Category: Minimalism

On Tyler Durden and Identification With Things

Warning – I wanted to give a heads up that this post includes a couple of f-bombs, in case anyone is offended by such things.

fight club soap

You are not your job, you’re not how much money you have in the bank. You are not the car you drive. You’re not the contents of your wallet. You are not your fucking khakis.

Tyler Durden, Fight Club

Identities are a tricky things. The way that we identify ourselves can come from a variety of sources, from genetics and biology, to upbringing and cultural factors, to our jobs, to the identities other people foist upon us. There are countless points of origin for the various pieces that create this person that we view as ourself. I want to look at one specific aspect of this today, and that is the identity that we cultivate based on our things.

For better or for worse, one of the formative works of fiction in my early twenties was Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club. I had already begun developing an interest in philosophy when I first read Fight Club, so I was immediately taken by the obvious nods toward Nietzschean nihilism. There’s a lot that I could say here about the fact that me discussing the philosophy of Fight Club in my twenties was also a vehicle for identity creation/reinforcement, but that’s a story for another day.

There are a lot of quotable lines in Fight Club, but the phrase that probably most often runs through my head to this day is, “you are not your fucking khakis.” This line is the punctuation of the longer quote above, and it’s a pretty simple distillation of one of the repeating themes of the book, that the things we own will end up owning us.

If you have read my recent posts, you know that I have been purging a lot of my possessions recently, in pursuit of a more minimalist lifestyle. There are a lot of reasons why I have chosen to do this, but one of the motivations stems from a process that began a little over a year ago, when I began studying Buddhism and started to ask myself questions about this person that I viewed myself to be.

hop tattoo

Early on in this exploration, I began to think about the identity that I was cultivating in my job and with the clothes that I wore. I manage a craft beer and wine bar, and I have always taken a lot of pride in having a carefully curated selection that included a lot of product that I actually drive across the state to procure. I would say that a lot of us take on identities based on our jobs, as they are such a large part of the way we spend our lives. I had definitely begun to build an identity based on the work that I was doing, and would always revel in the moments where people would recognize how hard I worked to bring them beer that they couldn’t get anywhere else. To further state my craft beer bone fides, I had a collection of t-shirts from all of the most hyped breweries in the northwest, and I would eat it up when someone would recognize the brewery and say something that would allow me to explain that I just tapped a keg from them that I drove 8 hours round trip to purchase. I even got a tattoo with hops flowing from a beer tap, lest there still be any doubt about what a beer guy I was.

The more time went on, the more I began to explore my attachment to this identity. Was this really who I was? Was it even really the thing that I wanted to define me? I thought about how hard I was working to maintain this identity. I reflected on how upset I got when one of my competitors got a beer in that I didn’t have, because it challenged my identity as “the guy who brings in beers nobody else has.” I was also spending a lot of time and money on the protection of this identity, which I could have been spending on things that were really more important. I realized that there was suffering and a kind of bondage in the maintenance of this identity.

This was really the contemplation that lead to my original round of minimizing. Several months ago, I went through my closet and got rid of most of my brewery shirts. It wasn’t that I thought that there was a problem with owning them, it was just that I had made the decision to stop basing my identity on this aspect of my life, and I felt like these shirts were not really serving me in this. I kept a couple of my favorite shirts, but got rid of all the rest. Not only did I find freedom in letting go of this attachment to my identity, I also found a sense of relief in the simple act of trimming my wardrobe down.

my book shelf
The tip of my book iceberg

The last couple of weeks, as I have been going through all of my things to decide what I will be taking with me in my upcoming move, I have done a major purge on my book collection. This has been the biggest project thus far in my minimalist journey. We had, literally, 100s of books. I love to read, so over the years I have accumulated a lot of them. My book purchases have covered a number of different phases, from my existentialist philosophy phase, to a brief flirtation with the idea of starting a small scale sustainable farm. As I went through the process of deciding on the handful of books that I would keep, I realized that my book collection had also served to establish an identity. I have always thought of myself as well-read, and having several bookshelves full of books confirmed that to myself, and to anyone who came into my home. Deciding to get rid of most of these books felt like a profound act of letting go. Letting go of maintaining an idea of my self, and accepting a more spacious and meaningful existence.

