Since the beginning of the year we have removed car loads of junk and ‘stuff’ either to the tip or to the charity shop. This consisted of (amongst other things):
Magazine supplements going back over 10 years
Clothes that have not been worn for decades
Kitchen stuff like plates, bowls, old mugs, etc. that either have never or will never be used
Old wires, bits of wood, plastic bags, tins of paint
Drawers full of bits and pieces – bent screws, plastic tops, old paintbrushes
Carrier bags (!)
Old vcrs, tape machines, amps and various electrical equipment that were broken
This list could go on and on and on…
For quite a while we were at the local dump every Sunday, joining a never-ending procession of people pulling up in their cars and getting rid of ‘stuff’. Mountains of it. Accumulating in the vast skips labelled ‘wood’, ‘hard plastic’, ‘glass’, ‘magazines’, ‘electrical.’ Each of these skips a testament to our consumption. On these trips we would sit and wait, looking at the ever-increasing heaps as people walked back and forth from their cars with junk and wondering just how we all managed to consume and accumulate so much; imagining this same scenario taking place at dumps all over the country, and then widening this out to think about the sheer amount of stuff that humans produce and discard – often with the most detrimental effects to the planet. It is mind-boggling.
What brought this on? Why were we not doing something more relaxing on a Sunday instead of sitting at the tip and mulling over our contribution to the world’s pollution problems?
The answer to that is this film.: Minimalism.
Minimalism: a documentary about the important things in life – if you haven’t heard of it yet – is an extremely thought-provoking documentary about the stuff that we accumulate in our lives and the profound affect that it has upon us as we place value on things that are ultimately meaningless. In the film, Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus (The Minimalists) tell their story of transitioning from poor and volatile backgrounds to successful corporate careers, setting them both on a treadmill of rabid consumerism as they sought to add value and meaning to their lives by acquiring more and more stuff. It was Joshua who first became intrigued by a minimalist lifestyle after the death of his mother and the realisation that the things that he had once though important were actually insignificant. The order of things was turned upside down. It was the very things that he had previously taken for granted (or may have even neglected) that were important…
I will stop there with the description of the film as it really is a ‘must-watch’. Of course this is an issue that has been tackled by other people in many different ways and of course this is not the first time that we have thought about the impact of our consumerism, but for some reason the message in this film seems to resonate so strongly and really tap into something. I was struck immediately about the relationship of the minimalism philosophy to an ancestral health or traditional lifestyle. The overwhelming message of minimalism is one of simplicity and focus upon those things that add value to our life. Stripping away the superfluous until we are able to see what really matters – possessions, activities, thoughts, actions – allows us to concentrate on things that equip us to live a more meaningful and less stressful life. When we begin to do this, we are able to think more clearly about the purchases we make, how we spend our time, the people that we surround ourselves with and the work that we do.
Over the last century, we have increasingly allowed ourselves to be defined as ‘Consumers’. The pervasive nature of advertising, along with the rise of social media and other technologies means that we are potentially subjected to a 24/7 onslaught, pushing us to consume in larger and larger quantities. Only simplification can potentially reduce this cycle of consumption. Many people are looking for alternatives.
Adopting a process of simplification with food leads to the quest for simplification in areas of health and general lifestyle. Over the years, learning to look at many things through an traditional lens has pared things down; helping to focus judgement and see what is really important. Even down to thinking about the food choices and behaviour of the animals that we eat, what could be simpler than cows eating only pasture or large groups of animals moving from one place to another as they did millennia ago, regenerating the land underfoot? Some problems require complex solutions, but for many problems the solution is elegantly simple, it just might take a bit of work to get us there.
We obviously live in a completely different world to our hunter gatherer ancestors, and to our more recent ancestral/traditional communities.. We have all the benefits and advances in science, technology and medicine that we often take for granted. However, physiologically and psychologically we are not very different from our distant relations. It is no wonder that the 24/7 media and consumer-driven culture that we live in sends many of us spinning. We are still trying to adapt and paying a heavy price in the process. Looking at how our ancestors lived and thinking about what may have been important for them – shelter, food, a shared spirituality, social bonds, being in nature, creativity – pares things down to the essentials and helps us to reflect upon the necessities of these things to own lives.
Minimalism is not about discarding all our possessions. It is about increasing the things that add value to our lives and decreasing the things that don’t. The particular things that do this may be different for each of us. I love books and music so I am hardly about to throw out my book collection but what I have found is that by getting rid of piles of additional magazines and other rubbish I am able to organise and focus on my books more, which brings me more enjoyment. This is applicable not just to material things but to how we spend our time, who we choose to be around, how we work… Freeing up time and energy allows us to contribute more, to interact more with people that are dear to us or that we can help. This is an essential part of the Minimalism message.
The Minimalist movement has taken some criticism – you can hear more about this here. People say that we are in an extremely privileged position to be able to discard possessions that others living in abject poverty may only dream of. This is true, but it doesn’t detract from the validity of the approach. We are consuming and wasting the earth’s resources as never before. The hedonic treadmill that results in more and more purchases – an insatiable drive to accumulate ‘things’ and thus to find ‘happiness’ – keeps us tied to the very behaviour that is harmful to both ourselves and the planet. In the condemnation that Minimalism has received in some parts of the media, there is an element of overlooking the message to criticise the messenger. To dismiss a philosophy that we truly believe is beneficial to us and the wider world around us just because some people have issues with those who espouse it is sad. I listened to an interview with Matthieu Ricard (Buddhist monk and humanitarian) in which he talked about our value systems and the importance we place upon possessions. Whether it comes from relatively wealthy people or Buddhist monks, it’s the message that counts and this message is gathering pace.
“I’m simply asking the critics to consider whether they’re just being defensive, or if they’re arguing from an honest place with rational objections.” blogpost answering critics from Leo Babuata, Zen Habits
I believe that the ancestral health community is naturally in tune with a minimalist philosophy and I was so excited to see that the Minimalism film was being shown at this year’s Paleof(x). The attention to careful and conscious choices regarding lifestyle as well as the issue of personal responsibility leads us to question how the choices we make affect not only our own health and wellbeing but that of the planet. Getting rid of our junk and questioning further purchases is only a tiny part of the Minimalism message and only the beginning of the journey. Widening this out to look at our value systems in general and helping us to really decide what is important is the real (and increasing) power behind both these movements.