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Sucking the marrow out of minimalism, doing nothing, and becoming the New Weird

[ 10 ] February 18, 2011 |
A man doing nothing

Image by SaZeOd on Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons

I have a love/hate relationship with minimalism.

I think some people get a little carried away with minimalism–really, why should I care how many t-shirts you have and what colors and neck styles they are? And why does all the underwear count as only one thing, and furniture and kitchen tools don’t count at all, but pairs of shoes all count separately?

Does it really make sense to pare down to only one notebook and pen (or none!) if you write for a living, just so you can meet the magic 100 Thing Quota?

I’ve contemplated introducing my own arbitrary counting scheme. (Car, other car, house, contents of house: 4 things. Eat my dust, 100-thingers!)

But I think minimalism overall has a lot to offer if you don’t get silly about it. Not wasting your money on buying things to feel better? Having few enough things that your house is peaceful and orderly? Consuming consciously? I can definitely get behind all that.

Over on Becoming Minimalist, I read a guest post by Courtney Carver about the Land of Enough. I think this is an expression of the best minimalism has to offer. Her premise is that, instead of thinking of ourselves as living in the land of plenty, we should think of ourselves as living in the Land of Enough. Instead of striving for more, more, more, we should find out what we really need and become content with that.

The Land of Enough boils down to a peaceful, satisfying existence.

In the Land of Enough, there are no credit card bills or retail therapy. When you’re happy, you don’t need to spend all that money, and not having the debt eliminates tons of stress.

In the Land of Enough, there is no rushing around, processed food, or clutter. Instead of watching tv or going to shows, people entertain themselves by reading, conversing, or doing things.

It sounds like a utopian dream world in a way. To me, that’s the number one thing missing from conventional life in our society. It’s gotten significantly worse in recent years as connection to the internet has become more and more pervasive in our lives. Now, even if you’re just waiting for the elevator, you can Google something on your smart phone. It’s great that we have access to more information than ever in the history of the world, and I love that the gatekeepers are becoming obsolete, but I think we’re about to lose something really important if we’re not careful: the ability to be. Not be entertained, not be important, not be productive, just be.

A few years ago, when I was freaking out and heading for a meltdown, I was directed to take half an hour every evening and just sit on the couch and do nothing. Don’t watch tv, don’t grade papers, don’t make lists, don’t do anything.

“What?!” I thought. “How the hell am I going to do that? How will I sit still with all this work hanging over my head? If I manage to sit still, how will I stay awake? That won’t work at all!”

If you like the idea of a more peaceful life but feel the same way about doing nothing, let me tell you how I did it.

I cheated. As soon as I sat down, my cat jumped in my lap, and I stared into space and petted her. What do you know, it is possible to do nothing for half an hour! In fact, it’s pretty easy with a cat’s help, and quite addictive. And if you fall asleep, who cares? Nobody is going to show up and give you an F in contemplation. You probably needed the rest.

If you can’t handle half an hour, start with five minutes. Or, start by taking walks with no electronics or companions to build up your spacing out muscles, then work on stationary nothing-doing.

I still think starting a to-quit list and eliminating as much scheduling and obligation as you can is the best thing to do, but that takes time and needs to be customized for your life. I aim to have no more than two things per week happening at specific times; such a schedule would be completely impossible for someone with meetings and kids in activities. Even for me, I’m suddenly on a new project at work with a standing teleconference at noon every Tuesday, and it’s really harshing my mellow, but there doesn’t seem to be anything I can do about it while I’m on this project, so here I am: scheduled at noon on Tuesdays.

No matter what kind of life you have and how tightly scheduled it is, taking the time to space out is something you can do for yourself if it’s important to you. I highly recommend it.

I think a lot of people get caught up in the vicious cycle of buying stuff, eating whatever they can find fast, and rushing around–it’s hard to escape. It’s the default mode in our society. If you don’t do those things, you’re weird. I know: pretty much everyone at my office thinks I’m weird.

But then again, taking charge of your life, sculpting it into what you want, and being happy are also outliers in our society. Given the alternative, I’ll happily be weird every day and twice on Sundays. Anyone want to join me?

About Cara Stein: I'm a writer and dreamer with a PhD in self-reinvention. (Or was that computer science?) Whether you're stuck, lost, or just looking to enjoy your life more, I want to help because I've been there!

Comments (10)

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  1. Jess says:

    Your point about just being is well-taken. Everytime I have a moment to myself, which you know I cherish, I seem to have to find something to do in it. What I really WANTED to do yesterday was read my book, but when the girls were outside, I felt compelled to do something else. I said to myself, “self, it’s time to read!” So I did.

    Oh, and just as an aside, I LOVE your thoughts on minimalism…particularly your list of stuff.

    • Cara Stein says:

      Yah yah yah! It’s so hard to just sit down and chill! I think it’s worse for people with super busy lives, like you. But even me, when I get some time to myself, I always fidget around and tidy up or surf the net first, as if somehow that’s a warm-up for savoring my me-time. It makes no sense when I’ve proven time and again that that’s the stuff that sucks up the me-time, but I do it anyway unless I consciously decide not to.

      Good for you for sitting yourself down and reading!!

  2. Laurie says:

    This is great, Cara…I love being weird, too. :)

    I’ve never had much of a problem with my outer life being too hectic, but my brain certainly gets extremely overloaded, and that can be just as bad. A few months ago I started doing 10-15 minutes of meditation in the morning and evening, with the intention of simply sitting with my eyes closed and being quiet. I seldom reach the blissful state of no-thought, but my thoughts do slow down and I’m able to see the important ones more clearly.

    Simply “being” is so vital to a balanced life. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

    • Cara Stein says:

      It’s awesome that your outer life isn’t too hectic! That is an enviable state.

      Meditation has been coming up a lot lately as something I should try. It comes with a lot of the same what-ifs as doing nothing, but what the heck, worst case I’ll fall asleep, right? :)

      Thanks for your insights!

  3. wing says:

    Breathe and do nothing. Enviable. Honestly, I don’t really know personally anyone who could achieve that. Even when I’m not doing anything, my mind is rushing with thoughts. Sometimes, it just get frustrating.

    I love your thought on minimalism. The 100-thing quota. Like seriously, we deserve a bit of indulgence sometimes. Why be so hard on ourselves? Ultimately, I think minimalism is about spending less on things that doesn’t matter and doing more of things that enhance your life.

    Back at home, some people think I’m weird too. Who cares. As long as I’m myself, weird can be the new cool (:

    • Cara Stein says:

      Three cheers for weird! I figure it means you’re thinking for yourself and doing what you want instead of just doing what all the other sheep or lemmings are doing.

      About doing nothing, seriously, I felt the same way you just described, but it’s easier than it sounds! Even without a cat. :) Maybe you can’t stop thinking because you’re afraid you’ll miss or forget something? That’s often my problem; if that’s the case, I would consider doing a mad free-write for ten minutes first–just write down everything that comes to your mind as fast as you can, then see if you can do nothing! Maybe your mind will be more free. I don’t know, but it might be worth a try.

  4. Hey Cara,

    My nick name is Mister Weirdo, so I am with you on the weird band wagon.

    Rasheed
    Minding my own business

  5. Cara,

    I stumbled into the minimalism websites last year and found that most of it works well with daoism, which I have practiced for many years. Within a couple of months after deciding to sell my crap and make more emptiness in my life, I accepted a job to move to Africa for a year and live out of two suitcases. Minimal, yes! Time to relax, yes! Meditate twice a day and taking the time to explore what I need to live.
    Thanks!

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