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Existential Minimalism: Hungry Ghosts, Wabi-Sabi, & False Security

Understanding minimalism as an existential philosophy.
Existential Minimalism: Hungry Ghosts, Wabi-Sabi, & False Security

"Minimalism is beyond time. It is the stillness of perfection." โ€” Massimo Vignelli

It was the third class I had skipped that week. My room wasn't organized, the carpet wasn't cleaned. How could I be expected to focus in class if my room at home wasn't clean?

Going through university was a beautiful and challenging experience. I had intense anxiety, depression, and developing OCD. It got to the point where I was stuck in my room. Organizing stuff, making sure everything was 'just as it needed to be.'

I was functional, but internally it was crippling.

It got to a point, in a fit of anxious rage, I declared that if I was going to spend all my time organizing stuff, I would just get rid of it. The best way to organize your stuff is to get rid of most of it.

This was the first significant step I took on my nearly decade-long adventure now into Minimalism.

๐Ÿ—บ A Minimalist Adventure

"Identify the essential. Eliminate the rest." โ€“ย Leo Babauta

I went to school 3 hours away from home, so I spent a lot of time packing up everything I owned and sheparding it back and forth. This made it easy for a packing party. With everything in boxes, I only took out the things I needed to use. After 30 days, I donated anything that was still in the boxes, regardless of what it was.

After doing this 2-3 times a year for 2 years, I cut down nearly 80% of everything I owned. It felt amazing. I was no longer neurotically focused on my stuff, and this newfound physical space created mental space.

The mental space was beautiful and terrifying: beautiful because it gave me room to explore myself, and terrifying because it gave me room to explore myself.

This is one reason why our society is highly consumerist: stuff distracts you from yourself.

This is something people want, because their opinion of who they are isn't something they want to hear.

In the years since then, I've cut my possessions down significantly, with the majority of what I own fitting in my backpack and a duffel bag. The physical items aren't the goal, they shouldn't be, but a natural outcome of this Way of Being.

Minimalism was the first thing that showed me a different way of life than the cultural norm was not only possible, it was also beautiful and better. This realization โ€” that massive lifestyle change could significantly impact and improve my lived experience โ€” sent me on the adventure I am on now, exploring Ways of Being, lifestyle design, spirituality, personal evolution, ceremony, and much more.

It's hard for me to talk about minimalism. It's a label that people give me, but it's not something I use to describe myself. It's like being a fish in water, or a human surrounded by air โ€” it's so commonplace in my Way of Being that I don't recognize it as something I once had to welcome into my life.

Minimalism is far more than a physical aesthetic. It stretches far beyond material possessions. It is these steps beyond the material, when you take minimalism into philosophy, into emotions, into commitments, that you unlock the truly life-changing power of minimalism.

โ›ฉ Defining Minimalism

"When you realize nothing is lacking, the whole world belongs to you." โ€“ Lao Tzu

In Western culture, minimalism has become many things. An aesthetic, a virtue signal, an artistic style, a rejection of consumerism.

Minimalism is a philosophical orientation to prune the excess in order to cultivate and discover the essential.

Minimalism didn't originate in Western culture. We find its roots in early Eastern religions. Whether from the renunciate monks of Buddhism, or the earthy wabi-sabi lifestyle of Zen โ€”ย the origins of minimalist philosophy are scattered throughout Asia.

In a highly consumerist culture, this process often starts (+ unforunately ends) with material possessions. Reducing excess possessions is a powerful first step, but it is truly only the first step in the cultivation of essence and intentionality.

For me, minimalism has become far more than a material leaning or Instagram aesthetic. It is a Way of Being, a philosophy of Life. A path of discovering truly what I need, what I desire, and what I am chained to.

