Note: This is the second essay in a three part series called CONSCIOUS FREEDOM written by Joshua Millburn & Ryan Nicodemus from theminimalists.com, featured on Becoming Minimalist, Exile Lifestyle, and Castles In The Air. I’ve been a big fan of the intellectualized approach these guys have been bringing to Minimalism, and am thrilled to be part of this series.
“Everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute center of the universe, the realest, most vivid and important person in existence. We rarely think about this sort of natural, basic self-centeredness because it’s so socially repulsive. But it’s pretty much the same for all of us. [It’s] hardwired into our boards at birth. Think about it: there is no experience you have had that you are not the absolute center of. The world as you experience it is there in front of YOU or behind YOU, to the left or right of YOU, on YOUR TV or YOUR monitor. Other people’s thoughts and feelings have to be communicated to you, but your own are so immediate, urgent, real.”
—David Foster Wallace, 2005, This Is Water
A Different Perspective
It’s incredibly difficult to think about the world from a perspective other than our own. We are always worried about what’s going on in our lives. What does my schedule look like today? What if I lose my job during the next round of layoffs? Why can’t I stop smoking? Why am I overweight? Why am I not happy with my life?
Suffice it to say that we are acutely aware of everything connected to our own lives. Everything good, everything bad. Everything in our lives.
Of course we also worry about other people as well. But not with the same intensity, not with the same level of focus or connection, and not with the same ferocious sub- conscious vigor that we apply to our own lives. When we worry, it’s fundamentally about ourselves and how the events going on around us impact us.
This is true even for the so called benevolent activities of our lives. Think about it, when we contribute to others, why do we do it?
I do it to help others, you might say.
That’s probably true, but why do we want to help others?
Because it makes them feel better.
Also true, but why do we want them to feel better?
Because it makes me happy when I make other people happy.
Ah! Exactly. It makes you happy.
To be clear, there is nothing wrong with helping others. And there is nothing wrong with feeling good about helping others either. You should feel good about it. We (i.e., Joshua & Ryan) do it all the time. We donate our time to local charities and non-profit organizations, and we make a conscious effort to contribute to people in a meaningful way. In fact, that’s the reason why we created theminimalists.com, to help people. Contribution is an amazing virtue.
But this essay is not about virtues. We’re not attempting to preach to you about being virtuous or give you reasons why you should donate your time to charitable organizations or convert you to a life of monk-like dedication to a righteous cause.
Rather, this essay is about consciously removing yourself the center of the universe. It’s about paying attention to what’s going on in front of you and around you and inside you.
That’s a tall order, we know.
And Yet You Are Not the Center of the Universe
It’s a tall order because it’s not easy to control your thoughts, minute after minute, hour after hour, day after day. We would like to posit to you, however, that gaining control of your thoughts — of what’s going on inside you — is the key to real happiness, it’s the key to real freedom.
It might not sound fun or sexy or exciting, but it’s the cold truth. If you can remove yourself — if you can remove your perspective — from a situation, then you can see the world through a different set eyes, and thus the world can take on a different meaning.
What we are really talking about here is a certain ideology — an American and western ideology — that says that I am the most important person on earth, and what I want is the most important thing and that my main job in life is to gratify my own desires.
It might sound crude or even repulsive to think this way, but it’s true. This ideology is perpetrated by television and advertising and entertainment and an overall culture of endless consumption, so much so that our own economy thrives on it. It’s the way life is, we are all in our own little bubbles, all more important than the people around us. And while this may not be universally true for every person in the culture, it is true for the culture as a whole, it’s a fairly accurate way to summarize the ethos of our culture.
And of course nobody tells us this. Our parents didn’t sit us down when we were little and tell us that this is the way it is, that we are the center of our own universe. Instead, it is subtle and gradual and is delivered by a great number of messages. Our culture is one enormous template of self-indulgence and self-gratification and self-advancement.
And yet in some ways this solipsistic template works very well. It has created massive amounts of wealth for many westerners, it works great for short-term commerce (viz. for selling us stuff that we don’t need), and it allows us to build our own individual-sized kingdoms, with our McMansions as palaces, our luxury cars as chariots, and our stuff as the humble servants of our kingdoms (at least ostensibly).
And in other ways — ways that are often much harder to discuss without sounding cliche or parable-ish or reductive — this template does not work well at all. There are parts of us that need to worry about things other than ourselves, things that are more important than us as individuals. The reasons these things are so hard to talk about is that they are usually not fun or exciting. It’s easy to market the seductive pleasures of fast cars and big homes and expensive alcohol and excessive consumption — we do so masterfully with slick, concise, thirty-second flash-cut messages — but it is much harder to make selflessness and contribution and respect to others just as attractive, and it is nearly impossible to do so using the same mediums in a similarly attenuated timespan.
And yet, somewhat paradoxically, it’s impossible to feel content without these things, it’s impossible to feel fulfilled or satisfied if we do not contribute beyond ourselves.
The Rise of Minimalism
This is perhaps why the minimalist movement has grown legs as of late. Minimalism is a way to remove yourself from the center of it all, to remove yourself from the desire to chase excess in our pursue of happiness.
Instead, minimalism shows us that there is happiness within us all already, that we are happy without unnecessary excess, without cars and boats and mansions and clothes and all the things of this world. Not that the things of this world are wrong or evil, it’s just that they are not the point of our lives.
The point of our lives is much more complex, and yet minimalism can help make it more simple, more available, more real. That is the attractiveness of minimalism.
Minimalism is a tool that can help us regain our consciousness and show us that the real point of our lives is not consumption, and it’s not to accumulate stuff. The real meaning of our lives is to contribute to other people in meaningful ways, to contribute beyond ourselves. It takes a special kind of awareness to breakthrough our cultural imperatives to realize this, but when we do realize it, we can live a more meaningful life, one that is filled with passion and happiness and fulfillment and freedom.
Joshua Millburn & Ryan Nicodemus created theminimalists.com where they documented their journey into minimalism and they donate their time to help other people become minimalists. Hit the link to take a look at more of their stuff, you won’t regret it.
You can find the first and third installments of this series at Becoming Minimalist and Castles in the Air respectively.