Living in a material world

When I was growing up, my favourite game was one of my own invention titled “Runaway.”

As the name suggests, the game involved me oh-so-stealthily sneaking out of our house and into the great wide world until whoever had the misfortune of caring for me that day came and dragged me haphazardly homewards.

The escape itself, however, was only one aspect of the activity. The other, more important component was deciding which of my worldly possessions I would take with me on my journey. This was the root of my continual failure — I could never part with any of my things, and so, inevitably, always ended up heaving a comically large suitcase full of beanie babies down my driveway.

It’s been quite a few years since these  escapades, and although the possessions I value may have changed from children’s toys to Apple products, the physical objects in my life still manage to hold a great deal of importance.

Our identities are made up of a series of choices — what we do, what we say or don’t say, and who we surround ourselves with all factor into our senses of selves. Often, things end up carrying much of the weight of who we present ourselves to be. We relay our identities through our clothes, the furnishings of our homes, the cars we drive, and the technology we surround ourselves with.

But with so many using material possessions as a form of expression, there are some who make the conscious choice to define themselves through the lack thereof.

“There are as many different types of minimalism as there are minimalists,” Sara*, a member of a local Toronto group of minimalists, informs me.

Sara, who chooses to remain anonymous due to the complex personal role minimalism plays in her life, goes on to explain that some people prefer the term “simplify” since it denotes less of a harsh or stark lifestyle.

She is part of a local subsection of a larger minimalist movement. “The Minimalists” is the title given to Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus, founders of and authors of books such as Everything That Remains: A Memoir by the Minimalists; Minimalism: Live a Meaningful Life; A Day in the Life of a Minimalist; Simplicity: Essays; and Essential Essays — many of which have debuted at number one on Amazon.

The website’s so-called “elevator pitch” for minimalism reads that, while it may seem surprising, Millburn and Nicodemus are “not fans of oversimplifying things.”

Trying to condense a complex movement into a single definition is a difficult task, but their attempt reads as such: “Minimalism is a lifestyle that helps people question what things add value to their lives. By clearing the clutter from life’s path, we can all make room for the most important aspects of life: health, relationships, passion, growth, and contribution.”

They go on to say that there are “many flavours of minimalism” — a “20-year-old single guy’s” interpretation may be very different from that of a “45-year-old mother.” Regardless of one’s specific approach to the idea, however, the end result will be “a life with more time, more money, and more freedom to live a more meaningful life.”

They end their post with an open-ended question: “How might your life be better if you owned fewer material possesions?”

Millburn and Nicodemus, however well known, represent only one faction of the broad range of people who identify by the minimalist lifestyle.

“If there’s any group or organization that people have the hardest time with, or consider militant — which they aren’t, but they seem to get the most flak [for] — it’s The Minimalists,” explains Jo Bennett.

Bennett is a life coach and organizer, founder of SOLOMOJO Coaching, as well as the creator of the blog “Minimalist Self.” Bennett’s blog covers all manner of topics from “mindfulness” to “motivation.” Currently, there are 34 entries under the subheading “minimalism.”

One post, entitled, “Jo’s story,” describes Bennett’s shift towards her own personal minimalist lifestyle.

“It was about fifteen years ago when I felt the first shift toward simplifying my life,” reads the post, going on to explain that, after redefining a primary personal relationship, Bennett started prioritizing “quality over quantity,” and through having fewer physical objects in her life, could further see what was needed to bring herself greater happiness.

“I use the word minimalism,” says Bennett. “I think they’re all the same; to simplify, to reduce. I think that people sometimes worry about the word minimalism… it sometimes can be associated with a very stringent militant view of reducing [the possesions in one’s life].”

But for Bennett, the physical is only one element of choosing to identify as minimalist. She explains: “I use the word minimalism… to me it’s what I use to incorporate the actions of mentally, emotionally, and physically de-cluttering. So for me it’s not just about physical possesions, but it’s about sort of paring down the way we think, the way we process information, our relationships, how we cope, planning, time management — it’s all part of the same thing.”

For the last 15 years, Bennett says she’s been applying the process to her career, finances, health, and relationships — and it’s one that’s ongoing.

She discusses mentally reducing by choosing the activities we do or don’t need in our lives, emotionally reducing by choosing the relationships to prioritize and the ones to let go, before mentioning the physical aspect of things.

“For physical… we literally and figuratively have these desks, in minds and in our home offices… there’s always too much stuff on the go… people who take on too much… what happens is they get stretched thin,” she says.

After giving more examples of how someone might approach a minimalist lifestyle, Bennett explains, “Something I like to emphasize about minimalism, [is that] it’s not just about reducing things — emotionally, mentally or physically — I find that it’s true that when you reduce things it reveals your truth, what’s really going on in your world… The important part about minimalism is what I call ‘the glorious choice of deciding what to put in its place’ — so you can either enjoy the freedom of the space, or you can choose [what to replace what you’ve taken away with].”

For context, she explains, “Some people do enjoy living out of a suitcase… you know, just five shirts or four pairs of jeans… but the idea is that the jeans that they are going to put in there are the ones they’re going to enjoy and get use out of… so the idea is that there’s meaning in what we’re surrounding ourselves with.”

For those questioning whether a minimalist lifestyle would be best for them, Bennett recommends careful personal consideration: “Rather than listening to what other people have to say… I think ideally it would be best that somebody spend a minute being mindful of their life…. take a moment to just notice how you’re feeling. If the pile of papers on your desk and the way your taxes are filed doesn’t bother you, then there’s probably no reason to minimize… but really get to the truth of it — what barriers can [you] take down, what do you have too much of? Really it’s just about taking the time to sit down and just look at yourself.”

She adds, laughingly, “I’m going to take the next hour and just ponder my life… I mean what better homework is [there] than that?”

If anything can be understood from the movement and its many different interpretations, it is that it acts as an agent for expressing oneself.

“A message I glean from the design world is that minimalism is not about reducing expression,” reads a post on Bennett’s blog. “Rather than just appreciate that a space is empty, I can also contemplate what beauty has been revealed as a result.”

*Name changed at source’s request