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Buddhism and Clutter-free Living: The Middle Path to Minimalism

Updated on April 10, 2014
My kitchen
My kitchen

Buddhism and Clutter-free Living: The Middle Path to Minimalism

I first embraced the idea of clutter-free living due to the influence of, surprise-surprise, a man. Though the gentleman I lived with for four years made very few efforts in this area other than to pack one room of our home with wall-to-wall stuff (proper storage was the key, he said), I began a process that has resulted in me being able to live comfortably, with four pets, in a 549-square-foot house – with a bedroom to spare and my house on the market so I can scale down to a small apartment.

Though not everyone (hi, Mom) agrees with my lifestyle, I’ve arrived at a comfortable middle path to minimalism. My reference to a “middle path” comes from my interest in Buddhism, which I studied as a graduate student at the University of Florida. Briefly, and greatly oversimplified, Buddha was born wealthy, renounced his riches when he began his spiritual pursuits, and then began advocating a “middle path” after realizing the difficulties of following one’s spiritual quest on an empty stomach and while exposed to the elements, such as biting insects and inclement weather, when wearing very little clothing.

The Man Himself

Buddha’s commonsense approach appeals to me. Though I’m not so minimalist as to wash my body, hair, and dishes from the same bottle of detergent, as if I were on a long and difficult camping trip, my home is a neat, easy-to-clean place with a surprising amount of open space. Arriving at this space, however, took years and a near-constant, sometimes brutal attentiveness to avoiding “too much stuff.” If you’d like to try it for yourself, here are the steps I followed:

  • To alleviate the fear of losing yourself when you give up your things and to realize the commitment you’re making, promise yourself that your path to minimalism will happen in stages. You’re not going to put all your stuff in your best friend’s pickup truck and donate it to Goodwill or have a giant garage sale one blessed Saturday morning and be “free of stuff once and for all.” We live in a materialistic society; you will see things you want to buy and backslide a little; people will give you gifts you want to keep, at least for a while. Like many worthwhile efforts, such as a trip to India or a cure for cancer, minimalist living is a journey.
  • Minimalist living is best achieved in layers of giving (or selling, depending on the quality of the item). Look around your home. What do you see, right now, that you could give away without ever thinking of it again? Grab a box or bag and put those items inside – now, before you change your mind. Don’t spend more than 15 minutes collecting items – this is not the time to sit on the floor of your closet, rereading "2 Sweet...2Be...4 Gotten" notes from your friends on the inside cover of your high school yearbook. Scurry, quick like a bunny, to the nearest Salvation Army or consignment store. Done? Congratulations – you’ve taken the first step on your journey to minimalism!

My bathroom and second bedroom
My bathroom and second bedroom
  • Once you’ve made a few of these fifteen-minute excursions (how many depends on how much excess stuff you have), you’ll find that they are becoming more and more emotionally difficult, and eventually impossible. That’s because you’re layering down to the core of what you own and are about to begin getting rid of items for which you have a genuine attachment. This is when minimalism becomes a challenge, and, frankly, a lot less fun; it’s a good time to take a two- to three-month break from decluttering if you need one, but be sure not to accumulate more things in the interim. If you get a new book, a book goes out; the same goes for t-shirts, plates, throw pillows, hair products – everything. The idea is to develop the habit of trading one item for another instead of adding more to the pile.
  • When you’ve recovered from your initial decluttering phase, it’s time to get serious. I did this by continuing to layer down, but instead of walking around my house with a trash bag, I concentrated on one area at a time – a set of bookshelves, a cabinet under the kitchen sink, even my jewelry box. The process of decluttering can get messy at this point, because you may want to sell items of value on ebay.com or craigslist.org instead of simply giving them away. It’s helpful to have an area of a closet or a cabinet cleared out, so you don’t have to look at these items while you have them listed.

  • As you let go of excess stuff and your life becomes more streamlined, you’ll start to appreciate the beauty, convenience, and ease of minimalist living. This is the point at which I began to get addicted to the process of decluttering; it became emotionally easier to let go of things and more gratifying when I realized how pleasant it is to live with more space. My house is so much easier to keep clean; now, even if I let things go for a few days, the house looks relatively neat because of the lack of clutter, and a perfectly tidy home, including closets, drawers, etc., is no more than two hours away.
  • As with weight loss, the real work with minimalist living begins with maintenance. You’ll want to create some guidelines to assist you with that process. For example, all my clothes, except for underwear and socks, must hang in my closet – which is not a walk-in. My books are limited to what fits on four shelves in the one piece of furniture I’ll never get rid of, a beautiful secretary that’s been in my family since my childhood. I have four plates, two bowls, and two coffee mugs – always (if you run out of dishes, you’ll wash them instead of accumulating a large pile in the sink). My particular rules won’t work for everyone; the point of the middle path is to tailor the process to your comfort level and lifestyle so that the overall quality of your life is improved by your definition of minimalist living.

