is true power in having less and doing less. But for many, the concept still seems somewhat radical. After all, it runs completely counter to what we’ve been led to believe.
Ponder this: people think I’m lying when I tell them that by working out just once a week (every five or six days), I’m stronger and fitter than I ever was working out five or six times a week. The notion of getting results by doing less runs completely counter to their entire belief system.
Since the topic of minimalism runs counter to conventional wisdom, I feel as though its very misunderstood. So in this article, I’m going to try and provide a fresh take and also offer a glimpse into extreme minimalism. Just to explore the possibilities.
For the uninitiated (aka the population at large), minimalism is as befuddling as someone who lies down on the ground in a public place as an exercise in stepping outside of their comfort zone. They don’t feel the need to question or deviate from the “system” that operates their lives. Like anything unusual, once the actions of minimalists become noticed the voices of a thousand critics emerge. They talk about how they’re running away from life. But on the contrary, it’s not about running away from life – it’s about running to life.
Still, people refuse to understand it. How could anyone actually *want* to make do with less? How could that make them happier? We’ve been trained to believe that “more” leads to happiness. That any problem can be fixed by “MORE.” People always want MORE. It doesn’t matter what. More food. More money. More travel.
It never ends. They want a newer phone each year with MORE pixels pushed inside. After all, decades of advertising have told us that “more” and “bigger” are synonymous with “better.” Who aspires to smaller, less?
“For some people I’m a provocation. But for others, I’m an answer.”
A Different Point of View
I’ll tell you who. Some individuals have “awakened” to the realization that having more doesn’t equal happiness, and that it quite often creates the opposite effect. It’s a simple cause and effect relationship – we respond to impulses of emotional “triggers” by pulling out our wallets and consuming. For example, when many of us become depressed, we eat. When we feel stuck, we start daydreaming about a vacation. When we have something serious to consider or accomplish, we become prone to distract ourselves through entertainment.
What this all leads to is a cyclical loop of constant craving. Any slight “high” that’s derived from gaining something more is transient, and before long we have to go seeking… more… all over again. When this becomes a regular pattern, it begins what Charles Duhigg, author of the The Power of Habit, calls a “habit loop.” Each habit has three parts: a “cue,” which triggers a “routine,” for some promised “reward.”
And the problem is even more pervasive than we think. In today’s world we’re regularly subjected to glimpses of other people’s lives on social media websites like Instagram, which features non-stop pageantry of shameless self-aggrandizing. Other people constantly show themselves off in fancy new clothes, surrounded by attractive people; or perhaps partying on a yacht, in teeny weeny bikinis. Everyone is busy trying to portray some idealized tableau sequence of how wonderful their life is. And the message that becomes deeply embedded into our psyche is that endlessly pursuing one pleasure – one more thrill – after the other is the path to happiness.
This is simply the way things are.
“Money distracts us from what’s important. What’s important is togetherness and selflessness, and acting from the heart without considering what one gets in return.”
– Heidemarie Schwermer
Individuals who have awakened to this stark reality are not asking themselves: “what makes me happy?” The questions these people are asking themselves is, “what am I doing with my life? What meaning – what purpose does my life serve?” And they devote themselves to finding the answer – which differs for each individual. That’s what these individuals understand that most people – morbidly spinning the wheels from day to day – don’t. If we can eliminate the unnecessary that keeps us locked to this never-ending cycle, the options for what we can do or be or have in our lives multiply exponentially.
The Power That Minimalism Gives
Minimalism extends beyond the realm of happiness and existentialistic idealism and has practical purposes, too. Consider this: every single thing, object, thought, or idea that exists in the physical or immaterial world takes up its respective space. Our thoughts have a power to shape the physical world, and vice versa. Physical things have a power to influence our thoughts – and they do, in all sorts of ways that we can’t even grasp.
One way to illustrate this is to think of your brain as a computer. As powerful as our brains are, we only have a limited amount of attention – or RAM – that we can use each day. The more things we have to do and own and manage, the more RAM it occupies in our brain. By using up our brain’s output, we don’t leave much room for anything else. We want to eliminate or reduce as much as possible the things that aren’t moving us forward in the direction that we want.
In fact, thanks to the rising “Sharing Economy” it’s possible to have it all – and do it all – without actually owning anything. Want to drive a Tesla S? You needn’t resign yourself to servitude within a cubicle to afford it. With a few taps of your phone you can drive one, right now, for $25 an hour using Getaround. Or you could drive a Mercedes C Class for $10 an hour. In fact, it’s possible to drive a car FOR FREE if you use a website like BarterQuest.
“But Danny,” the naysayers will say, “There’s a certain pride in owning something like a Tesla, a feeling of accomplishment of knowing that you worked hard for something and got it.” And, I completely get that. But here’s the big secret that few people know about: once you spend years of your life to attain the object of your desire, what do you think happens next? Are you suddenly a winner? Does your life now have meaning? Is owning a home, or a fancy car, REALLY your main reason for existing on this earth?
