Minimalism as a Cultural Paradigm Shift
The number of people whose lives are changing as a result of some form of minimalism is growing rapidly. I want to step back from what’s in front of my nose to look at minimalism as a movement and what that might mean for the world around us.
There have been some common themes in the minimalism blogs on my RSS feed of late, particularly fear, extreme minimalism, cyborg, and 100 Things. The common thread is a certain sense of freedom, a desire to catapult oneself up and over the mundane messes of the world and get right to the best that living has to offer our human psyche. I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say that most of these writers (and their readers) are, or want to be, free spirits. Even when they disagree with one another, they are each asserting their right to live and define minimalism for themselves.
Free spirits is a phrase that still evokes hippie imagery: beads, communes, good dope, bad wine, tune in and drop out. But that is not what I mean and have not yet read that any of these bloggers intend that goal, either. What they all have in common is the desire to free themselves from a hamster-wheel of consumerism and from any sense of being externally determined by consumerism. For some it is enough to stop buying so much stuff and get rid of clutter. For others it means working for oneself or being location independent. No matter the point of view or modus operandi, each one of them has wised up to the spiritual and environmental trap of contemporary culture and are breaking free.
What I see evolving from all of this is a philosophical and societal paradigm shift, one still in its early stages. More and more people are recognizing the soul-deadening nature of consumerism and recognizing their own and society’s responsibility to the planet. The Internet, compact yet infinite and a natural fit for minimalism, is the single most important element in all of this. Light on resources and infinite in possibilities, computers and minimalists mirror each other. It is simple and natural to network and disseminate the growing collective consciousness that There is a Better Way than working to death to buy to death to dump to death.
The possibilities of the Internet, however, are growing. The various ways in which we can network and communicate evolve not only technologically but organically, as in when masses of users determine that Twitter is preferable to Digg or Facebook is better than MySpace. Most of us know the difference between an online business and a brick-and-mortar one. An increasing number of us are also experiencing the dual reality of an online life and a flesh-and-blood one. It won’t be long before the duality is blurred. Minimalists have in common the ability to replace many things with a single computer and are naturally inclined to make the most of the changes in the way the Internet works, even to help drive them.
Minimalism is therefore playing a major role in the paradigm shift. I posit that every single one of us who is living in this manner, no matter to what degree, has taken the critical first steps toward an evolved consciousness, which we also experience as a freedom of spirit. Not only have we stepped back from an ownership society, we’re stepping back from being owned by an ownership society. When we only keep what is essential we are acknowledging that we are capable of being happy and fulfilled without added ingredients. We are free from what we don’t need, and feeling more alive for it.
Fear of minimalism is fear of experiencing loss. If we toss out something now, what if we regret having done so later? Many bloggers caution readers to know their own minds before reducing possessions. But the blogs are chock full of people who started the path with baby steps and realized as they progressed that letting go of the material did not expire the memory or the experience. Grandma is just as real in our memories with or without the last Christmas card she sent us. We learn that spirit remains alive, and in fact is more alive without the muffling effect of material insulation.
Minimalism is both ascetic and aesthetic. Sometimes I see the two words confused with one another and it makes me sad because the writer is often missing out on an important dynamic. There is undoubtedly austerity in minimalism to one extent or another. There is also a creative element which is beautiful. Minimalism takes us back to the aestheticism/asceticism in Greek philosophy, in which mental, physical, and dietary training (ascetics) prepared the individual for creating a beautiful human life (aesthetics).
What has this got to do with paradigm shift? Everything.
Philosophers have often commented on the role of asceticism during times of major cultural shifts and changes. In their 2007 article, “The Aesthetic and Ascetic Dimensions of an Ethics of Self-Fashioning: Nietzsche and Foucault,” authors Alan Milchman and Alan Rosenberg show how the philosophers Nietzsche and Foucault both concluded (eighty years apart) that self-fashioning comes to the rescue when we are faced with the Death of God or the loss of a metaphysical reason for our lives, or during times of great human crises. Self-fashioning in the Greek sense of training and discipline allows us to organize a life for ourselves that does not rely on external forces, whether it comes from religion, government, or in our current case, consumerism.
That is what I see evolving from the minimalist movement. Many of us found it as a natural result of the economic crisis of the past few years. Some of us arrived at it as a result of ecological consciousness. We exercise mindfulness with our possessions, our health, our food, our choice of work, our communities, our planet’s limited resources, and the overall quality of our lives. No matter the cause, we are reinventing ourselves, we are choosing self-fashioning, and in growing numbers.
The minimalist movement, a loose conglomeration of free spirits, will not benefit from lockstep behavior. We should read and learn from each other, but none of us is the last word on any aspect of it. We should also read and compare the present-day ideas to those in the past, to better articulate what is happening in the here and now, and to be able to discuss the larger implications of the minimalist mindset. We already have a natural affinity for online communication; the minimalist experience will expand into the larger culture exponentially as it finds more and more kindred spirits.
Enough people wanting the same thing and knowing how to get it is the force which changes culture. Minimalists have changed their values to something outside the current cultural norms. If those value systems become the norm, the culture must therefore change. This means changes in everything from the way all of us work to the way we consume, and by extension the way our government and corporations operate.
There is something wonderful and beautiful in a movement that begins with uncluttering a drawer, grows to liberating minds and spirits, and possibly ends with a deep and affirmative cultural change.