Where Minimalism and Buddhist Philosophies Merge and Diverge

Lets talk about “stuff”. Minimalism seems to be obsessed with stuff – of getting rid of it be it possessions or other non physical things in our lives. The problem is however that with all this focus on “stuff” and the lack of it, we might never move onto the bigger picture – why we adopted minimalism in the first place and not achieve the freedom and happiness we were hoping for.

Firstly let me say that minimalism does and can mean many different things for different people and there is absolutely no right or wrong. It is only wrong if what you are doing and your perspective is not working for you and you are discontented. Then it might be worthwhile exploring a different version or focusing on the deeper aspects of self development that personally i’d argue are actually more important than “stuff” and decluttering.

In my own personal journey i’d long realised that minimalism had it’s roots in Buddhist philosophy and that perhaps exploring Buddhism from a secular perspective further might be the logical next step in self development. In my mind minimalism began and ended with getting rid of excess stuff to give one time and freedom to do whatever they wanted, whether or not that was related to a certain type of stuff or considered of value to anyone outside of oneself. Buddhism on the other hand seemed way more certain about what is or isn’t of value which is basically nothing except shunning the craving for stuff and other worldly pleasures and doing the various activities they define as necessary to achieve that level of detachment which may or may not involve not having many possessions depending on whether you are a monk or lay person. That was my very uneducated impression of it anyway.

Then listening to The Minimalists Podcast i was quite surprised at some of their responses to listener questions which made it clear that they too were attempting to achieve a level of detachment from ‘stuff’ and that this was at the core of their minimalist philosophy. For example a woman rang up asking if it was ok if she kept her collection of vintage dresses as she really loved them and felt they gave her a lot of value in her life. I thought The Minimalists would say ‘why yes, if they give you value!’. Instead they proceeded to tell her she should get rid of them, that she was using them to define herself as a person and that clothing is replaceable, if not utilitarian. In general they talked a lot about possessions being tools for achieving the things of value, and that they didn’t have an intrinsic value in of themselves.

My general thoughts on this was “brilliant, now someone finally is digging into this!” But then thinking more I can see some potential conflicts that this minimalist philosophy doesn’t seem to really address or define. For example:

  • If being creative is the thing of value in that woman’s life and she does so with her vintage clothing then how is that any different to using writing to express oneself as The Minimalists do? The clothing could be a tool like anything else…
  • If you are not meant to define yourself from your possessions (which sounds like a good idea in general) then does that mean a personal style is completely out of the question? This might explain why The Minimalists just wear t-shirts and jeans but for many many people practicing minimalism they are extremely interested and focused on having a personal style within their capsule wardrobes. If this is meant to be a core part of minimalism it would be very unappealing to these people.
  • How do you draw the line between something frivolous and something giving value? Obviously these choices are up to the individual to decide but unlike Buddhism which is much clearer about what is and isn’t of value, minimalism is a free-for-all. Clearly the woman in the call was passionate about vintage dresses so why was that not considered a valuable perspective? The minimalists seemed to be trying the minimise her interests as well as her possessions. My other issue with this viewpoint is that it doesn’t leave room for something to be important because it creates value for others. It seems very self-centred and i think the world would be a worse place if nobody ever did anything completely altruistically.
  • Finally if achieving detachment from ones possessions is the goal. Then far far more focus needs to be on how someone can achieve this. In Buddhism this is seen as extremely difficult, taking multiple lifetimes and a great deal of study and practices such as meditation. The Minimalists seem to imply that if you just decide you aren’t going to define yourself by your possessions and only see them as tools then magically you’ll never have these attachments again.

Ultimately obviously this viewpoint put forward by The Minimalists is just one of minimalism and this is just my perspective on what they are saying. It doesn’t seem entirely consistent and I guess this is understandable since it is the result of just a few years of working of this vs Buddhism which is the result of thousands of years of study.

Overall just let me reiterate how much i LOVE their podcast and this should in now way be seen as me criticising them. Rather this is my own exploration of the topic from my own perspective, using their discussions and cherry picking things they say as jumping off points for my own exploration. Please give it a listen, it has added great value to my life 🙂




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