Last week, I attended a discussion session on voluntary simplicity. It arrested my attention and made me realize that the disciplines of voluntary simplicity and minimalism do not always overlap. The mindset of one will not always be the mindset of the other. Often, the two lifestyles are indistinguishable, but at other times, they may diverge and bring different results.
Voluntary simplicity revolves around mindfulness, environmental sustainability, and frugality. Simple living may be motivated by a rejection of materialism and our modern style of hyper-consumption. There can be an element of solidarity with the majority of the world who do not have access to First World luxuries.
Minimalism involves focusing on only those elements of life that offer maximum value. It is connected to movements in art, music, and literature. For some, the attraction to a minimalist lifestyle is as much about a design sensibility as it is about consumption patterns.
Simple living might mean gardening, canning one's own produce, and keeping bees, chickens, and/or goats as a way of living closer to nature, lowering the carbon footprint, connecting with neighbors, and slowing down to a pre-Industrial pace. Minimalism might mean selling one's house and living as a nomad, traveling the world with nothing but a laptop and a backpack.
Simple living might mean meditating and purposefully creating downtime, with the aim of allowing space for rambling conversations, appreciating quiet moments, and finding peace of mind. Minimalism might mean working around the clock, immersing oneself in a passion project to the exclusion of all else.
Simple living might include stacks of used paperbacks. Minimalism might mean a series of e-books.
Simple living might involve riding a bicycle. Minimalism might involve relying on a car-sharing service.
Simple living might involve cases of canning jars, a woodworking shop, or hand-knitted socks. Minimalism might involve giving those tools away in the process of downsizing or relocating to another continent.
Both voluntary simplicity and minimalism agree on a rejection of clutter, shallow relationships, debt, long commutes, and working at an unsatisfying job merely for the sake of the paycheck. Both disciplines agree on the importance of living intentionally. Both voluntary simplicity and minimalism reject our cultural norms of distraction, disconnection, passive entertainment, reckless overspending, sedentary oblivion, unhealthy recreational eating, and generally marking time until retirement.
I've felt a certain tension between my interests in these two lifestyles. For instance, our household revolves around our dog and our parrot, yet they tie us to a physical location and add considerable complications to our travel arrangements. My husband has a garage workshop that is not portable by any means. It's a true passion in the minimalist sense, yet the circuit boards, soldering iron, robot parts, and other electronics hardly qualify under the rubric of voluntary simplicity. I walk everywhere in our town, accompanied by my Apple Watch, Bluetooth headset, iPhone, and iPad, doing my best impersonation of a cyborg. While I believe the collective carbon footprint of my devices is less than that of a second vehicle, my mind is never really at rest.
During our group discussion on voluntary simplicity, something clicked for me. I realized that I tend to focus on material possessions due to my work with hoarding and chronic disorganization. Yet, in my personal life, my belongings are largely irrelevant. My only remaining areas of clutter are books and the (simple) paper notes I'm still processing into my (minimalist) digital files. I don't have emotional attachments here; it's a matter of scheduling a break from work long enough to blast through them. The issue is that I still have plenty of work to do in mental simplicity. I can pause occasionally. I can take a breath and pull back to examine my priorities. I can slow down and recognize when I'm keeping myself busy just to sustain momentum.
This is really the point of both minimalism and voluntary simplicity. Peace of mind. Rejection of needless stress. Allowing space for connection, passion, inspiration, and intention. Appreciation of all the potential we have for greater joy and fulfillment.
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I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.