Finding a minimalism practice

Some call it ruthless editing. Some call it intentionality. You might know it as minimalism.

I’m not sure when or where this movement originated. I know that I first started practicing some of its tenets when I read Marie Kondo’s book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. I’ve always been a neat person. I like to live in a clean space. But until I read her book, I didn’t see that my problem was that I had too much stuff. I thought if I could just find enough space to store my stuff and keep it organized, I was on the right track.

But tidying, according to the KonMari method, means keeping only the things that serve a purpose in your everyday life or things that “spark joy.” It took me a long time to understand what “spark joy” meant. Joy seemed so abstract. But, like so many things in life, clarity came from engagement, not thought. The more I held my belongings in my hand, the more I understood whether or not they sparked joy. I became ruthless in what I threw away, recycled, or donated.

I’ve talked to many people who experienced this same trajectory as they diligently followed KonMari. At first, hesitation. Reluctance. Then, a shift. Ruthlessness. No mercy. A feeling of celebration, triumph, and then, utter peace. It’s sort of funny talking to fellow KonMari believers.

I find it fascinating that clearing out the unnecessary physical clutter of our spaces actually fosters a parallel process in our consciousness. Suddenly, you find time for pet projects, being outside or with loved ones, or just dreaming about and planning the life you always wanted for yourself. In forcing yourself to edit your belongings according to function and joy, you also begin to do the same for your thoughts.

If you’re new to the practice or philosophy, here are some popular minimalist blogs to get started:

  • The Minimalists (Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus). These guys run a blog, publish books, made a documentary, tour the country speaking about minimalism, have a TED talk, and get interviewed on just about every wellness podcast I listen to.
  • Be More With Less (Courney Carver). Courtney’s story started with her MS diagnosis. Her blog is about simplifying every aspect of your life to find more space for joy and rest, and she is also the creator of Project 333, which invites you to dress with 33 items for 3 months.
  • Exile Lifestyle (Colin Wright). Colin lives out of a backpack and travels around the world.
  • Zen Habits (Leo Babuta). Leo is all about simplicity and mindfulness (with 6 kids!)
  • Becoming Minimalist (Joshua Becker).
  • Un-Fancy (Caroline Rector). Caroline’s capsule wardrobes inspire me, especially given that before starting this blog, she considered herself a fashion disaster. She wanted to curate a wardrobe out of clothes she could wear to the grocery store, not runway-ready apparel like so many fashion blogs.
  • Minimalist Baker (Dana Schulz). Dana’s recipes require 10 ingredients or less, one bowl, or 30 minutes or less to prepare.

The reason I wanted to write a post about minimalist living was because I came across this post on The Financial Diet. While I agree with Chelsea’s points about replacing IKEA furniture and H&M fast fashion with better quality, longer lasting pieces as a practice only the wealthy can afford, I also think she kind of minimizes what minimalism can be and has been for so many people.

This TED Talk by Adam Baker, called “Sell Your Crap. Pay Your Debt. Do What You Love,” demonstrates one way I think minimalism doesn’t have to be a performance of how you can afford to replace all your crappy stuff with super nice stuff, paint all your walls white, and put your Le Creuset bakeware on open shelves in your kitchen. Adam gets at the heart of how minimalist thinking has helped me: I started to really consider what I wanted to make room for in my life. Did my belongings, my spending, and my schedule reflect my true priorities and values? (Spoiler alert: no. They didn’t.)

To me, minimalism is about creating space. The more we can create breathing room, the more we can step away from the barrage and frenzy of everyday life, the more we can question why we want to buy something or do something, the happier we will be. I make so little money that I don’t have much choice about where my money goes, and that has taught me many valuable (and painful) lessons about what matters to me and how I want to spend my time.

I’d like to share a few areas of my life where I try to practice minimalism. It’s not always perfect, but it has allowed me to detach and realize that “stuff” doesn’t bring me joy. It’s also allowed me to start throwing more money at my massive, unholy student debt, which has become more of a priority to me than keeping up with trends in fashion, decorating, and new restaurants.

Home: I do serious de-cluttering about twice a year. I don’t put it on my calendar, but roughly two times a year, a feeling of overwhelm and suffocation comes over me and I know it’s time to de-clutter the build-up. It is happening right now, so my plan for the next week is to tackle the spaces in my home where too much stuff has gathered and become disorganized. (What is going on in my spice cabinet, I do not know.) I’m going to go through my clothing in my closet and dresser, my grooming products in various drawers, the stacks of library books and school books around my room, the coat closet, the pantry, the linen closet, and some of the kitchen cabinets.

More dramatically, a few years ago right before I moved here from DC, I took two car-loads of stuff to Goodwill. (Nothing like paying a moving company per box to inspire downsizing!) I had too many knickknacks, lamps, vases, kitchen utensils, and other things that weren’t serving me anymore. Part of the KonMari method is treating your belongings well. It might sound strange, but when you fold a shirt and put it away, you take a moment to feel gratitude for the shirt. Sometimes, sentimentality disables us from giving our belongings away, but if you can mentally thank the item for the time when it did serve you, recognize that it “wants” to serve someone else now who needs it more than you do, and send it away on its journey, the whole process of culling your things feels much less fraught.

