Black holes are where God divided by zero — Albert Einstein
The great Mahatma Gandhi (father of modern India) had this to say about truth and non-violence: “I have nothing new to teach the world. Truth and Non-Violence are as old as the hills”.
To me, Gandhi is a symbol of minimalism. Clad in a single piece of cloth, Gandhi wasn’t by any means a wealthy man at least towards the end of his life. He was born in a well to do family but he renounced material possessions towards the end. Gandhi adopted the Indian loincloth, or short dhoti and, in the winter, a shawl, both woven with yarn hand-spun on a traditional Indian spinning wheel, or charkha (wikipedia).
Almost in the same vein as Gandhi’s own experience (because there is very little that’s new that I offer), my own limited take on ‘minimalism’ can be very similar to what the movement espouses. There are so many blogs, books, ideas and perspectives on the topic that the word ‘minimalism’ is trite. However, my own experiments with minimalism (learnings from which have been reinforced by my life during the ongoing CoVID-19 pandemic) provide a deeply personal glimpse of how powerful minimalism as a way of life truly is. I write this story in the hope that perhaps it helps my readers in their own journey towards the final destination to which all of us are headed. Sooner or later.
When I Had Nothing
Of course, I was born with nothing. But, I was born in a family that gave me everything. Yet, I was hungry. Let me explain. I was born in a wealthy family in Gujarat (western India). My home was a lovely Bungalow with more rooms than people living in it. I had a courtyard filled with jamun (Black Plum) trees. During the monsoons, I would see peacocks dance on the rooftop. In short, it was a happy existence. The square feet concept of space never entered my lexicon until we migrated to a metropolis.
When I was around seven, my family moved to Mumbai — a familiar journey from a small city to a large metropolis. On a macro level, many families collectively contribute to a global trend called urbanization. It was then that I understood ‘scarcity’ as a concept. Just like the millions living in crowded cities of New York, London, Tokyo or Hong Kong, I began to realize what having nothing (at least in terms of space) meant. Affordability became everything. Don’t get me wrong-I wasn’t destitute, homeless, poor or unloved by any means. Relatively speaking, I was hungry for more. I wanted more out of life. Although I wasn’t poor, I could empathize with people who had nothing. Figuratively speaking, I could empathize with people who were always hungry as opposed to a little hungry as in my case. All I wanted was a big house, a few luxury cars and a big enough bank balance that the right side of the menu wouldn’t bother me a lot — the life of a millionaire. I am sure it sounds familiar — all of us absolutely love the trappings of modern life. As most of us progress towards creating our own family, we get caught up in providing our children the very best in life. It never stops. Minimalism sounds boring, unwanted and a useless concept. Especially, if you are capable of earning and affording more. Hedonism is a very seductive concept. I believed in the pursuit of pleasure by all means.
During my early years, communism was just an elitist talking point — the knowledge of which makes for interesting parlor talk and entertaining debates at parties. I was perhaps too shallow to appreciate the diversity in life. It was only because money was my only religion.
However, there is the undeniable truth that money is a means to an end if not the end itself. You need money to keep your whole world running. If Abraham Maslow’s need hierarchy pyramid is a universal truth, we need to satisfy four distinct and different levels of needs (physiological, safety, love/belonging, self esteem) before we can even begin to think of our self actualization needs. My own self esteem was inextricably linked to my bank account. It was a directly proportional, unhealthy relationship. The journey to acquire ‘things’ was THE journey. Sound familiar?
When I Have Some Things
My experiences have led me to hold a few beliefs. I am not sure if all of them are true.First — in general, the level of your hunger determines how driven you are and your bias for action. As I keep achieving my objectives, I feel less and less hungry. As a consequence, I feel less driven. I am sure many people have brilliant business ideas but the level of hunger determines who among those many actually end up taking action. For the most part, the people that didn’t have much to begin with are the ones that are most driven. They began their journey when they had nothing but they want everything. All they need to do is execute. What have they got to lose?