As an overarching philosophical orientation, minimalism applys to all of your life:

  • ๐Ÿงธ Possessions: Physical goods are coping mechanisms, meant to boslter your identity, provide feelings of security, or fill the void created by lack of love, connection, and community. Beginning here is powerful because it provides quick momentum, helps you discover what is truly valuable, and creates a healthier, happier home for your continued evolution.
  • ๐Ÿ‘จโ€๐Ÿ‘ฉโ€๐Ÿ‘งโ€๐Ÿ‘ฆ Relationships: There's no amount of followers that make up for friendship. Stop thinking of relationships in terms of quantity, think in terms of quality of connection, of depth. You experience far greater love cultivating true, deep, and intimate connections, than pursuing surface level acquiantances with strangers.
  • ๐Ÿฅ™ Health: Your body has a homeostatic baseline it automatically returns to if you don't get in the way. The body's normal state is healthy. Minimalist health routines and diets are exceptional. They take less time, maintain your health, and don't overcomplicate. Make your dinner 3 items: base, greens, protein. Make your workouts basic: squats, pushups, pullups. Go back to the essentials, master the foundations before moving on, and if you master the foundations, you'll come to realize you don't need anything beyond them.
  • ๐Ÿ—“ Commitments: Full calendars are hectic and overwhelming. We often use them to seem busy and therefore important. Cultivate essential projects for yourself, say no to anything that doesn't serve you.
  • ๐Ÿ“œ Philosophies: Metaphysics and philsophy are less discussed areas that minimalism can thrive, but arguably the most important. It's no wonder that Buddhism and Taoism emerged from the East, steeped in the principles of simplicty, directness, and principled essence. For many spiritual seekers today, getting rid of the excess theories, speculations, ego-games, and other fluff that accompany lifestyle philosophies and metaphysical orientations would help a lot of people relax, return to presence, and embrace life further.

Very few, if any, 'public minimalists' these days talk about anything beyond material possessions. It's a shame. Minimalist health, time, philosophy, and relationships have all been far more powerful for me than paring down possessions.

It shows how trapped in the physical we are as a culture. I urge the public minimalist influencers to expand beyond possessions, and create information around cultivating minimalist lifestyles rather than merely living spaces.

๐Ÿงฎ Minimalism & Materialism

"I make myself rich, by making my wants few." โ€“ Thoreau

Without a doubt, minimalism made me more materialistic.

If you define materialism as deriving value from the accumulation of material possessions, obviously not. However, if you define materialism as taking deep enjoyment and interest in the quality and production of material goods, then absolutely.

The fewer possessions I have, the more I care about them. The higher the quality I look for when buying something. The deeper I respect and cherish craftsmanship, materials, heart, and integrity in the production process.

Minimalism has made me care more about the things I have, not less.

Everything I own is my favourite thing.

It's special to me. I know where it come from, I know what it's made of, I know why I have it, and I know why I keep it.

For a culture so obsessed with consuming, it's backwards that no one seems to care about the quality of goods, merely just the quantity. Buying garbage from Chinese slaves that deteriorates in months isn't a materialist orientation, it's just blindness, poor taste.

Minimalism raises my standards. It raises my standards for friendships, for possessions, for time commitments. It helps me see what is truly valuable, what is deeply in alignment for me, and draw a firm distinction between what I truly need, and what I only want.

๐Ÿ‘ป Consumerism & the Hungry Ghosts

"We go on multiplying our conveniences only to multiply our cares. We increase our possessions only to the enlargement of our anxieties." โ€“ Anna Brackett

I have spoken several times previously about the Hungry Ghosts of Buddhism. The principle that an infinite amount of the wrong thing will never satisfy the need for the right thing.

From the entry... "These ghosts have bellies as vast as mountain valleys. Their mouth are like the hole of a needle. Even if they find food or drink, they cannot consume it. Thus they suffer from hunger and thirst."

The hungry ghosts are slaves to desire. Constantly seeking fulfillment but fundamentally unable to realize it. All of Western culture, most particularly evident in consumerism, is inflicted by the hungry ghosts.

  • There is no amount of money that will make you feel valuable.
  • There is no amount of stuff that will make you feel successful.
  • There is no amount of followers that will make you feel loved.
  • There is no amount of drugs that will fill the void inside of you.

You are forever on the hamster wheel, running in circles, chasing the next purchase, the next like, the next hit โ€” telling yourself "this will be the one."

You are a hungry ghost: endlessly chasing desire, but never arriving satisfied.

Western culture systematically strips away all that is sacred and fundamental to humans: nature, community, agency โ€” and sells back these hopeless, poisonous perversions like drugs, media, gimmicks and useless stuff that never fulfills the original needs. ย 

Minimalism is powerful because it gives you the opportunity to stop. To slow down, to get off of the hamster wheel, realize that it will never work, and begin reorienting your life in the direction of meaning, value, engagement, and expression.

