How Buddhism is compatible with slow, minimalist living

A couple of weeks ago, I took part in a Twitter chat about minimalism, and the topic of Buddhism came up, and how it fits with a slower, more simple way of life. [if you’re interested in all things minimalism, this Twitter chat takes place every 2 weeks, follow #minschat, I’m @slow_blog]

Firstly – a bit of background on Buddhism. There are many strands of Buddhism, but they all have in common a desire to simplify life and let go of attachments (to people, ‘unskilful’ behaviours, and also views). Whilst it is not essential to Buddhism to subscribe to any sort of minimalist ethos (or vice versa!), they are definitely compatible. Minimalism can be defined as simply living with less – fewer financial expenses, less pressure to ‘keep up with the Joneses’, and in valuing experiences over things. Mindfulness (which is a key part of Buddhist practice) just means bringing our full attention to whatever we are doing or feeling right now, in this very moment – tuning into our inner world of experience. Studies show that when we bring our full attention or mindfulness to our experiences, we remember them better in the long term. This does not mean that minimalists are hedonists or adrenaline junkies, but that they are capable of being satisfied and enjoying the simple things in life, just by noticing them – a drop of rain upon a leaf, the ducks in the local park, the clouds floating by in the sky.

Only having what we really need also fits with the Buddhist ethos of simplicity and contentment – we are not grasping or craving for more all the time (as our increasingly consumer-society would like us to). As we become more proficient at mindfulness, at noticing what is happening as it arises and passes away, we can recognise our desire to buy another book on Amazon, or to buy the latest fashion item (or whatever it happens to be). We can simply notice it arising and moving on. We don’t have to scratch that itch.

Anthony Ongaro talks about this on his blog “Break the Twitch“. In his TED Talk, he talks about the ‘twitch’ of online behaviour, how many apps are built along similar lines to gambling, giving us a dopamine-hit each time we click, and how through re-training our habits we can mould our behaviour so that it is more in line with our core values. In Buddhism, this would mean recognising that we are at the mercy of greed (or attachment, craving), hatred (or aversion or avoidance of pain or discomfort) and delusion (about the true nature of reality), that this is our ‘animal’ nature. But Buddhist practice gives us the tools to override this ‘twitch’ through firstly noticing what is happening, by bringing awareness to it.

Buddhist ethical principles also fit with many of the simpler lifestyle choices people are increasingly making, such as living zero waste or low waste, not buying fast fashion which exploits low-paid workers abroad. All Buddhists try to adhere to the principle of ‘doing no harm’, which can in its broad interpretation can mean treading lightly on the earth, and being an ethical consumer.

Plastic Free July

I decided to take part in Plastic Free July this year for several reasons. Cutting down on single-use plastic has been an ongoing journey for me for a few years, and I felt that really focusing on a few key areas at home would allow us as a family to go a little deeper into that journey.

I had already used cloth nappies and washable wipes when my (now 5yr old) son was a baby. A couple of years ago I made the switch to CSP. I changed to shampoo and conditioner bars, block deodorant and bar soap a couple of years ago too. But the thing about this journey is there’s always further to go. You don’t have to be totally zero waste, just aiming to lower your consumption of single-use plastic and waste generally.

So this year, I focused my efforts on a few key areas – pet food packaging and snack packaging. We have a cat who likes a brand of catfood that doesn’t come in tins. Our Green/Labour council surprisingly hardly recycles any plastics (bottles only), so a sizeable amount of our weekly rubbish was full of the plastic sachets from his food. Likewise with snacks – crisp packets and the wrappers from Nakd bars, which my kids (and I!) love. We discovered a weekly market stall in Brighton called the Green Centre – they recycle TONS of things it’d be hard to recycle anywhere else locally, from contact lens packaging to pet food wrappers, crisp packets to old phones and glasses. We have started making a weekly trip down there with a canvas bag full of this stuff, which is keeping our weekly bin half as full as it was last month.

Whilst they do recycle crisp packets, they don’t do Nakd bar wrappers. As these are so popular in my house, I decided to experiment with making some of our own. I used this recipe as a template, and they have been a hit! Making them ourselves is cheaper, produces less waste and provides a nice opportunity for some kitchen bonding time! It just requires a little forward planning, but nothing major as they don’t need to be baked – it’s literally just putting 4 ingredients in the food processor and pressing it down in the tin.

