Rodrigo Hänggi

September 04, 2015

Practicing poverty

In the past, some people have asked me, how I made minimalism an active part of my life. Instead of offering the usual “10 simple step to …” advice, I want to share something more meaningful with you today.

Becoming a minimalist is not a one time thing that you do by selling everything you own over the weekend or by blowing up your condo.

Minimalism is a constant process of looking at the things in your life and deciding what deserves to have space in it an what doesn’t. It’s a difficult process, especially since the world we live in constantly tries to tells us that we can acquire happiness by buying shit we don’t need.

Thankfully there are frameworks (some of them are thousands of years old) that can help us overcome all the superficial noise of modern society.

Especially the Stoic school of philosophy provides us with some of the best of these frameworks. One of them in particular is a perfect way to help you start living a minimalist life.

The writings of the Stoics offer us psychological techniques that can help us even today. And in our daily struggle with modern life they’re more valuable than ever.

One of these techniques is called “negative visualisation” where you contemplate about all the bad things that can happen to you, so that if something bad actually happens you already expected it – thus diminishing the blow onto your psyche.

“He robs present ills of their power who has perceived their coming beforehand.” – Seneca

Seneca was one of the most famous Stoic Philosophers. He also advocated that instead of merely thinking about what it would be like to lose something (our wealth for example), we should also periodically “practice poverty”.

“Appoint certain days on which to give up everything and make yourself at home with next to nothing. Start cultivating a relationship with poverty. For no one is worthy of god unless he has paid no heed to riches. I am not, mind you, against your possessing them, but I want to ensure that you possess them without tremors; and this you will only achieve in one way, by convincing yourself that you can live a happy life even without them, and by always regarding them as being on the point of vanishing” – Seneca

The goal of this exercise according to Seneca is to appreciate that what we already have.

Reflect on that for a few seconds…

Satisfaction is the death of desire. We long for what we don’t possess and once we attain it we’re satisfied for a short time. But desire will always come to haunt us back again. Only this time, it will be bigger and stronger.

And this vicious cycle fuels our modern society.

But what if instead of buying something new that we desire – we try to live without something that we already own instead?(e.g. getting rid of our current phone instead of buying a new one.)

This is something that you can easily try out and practice yourself. Give something away that you hold dear for one week. You don’t have to sell it, just put it away. (I recommend locking it away or asking a friend to hold onto it.)

After the week has passed you’ll be surprised at what will happen.

You’ll be happy to have your possession back and will forget the urge to quench your thirst for something new. You’ll also start to appreciate the things that you already have even more.

There is more to this.

It turns out that Epicurus, a philosophical rival to the Stoics, also practiced poverty but with a little twist. Whereas Seneca wanted to appreciate what he had, Epicurus wanted to examine the things he thought he needed so he could determine which of them he could in fact live without.

It may happen to you that weeks pass and you completely forget about the thing you only intended to give away for a week. This serves as an important indicator to ask yourself: “Do I really need this or could someone else profit more from it?”

Do this for everything you think you can’t live without and with time you’ll start to see things from a completely different perspective. Plus, your bank account will probably thank you in the process!

Bottom line: You don’t have to get rid of all your belongings to become a minimalist. The main goal of minimalism is to learn to appreciate the things you already own, to get rid of the stuff you don’t need and to stop inviting more noise into our life.

Thank you for reading.