Are Minimalists Modern Ascetics?

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What Minimalists Can Learn from the Ascetics

If you got sucked into watching the Minimalism movie like I did, you might be thinking about casting off your worldly possessions in an attempt to live a life of renewed meaning.

You wouldn’t be alone in this. In fact, minimalism has been practiced within world religions for centuries, just under a different name.

But first…

What is Minimalism?

Minimalism is the practice of thoughtfully and intentionally reducing our attachment to things, which includes both reducing our current material possessions and committing to consume less overall, in an effort to reorient ourselves to more meaningful actions, thoughts, and relationships. We clear the clutter to make room for what matters.

Minimalism has been a buzzword in lifestyle blogging circles for a few years now, but it’s finally reached the mainstream. Everybody and their neighbor is clutching their household items to their chest, Marie Kondo-style, and determining whether they feel a sacred and mysterious attachment before throwing old scissors, socks, sweaters, scrapbooks and more into the “Donate” pile.

Undoubtedly, a yearning to pare down and focus on the the things that matter – namely relationships, self improvement, and community causes – is a good thing. As founder of Factory45 (a sustainable fashion incubator) Shannon Whitehead points out in Minimalism, trend cycles have accelerated from something like 4 a year to as many as 52. The high ecological, human, and psychological cost of this bombardment of stuff is unsustainable. We’re burning out fast, literally and figurately.

And in light of the climate change crisis, it’s an important time to take a long, hard look at our priorities and commit to sobering up. Our economic and agricultural systems are on the cusp of imploding. It’s not a question of whether we want to do anything about it, it’s a question of whether or not we’ll turn things around before it’s too late.

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Minimalism, the film

The Minimalism film, which follows Joshua Fields Millburn & Ryan Nicodemus, the writers behind the popular The Minimalists blog, puts forth the idea that minimalism is the key to finding purpose in the frantic, purposeless modern world we find ourselves in.

Featuring industry experts, practitioners of minimalism, and a scientist (who, outside of the film, also happens to be openly antagonistic toward religious types) speaking over a hopeful musical score, the film’s consistent message is that the American Dream as we know it – high paying job, houses, cars, and picket fences – has led us astray and that the antidote to this, the true American Dream, is letting it all go to pursue minimalism.

Now, I’m somewhat on board with this. I’ve railed against the American Dream before, and think that buying into it (pun intended) tends to make us hyper-focused on accumulation of stuff as status symbol, as proof that we matter.

It should be noted, however, that both Millburn and Nicodemus climbed the corporate ladder and were in cushy, well paying jobs by their early 20s. The bulk of the practitioners of minimalism profiled are similarly well-to-do: NBC anchors, former Wall Street bankers, independently wealthy 20-somethings, entrepreneurs; and many of them are white men.

I mention this because, while the film insists that minimalism is a universal solution to filling the void, the evidence is not representative of a real cross section of Americans, so the jury’s still out on whether marginalized groups and people standing on the poverty line can benefit in the same way.

On a related note, the secular humanist spiritual overtones of the quest are likely to resonate much more deeply with people in Silicon Valley than the Shenandoah Valley. The context is not universally accessible, and that concerns me.

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Minimalism as a Means of Control

The other interesting twist, which needs more analysis by someone smarter than me, is that both Millburn and Nicodemus grew up in unstable households with drug addicted mothers. If I were a psychologist, I think I would want to draw a connection between the extreme instability of their childhoods and the extreme order of their minimalist lives.

Perhaps not coincidentally, Marie Kondo had a similarly unstable and frenetic childhood. Minimalism in these contexts looks like a direct response to trauma, a (relatively healthy, all things considered) coping mechanism to combat the sadness and regret of unhappy family lives.

I have no doubt that these guys really want the best for people. You could see by their interactions with event attendees that they’re true believers, that they’ve found an authentic joy in practicing minimalism that they want to share with others.

But the conclusions drawn were not representative of a broader reality. The Minimalists believe that minimalism is an end in itself, that the pursuit of such a lifestyle will fill the hole in all of our hearts. But within the context of the film’s narrative this didn’t ring true, not even for the main characters.

Are Minimalists Modern Ascetics?

In my viewing, it seemed more likely that meaning was gleaned not from minimalism itself, but from the opportunity to commune with other like-minded people and try to make the world a little bit better together. This is something everyone can benefit from, but we need to frame it well.

And that’s why I want to talk about historical minimalism, more commonly called asceticism.

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What is Asceticism?

Asceticism if a lifestyle characterized by fasting and self-denial, abstaining from worldly and material pleasures in order to reflect on spiritual matters. We clear the clutter to make room for what matters. 

Asceticism is minimalism, with one key difference. Ascetics are almost if not always religious adherents who deny themselves worldly pleasures with the specific intent of becoming “better” or more present practitioners of their faith, whatever that may mean in context.

Asceticism has been and continues to be practiced within many prominent world religions, such as Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, and Buddhism. Monks, nuns, and priests within a variety of religions abide by some form of asceticism, practicing celibacy, modesty, vegetarianism, fasting, and meditation, and keeping rigid personal and communal schedules in order to more fully commit themselves to lives in service of God and people. Well known adherents to asceticism include St. Francis of Assisi, Gandhi, and Mother Theresa.

The ultimate purpose of asceticism is to totally reorient the practitioner’s perceptions of what constitutes “the good life.” Adherents are meant to find joy in simplicity and fulfillment in frugality. Being able to live more meaningfully with less frees the person to share the bounty, because it turns out that we don’t need as much as we think to live well.

If you are taken by modern minimalism’s purposeful ideal, you are following in a rich, transformative tradition.

But you must ask the question: what am I making room for?

Minimalism makes room for meaning, but asceticism – through its rich tradition and history – is inherently intertwined with and fixated on a particular meaningful goal. I do not buy the view set forth in the Minimalism film that merely pursuing a life of less will fill whatever emptiness we feel in our hearts and our homes at the end of the day. Minimalism may be a yellow brick road leading us to a place that feels more like home, but ultimately we’re still directing our own lives.

What if I get rid of the books and the art and the past-season clothes and all I see are empty shelves, empty walls, and empty closets?

I can put in the work, but if it’s not for something, it won’t really matter.

Like the ascetics of old, we must become minimalists for a distinct reason. My Christian tradition gives me rich examples of ascetics who lived with little in order to contemplate God’s will, and God’s mercy. They were able to accomplish more than most because they weren’t distracted by stuff.

You don’t have to be a Christian to pursue a life of meaning, but I think you do need to know what your end goal is. Is it based in self-fulfillment or service to humanity? Is it based in a frantic need to start over or a quiet calling to embrace imperfection and settle in to the gifts of your life as it is now?

We in the conscious consumer community are fortunate to know what we’re working toward: justice for people and planet.

If the pursuit of minimalism can make us better suited to accomplish that goal, then let’s go for it. If it’s just another way tamp down anxiety, then I think we can do without.

Whatever we choose, I think it’s important we don’t max out on minimalism. That’s missing the point entirely.

Update 3/10/17, Additional ReadingMinimalism: another boring product wealthy people can buy

Leah Wise

Leah Wise is the founder of StyleWise Blog. She has been writing, speaking, and consulting on sustainable fashion, the fair trade and secondhand supply chain, and digital marketing for over ten years. An Episcopal priest, Leah holds a B.A. in Religion from Florida State University and an M.Div. from Yale Divinity School. When not working, you can find her looking for treasures at the thrift store.

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