Note from Andrew: I wrote this essay many months ago as a contribution to an ebook that has yet to come to fruition. It was originally titled Mind Over Desk. I like it and felt it was time to share. Enjoy.
In yoga, we are taught the importance of breath. The breath is everything. It isn't yoga without breath.
The inhale nourishes us. It is cool, refreshing, and empowering. It fills us with strength and calm.
The exhale cleanses us. It releases pain, anxiety, and other threats to our inner peace.
Inhale, and exhale. It repeats endlessly throughout the practice.
"Inhale fully... Exhale everything you don't need."
It was in that moment—upon hearing my teacher's words with sweat pouring down my face and my muscles burning gloriously—that I recognized the breath as the perfect metaphor for minimalism.
"Exhale everything you don't need."
The Problem with Minimalism
The problem with minimalism is that it too often becomes its own insidious distraction.
It sounds paradoxical. What could be more productive than getting rid of distractions? Well, I appreciate an empty desk as much as the next guy, but when we spend more time devising minimal work environments than making great stuff, it's time to step back and reevaluate.
Distraction-free is lovely, but it should never prevent us from doing the work. You are not a writer if you can only write under certain conditions, i.e. only with an empty desk, and a black Pilot G-2 0.38mm, and a specific brand of notebook. Or, only with Microsoft Word, Byword, or BBEdit.
A writer writes—anytime, anywhere, with anything.
The truth is, your desk doesn't matter. Your pen doesn't matter. Your text editor doesn't matter. What matters is your work and the amazing things you create.
If you like a clean workspace, then do it. If you like piles of paper, then please, enjoy. If you like having a stapler on your desk at all times, go for it. These things are not what minimalism is about.
Well, then what IS minimalism about?
Go back to the breath.
In yoga, the breath allows us to stay calm, even when we're uncomfortable. So it is with minimalism.
Minimalism is about the elimination of unnecessary things, yes. But more importantly, it is about the elimination of unnecessary thoughts.
What matters more than your ability to throw out clutter is your ability to let go of the needless intangibles. The emotions, fears, and thoughts that make your mind a cluttered and unproductive place.
I spend a lot of time pursuing inner peace. What's that mean? Inner peace is the ideal state of being. It's the goal. It's what everyone wants. Inner peace means being totally content, physically, mentally, emotionally. You have no worries. You have no wants, needs, or desires. You have no fears. True inner peace is a place of enlightenment.
Minimalism—or more precisely, mental minimalism—is the way there.
Eliminate Needless Thoughts
In the same way a clean desk may enable us to do great work, a clear mind allows us to live great lives. We become calmer, happier, and more productive. A mind free of unhealthy thoughts is a mind at peace.
But, eliminating needless thoughts is considerably more difficult than throwing out old coffee cups. To establish a free mind—and thus, our inner peace— we must first learn to let go.
Let go of the need to control. To achieve mental minimalism, you must understand one crucial fact: you have control over nothing and no one in this world. The only thing you can control is your mind and how it deals with what happens to you.
Let go of expectations. Expectations are attachments to outcomes, and they are a guaranteed way to disappointment. When something you believe turns out not to be true, the pain can be excruciating. Learn to manage your expectations, and you will be pleasantly surprised.
Let go of unnecessary relationships. Life is too short to waste on people who mean nothing to you. Always ask yourself, "What does this person contribute to my life?" If the answer is anything less than positive, let them go. It will free up more time for those who matter.
Let go of unnecessary things. Yes, the removal of needless objects is valuable, but only in its capacity to release pressures from your mind. The more things you have, the more things you need to store, fix, maintain, and keep track of. But, when something in your life is useful or beautiful, you will feel no guilt over its presence.
Exhale Everything You Don't Need
Implementing these principles is a lifelong endeavor. Only a truly enlightened individual can experience inner peace all the time. For the rest of us, inner peace comes in the form of brief, blissful moments when, for a few seconds, we are completely content with who we are.
The modern world is more than happy to supply us with an endless amount of mental clutter. We fear, worry, stress, and agonize over a great many things, none of which are under our direct control.
What we can and must learn to control are our minds. By eliminating needless thoughts, we release our minds from toxic ideas that threaten our inner peace, just as the breath cleanses and nourishes the body.
What we seek is a minimalism of the mind. Just as there can be no creation on a desk buried under clutter, there can be no inner peace in a mind filled with anxieties.
Clear off the clutter, and you will find space. Let go of needless thoughts, and you will free your mind to discover who you are and what truly matters.