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.

What exactly is slow and simple living?

We hear these terms “slow living” and “simple living”, but what exactly do they mean?

The idea of slow living began with food, and was sparked as a reaction against the fast food industry, preferring instead eating seasonally, organically produced traditional meals. This spread from a love for slow food (home-cooked from scratch, with love and attention) to all areas of life, and featured in Carl Honore’s book In Praise of Slow, the first place where the term “Slow Movement” was coined. This doesn’t mean we do everything at a snail’s pace, but rather we bring intentionality to our actions, preferring quality over speed. Carl is also passionate about the role of community in slow living, getting to know the person who works at the farmer’s market selling you your seasonal veg, knowing your neighbours, etc.

This has spread out to all areas of life, from parenting to fashion, from travel to how we manage our money. People are reacting against the fast pace of modern life, and choosing to slow down and value what they have, rather than mindlessly consuming. More and more people are choosing to live life at a different pace, enjoying the quality of their experiences, rather than passively going from one thing to the next on life’s treadmill, feeling that we have to keep up with the Joneses.

Slow fashion is a reaction against the ugly world of fast high-street fashion, which relies on sweatshops and unethical practices and a throw-away attitude to “out of fashion” clothing. Slow fashion might mean making your own clothes from scratch, or choosing to buy from an ethical producer, one who considers the environment in their manufacturing methods, giving a fair deal to the producers and buyers alike. It might mean having a capsule wardrobe, of your own style, rather than keeping up with seasonal fashion trends.

Related to slow living is simple living, which means choosing to live with less. This often takes the form of minimalism, not hoarding tons of unnecessary stuff, decluttering and only having what you really need. Minimalism does not necessarily mean you live in an empty home, but that you only have what you truly need and actually use. Marie Kondo (author of The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up) says we should keep only what sparks joy, and has a systematic plan for decluttering every area of your home.

Again, this can extend to all areas of life, from technology (clearing your inbox each day, going TV-free), your work-life balance and how much time you choose to spend at work, downsizing your home and becoming more environmentally aware. The whole zero-waste movement is a massive step towards simple living in terms of leaving a lighter footprint upon the earth through reducing food waste and plastic packaging, or choosing to make your own beauty or kitchen cleaning products.

The main thing to take away is that there is no “one size fits all” way of slowing down and simplifying your life, it looks different for different people. Someone with children will have more stuff in their home than someone without kids, that’s a fact. One person may love the look of an almost-empty room, whereas someone else may have some carefully chosen and much-loved artwork and ornaments around. I personally don’t go for many ornaments around the home, as it’s just another thing to dust! Rather than letting slow and simple living become another form of keeping up with the Joneses, how could you bring more intentionality and quality to your everyday life?

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