The art of simplifying one’s life has taken on life in many arenas as of late. From de-cluttering to tiny home living, there is a huge push against the traditional western lifestyle of “more, more, more” at the moment. To be sure the tidal wave of “stuff” continues unabated for the most part, but it is becoming equally attractive in some circles to be someone who can do without, especially if one can do without some of the key tokens of American life, like a television. There is a certain mystique and sense of cultured self-control that one assumes about someone else who is able to do without the handy contraptions of modern living.
There is a potential issue, I think, with simplifying that translates beyond the realm of personal behavior. For the most part, the act of simplifying seems to be an act of taking stock of one’s life, and consciously removing things that are not necessary. It is “cleaning up one’s desktop” to open up bandwidth for other activities and to spend less time managing and rooting through stuff. I don’t disagree that there are many things that one does not need. We as a family regularly go through the things that end up coming home and weeding out items that we just don’t want to have around. Having children in the midwest, it seems, comes with a slow incessant trickle of small cheap plastic doo-dads that come home from school prize boxes, dentist’s offices, other children’s birthday parties and who-knows-where-else. To simply get rid of stuff that one doesn’t use regularly, however, isn’t simplifying, it is just de-cluttering. Nothing wrong with it but it is merely a cosmetic solution.
The act of truly simplifying requires some kind of sacrifice, some kind of conscious alteration of the the status quo of daily routine. This might be giving up drinking sodas to save money and the to-go cups from the landfill, or it might mean downsizing your wardrobe so that there are fewer items to choose from and keep track of. Usually this sort of simplifying comes with positive aspects, such as saving money over the long run, saving time choosing outfits and saving money on clothing, and reducing waste. All of these are perfectly admirable and can be great lifestyle choices. What I see as a potential issue for many people, however, is that this is a reductionist practice. The message that most people hear about simplifying is that one must give things up. The wording itself, along with a cousin called minimalism, brings to mind ideas of asceticism and a life of sacrifice.
For people who are looking to find some footing in life there is only so much help that can be provided by simply clearing the field of debris. Thinking about the objects as a starting point, even if one is truly trying to consider whether every object sparks joy in a thoughtful way, is still tackling the problem form the wrong end, in my opinion.
How we live, and what we find meaningful, has everything to do with our core values. Asking someone to clean up their lives and strip down to essentials requires that someone has a strong sense of what those essentials are to begin with. For many people, this is the question that is not being asked, the search that must first be undertaken.
Stoicism, Buddhism and Taoism have a lot to say about the nature of our reality and our relationship to the world around us. Our perceptions of the world are our reality, and the only* control we have in this life is the choices we make about how to react to the world around us.
*Considering that we are reality, and that our perceptions influence everything, this is no small thing.
Both Taoism and Stoicism speak clearly and often about the unique nature of every person, and every manifestation in this world. Each person follows his or her own unique nature, has his or her own unique perspective to bring to the world, and will express his or her own values in a way that no one else will. In order to do this effectively, however, requires that we spend our time constantly working to get to know ourselves.
If we work from the bottom up, examining where our values lay and the activities that we feel strongly about engaging ourselves in, it will be a simple task to see which aspects of our life are helpful to this program, and which are distracting, or at best, unnecessary. Trimming things from our life that are excess from this perspective isn’t exactly simplifying, because we will do it naturally, and to lose those things will not feel like a loss at all.
The way I think about it, bringing the various interests and perspectives that we have together in a way that is more focused and efficient, isn’t one of simplifying so much as it is one of alignment.
Here is an example from my own recent personal journey. My wife and I have shared a love for running, hiking and being outdoors since we first met. I have to admit that my own interest in spending time outside was in need of much more development than hers at the time, but I quickly came to realize that it had more to do with my own sense of confidence and preparedness as opposed to my desire. Running, however, wasn’t nature, and nature wasn’t running for the longest time. We ran on pavement in the urban environment that was convenient. When possible we would enjoy the semi-trail running down the middle of the boulevard, or take the paved bike trail out of the city, surrounded by nature, but still not what I would consider wild. When we had the chance we would go hiking, and later camping, and even later we would go backpacking. It was only in the last few years that my running has begun to shift from pavement to trail whenever possible. This combination of two things I love has expanded my appreciation of both of them. I am engaged more in the running and will be more willing to put in extra miles if I can do it on the trail. I am also able to be out in nature more often and to go further on the trails than when I was doing these activities separately.
Aligning aspects of one’s life is an additive process. energizing and invigorating time spent in these activities. Simplifying, the way I understand it, is a subtractive process, albeit with the intention of opening up bandwidth for other things. If we can build a sense of core values within ourselves, and within our social structures, then we will be able to find unique combinations that give us more time in the way that we want, while also bringing more meaning to the time we already spend.
My foray into photography was another conscious choice of alignment. I have been a visual artist for a couple of years, though with the luxury of not having to rely on it for a paycheck. I was previously spending time running and taking pictures more casually so that I could then go back to my hotel room or home studio and squeeze in a few hours to try and turn those photo inspirations into paintings or illustrations. Until recently I was into stippling or pointillism, which is the projects of building an image only out of tiny dots of color, building form and color out of density and placement rather than line work and fill colors. This sort of art certainly creates wonderful textures and some nice visual depth, but also take a very long time to accomplish. It was when I found myself spending upwards of 20 hours on an illustration rather than having the time to simply be outdoors, that I realized something was out of alignment. Photography as a more serious art is my attempt to bring these aspects together. Now my time spent behind a lens requires that I am also spending time in nature. On top of that, I have found that working through these concepts in concert has brought up many thoughts about the nature of my philosophy and my craft. As I write I realize that this blog is a side-effect of my recent photography alignment. Expanding my experience of being outdoors to bring more awareness, along with revitalizing my artistic focus, along with creating more actual time in the day for myself, has led to time and interest in getting my thoughts out of my head and into the world in a more concrete way.
Alignment is magical for an individual, but I strongly feel that this needs to be put into practice in social groups as well. Many times when challenges arise the only solutions that we are presented with are to go in another direction, or to give something up. We are currently facing a global existential crisis, a species-wide opportunity that requires cooperation and insight at levels we are not seeing consistently. Most of the solutions being presented are subtractive solutions, and I do not dispute that we have more than we need, more than we should have, and that significant sacrifice is required in order to maintain some semblance of what we think of as normal. What we are missing out on are the core values that drive us. Core values that would help inform this sort of decision making. Where can we align our energies to create solutions that provide progress, but also provide opportunity? Surely green energy can be an economic driver, as can waste reclamation and re-use.
The only things we can affect in this world are the way we react to things, but that affects everything else. Change needs to start with the individual. If everyone were to develop his or her own core values in a more focused way through Stoic practices, meditation or thoughtful exposure to the other, we would all begin naturally to make better decisions as groups and governments. Philosophies like these are road-maps to help us figure out who we are and what we care about, but they don’t do the work for us. Here’s hoping that we can all find some alignment individually so that we can begin to align globally as well.