Minimalism, Utilitarianism, and Paganism: Three ‘isms’ that are changing my life.

Something that I have been trying to get across to people I talk to about my life seem to have this misconception about what I’m doing.  I’m not going for ‘austerity’ or ‘asceticism’, and I’m not even trying to get rid of my stuff because I’m dying (to clarify: I’m not dying). I’m just looking for the raw experiences in life, sans all the extra baggage and bullshit that seem to follow most of those experiences in my wake.  I’m stripping it all down, taking what’s absolutely necessary (and what’s necessary to a good life experience), and discarding the rest in favor of a life that I design.  Not a life that’s designed to follow a grid-plan or someone’s expectations of what my life should be, but mine and nobody else’s.

Minimalism isn’t some new-aged mumbo-jumbo, it’s not a cult (despite what some purveyors and pursuers of the materialist/consumerist lifestyle will tell you), and neither is it a descent into mediocrity and self-destruction.  It’s a way of life that has been crystallized for me through the lenses of people whom I hold in extremely high-esteem.  My friend Jeremiah, the army of climbing buddies that I have made bonds with, and the vast base of anti-consumerist sentiment both online as well as offline have all colored my vision and have given me a whole new perspective on a great deal of things, but primary of which is the way I live my life.

For the longest time, I lived outside of my means.  Buying things I really didn’t need, doing things with my time and money that weren’t serving to improve myself or my situation in any meaningful way, and all the while whistling a happy tune because I was finally living what passed for the low-to-middle-income American Dream.  I was up to $15,000 in debt approximately three years ago and I had no visible way out besides bankruptcy or selling my soul to a corporation.  Working two jobs while I was living in Orlando, FL, I finally came to a realization that something had to change and it wasn’t going to be the easiest path but it would be rewarding in the end.

Taking the initiative after being offered a position in my hometown of San Diego, CA, I moved back and started living the stripped-down lifestyle.  I got rid of a great deal of my possessions, I discarded my gaming habit and kicked my health into high-gear.  I started by figuring out what exactly I needed and didn’t need from my wardrobe and started digging into my other personal possessions (even my computer files) and started systematically donating or discarding whatever was not necessary for me to live the life that I wanted.  At the time, I was climbing five days a week, taking the Coaster to and from work in Sorrento Valley, bicycling the distance from work to the Coaster (round-trip of about twelve miles a day), and eating as healthy as I could possible conceive.  I cut my diet down to raw, organic, and vegan foods as the majority of my meals with little “meat breaks” added in.  I couldn’t live without Chipotle, so I made it a twice-to-three times-a-week treat after especially good climbing, and my weight dropped from a hundred and sixty-five pounds to just over one hundred thirty pounds in the span of about five months.  This time was also a huge time of prosperity for me, I was paying down my debt as fast as I could earn money.  I was taking holiday shifts whenever I could, skipping on purchasing “impulse buys” and sticking to a strict regimen of grocery shopping and climbing outside of work.  Staying in this routine and dropping the largest portions of what I owned, I was able to travel cross-country again to Massachusetts when another job offer presented itself with just my pickup truck (no trailer required).

Being where I am now and spending only what I really have to, I have paid down most of my debts.  I now owe less than three thousand dollars, my truck is almost completely paid-off, and my credit score is at its highest point since I started accruing credit, and all of this is after I’ve paid off the balances on at least four other credit accounts and closed the accounts completely out.  This is not to say that I couldn’t have done the same thing if I were still buying on impulse instead of thinking things through and living below my means, but it wouldn’t have opened my eyes to something I had been doing subconsciously all along.

Utilitarianism quite literally boils down to a simple axiom: function over form (beauty, ornamentation, etc).  When applied to one’s life and what a person buys or uses in their life, one can begin to see the various frivolities that we consumers are drawn into out of little more than a drive for profit.  (Buy the next ‘Big Plastic Thingy’ because it’ll do ‘X, Y, and Z!’, and order now because if you order in the next five minutes, we’ll throw in two more ‘Big Plastic Thingies’ absolutely FREE!)  But really, is that next bit of plastic, paper, wood, or other material object going to do anything for you that you can’t already do on your own?  Do you really need that five-hundred piece toolset, or will the tool-box your parents gave you when you move out get you through the next minor repair?  Do you honestly need to upgrade that laptop, or can you get-by for a few more months on that clunker you haul around in your bag?  Often times for me, the deciding factor in obtaining new items is fairly simple:

  • Does it accomplish a task or goal that I do not currently have a tool or item for?
  • If I already have something that will perform this task or accomplish the goal, does this object do it better or more efficiently?

