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What Minimalist Packing Can Teach You About Living

If you have ever been on a trip with multiple suitcases you should be able to picture the following scene: a hotel room with every counter or dresser draped in a layer of clothing; books, magazines, and travel magazines thrown casually on available bed space; open suitcases and electronics topping every free chair. You have to pack to leave and discover layer after layer of items that have yet to be used or have been used continually. You need to charge your laptop for the flight and have to dig through the layers like an archeologist uncovering a lost city.

By the third hotel packing becomes less a game of Tetris and more of Thanksgiving turkey: no strategy, just put things where there’s room. And then there are the items you purchased. Perhaps you bought a few psuedo-touristy items for family, the occasional fragile vase or glass item, or perhaps just a few new items you picked up for your closet that no one you know will ever be able to copy.

When I picture this scene I feel stress and anxiety. I remember the moments I have spent in that picture and think of the items that got left behind. I think of moments spent hoping my suitcase will pop over the ledge at baggage claim and the relief and surprise I felt when it did. I remember being stranded in Salt Lake City with no luggage for three days or my wife’s panicked voice as she discovered her bag had been stolen at the Philadelphia airport.

I now travel with a maximum of four changes of shirts, one change of pants, sometime a second pair of shoes, and no more than four pairs of socks and underwear. I wear one jacket or hoodie. My electronics are limited to only necessity and I pack for averages not extremes, layering if it ends up cold. I pack a rain coat, which converts a regular coat into an insulating layer. And I pack it all into a travel backpack, leaving my hands free to do whatever I need. I have yet to have an issue with airline overheads but can throw my bag under a seat if need be.

And my setup will work for business or pleasure, summer or winter with very few modifications, and for most any climate that I would normally visit. And with access to a sink and a little detergent, I could operate with this same setup for weeks at a time.

The means to this exercise is similar to its outcome: intentional living. I know what I have and know it isn’t much. I can pack my belongings in a matter of minutes. I can run between gates if the timing is close. I will be let on when roller bags are being forced to check. I know where and what I have at all times.

I started traveling this way after converting my backpacking rig to an ultralight setup. I went from a 35lb base kit to 15lb. I packed only the necessities, including emergency gear. But I didn’t overpack. I packed the requirements for life: food, water or water purification, clothing, shelter. It was as though I lost 20 solid pounds have never enjoyed backpacking more.

The reality is that we don’t actually need much to not only survive but thrive. We think of items such as clothing as being necessities, and they are, in quantities because it feels strange to limit ourselves. The what if questions pop up – what if I’m at a party, what if I need to dress nicer, what if my casual black shoes get a hole, what if the weather changes drastically… And then we throw the considered item in our suitcase.

It is almost as though we want to be prepared for everything. But in that process we can lose out on what we are doing through having to haul and manage our preparedness. The beauty of travel becomes a stressful headache in having to deal with things, hoping for bags to arrive, and managing objects.

But then I start to wonder about my daily life and the closet full of clothing I manage and maintain. I review my collection of electronic items and rack of jackets. I see how these objects clutter and fill my life and time, how they overwhelm me with the space needed to posses more and occasional guilt that comes with overbuying.

If I can spend weeks with only a midsize backpack partially filled with items, why not live this way at home?

For the next 6 months I will be minimizing my life drastically. I plan to set out 5-7 button down shirts (though this is overkill), a few t-shirts, no more than two pairs of jeans, and as many shoes. The rest will go into boxes. I plan to see what life can be without having to think each morning about my clothing options. I want to see how uncomplicated I can make this one part of my life and see if there are opportunities for simplifying further.

What could we do with our lives if we were suddenly freed from non-essential and stress inducing clutter?

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The Importance of Being Mindful at Work and Home

I have practiced meditation on and off for close to one year now. In that time I have had moments of deep insight, calm release, anxiety, and insight. I find meditation interesting for a number of reasons, both academic and personal.

