Living small sounds straightforward. The materialization of the concept takes up residence in the brain quite easily. Who wouldn’t want to have a simpler life free of clutter and material anchors?
I read about Matthieu Ricard and his very real example of this kind of life. He has an inspiring dedication to compassion in action. It is reported he lives in a small space with little to no possessions or central heating in Nepal. He donates 100% of the profits from his prolific writing and photography to his non-profit Karuna Shechen adding up to one and half million dollars to date.
It seems so deceptively simple when I look at this Buddhist monk’s life. It seems anyone could rise on any given day and just decide to live with only the necessities of life. Living with a small footprint in the world and redirecting earnings to those far less fortunate has the ring of authentic living.
As a family our goals and aspirations in this area have been less pure and altruistic. We have discussed at length the value of buying less in order to have a smaller footprint, to teach our son the value of a less materialistic life, and to have the money to have a life with more freedom. One where we don’t think twice about taking time off work to spend time with our son and where we can take extended travel vacations to explore the world. We say it. We agree to it. We get distracted. Then, I look around and somehow our home is filled with every type and number of material items that are here today, but had not been yesterday.
I struggle, as I imagine many do, with consistently balancing the aspiration to live smaller and more compassionately with the rigors of everyday family life. With our busy jobs and family commitments, our frantic schedules, and societal expectations, we slip into mindless consumerism as quick as thoughts pop into the head during a meditation.
Christmas this year is a clear case of this. Busy with hosting Christmas we got caught up in the “magic” and bought way too much stuff for our son’s stocking. Most of it wrapped candy he will never get through. Although the only thing he asked for from Santa was candy and lip balm we felt the urge to get him, in additional to ridiculous amounts of these items, a Lego set and about ten new books.
Even my son questioned repeatedly the sanity of Santa this year when he delivered a lollypop that could block out the sun and a Lego set he never asked for. Due only to Christmas, and to being one of only two children in our whole extended family, our home now sports a drum kit (from us off Craigslist), a keyboard (aunt #1 off Craigslist), two new Lego sets (aunt #2 and Santa), a fish tank (uncle), an electric puzzle toy (Nana), a whoopee cushion (aunt #1) , a remote control car (aunt #1), a magician’s kit (Grandma), and a Pandington bear and book set (aunt #1).
Choosing Christmas as an example might be to easy of a fish to catch, however, it is indicative of the collective family resources and how we choose to direct them. Each year for my birthday (which is only five days after Christmas) I do an act of kindness instead of getting myself something or going out. This was a huge shift a few years ago that admittedly brings me a great deal more joy. However, this action is overshadowed significantly by the gross overspending that happens each year at Christmas by myself and others.
For every bag of clothing, kitchen items, furniture and toys we send to the Big Brothers charity it seems another sneaks its way in. It seems our house is always and impossibly filled with stuff. The clutter is nearly unmanageable and the organizing of storage containers and spaces seems a holiday and weekend tradition now.
The ideal set by a Monk with few belongings who donates all his earnings to others is one that can motivate action and demonstrate how small and simple one can live. Unfortunately this is not an ideal so easily attained for a family of three. For example, with two of us working in a professional setting with expectations of dress code this means that I need two sets of clothing: one set of clothing for work and one set for daily life.
In fact social norms and keeping up with the Joneses seems to drive a great deal of our purchasing behaviour even though we are not really that susceptible as a family to those kind of things. Another driver is the sheer ability to buy whatever we need. I remember growing up with very little. If a pot broke and we didn’t have the money to buy another we just got creative. Now, any kitchen gadget recommended by one of my hipster cooking books can be purchased quickly and easily via Amazon and delivered in a single day. We barely batted an eye at the recent acquisition of a Vitamix which seemed at the time to be a “necessity.”
So, I see there being three truths here. The first is that it is not possible to live a life in harmony with our planet and our fellow human beings while acquiring every material item we desire whenever we desire them. The second truth is that it is far more difficult in many ways for a family of three to live small and simple like a Buddhist monk might. But, finally, the third truth is that it is possible to live quite close to this ideal if living a life of compassion in action is a higher priority for our family than living a life that looks and feels like those of our peers.
At the start of a new year and a time of new beginnings we will embark on an intention to move closer to this ideal. I am not one to give advice in this regard as you can see from the above examples but here are a few questions that I have learned to ask myself before making a purchase that I intend to be more intentional about in the coming year. These questions come from others living and writing about simple living that I have read over the years:
- If I buy this item what will I not be able to buy in the future (e.g., vacation time, donations, unexpected Strata levies)?
- Is this a necessary item or merely a convenience that I can do without (e.g., a kitchen gadget)?
- Do I already have X number of these (e.g., cardigans, necklaces, shoes)?
- Is this a luxury that most of the world will never get to have (large flat screen television, brand new gas range)?
- If I buy this item will it limit other living beings’ ability to simply live?
- Do I need this item more than a refugee needs to reach a safe shore, a mother in famine needs to feed her child, or a girl in a poor country needs to go to school?
I intend to do better this year. If you have similar intentions please let me know and share your approaches to living smaller and more simply in the comments section.