Another blog I wrote for TINO just after gashuku.
Life is simple. Really, really simple. I’ve come to believe that all you really need to be happy is food, sleep, and shelter from the elements. Companionship is good too, if you have some handy. Everything else is superfluous and just serves to complicate things.
As I mentioned in a previous post, I recently returned from a week-long martial arts training camp held in the mountains. Life was exceedingly simple: sleep, eat, and train, all day long. Within that week we spent two days and a night climbing several mountains, and all we took with us was whatever food, water and survival gear we could carry on our backs. After a frigid and restless night in a cave, we climbed across the remaining mountains and journeyed back to camp. Having spent the night in the cold, I was overjoyed to crawl back into the small two-person tent that I was sharing: it was waterproof, windproof, and I even had enough space to put my bag down next to my training clothes! As I sat there in blissful gratitude, I realised just how little a person needs to be happy. All I really had were my clothes, some water bottles and a sleeping bag, but I was so extremely grateful to be alive, and to enjoy the great fortune of being able to breathe fresh air and feel pure sunlight on my face.
And the funny thing is, life didn’t change when I returned to the city. The air didn’t disappear and the sun didn’t stop shining. All the really important and pleasurable things in life (like sunrises, and tiny forms of life) were still right there, available for anyone to enjoy. It was like being initiated into a secret club where happiness could be found everywhere you looked, if only you knew that you were looking right at it.
Although it’s tempting to just pick up a tent and head out into the wilderness, I’m not quite brave enough to make that choice (though I know of remarkable people who have, such as Alexander Supertramp). Life among people, although full of unimportant rubbish and an overwhelming amount of capitalist idealism, can still be enjoyed simply.
Recently I’ve been reading the Tao Te Ching, an ancient philosophical text on Taoism, and in one of its verses it says that there are three treasures in life: love, simplicity and humility. In the spirit of simplicity, I recently gave almost half my wardrobe to charity, and cleared out my drawers of all the old stuff I’d accumulated. It felt so darn liberating to make some space in my life, and to know exactly what I owned and where I could find it.
Here’s something quick you could do to help you feel how great it is to let go. Grab your phone right now. Go on, go ahead, I’ll wait for you. Got it? Good! Open up your contacts list and look at all the people you’ve added over the years. How many of them do you still call/text? Are there any names that you have no idea who they belong to or why you added them? Go through the whole list and delete any number you haven’t called/used in a few months unless you’re hanging onto them for a specific reason. It took me about half an hour to go through all of mine, and it felt so great to trim away all the useless baggage that I was still hanging on to. You can do the same thing for your Facebook friend list, or for your wardrobe, or for anything in your life.
My favourite Buddhist monk, Ajahn Brahm, once told the story of his mother’s mantelpiece. In English homes, the mantelpiece is the place of honour above the fireplace where a family might display trophies, photos or treasured memorabilia. When Ajahn Brahm returned to England, his followers gave him a small kangaroo to bring back for his mother as a souvenir. She instantly put it on her mantelpiece, proudly displaying it as a reminder of her son. A few years later he visited her again, and one of his followers gave him a stuffed platypus to give her as a souvenir. Again, she was delighted at the present and put it on her mantelpiece next to the kangaroo. The third time he visited, someone gave him a rather large wombat, and when he gave it to his mother, she excitedly added it to her collection. But when she tried to fit the wombat on the shelf, the kangaroo fell off the other end. And when she tried to put the kangaroo on, the platypus was squeezed out the middle. Ajahn Brahm suggested she just get rid of the old two and keep the newest one, but she protested loudly, crying “Nooo, I couldn’t possibly! They’re important reminders of you, my son!”
Imagine how free and simple her life would be if she had an empty mantelpiece. Every time something important came along, she could throw out whatever was currently there so it would never become cluttered. Getting rid of the kangaroo and platypus wouldn’t make her forget her son, yet she couldn’t let go of her attachment to them, even when it had become impractical to sustain them. Why can’t our lives be like empty mantelpieces?
Speaking of emptiness, why is it that when people clear space (in a drawer, in a room, on a mantelpiece), they instantly feel like something is missing and it needs to be filled? What nonsense! And for that matter, why do people buy houses with so many rooms in them anyway? How many rooms can one occupy at a time?
Ajahn Brahm says there are two kinds of freedom: freedom of desires, where you’re free to want anything and everything, and freedom from desires, where you are so content with life that you never have want for anything. It’s basic economics (and common sense!) to know that resources are limited but desires are infinite. Logically, it’s fruitless to try and accumulate more and more wealth to meet a never-ending string of things to spend money on. It’s much, much easier (not to mention cheaper) to stop wanting so much out of life and to just be content with what you have. Believe me, returning to a tent after a night in a cave was bliss. How much more does a person need to enjoy life?
My friends, take it from me: you don’t need stuff to make you happy. In fact, I know quite confirmedly that all “stuff” really serves to do is to make life complicated. Life is so damn simple, and most of the things you care about don’t matter at all. Sorry to break it to you, but your life is awesome. If you’re reading this, it means at the very least that you’re literate, have access to a computer, and have the time to enjoy reading blog posts. And that puts you in a better place than a whole lot of the population.
So here’s my advice: go through all your stuff, and get rid of most of it. Ask yourself, “Will owning [this item] improve the quality of my life? Will it make a significant difference to the way I live? Will it make me happier?” You might find that the answers will often be “No.” And it feels great.
The other thing I advise is to stop buying so much crap. Not getting rid of things you don’t need is pretty unhelpful, but adding useless stuff to your hoard is even worse. The next time you’re about to buy something, go through the same process of asking whether you really need it. Maybe you have something similar that will serve the same purpose. Maybe you could borrow it from a library or video store, or someone on facebook has one they’re not using (note: that’s how I got my top hat, a bike lock and a bag for my suit). Or maybe don’t need it at all, and your life will be better off without it. If you really want to get it, try waiting for three days and see how you feel. If you still want it just as much, go ahead. But wherever possible, trust me when I say life is better when you don’t keep things you don’t need!
Peace everyone. May your houses be tents, and your mantelpieces become empty!