Second, telling a hungry man to put a limit to his needs and be satisfied is like telling a fish not to love water. Also, a poor man is less likely to listen to philosophy and more likely to pursue his needs and wants. If you start talking about Marx and Hegel to a beggar, he will probably request you to shut up and just give him some money. I remember my dad talking about ‘satisfaction’ as a virtue. All of my life, I thought he was joking.
Third, once our basic needs are met, we humans tend to want more. It is perfectly natural. When we have an expensive car, we want an even more expensive one and on and on without limit. Where to draw the line in the pursuit of accumulating wealth is such a subjective balance. I am teetering on the edge of that balance. I take two steps forward and an equal number back.
In reality, minimalism was perhaps more a pursuit of the rich than being a movement with its roots in poverty. In purely economic terms, when you have too much of anything, that thing provides you with diminishing marginal utility. Very naturally, there comes a point in everyone’s lives when they decide when too much of many things forces them to have less and less. Once again, that balance is elusive and subjective. Many may never rise above their material desires.
Truth be told, I feel I may never rise above my desires too. Today, I have achieved most of my material objectives. Some of the objectives are close to being achieved. Slowly, I can now begin on a parallel journey towards identifying what I absolutely do not need. On my journey, a practice that has helped me immensely is Yoga. To me,
“Yoga is the ultimate minimalism. It is minimalism of the mind”
Constant practice allows my mind to slowly drown out the noise inside. As I proceed towards the completion of the rest of my objectives, I am almost forced to think two steps ahead — to a life where I withdraw from the excesses of modern living and start focusing on the bare minimum. As I hunker down within the confines of my home, I am finding a lot of time to to truly assess what I need and what ‘stuff’ can be thrown out.
When I Will Have Nothing
The circle of life is an eternal phenomenon. From the birth of a star to supernova in physics to the birth and death of people in real life, everything is a cycle which begins and ends in nothingness. Think about it, energy itself only cycles through — the total amount of energy in the universe remains the same.
Over my life, I have come to believe that there are some universal truths in life. I have never found a comprehensive list of those truths but I can find bits and pieces in the life journeys of many people-some famous, others not so famous.
Mortality, in reality, is the ultimate truth and death our final destination. Irrespective of the social-economic class we belong to, death comes for all of us. We won’t need anything where all of us are ultimately headed. Therefore, our journey to our ultimate destination involves progressive levels of dispossession or giving up things. That is the practical truth behind the concept of ‘minimalism’. At least, as I understand it.
In practical terms, it means slowly shedding unhealthy relationships (dealing only with reliable people) and accumulating only as much as needed to carry the mission forward. To sum it all up, this is my question to you: If we know we are en route to nothingness, why don’t we start learning to give up things (at our own individualized pace) until we have nothing left to give up?
In sum, I have not used too many complex terminologies or examples to explain minimalism. Instead, I have used my practical experience as a template. I hope my state of mind is easier to relate to than the multi-faceted dimensions of minimalism.
Minimalism is a way of life and an overarching theme rather than a singular concept. While I provided a glimpse of what minimalism means to me in the paragraphs above, I also wanted to share some resources that can help my readers either discover or rediscover minimalism.
Minimalism is a movement mirrored in many disciplines — the visual arts, music, design, architecture, philosophy, automobile design, writing and real life. The De Stijl movement, traditional Japanese design and architecture (including the concepts of zen, ma and wabi-sabi) and the Bauhaus movement inspire the minimalist aesthetic. Marie Kondo, author of the famous book ‘The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up’ and a famous organizing consultant espouses a minimalist attitude to organizing your closet.
There is a cornucopia of writing on the internet on ‘mimimalism’. Some notable websites include the minimalists, James Clear, Mark Manson . There is also a documentary titled ‘Minimalism: A Documentary About The Important Things’ starring Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus. Finally, Matt D’Avella’s youtube channel is another good resource to understand minimalism.