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    • Rachaelle Lynn profile imageAUTHOR

      Rachaelle Lynn 

      6 years ago from Gainesville, Florida

      Hi Barb: Believe me, I can empathize! I suggest "It's All Too Much: An Easy Plan for Living a Richer Life with Less Stuff" by Peter Walsh. In the meantime, I would think about the meaning you are infusing these items with - many times our attachment to possessions is not at all about the items themselves, but about the associations or memories associated with them. Can you separate your memories (happy or unhappy) from the things themselves, which by themselves hold no meaning? Once you have done that, you will realize that you have a choice about your memories and associations; you can choose to keep the happy ones with you, and set the unhappy ones free so you, yourself, can be free. Think about it and let me know how you are doing. I hope this helps and I wish you the best!

    • profile image

      Barb Roddy 

      6 years ago

      Do you have any recommendations for books I can read that deals with attachment and/or clinging to possessions? I have one neck and thirty scarves, too many pairs of boots and I'm not sure why I panic at the thought of their loss. I'd appreciate any suggestion.

    • Rachaelle Lynn profile imageAUTHOR

      Rachaelle Lynn 

      7 years ago from Gainesville, Florida

      Thanks George!

    • profile image

      George 

      7 years ago

      That's the best summary of Buddhism's history I've ever read!

    • Rachaelle Lynn profile imageAUTHOR

      Rachaelle Lynn 

      7 years ago from Gainesville, Florida

      Thanks, Annie! I'm so glad you wrote, because you reminded me that I need to simplify....again! It's so easy to let "stuff" creep back into one's life. :) I wish you the best of luck with your decluttering efforts, and thank you so much for writing!

    • profile image

      Annie 

      7 years ago

      I love this post! I am also in the process of simplifying.. It just takes time! I love how you covered this!

    • Rachaelle Lynn profile imageAUTHOR

      Rachaelle Lynn 

      8 years ago from Gainesville, Florida

      Hi Ellen - thanks for reading and for your comment! By human clutter, I assume you mean those who drain us of energy but provide very little in return. I am all for decluttering in that arena too! I have a couple of hubs on codependency that relate to that issue and might be of interest to you.

      Thanks again for stopping by!

    • profile image

      Ellen 

      8 years ago

      Great point about the middle way. I have been decluttering for years starting as my kids grew up and then my divorce. I have never looked back and am amazed at how I can still come up with stuff to Ebay or sell on Craigs. I am using the proceeds to pay off a debt from a family emergency...very satisfying.

      What is your take on human clutter?

    • Green Lotus profile image

      Hillary 

      8 years ago from Atlanta, GA

      Excellent Rach! You've blended so many valuable (and spiritual) ideas here - love it.

      Giving stuff away is truly liberating. I too live according to the teachings of the Buddha. In addition, my husband and I have a modern, minimalistic-style design firm which operates on the premise that less is more :)

    • Rachaelle Lynn profile imageAUTHOR

      Rachaelle Lynn 

      8 years ago from Gainesville, Florida

      Dayzeebee, thanks so much for the compliments! I'm so glad we are connected on HubPages! :)

      Inga, I am so happy that you have embraced clutter-free living! I agree, it is difficult, but so worth it, and yes, we certainly can fool ourselves about how we "might need that one day." I still guard against it daily. I studied Buddhism in grad school, so I'm glad we can both relate spiritual study to practical living! Yay for us! :)

    • profile image

      Inga Makarenko 

      8 years ago

      Rachaelle,

      I really love your blog! Clutter is my worst pet pea! Every 3-6 month I go through the things that I haven't touched/worn and if I haven't used it in the last 6 month most likely I don't need it! As you mentioned in your article its very hard to do it because you either get attached to whatever it is you are trying to get rid or you just simply think that you will need it in the future...I also like how tied in Buddhism into your article. I have been practicing Nichiren Daishonin Buddhism for the past 5 years so I can easily relate to what you are saying...

    • dayzeebee profile image

      dayzeebee 

      8 years ago from Cebu, Philippines

      Hello Rachaelle, this is a wonderful way of applying the middle path concept to minimalism. See how your experiences have added value to your being?! You did a great job with this hub. The manner in which you presented your topic is admirable. That's the mark of a creative person. Thumbs up! Blessings:)

    • Rachaelle Lynn profile imageAUTHOR

      Rachaelle Lynn 

      8 years ago from Gainesville, Florida

      That is difficult, Vince. Hopefully you two can come to some sort of compromise. Good luck and thanks for reading and commenting on my hub!

    • profile image

      Vince 

      8 years ago

      I agree with you. Getting rid of clutter helps one relax. The difficulty I have is my spouse is the opposite.

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