I Am Not the Center of the Universe

 

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.

Contribution

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.

40 comments

  1. Pingback: the minimalists

  2. Colin,

    Thanks for the opportunity to guest post with you (and thanks for participating in this series). Hope to see you again soon (after Iceland, that is).

    Take care,

    Joshua

  3. Colin – very insightful. You’re right we all do walk around thinking (consciously or unconsciously) that the world revolves around us – and to a degree it does – as you allude to “I am here having an experience called life”.

    What helped me when I looked at this inherent ‘selfishness’ was to differentiate between the ego (which is all about “I want” and satisfying desires) and my true nature. I find the still and quiet in the morning helps me access this – it’s there that I can listen to my heart. Meditation I suppose.

    Minimalism or simplicity – whatever you want to call it – helps with this. By de-cluttering I can find the time and space to be able to listen to my heart. And guess what – my heart isn’t interested in material possessions or status – it’s interested in bringing peace, love and joy into the world. The things that matter.

  4. Great to see this incredible collaboration.
    There’s a great story about Alexander the Great entering the territory of India. One day he rides ahead of his army and comes across a Jain Ascetic. The Jain sees Alexander, resplendent in his armor, and asks “Who are you? What are you doing?”
    “I am Alexander, I am conquering the world. Who are you?”
    “I am a simple Jain, I am achieving enlightenment” (Pardon my paraphrasing)
    They both laugh at each other politely and walk away, neither understanding the other’s mission.

    The point is that the Jain saw himself as a cog in the wheels of the world, another part, no more or less important than anyone.
    Alexander, however, was raised on stories of Hercules, Pericles, Odysseus. Great individuals who performed epic deeds to create a name for themselves.

    The cultural differences are profound, the implications of the stories we imbibe are much more salient in our mentalities than we’d like to admit some times.

    Perhaps if i hadn’t spent all my time reading expansive adventures and fantasy stories I wouldn’t suffer from this incredible sense of wanderlust!

  5. Pingback: Everybody Worships Something (Conscious Freedom: Part One) | Becoming Minimalist

  6. Recently, I have begun to find minimalism very interesting. Now I feel like I have actual seen a glimpse of the heart of it, which I had not been exposed to before. Thank you for showing me its beauty through your eyes!

    • Wendy,

      Your comment is very touching. I appreciate it. I’m glad you recently found minimalism (or perhaps it found you, as it were). Looking forward to interacting with you.

      Take care,

      Joshua Millburn

  7. Pingback: I Am Not the Center of the Universe | Exile Lifestyle | HappyTipsDaily

  8. Another great post….as a Christian, the message of “I am not the center of the universe” resonates with me. I also find that thinking of others first – instead of myself – goes miles in all my relationships (with my children, with my spouse, with my students, etc.)

    • Jill,

      You are exactly right. If we can remove our sole perspective from the relationship and see it as an actual relationship (which is difficult to do, but is well worth it) then the relationship will grow immensely, and people will know that we care about them.

      Take care,

      Joshua Millburn

  9. Pingback: Castles in the Air » Blog Archive » Awareness: The Most Precious Kind of Freedom

  10. The concept that ties this all together for me is “empathy.” It’s about seeing the world through the eyes of other people, understanding their thoughts and emotions, and working together to achieve common happiness. The way I see it, you can’t give someone else happiness unless you too are happy. Therefore, personal happiness must come slightly before being empathetic and expanding that happiness to others.

    This reminds me of a great zen quote: “Like a single candle being used to light all the candles in a room, happiness does not diminish when shared.”

  11. I like the concept of “putting yourself in someone else’s shoes.” It gives perspective to your actions, and not enough time to we, as people, worry about what others really think, unless they impact or affect us in various ways.

    I am sure we have all stopped and thought “i wonder how my wife/husband/etc. took what I just said” and you put yourself in their shoes, instantly realizing that what you said might have come off wrong.

    But have you ever put yourself in the shoes of someone that does not impact you? Someone entirely different? Just tried to see the world through their eyes, without your involvement in their life?

    It definitely adds a level of perspective to how we all view this world.

    • Justin,

      If I understand you correctly, it sounds like you’re talking about completely removing yourself from the situation altogether. I think this can be done to a certain extent, but not completely (we’re all a victim of our own logic in this case). It’s a very good thought though, and I’ll considerate more and try it soon.

      Joshua

      • Exactly. Maybe it is closer to day dreaming, but trying to put yourself in the shoes of someone unrelated. Maybe as easy as watching the news, putting yourself in the shoes of someone that has just experienced a catastrophe. But do it for longer than “wow, that must suck, I cant imagine what it would be like to be in their shoes”

        I think that perspective makes the world a little smaller of a place, understanding the perspective of others, maybe even halfway around the world.

        I understand your point of looking at things from the other side of the equation, learning how your actions impact others, i think that is SO important for pretty much anyone.

  12. I like the concept of “putting yourself in someone else’s shoes.” It gives perspective to your actions, and not enough time to we, as people, worry about what others really think, unless they impact or affect us in various ways.

    I am sure we have all stopped and thought “i wonder how my wife/husband/etc. took what I just said” and you put yourself in their shoes, instantly realizing that what you said might have come off wrong.

    But have you ever put yourself in the shoes of someone that does not impact you? Someone entirely different? Just tried to see the world through their eyes, without your involvement in their life?

    It definitely adds a level of perspective to how we all view this world.

  13. Pingback: Simple Follower of Jesus » Blog Archive » Money the Meaning of Life?

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  15. Pingback: Conscious Freedom Joshua Millburn & Ryan Nicodemus - The Minimalists

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  17. A few centuries ago there were philosophers whose respected role was to be mindful and conscious and seek profound explanations for things on behalf of the nation. Unsurprisingly this role is not much regarded or needed in our modern day societies. With our fast pace we have lost the ability to explore other perspectives as a natural course of events.
    For me, removing unnecessary ‘stuff’ has left me with enough space and time to question my actions and behaviours daily, including if and when it all gets too me, me, me. What I find frustrating is the lack of people who can also slow down the pace to ruminate with me. I might even challenge the idea that minimalism is gaining speed, although when locked in the minimalist blogging world it might seem that way, (unless you have evidence to the contrary?)

    If you talk about removing oneself from the central perspective – behold Twitter! – which is used by a lot of people for broadcasting what they are doing literally every 60 seconds.

    Unfortunately we are raising 140 word limit Twitter Children whose sole perspective is bite-sized, fast paced trends fed to them from exterior sources, thus removing the need to create amazing-ness for themselves from an inwards and considered perspective.

    Great, thoughtful post as ever gentlemen!

    • Reading an article about this today in Esquire about how writing is being forced to change because of the likes of blogs and Twitter and tablet etc. Interesting point. Thanks for joining the discussion.

    • Reading an article about this today in Esquire about how writing is being forced to change because of the likes of blogs and Twitter and tablet etc. Interesting point. Thanks for joining the discussion.

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  19. Well Duh! The American Indian cultures have always lived and known this… It’s only now that the Euro religions are waking up to this and claiming it as if they were the one discovering it for the first time…

  20. Yukko. Another espousal of the false dichotomy that our only choices are either to sacrifice others to ourselves or to sacrifice ourselves to others. If that’s the kind of thinking behind The Minimalists, I will pursue my minimalism via other resources.

    Because I choose neither.

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