If the answer to both of these questions is a resounding ‘yes’, then it’s something I generally stick on the back of a long list of things I actively review and consider before buying.  Say we’re talking about the latest phone or laptop (say a new MacBook Air comes out that has WAY better screen resolution or is twice as fast or some other nonsense), and the one I’m currently typing this message on is on-the-fritz for some reason, my first question would be: is this worth the money and effort spent obtaining it?  Is my experience going to fundamentally change if I obtain this new version of the same product I already own?  You can probably guess that my first response would be: ‘no’, followed by another ‘no’.  Why?  Because, there isn’t anything that I do right now that requires a faster laptop.  The heaviest I do is watch some high-definition movies every once in a blue-moon.  There’s no use in it!  See?  I just saved myself about another thousand dollars and didn’t even have to get up out of my office chair.

But the more important questions start coming to mind when the application of this utilitarian mindset starts rearing its head in other parts of my life.  Is that fatty, greasy burger really going to be any better than the veggie-wrap I can get down the street?  Will taking the elevator in the lobby make my day any better or improve my mood at all?  Will taking that next assignment on the board really going to give me any better visibility or standing with my manager or his managers?  Why did I buy this piece of furniture when I hate to sit on it or use it as a surface?  These are the kinds of questions that come up for me on a daily basis.  I analyze, re-analyze, and overanalyze the possessions I have in an attempt to evaluate their worth, their usefulness, and to make better (and more frugal) decisions about what I buy and use in my day-to-day life.

In this same vein, my spirituality has ranged from pure polytheistic paganism and the worship of the elements and the gods that grant them to us, to a gestalt practice of scientific inquiry and curiosity laid over a spiritual belief structure that allows for the possibility of concepts such as quantum entanglement and alternate dimensions to exist alongside them and infuse them with greater weight and meaning.  For me, my pagan faith is less about the devotion purely to a singular deity or set of deities, but the recognition of many deities as they appear and as they are needed.

Borrowing from Carl Jung’s work surrounding ‘archetypes’, my belief is that the energy of the universe speaks to us on a primal level and gives us interaction by giving us mental representation through the archetypes that we know best.  If you are Christian, perhaps the universe speaks to you through angels or perhaps by speaking to our intuition, if you’re Buddhist perhaps the various minor deities and spirits that inhabit the incredibly complex cosmology that that faith inhabits, or if you’re pagan perhaps a particular god or “elder” deity speaks to you through intuition or ritual such as Cernunnos or the Horned God.

In my current state of affairs, the universe speaks to my intuition and dreams by representations of extremely primal energies and some personal spirits that I have become acquainted with over the course of my life.  The extremely tall, strong, and wise elder-angel on one shoulder and the protective wolf-spirit that has stayed with me for the beginning are two of the primary spirits that inhabit my personal spiritual space, and bearing Jung’s concepts in-mind I try to internalize the wisdom that is passed to me through their communication and make it a reality.  Borrowing and taking from different belief systems and adding them to my own if their purpose suits and serves to teach and enlighten is the fundamental core of my spiritual practice and my personal growth.

In all of these different situations, the core operation remains the same: Take only what you need, use what you have, and discard the rest.  It’s time to trim the excess, to discard the fat and offal, and to look for the heart of the experiences that we share in this lifetime.  It’s not about the big plastic things that we buy on vacation and bring home, it’s not about the overpriced t-shirts and CDs that the stadium bands sell you, and it’s most certainly not about how much you tithe on Sundays.  In fact, it’s closer to the complete polar-opposite than most are able to accept.  It’s about taking that long hike to the top of the hill you pass by every day on the way to work, it’s about taking the time out of your life to ask the hard questions about your life and how your existence is playing-out in “the grand scheme of things”, and it’s about finding meaning in an increasingly complex and compacted existence that many have probably told you throughout your life is somehow “meaningless anyways”.  That search for the raw and real experiences, the root of meaning, and the space to express myself that keeps me going every day.  It’s knowing that the world is built on rules and systems of control that aren’t necessarily malignant, but they do not serve to address the real needs of modern humans in the largest wealth of information we have ever accumulated.  That’s where people like myself come in: I hope to serve as an example of how anyone can turn their situations around, how they can look deep within and, with any luck, extract that modicum of passion buried under the ashes that life heaps upon their souls.  Extract it and keep it close like a precious stone that radiates heat and life outward from its surface.  This is the process I am actively involved in now, and why I continue to struggle, to fight, to learn and to improve… and why I hope you will one day take up this fight too.

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