One of the stories Daniel likes to recount is about how, when he and I first got together, I didn’t have a bed.

This is true.  It was the result of years of interest in asceticism and minimalism, which on the surface sounds virtuous and innocuous, but can take the form of rejection of life.

In those days, when I didn’t have a bed, there were many other reflections of this rejection of the material, of the basic fact of being a human body, of not wanting to fully commit to living fully. I am still constantly having to recalibrate this approach to the material.

(The odd pun, of course, is that I work with the material-  material- every day.  I built my life around it.)

I try to find the balance: a happy level of consumption of material things, of food, of social activities.  Knowing that my personal tendency is always towards restriction and under-indulgence, it’s interesting to see where my comfort levels are stretched.

Many new-agey type writers will talk about flow, about the subjectiveness of reality, and about creating your own reality.  Shifting your current energetic reality to align better with the one you want to have.

It works for me, quite well in fact, but it’s tricky to know how to do it.  It’s tricky to know what reality you want to have, that will actually make you happy.

For instance:  I believed, for a long time, that minimalism and asceticism would make me happy. Why wouldn’t one believe that?  It’s the simplistic reading of buddhism. Actually, most spiritual movements have some virtue placed on minimalism.  So, if it worked for Buddha and Jesus, why wouldn’t it work for you?  Moreover, if a little minimalism is good, a lot must be better.  right?

buddha roses

It didn’t work for me.  My most “minimal” points- in my early 20s- left me feeling very distant from other people.  The rest of the decade was a working through of the same issue, with different approaches.

On to creating the reality.  I am newly, very happily, married to Daniel.  Strangely enough, we’ve known each other for 13 years, been business partners since 2009, but only started a relationship two years ago.  To me, our relationship is a perfect example of not being able to see what is directly in front of you-  literally- until your internal reality matches it.  It’s not like we had some secret crushes or star-crossed lover syndrome-  neither could even see the other as a partner until we were ready.

So what was ready?  

Things that work for me:

1. Imagine the thought processes of the person you want to be. But you’ve got to choose the right ideals to build your imagined thoughts around. When I was a teenager, the person I wanted to be was “skinny.”  That didn’t actually make me happy!  Now I try to choose goals that include happiness.

2. Incorporating symbols of what you want in your life.  For instance, want sensuality?  Wear nice lingerie and eat croissants.  Want to feel good about money?  buy some small luxury-  pretty stationary, nice pens, amazing cashmere socks.  Physical symbols are good.  They seem real.

3.   Acting how you want to feel.  If I wake up feeling slovenly and unattractive, putting effort into my appearance always makes me feel better.

***

Within two weeks of us starting to date, Daniel insisted that I get a bed.  Because he didn’t want to sleep on the floor, because we’re people, and it’s more comfortable.   I was irritated by this request at first (“what, you want to change me already?”)  but went ahead and got one.  It’s a decision I’ve never regretted and I’m thankful everytime I lie down :)

***

(maybe next time I’ll actually write about abundance, instead of just “not minimalism”!)

Posted by:brook delorme

4 replies on “On not living minimally

  1. Hi Brook,
    I adore the idea of incorporating symbols of what we want into our lives. Sometimes, it takes some time to become comfortable with the idea of abundance, and starting small is a great way to work through inner conflicts about money, etc. And of course, the things you are talking about, chocolate and croissants and fine milled soaps, aren’t mere symbols – they are very real luxuries, and I’d argue, function more like sacraments than symbols in so far as they are bearers if the realities they symbolize. Unlike, say, cut outs from the pages of Vogue (which too have their place, if one is getting started, I’m all about those visual aids).
    I do have to play armchair theologian again, and correct you on one tiny matter, and that would be the idea of an ascetic, or minimalist, mandate within Christianity. There were, in fact, many ascetic movements in the early church – one could argue that the early Christian movement was an ascetic one, with the virgin symbolizing the high value of the religion. However, it is interesting to observe how the Church went about absorbing various ascetic practices – chiefly within its monastic strains – without ever supporting them doctrinally. Most of the more ascetic texts, those that devalaued earthly, physical, material existence in favor of more gnostic or esoteric pursuits, never made it into the canon. And the doctrinal bent of the church comes through in its insistence on the humanity of the person of Jesus Chris. The Church makes room for its mystics, but is pretty clear that direct revelation is not something to be sought after. Most of us experience God not directly, but through sacrament, e.g., through the material (created) world. Christian life is, at its heart, sacramental. Experiences of God are mostly mediated, they occur “in, with, or under” some earthly, human, experience (e.g. of love).
    I’m probably not explainging this very well, out of school way too long, but my point is that there is absolutely no distinction between the material and the spiritual in Christianity – there can’t be, as the spiritual is mediated via the material (that’s the whole theology of sacrament). There has been a kind of glorification of suffering in Christianity, leading some to seek out it, but we are redeemed by love, not suffering. There is no virtue in suffering for its own sake, in minimalism for its own sake (though in my case, I have a kind of minimalist aesthetic, it’s not about doing without, it’s about freedom).
    What Christianity is about is freedom. Freedom is the sine qua non of what it means to be human in the Christian perspective. And for many people, possessions are a hindrance to spiritual growth, so there has to be this willingness to renounce them. Asceticism can be a hindrance too, in particular, when it mutes our experience of life in its fullness. For most of us, doing without does not lead to virtue, rather to pride. (I know how smug I used to feel – and still sometimes do feel – when I’m the only one not eating at a party, on the airplane, etc.) This is why in monasteries, (with notable exceptions in medieval times) severe ascetism in novices (fasting on non-fast days, etc.), is generally rebuked by wise spiritual directors.
    I know very little about Buddhism but I’m quite sure it is not an ascetic tradition either (even if it too has its ascetic proponents). The Buddha did live as an ascetic for many years after leaving his parent’s home, but as I understand it, but later came to embrace the so-called “middle path.”

  2. Hey Elizabeth- thanks- these are really interesting points! I didn’t understand the meaning of the word sacrament before- that the spiritual is mediated by the material. Fascinating. I’ve vaguely known about the various sacraments- baptism, marriage, etc- but didn’t know the meaning.
    I’ve been doing a little comparative religions home-study now (in a pretty casual way) – if there are any books you’d particularly recommend, I’d be interested :)
    Funny thing about the Buddha- yes, you are right about the middle path. When I was a teenager, I started reading Hesse’s small book Siddartha- which tracks the life of the buddha in a fictionalized form. I got to the part about ascetism and stopped reading, as I found ascetic philosophy so compelling! It wasn’t until ten years later that I actually finished the book.
    as always, great to hear your thoughts and thanks :)

  3. I’ll have to think about that. I’m so NOT a text book person, so it’s hard for me to recommend an overview. But you should certainly read William James (yes, the brother of Henry) Varieties of Religious Experience if you haven’t already. It is a fabulous book and reads like a novel despite having been written by a philosopher. And it feels very contemporary despite having been written in 1902. It will give you all sorts of mental categories for thinking about religious experience as you (if you) decide to take things further. And it’s a great read, so you absolutely won’t feel as if you’re wasting your time.

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