December 19, 2012

Less Stuff = More Joy: Is “Abundance” Overrated?

So advantage is had
From whatever is there;
But usefulness rises
From whatever is not.

~Lao Tzu (R. B. Blakney, trans.)

“Buying is much more American than thinking and I’m as American as they come.”
~ Andy Warhol

’Tis the season of giving. And, inevitably, with all that giving, lot of getting happens, as well—often involving stuff we don’t expect, need or want. But, for those of us leading affluent lives in the modern west, it’s merely drops in a gigantic trough of abundance.

Abundance, of course, is something with which  the contemporary yoga world is highly concerned—more specifically, cultivating abundance, learning to bring, through a positive outlook, dedication, and/or metaphysical means, abundance into our lives.

And why not? Here in the wealthiest society this world has ever seen—and, more specifically, within the conspicuously privileged portions of that society in which yoga is particularly popular—where rampant consumerism is essential to the economy and, in the eyes of much of the population, synonymous with freedom—why shouldn’t even spirituality focus itself on the ever-present desire for more?

Francine Jay, in the joy of less: a minimalist living guide, argues that, in fact, many of us have way too much abundance. And this abundance—the preponderance of stuff of which most of the world’s people, including most of those who, in the past, were considered wealthy, could scarcely dream—is, in fact, making us less free, and less happy. And so, to regain our freedom, we need to get rid of a lot of the stuff with which we clutter our homes and lives, let go of material abundance to cultivate emptiness and space. “If we recognize the abundance in our lives, and appreciate what we have,” she writes, we will not want for more.”

I can relate, having recently moved to a new place, leaving behind a situation with which I wasn’t happy, but avoided changing for a long time, since that would involve dealing with three years worth of accumulated stuff. Around the same time, my mother moved out of the house in which I grew up, and my brothers and I have been, for the most part, not dealing with the need to clean it out. Right now, there are piles of stuff on the floor of my old bedroom—comic books, letters, my dad’s guitar—that I have nowhere to put in a new apartment already full of crap dutifully moved from the previous one.

Twenty years ago, I hiked the Appalachian Trail. One fellow thru-hiker, a retired military officer, would lecture anyone within earshot—which, sleeping in seven by ten foot lean-to’s, often included me—about his backpacking philosophy: get rid of everything except what you need to survive! Dump that camp stove! Forget that paperback book, that trail journal, that totally unnecessary framed photo of your girlfriend! But I liked reading my tattered copy of  theTao Te Ching while waiting for my ramen water to boil. Writing about day to day life in the woods mattered to me. (As for the framed picture of the girlfriend….I didn’t actually have one, which was just as well, as she met another guy while I was on the trail). Even if it was more that was needed for bare survival, it all fit into a backpack, and that was one time in my life when I was happy enough with everything I had that I didn’t mind carrying it up and down mountains.

Some years ago, Time or maybe Newsweek did a cover story about the new simplicity, which, it turned out, involved people with incredibly expensive handcrafted houses furnished with incredibly expensive handcrafted furniture. And, of course, it’s never hard to find well-off westerners who’ll go on endlessly about how happy and spiritual people are in the impoverished third world paradises they visit for high priced rustic yoga retreats in tourist enclaves protected from the locals by small armies of armed guards. The old military dude lost a lot of credibility after sending his sleeping bag home following the first warm day of spring, leaving himself only a space blanket to shiver under during a snowstorm days later, but at least his desire for simplicity was more than an affectation.

Francine Jay, from the beginning, makes clear that she is concerned with something far more substantial than macho survivalism or rich New Age posturing. Her book is about not just sloughing off or purging, but cultivating a minimalist mindset, which she describes in turns of philosophy, ethics, and more practical concerns in the book’s early chapters.

This, as it turns out, involves neither “chic, multimillion-dollar lofts with three pieces of furniture” nor sacrificing the things we love and enjoy, or that keep us warm in a snowstorm. Rather, much of what we own tends to be stuff we don’t love, enjoy, or need, serving only to clutter up our lives. And she emphasizes that, as in the case of dieting, what’s needed to free ourselves  is an actual lifestyle change rather than a mere purging of what will quickly be replaced.

She offers a striking amount of wisdom about the relationship between ourselves and our possessions, including the way (as Tyler Durden memorably pointed out in Fight Club) they can end up seeming to own us. And notably, she quite bluntly identifies my collection of guitars I never play as the kind of “aspirational stuff” “we buy…to indulge our ‘fantasy selves.’”

She points out that the word vacation derives from the Latin vacare, which means to be empty. Could it be that what really sends us off to exotic places might be less a desire to explore than simply to get away from all the stuff that burdens us? And the longer we hold onto to an item, no matter how little its value to us, she points out, the harder it is to discard: once something has memories, it’s a bugger to get rid of (and this, of course, is true of far more than just material possessions).

And she offers various psychological as well as hands-on strategies for purging in the form of commonsense principles:

Surfaces are not for storage.

Decluttering is infinitely easier when you think of it as deciding what to keep, rather than deciding what to throw away.

What seems perfectly legitimate in your head can sound ridiculous when spoken aloud.

Finally, she offers the  One in-One out rule, which, it occurs to me, I need to apply to this book. What will I get rid of to make room for it on my shelf? Most gratifyingly, all of this is presented in an easygoing, easy to read, style.

It’s once she starts getting into her lengthy Room By Room section that the book bogs down—though, as she emphasizes, this part is really meant to be skipped around in or used however one likes (Full disclosure: I ended up skipping a lot of it). For all of its discussion of streamlining, the book, and particularly this part, could easily have been trimmed from its 286 pages without losing anything truly necessary or beautiful, as much that was given succinctly in the introductory sections seems to be repeated for each new situation.

And, it’s in this section that the joy of less starts seeming more like the joy of order. At one point, the reader is asked to imagine his or her ideal bedroom. “Although I don’t know your personal tastes,” Jay writes, “I’m pretty sure of one thing: there’s not a stitch of clutter….”  She’s right about the not knowing my personal tastes part. Admittedly, my dream room contains a lot less clutter, as well as a lot less stuff in general, than my actual bedroom—no mismatched socks, shrunken t-shirts, or dust bunnies—and that’s one reason I appreciate this book. There is still, however, in my mind’s eye, a gloriously disordered pile of books and magazines—that I love and want to read, not crap I haven’t bothered throwing out—beside its unmade bed. It’s a comfortable space where I can relax without worrying about messing up a carefully orchestrated arrangement. The author’s ideal of a place where everything is in its proper module and expected to stay there, on the other hand, doesn’t sound comfortable or relaxing to me at all. A certain amount of disorder and, yes, clutter—though, certainly, far less than is to be found in my apartment—can be the difference between a place that feels like home and one that feels like a time-share.

In its final section, the book goes beyond material places and things to discuss lifestyle. Here, the emphasis shifts from freeing up space to time. After the Room by Room section, I expected instructions on how to micromanage every second of my life. The book, however, takes a lighter, more moderate tone, here—emphasizing good enough over perfection. And, actually, I found myself wanting more.

Towards the end, she goes into to a more general discussion of socially and ecologically conscious consumerism, which she calls minsumerism. Here, again, she kind of veers away from less—urging the reader, ultimately, to put more time and money into shopping, for the sake of ecology and fair trade. Not that I disagree, but, it should probably be under a heading like: “when less isn’t better.”

Despite such minor quibbles, this could be the perfect gift for people who don’t want gifts because they’ve got too much stuff as it is, for the person who has everything, and might be starting to realize that everything isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

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