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?

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?

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.

My journey towards slow and simple living

I’ve never really been one for keeping up with the Joneses, never really felt the need to have the latest tech device or strictly follow fashion, never been one of those folks who has to have a holiday abroad every year. Having my first child 13yrs ago opened my eyes to the potential of a slower lifestyle – with a new baby (and even in pregnancy) you really have to slow down. I enjoyed this new pace of life, and cut my hours at work to the minimum I could afford to work.

However, with having children comes a great accumulation of STUFF – clothes and toys, and I found myself hanging on to things “just in case” I ever needed them for a future child. Once I ran out of space in my small flat, I began to store things in my parents’ loft (out of sight, out of mind).

It wasn’t until several years later that I discovered meditation, through a tutor on a counselling skills course I was doing. I began to develop the ability to create mental space, life-changing skills in mindfulness and self-awareness. Creating space allowed me to notice the little things, to appreciate more. This was definitely the key for me in slowing down.

We had moved into a “nice” house in the London suburbs, because that’s what you do, right? However, we never really felt like we fitted in there, spending much of our time in much hipper areas further into the city.

After my second child was born, I was determined that I didn’t want to return to work. I had always had home education on my radar, but never felt in a position to do it. But now I was going to be at home, we could give it a go. At first, we went on all of the educational trips I could find, but after a while we settled into our own rhythm, with a much gentler pace.

After a couple of years, my husband began to get ill with what later turned out to be an auto-immune disease. We began to reevaluate our lives, to think about what really mattered. We knew we weren’t happy in our current state, and began to make plans.

After much deliberation, we decided to take the plunge and sell our spacious semi-detached surburban house and downsize to a terraced house in central Brighton. On paper, it was “risky” – we didn’t know Brighton that well, had lots of friends in London. Some people thought we were bonkers moving into a smaller house with 2 children, but to be honest we had rooms in our bigger house that we weren’t even using.

During the moving process, I discovered Marie Kondo‘s book: The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up. I began to declutter, and it felt really cathartic getting rid of all of this stuff I’d been keeping from the past. So many kids’ clothes and papers! We had to get rid of most of our furniture as well, as it just wouldn’t have fitted in the smaller house.

Two years later, we are loving our new life by the sea. My husband took a part-time job, which was lower paid, but which allows him to be more hands-on with the home education, which he really enjoys. So many Dads of home ed families are working long hours to support that lifestyle, but are unable to be very involved. Working part-time has allowed him to reduce his stress levels, which has had a positive impact on his health.

Our most recent addition to our slow and simple journey is reducing waste, particularly plastic. This is very much a work in progress, as is this whole journey. What small step could you make today to slow down and simplify?