I also experimented with making homemade vegan cashew yoghurt. I love Dreena Burton’s Plant Powered Families book, but this recipe was from her website. Really yummy! My children are a bit skeptical, but even if it’s just me eating it, it’s reducing the amount of plastic yoghurt pots we get through.

Another change we made was buying bamboo toothbrushes. The lovely Green Centre mentioned above actually recycles toothpaste tubes and old plastic toothbrushes, but now we’ve made the switch to bamboo which are biodegradable and just feel nicer in your hand.

I feel that we have made some significant changes this July, and whilst our annual (or even monthly!) household waste certainly won’t fit into a single jar, any step you take is a step in the right direction. What simple step could you take today to reduce the amount of waste you produce?

Enforced Slowing Down

I haven’t been posting quite as regularly as I’d have liked on here recently…I had major surgery 6 weeks ago, which, whilst obviously presenting its own challenges, has been a good exercise in Enforced Slowing Down. I’ve not been able to walk very far very comfortably, so have spent a ton of time on the sofa. I’m definitely one of life’s “do-ers”, so sitting still for too long isn’t my natural state of being. Whilst also discovering I’ve got an incredibly low boredom threshold, I’ve also had the time and space to get back into some much-neglected hobbies.

Rebecca of the Minimalism, My Way blog recently posted about her return to hobbies. She writes that hobbies make us who we are, and if we don’t make time for them, we aren’t making time for ourselves. Slowing down and simplifying our lives should, in theory, free up time and space for the things that we love, rather than those things that we have to do.

But what stops us from doing those things? Often we allow other stuff to fill the time – TV, chores, etc. Perhaps we feel guilty for indulging ourselves in seemingly frivolous pursuits with no end goal in sight, something that wasn’t on our to-do list. However, if we find the time for hobbies, we can actually improve our health – lowering heart rate and stress levels.

During my ongoing recovery period, I’ve read a ton of books (including Pride and Prejuduice, which I had always meant to read but never quite got around to). I’ve picked up a couple of crochet and knitting projects which had fallen by the wayside, and now I’m a bit more mobile have sat at the sewing machine and started a new project there. I also love photography, but haven’t been able to get out for many walks yet, hopefully that is coming soon.

How do you like to spend your hobby-time? Can you allow yourself that time just for you and an activity you love?

Book Review: In Praise of Slow – How a Worldwide Movement is Challenging the Cult of Speed (by Carl Honore)

This is the book that started it all, that coined the term the “Slow Movement”. Prior to that, there had been the Slow Food movement in Italy spreading out to other places, and other groups attempting to slow down particular facets of their lives. Carl Honore does a great job of pulling all of those slow strands together, showing us what slow living is, and also what it is not.

In an expanded version of his popular TED talk, Honore challenges the common assumption that faster is better. He argues that every person and activity has its own “tempo giusto” or inherent speed. When we take the time to cook our food from scratch, with seasonal ingredients, for instance, and enjoy it with family or friends, it not only tastes better but also has the potential to become a happy memory, an experience worth having. This does not necessarily mean slaving away for hours in the kitchen, slow cooking everything; it is possible to quickly cook a slow meal. The main ingredients for it to be “slow food” are respect for the environment in producing the ingredients, taste and community.

The book covers the reaches of the Slow Movement from sex and relationships, slow cities, exercise, alternative medicine and parenting. Whatever the context, the ethos is the same: faster is not necessarily better. Honore does not disregard the fast, he himself plays ice hockey, a fairly fast-paced sport. What he does point out is that one cannot live life at that pace all of the time, there must be balance. Choosing a slower pace does not mean moving at the speed of a snail, but rather bringing some intentionality to what we are doing, and taking the time to enjoy it.

The sections on slow parenting, home education and reducing working hours really spoke to me. I have only ever worked part time since having my daughter almost 14yrs ago, a choice that was not that common among my (almost exclusively female) colleagues. I often felt like a square peg, but knew deep down that I valued being at home more than increasing my salary, so much so that after I had my son 5yrs ago, I gave up working and started home educating. This afforded us a much slower pace of life, and whilst I had never been one for over – scheduling kids’ activities, we could now really live at our own pace, finding delight in those activities we chose to participate in.

