On Quiet

We tend to measure life by our memories. The most joyful or devastating, exciting or stressful, interesting or hard fought for milestones, from one to the next, they stand out the most in our minds.

These are the things we go out of our way to do, to plan for, to work for, to pay for. Advertising encourages us to fit as many ‘experiences’ as we can cram into our lives. When the big moment arrives, we take photos on our smartphones, upload to social media, even journal or tell our friends and children about it.

We remember these events for years, but everything else in between is forgotten.

What did you do on an typical Tuesday afternoon? Or a quiet Thursday evening? Or a routine Sunday morning? It may seem unimportant, but what if the ordinary in-between moments are just as powerful as the extraordinary ones?

Who knew that a regular day sitting on the sofa with my grandmother, half watching TV while sharing some fruit would be the last time I saw her alive? Nothing lasts forever, not even the mundane. Everything will pass, whether you notice it or not.

Indeed, it is a practice to be as grateful for the journey as the destination. It’s not easy to give our limited attention to the unremarkable moments, but they probably make up about 90% of our daily lives. If we live a good life with multiple journeys to multiple destinations, what kind of fulfilment would we have if we only appreciated 10% of it?

So maybe in a month’s time I won’t remember this moment—sipping my coffee as I write this, the smell of it waking me up to the sound of the city going by outside my window on this sunny July morning—but I can enjoy it right now, thoroughly and gratefully, for everything it’s worth.

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Dear Grandma

My dear mama, you passed away earlier this month.

You had been ill for a long time, so it wasn’t unexpected. At least you were surrounded by family when it happened. Everyone dropped everything to go to your house that night. There were a lot of tears.

You lived a hard and busy life, immigrating from Vietnam to England forty years ago bringing your ten children with you. With such a big family, your house always had people coming in and out to visit, to talk about everything and nothing, to eat and drink tea until late into the night. Weddings, birthdays, and Chinese New Years have always been hectic and wonderful and full of food and laughter.

In the end though, old age took over. You got breast cancer, and eventually liver cancer and other ailments that made you so weak you needed help with everything. We all did our best to take care of you, getting you the best treatment we could, but in the end, we had to let you go.

Growing up, you didn’t have much. You married a man, my grandfather, who was from a village in the mountains near the border of China and Vietnam. You had to have ten children because you were so poor you didn’t know how many would survive until adulthood. Some actually didn’t survive—as close as we all are, there are members of our family that I would never know.

So it’s no wonder you valued money so much. Having it meant the survival of your family, which was everything to you. When you all came to England in the 1980’s to look for a better life, everyone worked hard at the few years they had at school to learn English so that they could find work. My own father, who was 14 at the time you moved here, only had a single year of education. Those first few years were all about learning to survive in a new world.

Eventually everyone found their feet. All ten children became adults, found jobs or started successful businesses and married and had children. Some even went on to have their own children and you and Grandad became great-grandparents. Ten years ago, Grandad passed away and although you were alone without him, you were never lonely with all of us being there for you.

We started with nothing but now our family has more money than we could have imagined as refugees from a mountain village. You started a dynasty, but we haven’t forgotten our roots. Although money is useful, it isn’t the most important thing. To this day every one of us would do anything to support each other.

You were a minimalist by circumstance, not by choice. You didn’t have much, but what you did have and all that mattered were things that money couldn’t buy—good health for as long as possible, a loving family, and living a full and happy life. You had everything you ever needed, and I’m glad for that.

May you rest in peace.

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On Vanity

Why do we buy stuff? Not everything we buy is useful, so there must be other reasons why we work so hard to buy things.

Maybe it’s because we find a sense of happiness or satisfaction when we buy something new, but we all know that that feeling soon fades (even though we almost never remember this every time we buy something new).

Why we buy stuff has less to do with the object itself than with ourselves. When we buy expensive clothes, the newest gadgets or a flashy car, it’s because we believe it will give us recognition from the people around us—we’ll ‘show’ them how successful we are so that they’ll accept us, or even love us.

Humans crave recognition. To be part of a group, or at least not be in some else’s shadow. Most people are more influenced by what other people think of them than what they actually want ourselves.

Think about it—if everyone in the world disappeared tomorrow and you were the only one left (apart from the upset you would have from losing your friends and loved ones) what would you do now that you could have anything you desired?

You could just walk into someone’s mansion, even the most beautiful castle, and have it all to yourself. You could pick and choose anyone’s finest clothing and jewellery, even put on the crown if you wanted to! Drive a Ferrari, swim in bank notes, have hundreds of iPhones. But after a while, what would happen? With no one to impress, the chances are that you’ll find somewhere more convenient and easier to maintain than a huge house, you’ll wear clothes that are more comfortable, you’ll drive something more practical and you’ll get bored of the latest gadget.

Things you thought were worth a lot won’t matter as much any more. You’re the last person on earth, there’s nothing left but to find something worthwhile to do, something that makes you happy, not anyone else.