There is nothing wrong with owning, and even enjoying things. I still find a lot of joy in reading, and even in owning, a nice book. I just believe that we expose ourselves to a lot of unnecessary anxiety and suffering when we create an identity based on our possessions. I have found that paying attention to the relationship that we have with our things is a really important part of living a happy and meaningful life. Are we viewing our things in ways that promote satisfaction and wellbeing, or are we dependent on them to give us meaning? Our things are impermanent, and the satisfaction that they bring is even more ephemeral. Our meaning can never be truly based on such a precarious foundation. We are not our things. We are not our fucking khakis.

Holding Onto Broken Things

It’s Monday night, and I’m sitting on the floor of my living room taking pictures of a 1974 Gibson Les Paul Custom 20th Anniversary guitar so I can post it to sell online. I looked up the guitar and found that the color is listed as Alpine White, although I had always thought of it as more of a Vanilla Pudding Yellow. I’ve had this beautiful instrument for over 20 years, and about 15 of those years it has been little more than a heavy symbol of bitterness toward an old friend.

1974 Gibson Les Paul Custom Guitar
1974 Gibson Les Paul Custom 20th Anniversary Paperweight

It was probably about 15 years ago that I let a friend of mine borrow the guitar for a gig that he was playing at his church. This was after my time playing in punk rock bands in Denver, and during one of my many phases of contrite repentance. Both my friend and I were playing in church worship bands. I had sold my amplifier to pay for my move back home to Texas, so I was primarily playing acoustic guitar at the time. Despite the fact that it mostly just sat in its case at home, the guitar was my most prized possession. Truth be told, it was one of my only possessions of any significant value.

I still remember the phone call from my friend, telling me that he had dropped my guitar and cracked the neck. At first I thought that he was playing a prank on me, since he had actually joked about how he would make sure to use the strap locks so that this very thing wouldn’t happen. It wasn’t a joke. When I came by to look at it later, it was actually a lot worse than he had made it sound.

broken guitar neck

I immediately began to feel angry, both at myself for letting someone borrow something so precious to me, and at him for not being more careful with my guitar. He had not put on the strap locks as he was getting the guitar plugged in, and the strap had slipped from the peg, dropping with the full weight of the heavy guitar on its headstock. I didn’t lash out at him, as that wouldn’t have been the Christian thing to do, but inside I was seething.

My friend was a church worship leader, which naturally meant that he didn’t have any money. To be honest, he only gave me a passing overture of wishing he could pay me back. We had someone take a look at the guitar to see if it could be repaired, but they said that there really wasn’t much that could be done. The guitar had a solid body, so even putting on a new neck wasn’t an option. This guitar that I had loved so much was now just a twelve pound symbol of my bitterness sitting in my garage.

Over the years, I have carried this item across the country with me. I have never really known why. I have always assumed that it could never be fixed, and there really isn’t even a chance that I will get seriously into playing music again anyway. Every time I have looked at it taking up space in my garage, I have felt a tension build in my chest, and thoughts return to my mind of my old friend’s disregard for something that had been so important to me.

As I sit on the floor, listing this broken instrument for sale at a minuscule fraction of what a functional version of this guitar would bring, it strikes me that the guitar wasn’t the only broken thing that I have been holding onto. I have been holding onto the anger and bitterness that the guitar represents. In the grand scheme of life, the guitar is just a thing. It was a thing that I was attached to when I was younger, and maintaining that attachment has lead to a lot of suffering over the years. I know that it seems silly to have felt so strongly about something so small, but this is what attachment does to us. Why have I allowed this broken thing to reside in my heart?

This morning I sold the guitar, and as I did, I felt a measure of freedom come over me. I feel like I am finally disentangling myself from a burden that I have held onto for a long time. As the purchaser drives away in his silver Subaru, I wish him well, and I hope that he can figure out how to put the guitar to use in some way. May it be useful to him, and as silly as it sounds, I hope that the guitar finds a new purpose as well. Above all, may I continue to free myself from the tyranny of broken things.

I’m Making a Minimal(izing) Effort!

There is a lot going on in my life right now. Those of you who have read previous posts on this blog may already know that my marriage of almost 13 years recently ended, so I am currently in the process of preparing to move into a new place of my own. The last couple of years of watching this relationship fall apart have, naturally, lead to a lot of examination of my life. It has been a painful experience, but it has also been a period of some of the most profound growth that I have undergone during my life. Now I am onto a new phase of life, and have decided that some big changes are in order.

