“I’m no Buddhist monk, and I can’t say I’m in love with renunciation in itself, or traveling an hour or more to print out an article I’ve written, or missing out on the N.B.A. Finals. But at some point, I decided that, for me at least, happiness arose out of all I didn’t want or need, not all I did.”
A man called Pico Eyer has done something special. His article “The Joy of Less.” has sparked such strong emotions in me, that I’ve picked up my pen. I occasionally aspire to a literary response when I feel a sense of literary enlightenment, but rarely bother to achieve anything more than a couple of angry squiggles.
Eyer’s article describes the simple life he’s carved for himself in the suburbs of Kyoto, Japan after abandoning the dream of being a foreign correspondent for Time Magazine in the States. He has no mobile phone, no computer, no bicycle and spends his time writing his friends letters. For the young and ambitious the article sums up both their dreams and nightmares.
On the one hand the man working for Time is the man I want to be. He’s the respected correspondent who files stories on his blackberry while flying back into a war torn banana republic to scoop the world. Yet on the other, the authors description of a simpleton living in Kyoto without ‘things’ is the man I crave to discover and evolve to become. I’ll be the first to admit that the article smacks slightly of cliché and I’ve no idea why middle aged American men of a similar mental disposition seem to be find themselves in Japan (I have since discovered that the author has also written a book on the 14th Dalai Lama which made me further wince). Perhaps the article wouldn’t have smacked so strongly of self-congratulation if the author had moved to Siberia, but it’s the location of the authors move is largely irrelevant. Lets just say that if I took a couple of leaves from his book that I’d certainly have time to write responses and critiques to all the articles I mentally ridicule on a daily basis. The article is about having less and living more simply.
As my friends and family know I have a terrible problem with ‘things’. At any one given point I have a relatively long list of ‘things’ I need for one reason or another. The result is that I have a love-hate relationship with eBay, waste days buying and selling, have a unhealthy relationship with the lady in the post office and shock my acquaintances regularly when they discover how liberally my floor is decorated with expensive gadgets. I wouldn’t say I’m particularly materialistic. My lists are never endless; the ‘things’ are usually outdoor or camera things which are justified as necessary for my career, or for greater periods of zen time in the great outdoors (I also probably need the associated accessories for the aforementioned ‘things’).
These lists are always meant to be a final solution to my problems. They are about consolidation, not adding to my collections. I work out furious spreadsheets. If I sell X, Y and Z and buy N then I often conclude that I’ll a better and more streamlined collection of possessions. Each list starts as a list to end all lists and so I spend careful hours calculating each transaction and dream of the simple life which lies at the end of the spreadsheet.
The lists play on my mind so much so, that the desire or need for these‘ things’ can often limit my activities. When I decide that I need new mountain bike shoes, the condition of my old ones can bother me so much to the point of not going cycling.
The fact is though that I’m not that interested in ‘things’. I’d never go and buy myself a Gucci pair of shoes, or a showy car. In fact my buying of new ‘things’ is often to do with selling old ‘things’ in order to reduce my current cohort of possessions (Is this making any sense?). Whether or not this makes sense is irrelevant because mentally I justify the need of these objects.
Half the problem is that things wear out,especially when you like to play in the great outdoors. Ropes wear, jackets get ripped, those once in a lifetime merino wool base-layers hole and become mangy. Al posted a picture of an outdoor cooking scene alongside Eyer’s article, as an endorsement of the simpleton outdoors life. Walk, swim, cook, sleep and repeat. It’s a very Zen existence. But next time you go walking or mountain biking consider the amount of gear in your pack, strapped onto your bike, or around camp. It’s hundreds upon hundreds (if not thousands) of pounds worth of gear.
Not that you have to have all this gear though. Feel free to take to the Lake District for a weeks walking dressed like a Buddhist monk, with nothing but an old cape to sleep in at night and a fire flint for your tea. You’ll probably be fine. You’ll also probably be very wet, cold and miserable within a few hours, but don’t let that bother you, because maybe I’ve just not reached that level of spiritual enlightenment yet. I don’t think I ever will. Few people who have spent a few truly wet, cold and miserable hours return to adopt it as their mantra. I’m keeping hold of those new must-have GoreTex underpants thanks. In fact passing time in the great outdoors could be considered to be one of the least Zen things you ever do, if your possessions are an indication of level of spiritual enlightenment.
They say money doesn’t buy you happiness. But maybe if I could just throw away my old worn out things and buy replacements without worrying about the consequences to my student loan, then I would spend more times outdoors and less time spread sheeting. Maybe being zen with ‘things’ is overrated anyway? It’s not that I’m buying ‘things’ to make me happy anyway. I’ll delete my eBay account right away and cancel that the sale of all that ”well loved, but in usable condition” gear, give it all to a charity shop and enjoy my life. Perhaps that will set my mind at rest and I’ll have reached enlightenment in a different way I guess. I’m typing my application to become a stock-broker as we speak to fund this lifestyle choice. Maybe not.
The blogosphere is going mad at the moment for these kinds of posts. Just type “fifty things challenge” into Google and see the amount of people trying to limit their inventory to fifty or a hundred items in life. Yet notwithstanding the fact that 90% of all the posts have a Macbook-pro as their first item and a million terabyte external hard-drive as their second (which should send our Zen alarm bells ringing anyway) I really don’t see how these people get on. I recently read a blog by a man who claimed one of his items to be a bicycle. Yet there was no record of a pump, a bottle of lubricant, a spare inner tube, a helmet, a small set of tools. Does this Zen god take his bike to the shop every time he wants to lower his seat?
Try doing it now. Go away and write a list of the amount of items you can sensibly get away with living with. A toothbrush, a pen, a knife, a pair of trousers. Is my pocket radio a necessity? No. But I like listening to Radio 4 in the morning. Hmmm- does it stay or does it go? What about my swimming trunks? Are they a necessity? I can go swimming in my undies, how about goggles? Maybe I could buy some which double as sunglasses. It’s very difficult isn’t it?
But guess what? This “fifty things challenge” is just another list. It harks back to my earlier attempt. It’s the chance of a final act of consolidation (which is what I’ve been trying to achieve after all). I mean if you’re going to only have fifty things you probably want them all to be in really good condition. So I better add a fountain pen to my list, a new pair of shoes (the best quality as I’m only going to have one pair) and a new bicycle because my old one is kinda rickety. I’ll sell the old ones on eBay to minimize clutter, work from eight-till-eight to pay off my bills, buy the things I need, post off the old; and I’ll be happy. Or have I misunderstood Eyer’s article?