cultivating minimalism

Minimalist artist Frank Stella

Cultivating minimalism, a two (or maybe three) part series…

On one hand, over the past several years, I’ve been intentionally cultivating minimalism. On the other hand, like many of you I’m sure, I love stuff. I love to look at and posses beautiful things, be they vases, sweaters or chairs. I like purchasing. When I see a nicer rug than the one that currently covers the floor, I want it. ‘I want, I need, I must have,’ said my friend Inese, when confronted with the possibility of quenching a desire. 

‘I want,’ is such a fundamental feeling.

At any given point it seems to be about who we are, the wanting. It’s what children learn to say almost before they learn to walk. Because what we want, to a certain extent, defines who we are.

Forget about old Rag and Bone, I want those boots now!

I like vases. There are certain vases whose colors, shapes, and sizes stir up intense desire in me (Greek amphora silhouettes are a favorite), but I do not need many vases, no one does. I’ve always found the notion of collecting anything really quite odd. Isn’t collecting just a sort of hoarding? Unless you collect art…

…with the intention of someday donating it to a museum, the kind of art a reputable museum might actually want, unless you collect rare books about an extinct flower or language, I say you’re hoarding.

Your collecting roosters, French posters, or wood pepper mills is an obsession not a hobby, and unless it’s valuable, no one wants it. No one (with one exception, the next rooster collector). Your collections, your clutter, the stuff in your house will not save you; it will not keep you away from death’s door (or death).

You can’t take it with you.

Not only can you not take your collections to your grave, you can’t take them anywhere. You can’t put them in your purse. And you can’t take them to your new apartment, because they won’t fit. You can’t take them on vacation. You can’t take them to a party to show off. They just sit there in your house gathering dust and feelings of guilt, waiting for you to die. 

Cultivating minimalism is a practice. In this case, to cultivate means to try to develop a skill. It takes practice, developing a skill. It doesn’t happen on the day you finally take the boxes and bags to the Salvation Army. You will not be a minimalist when you return home to your now emptier house or apartment. Even though you can breathe more clearly and you’re no longer in danger of being buried under a pile of old magazines, this is only step one. 

Cultivating minimalism isn’t just throwing a bunch of stuff away and then starting all over again gathering up new stuff. It doesn’t mean simply depriving yourself, becoming stingy and foregoing the purchase of anything new ever again. You may not want to hear this, but minimalism is a way of life, and a way of looking at life. It’s also the way of the future, and how sincerely we can embrace and practice minimalism will determine the quality of the future.

After you’ve had some practice, cultivating minimalism becomes a process of curation. And that’s when the fun starts. 

There’s a special kind of freedom that comes with no longer needing so much stuff. 

That’s when you can appreciate and maybe even learn to play with what you do have. When you’ve gotten rid of all those pairs of earrings that you only have one of, and those bangles that have been rattling around not on your arm but in the Quality Street tin for years, you will be able to appreciate the things you keep.

Unless you’re like me, I sometimes wear mismatched earrings. It’s not just a way to make sustainability real in your life, it’s where the playing comes in. Creativity is not just for artists, you’ll see when you engage in this process.

Also, when things no longer live stashed away in boxes and bags and you can see all of what you have, now you become a curator. I can’t really explain it, but something magic happens when you restrict yourself—things open up for you. 

When you throw away those old cookbooks, the 50 Hors d’oeuvre for the Christmas Season, and The Galloping Gourmet TV Cookbook, the newer, healthier cooking cookbooks you’ve been meaning to open will call to you to start using them and appreciate them and your quality of cooking and life will improve. When you take the tired, faded, old pictures off the wall, the pictures that no longer mean anything to you and leave the one new one that still does, that’s weirdly empowering.   

Who doesn’t know by now, that one single rose is far more elegant than a dozen?

And if you’re really brave, you could take them all down and leave an empty wall and paint it a spectacular peacock blue and love it more than any ‘artwork’ you’ve ever owned. Space in your life opens up with possibilities when you finally realize that less is so much better than more.  

So if you’re ready, if you’re well past ready, if you’re prepared to go beyond downsizing, here’s how to cultivate minimalism. 

Step 1: Redefine and keep redefining your ‘needs.’ This is an interesting practice. If you do it honestly, you will probably find that you’re actually neglecting some of your real needs, because your definition is off — or worse,  you have no definition. By taking the time to define your needs, you will be redefining yourself, and that’s pretty cool.

Take footwear, for example. Most of us would agree that we do indeed need several types of footwear.

Let’s just say we need a sneaker, a sandal, a boot, a heel, and an Oxford.

That’s just five pairs of shoes. Five pairs, that should be enough to take you anywhere. Too few you say? Alright, you get two extra pairs. How many of us though, own only 7 pairs of shoes? Are you still saying you need more? Why? Unless you are a serious runner (running shoes), or a party girl (heels), you probably don’t. But ok, take another three and now have you 10 pairs of shoes. 

Do this: take all of your shoes out—all of them—and take a good look at what you have. In doing so you may actually find a pair you had forgotten about — you know, the ones you had squirreled away in the guest room closet? And please, don’t try to convince yourself that you needed those shoes, the ones you completely forgot about! 

Anyway, count your shoes and I bet you will find that 1) even if you don’t have many pairs of shoes, you still have a lot, 2) you don’t wear quite a few of them, and 3) there is one missing type of shoe you do actually need. 

You are desperately in need of a comfortable sneaker, or a ‘dressy’ shoe that doesn’t always make you feel under, over, or poorly dressed. Think about it and you will realize that that one pair of shoes would actually improve your quality of your life! Well then, why didn’t you realize this sooner?

Why have you been depriving yourself?

Many reasons. First of all, the sheer quantity of shoes you already own. How could you possibly go out and buy another pair of shoes when you already constantly stumble over the ones at the door, the ones you have and still don’t wear? When every time you open the closet door, and see the stacks of shoe boxes, how can you go out and buy the rain boots you actually need? That would be indulgent.

Secondly, it’s about your definition of your needs and yourself. For years, I was the ‘strappy sandal’ girl, holding on to the ‘strappy sandal’ idea and definition of myself and my needs, as I moved from one increasingly colder climate to the next! Today, I realize that the only sandals I really need are my ugly old Birkenstocks.

It took me too long to realize that my collection of sandals was preventing me from purchasing the boots that are necessary footwear in the climate I currently live in. And this year, because cowboy boots are back in style, and I really do need new boots, I might just go get me some.

So what ‘need’ and definition of yourself is cluttering up your world and preventing you from realizing a higher quality of life?

Coming, part II, Rearrange Your Stuff! Let me know how your shoe counting went.




  • Leslie says:

    You are singing my song, baby. Right before a major transition or right after, I go through my stuff and sell and or donate anything that no longer suits who I am or who I have become. And yeah, that has accelerated recently for me.
    This also goes for vases, bowls, earrings, etc.
    And yeah, Rag & Bone boots. Does the constant “whittling down” and striving for simplicity balance the desire for beauty? I hope that it does…since I know, I KNOW that I cannot take my R&B cowboy boots when I leave this life. Sigh.

    • Anita Irlen says:

      Good question, about the balance! The need for beauty can be satisfied in so many ways that don’t entail consumerism. That’s the ultimate lesson, I think 🙂

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