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?