Living Simple, Living Well

stuff

What does it mean to live a simple life and to live well? Today I focus on the  second limb of an ashtanga yoga practice-Niyama, specifically santosa (contentment). In Niyama,  the second limb of yoga, there are five niyamas, or commitments we are to make to ourselves and principles we should follow in daily living. Sharath defines Santosa in the following manner:

Santosa means being happy with whatever we have, practicing inner joy from spiritual wisdom. Santosa is not acquired by amassing material things. Rather, it is contentment from a higher consciousness–the ultimate joy.  Happiness from material things lasts only a few hours or days and comes from a lower consciousness. Ultimate joy stays with you; it never goes away. Practice contentment; be happy with what you have (Jois, Sharath. 2013. Ashtanga Yoga Anusthana. Mysore, India: KPJAYI. p, 18).

I should start this by noting that I like stuff–particularly upgrades and high-end luxury items that all come from that lower consciousness–just as much as the next guy/gal. I’m smitten with my Mont Blanc Meisterstuck 149 fountain pen, those cute Prada flats on sale at Niemans, the $70 yoga pants at Lucy and that $4 Maribelle chocolate truffle I’ve made special trips to NYC exclusively to consume. You get the picture–I love to consume my share of ridiculous stuff. And everything about our society encourages me to do so whether I have the income or not (think gimmicky sales girl at VS offering a 10% discount  to apply for that VS credit card I dont need). Thankfully, I don’t really enjoy shopping and I’ve learned some self-discipline the hard way over the years. Also living in India, some lessons of living in a subsistence environment (e.g. grad school)  and saving did wear off.

Recently a series of events, articles, and encounters have encouraged me to reconsider what it means to live a simple life and to still live well –notably in relation to personal consumption,spending habits, and what actually brings about happiness. The media has been full of stories about living with less.  For instance….

One, this NY Times article, “Living with Less. A Lot Less” lays out the minimalist approach to living within an allotted space and with few possessions. The author, Graham Hill, asks “Does all this endless consumption [we engage in] result in measurably increased happiness?” He looks to academia for evidence:

In a recent study, the Northwestern University psychologist Galen V. Bodenhausen linked consumption with aberrant, antisocial behavior. Professor Bodenhausen found that “Irrespective of personality, in situations that activate a consumer mind-set, people show the same sorts of problematic patterns in well-being, including negative affect and social disengagement.” Though American consumer activity has increased substantially since the 1950s, happiness levels have flat-lined.

Hill goes onto explain how he went from living in a large house to a 420 square foot studio and reduced his possessions to find happiness in nonmaterial things.

Two, my husband recently wrote this article  about clothing in his weekly column and how we do not actually wear our clothes for any duration. He notes:

Like with fast food, industrial scale production and assembly line efficiency in a global marketplace has resulted in consumers getting more for less. While millions of people across the world are still hungry and naked, the middle class and wealthy, especially in developed countries, have more clothes than ever before. This in turn has led to a culture of treating apparel as disposables — it’s so cheap that you use it for a short period and throw it away. In fact, in the US, it is sometimes cheaper to buy some clothes new than have them dry cleaned.

Our consumer-driven society encourages us to buy the latest and greatest fashion trends each season and to simply discard what we purchased last season (e.g. Consider the rise of fast, affordable fashion such as H&M and Zara). He –the most simple person I know–wears an article of clothing until it has holes in it, and shops only out of necessity, also an extreme but commendable example.

Then, last example for today, there is Mr. Money Mustache who represents an extreme in, not only living well and spending less, but also is a living example of how, if we as Americans can overcome our obsession with stuff and exercise a bit of common sense and savings discipline–we can  live happier, simpler lives (http://articles.washingtonpost.com/2013-04-26/business/38832749_1_mustache-desire-golden-coin).  He saved and invested savings smartly. He paid off his debts, and managed to retire by age 30. This may not conform to everyone’s dream, but the idea is that we can live lives in which we’re not dependent on money if we can let go of the notion–so engrained in our culture–that we need and even worse, deserve, half the crap we consume.  The idea that we deserve and are entitled to that daily Starbucks coffee or fancy chocolate is ridiculous if we take a few minutes to really think it over.  Still, I, like everyone else allow myself to fall victim to this sense of entitlement. In his blog (http://www.mrmoneymustache.com),

Mr. Money Mustache spends his time highlighting numerous examples of how we can live happier lives with less. On his website he notes:

The bottom line is this: by focusing on happiness itself, you can lead a much better life than those who focus on convenience, luxury, and following the lead of the financially illiterate herd that is the TV-ad-absorbing Middle Classof the United States today (and most of the other rich countries). Happiness comes from many sources, but none of these sources involve car or purse upgrades.

How are these articles related? Each describes how we can live better with less stuff, a bit of common sense and an open mind.  The challenge comes in letting go of our sense of entitlement and going against the grain of a cultural tradition of consumption–living better with less.

How to do it? These articles suggest there are several ways:

  • Start with a change in mind set and stick to it–look at what you’ve got rather than focusing in what you need.
  • Discard extra stuff in  life. Our physical  surroundings have a tremendous influence on our thought processes. Clutter begets more clutter, so reduce all the stuff you don’t use and need. It sounds easier than it is. While, Graham Hill, takes the extreme approach, there is a middle ground out there.
  • Reduce, reuse,recycle–stop buying new stuff on demand.  I’m trying to learn this lesson from my husband who never buys bottled water and shops only from necessity. BTW-This isn’t cool in our culture. Really, how many people do you know actually get their shoes resoled instead of buying new ones? And let’s face it, no one wants to go out for lunch with the guy who packed his lunch, and that thermos of tea packed at home doesn’t have the fancy Starbucks logo on the side. And well, those jeans quickly become sooooo last season (though I do think there are many ways to stay fashionable without buying every new trend). Maintaining the reduce, reuse, recycle theme has a tendency to quickly place you in the nerd category, but I think I’ve always been in that category anyway.

So this is my personal challenge–to live better with what I’ve got and focus on santosa, or contentment.

photo from: http://www.cartoonista.com/stuff.php

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