If you feel the answer is no, then I encourage you to look deep inside yourself to examine your fundamental outlook. And perhaps even perform a minimalist experiment. It’s one that I’ve performed several times throughout my life. Sell your things, give them away, or put them in storage. Purchase a one-way plane ticket to the opposite hemisphere – it doesn’t matter which – for at least three months. Bring nothing but a few changes of clothes and a debit card. If anything else is needed you can borrow or buy it later. You should have nothing but one carry-on bag, ideally a backpack.
And then experience for yourself the new world that opens up to you. Leave your smart phone at home so it won’t distract you. Go outside for a stroll. Re-discover the ancient lost art of talking to other human beings. Try something new. Get lost, on purpose. I guarantee you that your world will expand in ways you never could have anticipated. You’ll experience that special, rare, one-of-a-kind sensation that so many of us crave but never realize: a kind of freedom that’s pure, unadulterated, and blissful.
Sixteen Years of Money-Less Living
Hoping to increase my own command over the minimalist philosophy, I came across one story that stuck out. I learned about an individual who embodies this doctrine better than anyone on planet earth. Her name is Heidemarie Schwermer.
A former psychotherapist, teacher, and mother of two children, she decided one day to radically reinvent her life. Sixteen years ago she began to try a little experiment. She sold her apartment, gave away all of her belongings and committed to living the rest of her life without money.
She reports dancing with joy, once everything was gone and her apartment empty, feeling happy and free. She’s been traveling around from place to place ever since, leading a money-less lifestyle.
What does such a lifestyle really look like? What insights has she discovered through her sixteen years of experience living such a unique and unorthodox existence? I wanted to find out. Thanks to the documentary of her life called “Living Without Money,” I was given a glimpse into her day to day life and philosophy.
She explains that her choice means far more to her than simply making do without money. In her words, it’s about: “What do I want to do with my life? What is my purpose in this world? The way things are today, it just doesn’t work. Most people are already aware of this.” Through her example, she seeks to present ideas to make life simple, happier, more enjoyable, more meaningful. She lives without money and relies on the assistance of strangers, and also gives assistance in return. In this way she encourages people to imagine a society where people genuinely help one another. She explains that she wants to live without competition, and towards togetherness. She thinks of herself as something of a “peace pilgrim,” always thinking about ways to make life better in the world.
She wishes to break the cycle of endless craving, of greediness and possessiveness, and the notion that possessions increase one’s prestige. By subtracting money, she shows others that this is indeed possible. She explains that luxury to her means having the things she needs, and nothing more. If her needs are met, she’s content. Through her lifestyle, she has also developed a strong confidence and faith in herself and in others. She knows that everything she needs will always be available.
Heidemarie’s example inspires people. Her courage and example helps to ease their own fears. Many people write to her saying: “Your living without money inspires us, because we fear living in the gutter.” Her example gives them hope that they can make it and survive, regardless of the situation.
Heidemarie has her fair share of both admirers and critics. “For some people I’m a provocation. But for others, I’m an answer,” she says. At any rate, she’s anything but lazy. At the tender age of 70, she travels from place to place offering counseling, and providing lectures, but never staying for longer than one week.
Through her counseling and lectures, Heidemarie often influences others to re-examine their pre-conceived notions and step outside of their comfort zone. She frequently encourages the people she meets to perform experiments by staying with strangers, or to survive by barter. When people perform these experiments, they report that it results in an increase in awareness. They come to know the warmth of their fellow man. And they learn to how to break out of their established patterns, to try something new and daring.
She doesn’t try to push her own way of living onto others, but she just wants people to start asking questions. To change direction a little bit. To become a little more independent – a little more free – from the need of money. The pursuit of money, she feels, leads to never-ending concerns about security, existential angst, and opens the door for fear to run our lives.
What makes Heidemarie’s example significant? Because through her courage and unwavering mission she’s shaking up a powerful paradigm that keeps many of us unhappy, in poverty, enslaved to a system that destroys the souls of men. We don’t need to become a possessions-less scribe ourselves to understand the valuable lesson. Heidemarie’s purpose is to show us all that it’s possible to break free. To focus on what’s important. To learn how to, once again, listen to our heart that we’ve neglected for so long.
There’s something else that I really admire about Heidemarie. She’s entirely genuine. She carries herself with class and dignity. Despite her critics, despite the fact that she often relies on the help of strangers, she never loses face or her self-respect. Her brand of strength is what humanity – what each and every one of us – needs.
Life is full of ups and downs – one moment you’re flying above the clouds, and then shot down the next. Then we pick ourselves up and try again. But despite whatever situation we find ourselves in, we can still remember to carry ourselves with dignity during moments of defeat and with graciousness during victory. And maybe – just maybe – if we help one another, we can all get through this together. One courageous 70-year old woman shows us all that its possible.