Minimalism, the Way of Being that pursues essence over excess, quality over quantity, substance over presentation โ€” is the starting point on the journey to rediscover the beauty and meaning intrinsic to life.

๐ŸŽญ Minimalism & Identity

"You are the sky, everything else is just the weather." โ€” Pema Chodron

When an individual isn't confident in themselves, their ideas, their future, or their identity โ€” they use the act of accumulation to counterbalance this lack of confidence.

They acquire status, influence, prestige, possessions, labels, identities. All in a pursuit of solidifying their identity, their self-image, their core confidence.

  • The individual who feels powerless acquires positions of dominance and influence, they command attention โ€“ pursuing a dream of one day feeling powerful.
  • The individual who feels ugly acquires fashion trends, body modifications, social followings โ€“ pursuing a dream of one day feeling beautiful.
  • The individual who feels poor will acquire high-ticket status symbols like famous brands, fancy cars, large houses โ€“ย all pursuing a dream of one day feeling rich.

This is the plight of the hungry ghost. The pursuit is doomed to fail. There is no amount of vapid, empty accumulation that can fill the gaping void left by lack of agency, purpose, love, and community.

The less you associate your identity with transient materiality or identity-labels, the less you need to bolster it through accumulation. The more you identify with the unchanging essence of all that is, the less you need to support yourself.

Minimalism is a natural by-product of shifting the locus of identity from the physical to the spiritual.

It is also strange then, that there are so many 'minimalist influencers' these days using minimalism as another status symbol, yet another accumulation for their ego and identity.

On two opposing ends of the minimalist spectrum, we see how quickly the ego co-opts things. On one end, if you feel secure, you won't need to flaunt it, you won't need to cling to the physical and the material. On the other end, equally insecure in themselves are those who use minimalism as yet another accumulation for the ego. Identity work is challenging, and can easily go awry if not tracked carefully.

๐Ÿ‘จ๐Ÿปโ€๐Ÿ”ฌ Tools for Exploring Minimalism

"In the end only 3 things matter: how much you loved, how gently you lived, and how gracefully you let go of things not meant for you." โ€” Buddha

If you would like to explore Minimalism further, this is an individual path you must tread yourself. There are many 'public minimalists' but I would not recommend any. The focus of Minimalism is not on things, it's a Way of Being.

If you want to go further, here are a few tools you can use to get started:

  • ๐Ÿช’ Occam's Razor: "The simplest explanation is usually the best one." Use this with beliefs, relationships, philosophies, and choosing what to buy/use.
  • โŒ Abstinence: If you think you can't live without something, prove it. I guarantee you're wrong. Try not using whatever it is for 30+ days. If you still need it after, go right ahead. Minimalism isn't a punishment, if you need it, use it. But be prepared, you'll be shocked by how little survives the abstinence period.
  • โ›“ Voluntary Limitations: Set arbitrary self-rules, like don't drink soda, or wait 2 weeks before buying something. Voluntary limitations create better decisions about what to commit to and bring into your life.
  • โš—๏ธ Experiments: Run continual lifestyle experiements. Don't buy new clothes for a year. Buy all tech second-hand. Monthly groceries for less than $200. Develop a capsule wardrobe. Experiments show you just how far you can push it, and how little surface material changes affect your state of being. Having everything fit into a backpack/duffel has been an experiment of mine, for example.
  • ๐ŸŒฌ Re-identification with Immaterial: The things that matter most to you are immaterial: love, connection, community, purpose, play. Cultivate a spiritual practice that helps you identity with the immaterial, and minimalism is a natural by-product of this identity shift.

Possessions, identities, accumulations keep you rooted down. They keep you secure. They keep you chained. In a world of fear and insecurity, this is valuable. But it's the problem, not the solution.

All these accumulations restrict the freedom of your Soul. They keep you in bondage, chained to the past, chained to old identities, locked up in a self-imposed prison.

If you want to experience the freedom that is your birthright, systematically remove all that is not you. And I'll tell you now โ€” nothing physical is you. Minimalism is a Way of Being that honours this fundamental Truth.

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