How and why I have practiced minimalism

Many friends who have known me over the years tell me that my home and my way of life is very minimalist. I often feel the opposite, that my home is bursting to the seams with stuff and I waste entirely too much money and time on silly things that bring me no pleasure.

In any case, I definitely do like minimalism, and my biggest inspirations are from Japan. First is the "extreme" minimalist, Fumio Sasaki. The other is the more famous Mari Kondo. Both of these authors present answers to the question of how to reduce the amount of clutter in our lives, but each has a different take on the process to reach that point. As I see it, these two approaches represent two valid ways to try to make our lives easier through reducing our owned objects.

These two approaches are, briefly:

  1. Deliberately analyze each thing you own and discard anything that you do not like or find useful. This can be a slower and more subjective process.

  2. Quickly get rid of everything the moment you feel a sense of it weighing you down, without deeply analyzing whether or not you like it. This is a faster but more error-prone process.

At the end of the day, you will end up at a similar place with both approaches. With few things, your home should in theory be filled with only those things that make you feel positive feelings, or that are necessary for daily life.

That is in theory. In practice, I find that this process of discarding things has become, for me, a sort of compulsive crutch, perhaps even an addiction.

I will hearken back to about five years ago, shortly before the pandemic started up. I was in a loosely defined long-distance relationship with someone who didn't feel reciprocal feelings, and the painful attachment came to an end that fall. Weeks later, a family member died from suicide. A week or so after the death, I lost my job due to a layoff.

This left me going into the holiday season in 2019 with a deep sense of being lost, displaced, lacking direction in life, and fearing that my own life had become eclipsed and I was perhaps headed for something of a downfall.

To assuage my feelings of displacement and loss, I began meticulously cleaning and organizing my apartment, a small one-bedroom unit downtown, near where my job had been. It was around this time that I discovered Fumio Sasaki's book, Goodbye Things. I recently (as of 2024) re-read this book, and it struck me how often the author refers to his occupational and relationship failures as a motivation for his "extreme minimalist" lifestyle. (Sasaki lives in Tokyo in a 300 sq ft economy apartment, with a very bare wardrobe, small desk, laptop, a few basic cooking implements, and very little besides.)

For example, here is an excerpt from the book in which Sasaki relates his experience of coveting a friend's lifestyle and relationship success:

"Meanwhile, I kept comparing myself with others. A friend from college lived in a posh condo on newly developed land in Tokyo. It had a glitzy entrance and stylish Scandinavian furniture and tableware in the dining room... He worked for a big company, earned a good salary, married his gorgeous girlfriend, and they'd had a beautiful baby... What happened? How did our lives drift so far apart?"

I can see why my late-2019 self identified with this author. If I could summarize the points that the author makes, it is something like this:

If you are unsuccessful in life, in terms of status via career and relationships, if you find yourself with no romantic prospects, little income, and fortunes fading, isn't it better to embrace it and live a simple life? The pain from wishing and hoping for more is much worse than the reality. In reality, you still live in a modern city, with all the amenities of a modern city; you still have friends, and a bit of money to spend on simple pleasures, like a meal at a restaurant or a cup of coffee at the local cafe, once in a while.

In late 2019, my apartment came to more closely resemble the extreme minimalist Japanese homes like Fumio Sasaki's apartment. I had almost nothing that I did not need. compared to my home today, I had very little. Things that I have since added which I did not own in 2019:

  • A TV stand
  • A stereo system and speakers for the TV
  • A media PC running on an Intel NUC with Kodi for movies
  • A desktop PC (previously I only had a tiny MacBook Air)
  • Speakers for my desktop PC / laptop
  • An electric guitar and amplifier
  • A MIDI keyboard for music
  • A Mac Mini for doing music production work
  • A Scarlett i2i for the Mac Mini
  • A cat!

You get the picture. All these things were acquired during the proximal period of my life, the pandemic, which has had a very profound impact on my life.

Before 2020, I really did not use my apartment much. I thought of it was just a place to eat and do my laundry in the evening, after I was done commuting to work, the gym, and social events around town. I lived downtown purely for convenience. I did not like driving and wanted to be close to my job, which was downtown. Like many "transplants" from up north to Austin, I felt more at home near the revitalizing urban center, surrounded by big buildings and walkable streets.

In 2020, we all suddenly had to spend a lot more time at home, and this led to me reversing course on my minimalism impulse, which had been itself driven by loneliness and loss. I started hoarding things instead of decluttering them.

I have had to move twice now since the pandemic started, once to get out of downtown which had become a dystopian nightmare, and once to get away from loud construction that my duplicitous landlord, a cold and uncaring property management corporation, had started doing on the exterior of my building.

With each move, I reassessed the things that I own and questioned why I have so much, what I am trying to prepare for. I was hoarding food, medical supplies, and water. I had a 30 gallon drum in my pantry, which I installed after the water went out in my building in February 2021. Each time I moved, it gave me a reason to stop and question.

Why did I have these things? Why was I living in this city at all? What was becoming of my life? Was I just going to live in a little concrete box one-bedroom apartment managed by a REIT fund for the rest of my life, while working 12 hours a day for some tech company that was probably looking for any reason to lay me off, yet again?

It is a feeling of weakness and vulnerability. And if there is anything that the years of this shittiest of all decades has brought us, it is a persistent sense of helplessness, weakness, and loss of stability.

I imagine this is similar to what Fumio Sasaki felt when he was writing Goodbye Things. A person who feels powerful, strong, and capable does not typically want to shrink their dominion in the world, so to speak. The natural inclination is to expand our power, to have more space, more social influence, and so on.

So maybe minimalism is a quasi religious impulse to shrink the ego and focus instead of an internal mental or psychological strength. It reminds me of a monk who has only his vestments and his duties, but no possessions of his own, and no personal relationships -- all his duties are duties to the church and God, but never to others. He turns away from his humanity and toward a kind of God-like state of being.

But this is also precisely the kind of "trauma response" that people follow our their youth that leads to becoming introverted. If we feel we are denied a thumos from the society we live in, we turn to our own mental world as both an escape from society, but also another way to grow and expand our power where it is not being so completely stymied. Introversion develops early in life, but events like a breakup or job loss tend to cause a resurgence of introversion, which makes sense if we imagine that it is a coping strategy developed to respond to loss of status, or fear thereof.

I have to think that my own minimalism impulse is coming from a similar psychological place. I do actually feel inferior to my peers, and unable to compete directly with them. If you feel you're unable to compete, your natural defense is to say you don't want to compete anymore. Imagine a boxer retiring after he loses a series of bouts. Better to take your losses and walk away with dignity!

Indeed, I think that the rising interest in minimalism has a lot to do with the declining economic fortunes of many middle class people in the US and abroad. Many of us grew up in households where we had plenty, but as we have entered into adulthood and approached middle-age, we realize now that we are not going to achieve the levels of material success that our parents enjoyed. But if we all become minimalists instead, we can save ourselves the embarrassment of being unable to "compete" in the modern corporate environment.

Of course, we might also just like having a clean desk and floors. Minimalism is just practical. For those of us who are blowing with the economic wind of post-industrial capital right now, it's convenient to be able to pack up our paltry belongings the next time our corporate landlord increases the rent by $500 while demolishing our ever-so-temporary homes.

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