Living a slow, intentional life can at times feel like swimming against the tide. I enjoyed reading about the various worldwide groups that are choosing to life differently: the Sloth Club and the Society for the Deceleration of Time, as well as the various worldwide Slow Food groups.

Some of the links in this post are affiliate links. This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive an affiliate commission at no extra cost to you. All opinions remain my own.

7 Things I learned doing the 30 Day Minimalist Game

For the last month, I’ve been on a mission: a mission to rid my home of clutter. Even though I had a MAJOR declutter a couple of years ago when we downsized, it was time for another go. When we moved house, I got rid of all of the clothes (both mine and the kids), books, paperwork I’d been hoarding for years. Because we were moving to a smaller place, I had to get rid of most of our furniture. It was a big project, but quite therapeutic. So this time around there wasn’t the volume of stuff to get rid of, but still it creeps back in (especially with small children outgrowing their clothes and toys so quickly).

I read about the 30 Day Minimalist Game on The Minimalists’ website. On day 1,you find one item to donate / sell / give away / get rid of. On day 2, two items, and so on for each day up to 30 items on the last day. This adds up to 465 items across the 30 days. Apparently the average home contains over 300,000 items, so 465 should be easy to find right? (if you like numbers, that’s getting rid of a paltry 0.15% of your total household items). Here’s what I learned across the 30 day challenge:

It was easier than I thought

I thought that after my big declutter a couple of years ago, I didn’t have so much stuff… Wrong! It was actually pretty easy to find that many things, particularly since my 5yr old son seems to have outgrown lots of toys and puzzles all of a sudden.

I actually did the challenge in a fortnight

I had planned surgery in mid – June, and I knew I wouldn’t be able to lift / bend very easily afterwards, so I made sure I completed the challenge before I went in. I did a few days with of decluttering in one day, and this really helped with momentum. If you’re doing this at a more leisurely pace, and the momentum is there, then keep it going by carrying on and then maybe having a day off.

You don’t need to ask your family to help

Whilst I secretly hoped that my husband and teenage daughter would get involved, I didn’t ask them to do so. I just told them what I was doing, and after about a week they just started adding their stuff to my pile for that day – books, unwanted clothes and other stuff just appeared in my pile! My long – time hoarder parents have even started getting rid of a few things! Leading by example is definitely the way to go!

I made £100 selling unwanted stuff

I didn’t sell everything I got rid of, just a few select items. But those made me over £100 on ebay and Facebook selling groups. The rest I either donated to charity shops or just gave away. Every little helps!

I got rid of almost 500 items

On the 30 day challenge, the grand total comes in at 465 items. I found towards the end I was putting more things in than the recommended number for each day, just to get rid of stuff. I definitely had 40-50 extra items.

I’ll carry on decluttering

I found that once I got to the end of the 30 days, I could see the other items that needed to go. Whilst I don’t think I’ll do another 30 day challenge (yet!), I will keep on decluttering, albeit at a more leisurely pace.

I feel so much lighter

Getting rid of stuff is good for your soul! I definitely feel much lighter without so many things around. Knowing the area under my bed is tidy and only contains things I actually need and use helps me sleep better, for instance.

I can definitely recommend the 30 day minimalist game (“minsgame”) whether you’re a seasoned declutterer or are just getting started. The daily targets are very motivating.

Too busy? 5 easy ways to step off the treadmill

Start saying NO

A recent article in the Guardian newspaper linked not feeling able to say no with feelings of being too busy. Saying yes to things we don’t really want to do can leave us feeling resentful, angry and depleted. And an inability to say no ends up with us taking on too much both at work and in our personal lives, leading to feelings of being unable to get off life’s treadmill, and eventually burnout.

Writer and entrepreneur James Altucher devised the 5/25 formula for what we should say yes to. He advises writing a list of the top 25 things that you want to do in life, from writing a novel to travelling to India. Then cream off the top 5, and never look at the bottom 20 again. Focus your efforts on these 5 things, and say yes to anything that relates to them, saying no to everything else.

However, whilst this might be useful for keeping you focused on your goals, I personally prefer saying no in accordance with your core values. It might take time to work out exactly what these are, but once you have a sense of what’s really important to you, saying no to things that aren’t a good fit becomes easier. Taking time to reflect on the qualities you value, both in yourself and others, will help you to clarify when you should be saying yes, and also will give you permission to say no. For instance, if you value integrity, then saying yes when you mean no goes against that and will leave you feeling dissatisfied and resentful.

