Why minimalism is not asceticism
Asceticism is a lifestyle characterized by extreme self-denial or abstinence from worldly pleasures. It is important not to confuse that with minimalism. There's a difference between self-denial and self-control.
Ascetics give up sensual pleasure and material goods due to the belief that an austere lifestyle is more expedient in the attainment of their religious or spiritual goals. Examples of this include:
Cynics – followers of the Ancient Greek philosophy who reasoned people can be happier by aligning themselves more closely with nature and rejecting all mainstream desires (fame, wealth, power, sex, etc.).
Jains – a community of monks and nuns in India who completely detach from social and secular activities (e.g. no contact with family, no use of electricity, etc.) to purify and discipline themselves and gain self-realization.
Sufis – though it has evolved in modern times, early believers in this mystical Islamic ideal only wore a rough wool robe (as the name implies) and intensified their devotion through a strict life of modesty and selflessness.
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Sometimes there is worldly motivation for asceticism, such as the so-called "starving artist" who severely simplifies life in order to spend all of their energy and resources on their craft.
Regardless, in the cases above and those similar there is a much higher purpose that the practitioner seeks.
Minimalism, however, needs to be distinguished from its very distant half-cousin. They are distinct ideals, but sometimes when discussing simple living we inadvertently make confusing suggestions that equate this concept to that of altruistic abstinence or selfless sacrifice.
Minimalism doesn't mean that you can't indulge in the things that you enjoy. It doesn't mean that you need to be frugal or that you must always make major tradeoffs. You don't need to embark on a campaign to completely renounce modern day living.
Here are a few definitions of minimalism that provide a more realistic — and attainable — perspective for the individual seeking to make moderate lifestyle adjustments.
1. PRIORITIZE THE ESSENTIALS
The essentials are the people, activities, and things in life that you care the most about. When you live a minimalist lifestyle you learn how to prioritize and focus your energy and resources on these things over others that you don't deem as important.
In the interview What Matters Most, I share a 3-step reflection exercise – awareness, clarity, focus – that helps you uncover what's most important to you and, subsequently, simplify decision-making in most areas of life.
2. ELIMINATE THE COMPLEXITIES
Every once in a while life gets difficult and we find there are barriers that prevent us from being happy.
Sometimes we can't avoid the cause of these difficulties, but often times we find there are changes we can make to simplify and enjoy life once again.
Often our schedules are a major source of stress and strain in our life. In A Realistic Routine I discuss five ways you can be more intentional when determining what you want to get out of each day, and more thoughtful in planning it.
3. MANAGE YOUR EXPECTATIONS
We all want a lot out of life. We have a myriad of desires and we put a lot of pressure on ourselves and others as a result. When what we want or who we want to be is not in line with our current reality we become distressed.
Adopting a minimalist perspective helps us cut down on the number of wants and desires and appreciate what we already have.
That said, sometimes we have a lot of desires because we don't have a life strategy and we sort of haphazardly spend our days following whim after whim.
In Soul-Searching Strategy I offer a basic process for figure out who you are (or want to be) and what you want to stand for. It includes a reading list for further exploration.
4. STAY IN BALANCE
Contrary to popular belief, minimalism is about finding balance in your life not adhering to someone's else's set standard of how many items you should own or how you should organize and design your environment.
It's a mindset that should allow you to pursue pleasure in life — within reason. Being modest and mindful about the limits of your desires does not mean eliminating them altogether nor conforming to another person's rules.
If you aren't sure where to start when it comes to pursuing pleasure in moderation, consider the tips in The Dont's of Minimalism. It focuses on areas (things, activities, and relationships) that should bring us happiness but are often a source of frustration when we allow them to get out of balance.
Some advocates of the simple life tend to blur the line between minimalism and asceticism.
Asceticism is an honorable undertaking for certain purposes, but it is likely a practice that is too intense for an individual merely looking to free themselves from the frustrations of being out of balance in life.
It can feel overwhelming to adopt a minimalist lifestyle if you believe it constantly requires you to adopt extreme measures in order to maintain it.
Particularly for a beginner or aspiring minimalist, always equating minimalism with sparseness, frugalness, and other restricting terms could be discouraging.
In fact, I prefer to not to introduce scarcity thinking into the equation at all because it isn't aligned with human nature. Instead of resisting our nature why not work with it?
Humans inherently desire increase: to grow, evolve, and thrive. Minimalism is a tool you can use to eliminate inconsequential things in order to maximize what matters most.
It's not the wanting more but the objects of our desires and the means by which we try to attain them that need refinement.
So let's be careful to distinguish minimalist from it's more extreme counterparts — but also recognize that what matters most is how you choose to define it.