If no one was around to validate our existence, as society has defined by how much stuff we have, we would wouldn’t actually care about it. Hardly anyone would actually choose to have their life’s purpose revolve around buying things, but so many people do exactly that every day, without stopping to question it.

We don’t have to go as far as erasing every other person on Earth. If we just cared a little less about what other people think, we’d care a little more about what we want, and what really matters to us.

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On Generosity

Living a minimalist lifestyle is an act of generosity. By forgoing things that you don’t really need you:

  1. help yourself, because you aren’t working tirelessly to keep up on the treadmill of a materialistic life
  2. help others, by freeing up resources for those who need it more than you
  3. help the planet, by not unnecessarily adding to pollution

It’s a win-win-win for everyone. If you’re born lucky enough to have a better quality of life than most, you should pay it back by helping those who didn’t win the Ovarian Lottery.

It’s not just about money. There are a thousand ways to help people, and minimalism helps you find the right way—your own way—because you’re less distracted by the very things that stop you from being helpful to others, such as being self-centred because you care too much about what people think of you, or working long hours yet just scraping by because you need the money to pay for the credit card debts.

And if we give, we can also receive. There is so much we can learn by opening ourselves up to other people. Some of the happiest human beings are those who have the least. They teach us to appreciate the small things, and remind us to be grateful for that we’ve taken for granted. A very generous gift indeed.

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On Power

I’ve just finished reading The 48 Laws of Power by Robert Greene. It’s an unapologetic volume on what power is, why those who have it do, and more importantly, why those who don’t have it don’t.

Some might think books like these are evil, but one could argue that they just describe real life. Maybe it’s a shame, but it’s the natural order of the universe—those who are the most powerless tend to be the most unhappy, and those who are bold are the most able to get their own way, whether that means hindering or helping others.

Power doesn’t necessarily mean domination. It doesn’t always mean getting your way at the expense of others. Just like money, the more of it you have, the more good, or evil, you can do in the world. It’s a tool, and it’s up to you how you use it.

Unlike money, most people don’t think about power much at all. We’re unaware of the role it plays in our lives. Starting with our parents and teachers, our beliefs, values, and mindsets we develop as children are dictated by people more powerful than us. These authority figures have the power to praise or to punish, so we follow their instructions and do what’s expected of us.

Eventually teachers are replaced by bosses, and parents are replaced by society’s expectations. Yet, as we become adults, even though the people who have power over us changes, the dynamics of power never do.

If we have little power, we allow other people to form our view of the world. We end up doing things we’re unhappy with, or not living to our potential because we don’t pause to question our assumptions that were forced upon us as children. Every move we make is influenced by what other people think or have told us.

But what if we took more control of our lives? What if we empowered ourselves with the ability to choose? What would we do if we weren’t afraid of what other people think? 

Choosing to have power over your own life isn’t as easy as letting other people tell you what to do. You have to make decisions and deal with the consequences for where those decisions lead, for better or for worse. As a great person once said, “With great power comes great responsibility,” but a good life lead on your own terms makes it all worth it in the end.

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On Guidance

How do we guide people towards a life of minimalism?

As with most things in life, preaching about something only makes people more resistant to the idea.

Yet some people just can’t help themselves. They like to humblebrag about how well they’re doing, just to show off how much better their lives are than other people’s.

Unsurprisingly, this approach almost never works. If you genuinely care about improving other people’s lives, it’s much better to live a better life without bragging about it, and if you really are happier people will see it and want to emulate you themselves.

Minimalism is particularly difficult because people are very attached to their stuff, and simply telling people to get rid of their precious things, or criticising them for having too much is exactly the wrong way to go about it.

Instead, let minimalism improve your life, then go live it well. Have fun not working as many hours, not being in debt, and not being a slave to your stuff. When people see how much more time and energy you have, they’ll ask you what your secret is.

Then you can tell them, the answer is simple—it’s simplicity itself.

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On Tragedy

I was 300 metres away when it happened.

On 22nd May 2017, about 10:30pm as I was lying in bed, I heard a sudden, thunderous crashing sound.

For a moment, I thought it was actually thunder, but when I looked out of my window, it wasn’t raining.

I went out onto my balcony. Neighbours had come out too. “Did you hear that?” I shouted over, “Yeah, what was it?” they replied. “I don’t know” I said, as we all looked toward the train station at the end of our road.

We would soon find out. The station alarm came on. It told people to evacuate the area. Sirens started sounding in the distance. A stream of police and ambulances arrived. Thousands of people started filing out from the concert hall, Manchester Arena. Traffic was blocked up. Confused, curious, and concerned, my partner and I checked social media all night as details began to emerge.

At first we thought something might have collapsed, maybe a part of a building or a crane, it had happened before. But we couldn’t see any smoke. Maybe it was a train? We tried to stay rational, and not jump to any conclusions. But news started trickling through. Bad news. Something had happened at the Arena. A concert had just finished. Could it be something to do with a speaker, or some sort of stage effect? Looking back, it was way too loud to be something like that. We just didn’t want to think it was the one thing we were most afraid of…

A suicide bomber. A young male, who had lived and grown up in Manchester. It had happened, the terrible things you see on TV, it had happened to our home.