Swap FOMO for JOMO

One of the reasons people say yes to too much is because of a Fear Of Missing Out, which can cause us to say yes to invitations to events we don’t really want to attend, or end up scrolling through social media to see what everyone else is up to.

Instead of worrying about what they’re missing out on, many people are now consciously choosing to stay in and doing activities they really enjoy, perhaps alone or with a special person, rather than saying yes to drinks after work with people they don’t really like.

Be more mindful

Taking a few minutes to just focus on the breath at the start and end of each day can help to ground you, and help you to feel less scattered when there are lots of competing demands. Bring some mindfulness into your everyday life by really being present. Instead of checking Facebook on your phone when you’re waiting for the kettle to boil, you could try feeling the ground beneath your feet, the sensations of the cup in your hand, the noise of the kettle as it meets your ears. Being more present, instead of spending the whole time worrying about the future, or the past, can help create more space in your day. Once you start believing that self-care is important, and a priority, you can start allowing more of it into your life.

And maybe experiment with doing nothing – turn off the phone, put your book away and just sit. See what happens, even if you can only manage a minute. You will see that you are never really ‘doing nothing’, there is always something going on – the breath, the thoughts. 

Take a nap

One way to recharge your batteries if you’re feeling stressed is to take a nap. Backed by neuroscience, taking a nap can improve your concentration, memory and creativity. Instead of fighting the 3pm slump with another coffee or the sense that you’re in combat with your body’s needs, try downing tools and setting your alarm for 20 minutes.

If you’re at work, and think that having a nap just isn’t practical, some employers are even installing “nap rooms” into the workplace, recognising the benefits of a few Zs on productivity and creativity.

Swap your to-do list for a done-list

Whilst some people like to list every small thing they need to do each day, others find this crippling. Apparently 41% of items on to-do lists never get done. Perhaps the answer is paring back your to-do list down to the bare essentials, say three things, or even one thing, that you really must get done. Or turn things upside-down and create a Done list, listing your daily accomplishments (which creates a sense of mastery). This can actually increase productivity by fuelling your motivation, rather than by crushing it by seeing all the things you’ve yet to achieve.

Slow and Simple Experiment: Doing Nothing

Over the past month, I’ve been making a concerted effort to Do Nothing for at least fifteen minutes each day. Ever since reading In Praise of Wasting Time, I have recognised the value of empty space in the day. Doing nothing allows a few moments to pause, to slow down and tune into our inner world a little more. It allows for creative insights to emerge, often solutions to problems we’ve been mulling over will present themselves after a few minutes of space and down time.

It’s not as easy as it sounds. Most of us have it drummed into us that being “idle” is a bad thing, that we should be busy being productive, that good old Protestant work ethic. With doing nothing comes a certain amount of guilt about wasting time, the “shoulds” come thick and fast: I should be washing up, I should be preparing for that meeting, I should be getting on with my to-do list…

It is rather difficult to actually do nothing at all, we are always thinking, looking, hearing and so on. I have built Doing Nothing time into my day by linking it to something I do every morning – having my morning coffee. Whilst this may not strictly be doing nothing (I am drinking coffee, after all), this serves as a mental reminder for me – OK, here’s my coffee, it’s time to Do Nothing. I sit in the same chair each time, focusing on bodily sensations as they come and go, the smell and taste of my coffee, and noticing any thoughts as they arise (trying not to get caught up in the story behind those thoughts).

Sounds a bit like meditation, doesn’t it? And it is the same, although in a much less formal way. I am not closing my eyes or focusing on my breath, or trying to cultivate positive emotions as in meditation. I am simply sitting drinking coffee.

The challenge comes once you start to notice boredom or the urge to reach for your phone / book / something to look at. If you can step into the gap between feeling and acting, if you simply watch those urges, they dissipate, and you can sink into it, into the being-mode, rather than the doing-mode. And that spaciousness can spill over into other moments in the day.

At the end of one month, I am definitely going to try to carry on with this new habit. It has opened up a sense of much more space in my day, and even a few minutes of down time bolsters my energy levels and resources for the rest of the day.

Weekend Reads on Doing Nothing

Five reasons why we should all learn how to do nothing

How doing nothing helps you get more done

The case for doing nothing