Spending: I got really serious about my budget about 4 months ago. I’m planning on writing a post about budgeting in the near future, but for now, it might be helpful to know that I manually record my spending every morning, and I have categories of spending and caps for each category. If I go over-budget in one category, another category’s cap must be lowered that month. I pay myself first every month (some money from a part-time job goes into savings), then I pay essentials, and whatever is left is what I have for non-essentials, like going out. The leftover money is usually pretty minimal, but I feel joy paying down my debt and building up my savings.

I quit emotional spending cold turkey 4 months ago. I was able to do that because of mindfulness, which I’ll discuss below. The bottom line is that now, when I feel down or I start comparing myself to others, I don’t go straight to online shopping or out to eat. And that feels good.

Schedule: I stopped comparing myself to others and I stopped chasing accomplishments and activities that would feed my ego but not my soul. Graduate students are encouraged to publish several articles to be viable on the job market, but because I don’t plan on pursuing an academic job, I took publishing off the table as something I “need” to do. Sometimes, when I hear friends talking about submitting to journals, I feel a wistful sense of lack, like I may have made the wrong decision. But as soon as I return to my intuition and my values, I remember publishing is not my path. I feel it deep in my bones. Additionally, sometimes I feel guilty that I don’t go to more events on campus, like lectures and seminars, but I am hyper-aware of the amount of downtime I need to function and even thrive, so I try to detach from the guilt and remember that I am first and foremost a mammal who needs rest and nourishment.

Health: I stopped trying to do all the things. I wanted to swim because I was on swim teams my whole life, and it’s good cardio without being too hard on my joints. But I don’t like driving to the pool and I don’t like what the chlorine does to my hair. So I get my cardio in other ways. On that note, sometimes it feels like everyone I know is running marathons or training for an Iron Man. Some days I feel like I should try to train for a marathon because that seems to be what runners do. But no. It would destroy my already somewhat imperiled left knee. I get what I need from my 3-mile jogs every week, and I learn to sit with that contentment. I have also mostly cut junk food from my diet. While sometimes I totally give in to my intense craving for Cheez-its or double-chocolate gelato, more often than not, I eat carrots or almonds as a snack.

Mind: This may be the most important part of my minimalism practice. It will be a lifelong practice, but that excites me. I’ve been devouring Pema Chödrön’s work, and she is helping me so much with mindfulness. She says in her book, Comfortable with Uncertainty, that “we don’t sit in meditation to become good meditators. We sit in meditation so that we’ll be more awake in our lives.” It’s not about eliminating emotion but watching our emotions more objectively, untangling our stories, and questioning our assumptions and interpretations so we become more open and fluid. I realized that I was really good at this when I was young (perhaps in the years just before middle school). I used to lay on my bed and stare at the ceiling daydreaming. No guilt. No anxiety. Just drifting. And I was so in tune with my deepest values, even if I didn’t know that’s what they were at the time. As I grew up, I let the world blur my vision and muddy my thoughts.

Comfortable with Uncertainty  has helped me learn why I put on a bunch of armor in the first place and how to take it off. She’s helped me see how I attack and shame myself, wallowing in guilt; how I sometimes justify and applaud certain habits I have that don’t actually serve me; and ways that I dissociate, space out, or go numb when I want to resist feeling.

In the area of my mind, minimalism is about letting go of these things and really exploring my dark and difficult emotions instead of shaming myself for them, letting them take off and feed into false narratives, or avoiding them altogether by distracting myself. Pema suggests trying to be willing to feel lonely without resolution, even when everything in us yearns for something to change our mood. She suggests letting go of the belief that escaping a bad feeling is going to bring us happiness, courage, or strength. (In my experience, it never does. It only adds compound interest to that bad feeling, so that when it crops up later, it’s much, much worse.)

She suggests that we cease looking for things to entertain us or save us from our dark feelings, and, instead, we start coming back to the present moment at every opportunity to sit with compassionate attention to ourselves. She suggests “not wandering in the world of desire”; instead, relate directly with “how things are” without trying to make them okay. And finally, she suggests not seeking security from our discursive thoughts; in other words, let go of the companionship of constant conversation with ourselves.

As someone who does not relish feelings of loneliness, disappointment, frustration, anger, despair, or fear, the process of leaning into the feelings and really feeling them–not judging them or running from them, not even wallowing in them, but seeing them for what they are and what they may be teaching me about myself and my attachments–is allowing me to experience a mind less cluttered with psychic “stuff.”

I’m not sure that I’ve arrived at a place where I can fully articulate what this means, but I know that something is changing in me and it feels super good.

(Sidenote: everyone should keep a Pema Chödrön book on her nightstand and read a few pages before bed. Not exaggerating here. Her teachings speak to my soul.)

So, as you can see, my minimalism isn’t perfect. But it is currently working for me. Is it likely I will adjust and realign often? Yes! Every day.

Some people can sell all their belongings, except for what fits in a backpack, and become a world traveler. Others may pare down their wardrobes and discover the joy of a capsule wardrobe. Still others may find that simply being more mindful about what TV shows they watch or what food they eat does the trick. Some, like my mom, KonMari their entire house. My next project might be to deactivate one of my social media accounts and spend more time outside with my dog.

The thing I like about practicing minimalism is that there’s no end point, no arrival. It’s a constant practice, a state of curiosity about habits and desires. The more we learn to interrogate what we believe and what we do, the more space we create in our homes and minds for what really matters to us.


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