It was surreal. Unbelievable, except the blue lights kept flashing and sirens sounded all night. The police closed the roads and cordoned off the area. Injuries and fatalities were reported. Within a few days, all of the 22 people who had died had been named.

When it hit the news, it wouldn’t have been as real if we hadn’t heard the blast with our own ears, and saw the police and ambulances with our own eyes. They’re still there, right now, as I look out of my window. Police tape closes off the roads I have walked past a hundred times.

Now I have had nearly a week to reflect on it. I’m thankful that I’m fine, and so are my friends and loved ones, but that’s little consolation for the victims and families. The more I read about them (and I can’t help myself), the more sad I am for them. I feel a mixture of fear, guilt, and helplessness.

The tribute that was held for them was attended by thousands of people. Hundreds of flowers, cards, and candles have been laid out in the city centre. I went to pay my respects. It was good to see so many people there. Manchester has pulled together.

I love this city. It’s my home. I’m proud with how people have reacted, giving condolences, donating money, and helping where they can. I’ve noticed people being more kind to one another. Most people here aren’t ignorant enough to lay the blame on an entire religion. We’ve been saying, “We stand together”. That’s the kind of place this is.

Too often it takes a tragedy to remind us about what’s important in life. Those concert goers had no idea what was going to happen, but at least they were enjoying life to the full. We never know what life will bring, but the best we can do is to be thankful for each day and make the most of it.

Stay safe, and stay strong.

On Quality

When people talk about minimalism, much of the focus is on quantity—how much you have, how much you don’t have, or how much other people have or don’t have…

Yes, the amount of stuff you own is part of it. But that’s not all minimalism is about.

The focus should be on quality—of your possessions, as well as your relationships, mental health, physical health, spirituality, finances, choices… basically all aspects of your life that could be improved.

It’s easy to only consider quantity because it’s readily measured. You can instantly see the results when you’ve finished decluttering a room or wardrobe. But to think that this is the goal of minimalism is misguided.

The point of minimalism is to lead a better and more meaningful life.  Minimalism then, is more accurately described as a study and practice of quality—quality in the sense of depth, longevity, meaningfulness, value, and how much something contributes to your lifelong comfort and happiness.

Does this person/object/thing mean a lot to me? Does it help me become a better person? Does it help me grow? Does it add to my well-being? Will it last a long time? Is it worth acquiring? Is it worth keeping? Do I really want it, or do I want it because everyone else has it, or has told me I should have it? Does it make me happy?

These things are harder to measure, but are more important than owning an arbitrary amount of 100 things or less. You can own 1,000 or 10,000 things, so long as everything contributes to your life in a meaningful way. Minimalism is saying yes to quality over quantity.

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On Kindness

Most people think it’s difficult to make changes in the world.

But every big change starts small. The smallest, easiest thing we can do to make a difference is showing a little kindness.

Imagine if every person you met left your company in a better condition than before. You would be well liked, have good relationships, and genuine friends.

You will lead a happier life. People will remember you as the worthy person you are, and would be much more likely to listen to what you have to say. It’s easier to get people on board if they think you are a good person.

When you show people kindness, you’ll learn lessons about yourself that can only be learned when you see yourself through other people’s eyes.

Let your kindness brighten up someone’s day, and they will pass it on to a stranger, who will pass it onto a colleague, who will pass it onto a loved one… one small act can snowball into affecting a dozen or even a hundred people. That’s how you make a difference.

The best thing is that kindness is free. A smile, a compliment, a thank you note—these are things that don’t cost much. It’s a minimalist gift that keeps on giving.

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Welcome

Welcome to Minimalist Meditations.

You may be a reader from my 7 year old blog, Minimal Student, or perhaps you are a brand new reader who happened to stumble upon here. Either way, I’m glad you’ve found this corner of the Internet.

Minimalist Meditations is a project that I have been incubating for a long time. I loved writing for my original blog, Minimal Student, which I started at the beginning of my minimalist journey when I was actually a student. Over the past few years, it has built a strong community of readers, and I’m pleased to announce the next stage of the journeythis new site, Minimalist Meditations.

I have changed a lot over the years, and so have the topics I like to write about. You can find out more on my About page. The short version is that I’m no longer a student, and I wanted to grow the blog to include readers who aren’t necessarily students either.

Over the next few months, I will be rebranding the original blog and social media to redirect here, where I will be writing more often. I intend to cover a variety of topics that have become more and more relevant to me since I was a student, such as work, money, time, relationships and more—all with a minimalist perspective of course.

I will publish some of the original Meditations from Minimal Student, along with new posts in the next few weeks, which I hope will give you food for thought. You can subscribe to this blog via RSS or email.

If you have any comments or suggestions, I would love to hear from you. Feel free to comment below, or get in touch with me via Twitter or Facebook.

Here’s to many more happy years of minimalism.

All the best,

J