I have had an interest in something resembling Minimalism for quite a while, long before I knew to apply that term to it. From time to time during my marriage I would feel the need to “downsize” our life. Get rid of some of the things that we had accumulated over time. We made a few purges over the years we were together, but never really a substantial shift in the amount of things we possessed or the way that we were living.

minimalist clothing rack
Photo freely given by tu tu on Unsplash

Last year I came across a book that started to shift my thinking on the topic. I read a book called Goodbye, Things: The New Japanese Minimalism by Fumio Sasaki, and his descriptions of the relationship he was cultivating with things really resonated with me. As often happens, reading this book led me to seek out more minimalist authors, which lead me to discover The Minimalists, which in turn lead me to a number of other bloggers and podcasters. There were so many overlapping and complimentary themes between my Buddhist studies and what I was reading about Minimalism, that it’s a little difficult to say which influenced my thoughts on specific lifestyle changes. Regardless of where I drew inspiration from, I began to think more seriously about adopting a more minimalist lifestyle.

Given the less than stable state of my home life, I didn’t really push to make any major changes in our household, but I did start to scale back a little on my own personal accumulation of stuff and get rid of a few things. It wasn’t until the decision was made that we were going to be separating that I decided to make any major changes. I have recently located a small studio apartment, and as we pack things up for our mutual moves, I have chosen to dive into a full-scale minimalist project by committing to only taking a minimal amount of things with me in the move. This is made easier by the fact that I first selected a place that only had minimal space to put things in, but it still hasn’t been easy.

Why Minimalism?

There were a number of things that guided me toward adopting a minimalist lifestyle. Some were influenced by philosophical factors, some by ethical, and some by practical considerations. Here are just a few –

Avoiding Attachment and Identification with Things

One area in which I found alignment between Buddhism and Minimalism in is the area of attachment. In Buddhism the goal is to avoid attachments in general. Minimalism is based on the idea that we don’t need things to make us happy, and that attachment to the accumulation of things leads to a lot of discontent and unhappiness. Things break. Things disappoint us. Things require upkeep. Things cause clutter. Things can be useful and can bring us joy in some cases, but attachment to our things sets us up for suffering.

Our things can also end up becoming our identity. We create an image to others, and to ourselves, of who we are, based entirely on the things we own. We begin to define ourselves and find our value in our things. We suffer when our things don’t live up to our aspirations, thinking we aren’t complete as a person if we don’t possess the right things.

minimalist bench
Photo freely given by Bench Accounting on Unsplash

Our Things Have an Impact on Our Planet

From an environmental standpoint, purchasing new things means more things have to be produced. Some items have less impact than others, but none of these things are completely neutral. They require that resources be gathered to produce them, and in many cases they require production methods that might not be beneficial to the environment. There is generally some amount of transport involved, which means they have a carbon footprint. All of this, and then when we get rid of an item, it usually ends up occupying space in a landfill. By being more intentional with the stuff we buy and maintain we are able to decrease the impact that we have on our homes, individually, as well as our global home.

More Time and Energy For the Important Things

One of the things that I have realized in the early stages of this process, is that the things that I have cause me to spend a lot of time and/or money on their upkeep. Having so many things means I have to clean more things, replace batteries, spend money on electricity, etc.

Many of the things I own also cause a distraction from things that are more important. I have seen this played out during my 31 Day Precept Project. I have observed the role that social media, television, and video games play as an intoxicant in my daily life. Even though I might have a plan to work on some design work or a blog post, I decide that I’m just going to watch one show first. Then I decide that I actually feel too tired to work on my projects, so I just keep watching until I’m ready to go to bed.

More Financial Freedom for Experiences and Charity

By committing to owning less things, I will spend less money. This will allow me to eliminate debt, save more, and have more resources for charitable projects and donations. I have always told myself that certain causes were a priority for me, but when it came down to taking action, I showed that my priorities were actually not in line with my values, and that I mostly prioritized the support of the lifestyle I was living.

I have also never really had the money to participate in experience that I have wanted to have. It has always been a dream to travel more, even just camping trips around my local area, but I have never really saved to a point where that was realistic. By minimizing, I can cut my expenses and begin to actually save money for these experiences.

Living a More Meaningful Life Through Minimalism

This effort to minimize can be summed up simply by saying that I want to live a more meaningful life that is based on my relationships and worthwhile experiences, in place of one that is typified by the things that I own. This process is just beginning, but I am excited to see where it leads.

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