What is mental minimalism?
If you stumbled upon this post, you probably have a nagging feeling that life could be lived a little differently. That there must be an alternative to the rat race, the filtered social media feeds and the stressful daily grind. That there is a way to become more present and a way to savour the minutes, instead of counting them. Mental minimalism offers just that. A path to finding contentment and serenity in the modern-day world. In essence, mental minimalism rejects the notion that a busy life inherently equals a good life.
What mental minimalism is not?
Mental minimalism is not about deprivation and asceticism. It is not necessary to become a recluse who meditates several hours a day to become a mental minimalist. Let us clear up a few common misconceptions about mental minimalism.
1. Mental minimalism is not about physical possessions
Mental minimalism, unlike minimalism, has no particular focus on material possessions. Although going along the path of mental minimalism will inevitably make you want to consider the stuff collected in your house, mental minimalism is about your mental mess. It asserts that putting your mind in order first will naturally lead to an intentionally chosen environment that is wholesome and gratifying. Get your mind right first and the rest will follow.
2. Mental minimalism is not anti-technology
Technology is not the enemy. Social media is not to blame for our busy, superficial lives. Both are mere tools that we interact with. The way we chose to interact with these, is what makes them beneficial or harmful. Mental minimalism asks us to reconsider our relationships with these tools, so that we can start using them instead of being used by them. For some (like me) this might mean abandoning social media platforms altogether, while others might find a mindful way to connect with these tools. When it comes to technology it is not the what, but the how that matters.
3. Mental minimalism is not about doing and being less
It is true that mental minimalism is about leaving behind the things that make us stressed and worried. It is also true that it will lead to a life of doing less, at least doing less in one day. But it is not true that mental minimalism is about being less. After giving up on the non-essentials in life, you carve out more time to be. More time to enjoy the presence and take in the subtle sensory profusion around you. Simply put, it is about less do, more be.
What is mental minimalism then?
Mental minimalism has no strict definition and shares many aspects with other concepts, such as slow living and mindfulness. Here are some central themes of mental minimalism that start to shape a picture of its meaning.
1. A way to slow down the pace of life to home in on what is essential
When you slow down your pace of life, something interesting starts to happen. In a fast-paced society, life tends to be superficial. You skim the surface of existence with planners, milestones and bucket lists. But when you slow down, you are drawn deeper within.
“Muddy water, let stand, becomes clear.”
– Lao Tzu
You are confronted with questions like who am I and why am I here. Grappling with these questions allows you to understand more clearly what is essential in your life. Many things you once saw as important, such as job status and exotic holidays, now fall away as non-essentials.
2. A way to declutter your mind and time from anything that isn’t essential
Once you start becoming more familiar with the essentials for your life, you can begin to drop the different aspects that no longer serve you. In the words of Marie Kondo, you can rummage through your cerebral clutter and ask yourself, ‘does this spark joy?’. You might leave behind social media accounts, extensive grooming routines or ever-growing to-do lists. You might even pull yourself out of an unfulfilling job or a vain relationship. Life becomes emptier and freer, and a space starts to appear in which to unfold a sense of stillness and tranquillity.
3. A way to redirect ease and lightness into everyday living
Once your days become stiller and more deliberate, a sense of quiet contentment will start creeping into your existence. The stillness will bring with it an ease and lightness to your days. This is when mental minimalism becomes about setting boundaries. About defending the lightness against the invasion of incoming demands and expectations. You cannot say yes to everything. And once you know what is meaningful and essential to you, you will start to say no to everything else. This becomes an ongoing process of shaping and reshaping the boundaries of an intentionally chosen existence.
How to become a mental minimalist
There is no fool-proof recipe to becoming a mental minimalist. Don’t think of mental minimalism as a status that can be reached after obtaining a certain level of stillness and ease. Rather, think of it as a lifelong journey to embark on where you constantly reconsider what is essential to you and how to best defend these essentials. There are different things you can do along each step of the way to aid the slowing down, homing in and setting of boundaries.
To learn more about the ways in which to start your own mental minimalist journey, you can download my free e-book here:
Below are some suggestions for further reading and listening on this topic:
On Being with Pico Iyer – The Urgency of Slowing Down (podcast)
Carl Honore - In Praise of Slowness: Challenging the Cult of Speed (book)
Maria Popova - The Shortness of Life: Seneca on Bussyness (article)