Last weekend my husband Thom and I attended a lecture by a young man named Timber Hawkeye. By his own definition, Timber is a religion-less Buddhist with a mission to awaken, enlighten, enrich and inspire. Not only does he offer a refreshing and practical approach to spirituality, he also talks repeatedly about creating a more simplified life. On the drive home, Thom and I began talking about how these two philosophies share a few things in common. From there, we came up with the Four Noble Truths of Minimalism as a way to remind and connect with the core principles behind a more simple, practical and grounded life.
A little background is useful. As some of you probably know, Buddhism is a religion and a philosophy that originated in India in approximately 654 B.C. Now spread throughout Asia and the world, it claims somewhere around 500 million followers and is considered one of the major religions on the planet. Like Christianity, numerous sects exist promoting their perspective. But at the center of them sits a man named Siddhartha Gautama who eventually came to be known as the Buddha, meaning the “Enlightened” or “Awakened” one. At the core of the teachings rests the desire to liberate humanity and to find the clarity and peace of nirvana.
Fundamental to the teaching is a series of ideas called The Four Noble Truths. Each attempts to explain the pain and suffering that humanity faces, and how to not only deal with that, but how we all may eventually reach an enlightened state. Of course, just like with any ancient religion, layers and layers of philosophy and interpretation exist. However, the Four Noble Truths present the basics in an easy to comprehend way. That’s why they also provide a unique way to explore minimalism and how they both connect.
First Noble Truth Of Minimalism—Suffering comes from believing the illusion that money, stuff and getting more of anything will make us happy or satisfied.
While many of us tend to think that minimalism is a fad for the 21st century—we would be wrong. Six hundred years before the birth of Jesus, a man named Siddhartha was born in a very wealthy Indian family. His father so wanted to protect his son from the pain and uncertainty of the world that he kept Siddhartha locked up in his palace for all of his young life so that he would never witness some of the painful truths that come from real life. (Does that sound like any parent you know?)
Like any typical teenager, not to mention an adventurous human, Siddhartha eventually figured out a way to escape his family fortress. He immediately witnessed some of the anguish and unhappiness that happens every day. Not only did he see people who were destitute and starving, he experienced a funeral introducing him to the idea of death for the very first time. Can you imagine his horror?
So what did he do? He renounced his former lifestyle as a lie and gave away everything. Living the life of an ascetic, he deprived himself of all earthly possessions to understand if that was the way to overcome suffering. Later, after years of exploring that option, he found himself in a more moderate place he called, “The Middle Path.” From there, sitting under a Bodhi tree in meditation, he became awakened and enlightened.” (Aka: The Buddha.)
Two important things that anyone on the minimalist path can learn from this truth are that while “less is more,” it is usually the moderate approach that leads us to contentment. Plus, it isn’t so much what we do on the outside that counts, most real transformation and “enlightenment” happens within.
Second Noble Truth Of Minimalism—It’s not the possessions in our life that result in suffering. Instead, it is our attachments, cravings or erroneous thinking that leads to the pain.
What the Buddha discovered was that it wasn’t the stuff, or lack of stuff, that was causing people pain and suffering. All the pain came from craving and desire for things that exist outside ourselves. In other words, the quest for the biggest house, the largest bank account, or the most expensive car will make us miserable if we think we need that to be happy. Having 25 pairs of shoes or the latest cosmetic crème will not make us feel beautiful. Real peace and contentment can only come from within.
Behind all that craving is our attachments. Attachments can be to stuff, people, habits or beliefs we refuse to let go of or accept. Unfortunately, all of those things are either impermanent or not under our control. The more we want other people to behave the way we think they should, or for nothing challenging to ever happen, the more we suffer. And the more we hold on or keep things from ever changing, the more painful it gets.
Minimalism teaches us that the more stuff we have to manage, the more complicated our lives become. When we attempt to hang on to things that are no longer useful or joyful to us, we surround ourselves with distractions that keep us from focusing on what really matters. Holding on when it is time to let go, or craving things that we do not have or need, is painful. Instead, when we are grateful and appreciative of those things we authentically love, we grant ourselves freedom and peace of mind.
Third Noble Truth Of Minimalism—We have the ability to transcend the pain of suffering by transmuting our ignorance into wisdom and achieving joy.
This truth is the good news that contentment and happiness are attainable to us all. By recognizing what really matters, by giving up our cravings, by letting go of attachments, by living in the now, we can begin to live in a place without fear, anger or hatred. In this place that is free from psychological suffering, we find we are not obsessed with our own selfish needs and instead become more giving and generous to all.
One of the greatest gifts offered by those living a more simple life is a freedom from stress and worry. Once a person stops chasing after things they don’t need, working at jobs they hate just to pay the bills, all to impress people they might not even like, life becomes much more sweet. Not only does a person have more time and freedom to do the things they love, but they also discover they need even less than they thought. It’s true that less stuff = less stress. Or, as Timber Hawkeye said, “Working part-time allows me to live full-time.”
Four Noble Truth Of Minimalism—The eight-fold path is the means to reaching the peaceful and enlightened state of what Buddhists call Nirvana.
Just like so many truths, the message is simple but not easy. While Buddha shared that the solution was possible, he went on to offer many more ideas about how to reach a state of enlightenment called Nirvana. One of the first places to start is with the eightfold path. While many people call them the “right” steps, they have nothing to do with right or wrong. Doing them in the “correct” way is the best approach. They involve (1) having the correct perception, (2) the correct thoughts and emotions, (3) the right speech, (4) the right actions, (5) the right livelihood, (6) the right intentions, (7) the right mindfulness and awareness, and (8) correct meditation.
Fully exploring the eightfold path could take a lifetime. But thinking of them in relation to minimalism is also helpful. After all, having an accurate perception of the nature of reality is critical. Learning to train our minds and emotions in the right way is essential. The words that come out of our mouths are as important as what we do. All our work, our intentions, our self-awareness, and mindfulness add up to what makes for a good life, or one of suffering. We decide. And behind it all, is taking the time to be able to focus on what really matters. As the Buddha said, “The secret of health for both mind and body is not to mourn for the past, not to worry about the future, or not to anticipate troubles, but to live in the present moment wisely and earnestly.”
One of the greatest benefits of the eightfold path to minimalism is the reminder that the path is a journey—not a destination. And remember, it’s not the extreme approach either. It doesn’t say get rid of everything you own and become a monk. That didn’t work for the Buddha, and it won’t work for most people. It also didn’t say that we should stay locked up in our castle and pretend that the world doesn’t have some challenging and tough circumstances happening at any given time. Instead, the middle path with right thoughts, right speech, right action and all the rest is where we mindfully strive to be. (Sounds a lot like Rightsizing doesn’t it?)
But don’t get me wrong. I’m not a Buddhist and I’m not sure Timber Hawkeye would agree with my comparisons. Plus, there is no way this short article can cover all the complexities of what practicing Buddhism means. But I firmly believe that it’s SMART to explore ideas and different philosophies whenever we can to help us all learn more about the world around us and most especially ourselves. And like the Buddha supposedly said, “It is better to travel well than arrive.”