When I started meditating I thought the goal was to clear my mind. After a few sessions I spoke privately with a local Zen master and proudly proclaimed that I had been able to clear my mind – if but for a few seconds! He laughed a little and asked why I would want to clear my mind. I had no real response. I had to ask what I should do. He explained and showed me that I was approaching this from the wrong angle. I should not try to clear my mind but rather understanding what I think and feel.

Unfortunately the feeling portion took a while to understand. I started working with a koan, a simple phrase that takes on an intuitive meaning after some time of conscious and subconscious pondering and reflection. The koan I selected was simply “count the stars”.

After a few weeks I thought I understood what the statement meant and brought my answer to the local Zen master. Again he began to laugh a little. He told me that I thought too much. I was trying to delve into the rational and define the statement. He asked me if I had a clear memory of looking at stars. I told him I had spent several evenings lying on a frozen lake in the interior of Alaska on clear, -40F nights in a place so quiet and remote I could hear the snowflakes land on my down parka. The sky would be overwhelmingly full of stars. It was a penetrating, overwhelming view of a sky so massive and so far from home that a flash of light, that seemingly instantaneous expression of energy, no matter how intense, will take thousands of years to hit us. I thought of SN1054, also known as the Crab Nebula, a super nova so intense that it lit up the Medieval sky as bright as the moon for over a month.

But I felt and I accepted the feeling. An experience isn’t just seen, it is also felt. And to be mindful is to witness and process both. And in a mindful state I realized that I wanted to know how to meditated without asking what I was looking for.

Meditation can lead to a state of mindfulness. Mindfulness has an array of definitions, but is often understood to be the ability to keep one idea in mind despite the circumstances around you. But there is more to it: to be mindful is to keep the big picture active despite the continually shifting emotions our thought is built around. This is not to ignore emotions, but rather to notice and consider but not immediately react,

Mindfulness does not involve belief or the pursuit of knowledge. It does not tell you what to do or what the future holds. What it does offer is the opportunity to truly process your life as it comes. Your emotions are not eradicated but rather processed and understood. Your experiences become more meaningful in that you begin to understand the effect experiences have on you.

To be mindful is not to be relaxed or asleep but awake and aware. It is to see a situation for what it is, not what it does to you.

To see clearly, to think clearly, to feel clearly requires effort and patience.

This Is a challenge in a workplace bombarded with blogs, tweets, emails, conflict, stress, and a workload that never ends. Mindfulness can lead to an understanding of the big picture, which can keep one from drowning in the millions of messages that surround us. Mindfulness can lead to new understandings, a clearer view of a client or customer needs, a perspective on what was truly asked of you in an assignment. It can help one process resentment, conflict producing anger, and misunderstandings.

In better understanding ourselves we become open and aware to the plights and needs of ourselves and others. We see the need for what it is, not the reaction to an expression.

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What I am Learning from a Self-Imposed, 6 Month Purchasing Freeze

If I were to say I am a shopping addict, the image you might create is of a guy carrying a dozen bags on each arm walking distractedly towards the next store in a shopping mall. In reality I am more of an obsessive online spender. I’m what Malcolm Gladwell calls a maven. Purchasing is a sport, a hobby, predicated on making the very best decision based first a learning of everything you can about a product category.

I once spent 40+ hours researching a storm shell (a hyped-up rain jacket). I looked at the weights, limitations, and benefits of every breathable clothing material. I looked at the variations in seam sealing techniques of every major manufacturer. I watched online videos of jacket owners performing tests and looking for flaws in design and build. I looked for features like pocket designs, hood configurations, and adaptability.

I would feel a rush when I made my way to an REI or received a box from the one online retailer in the US selling products produced by an obscure Scandinavian manufacturer offering a slightly different design variation than that of Marmot, TNF, or other more ubiquitous US manufacturers. And I did this with survival knives, camping equipment, flashlights, cooking equipment, electronics and more. After one project was completed I was on to the next, accompanied with a sense of urgency and importance.

I have realized that my desire to learn and the excitement of the purchase (that emotional rush that comes when new packages arrive in the mail) combined into an obsessive compulsive, out of control spiraling that would infringe on my ability to focus fully or ever hope to exist in the moment. There is a sense of urgency with this type of purchasing. I would feel as though something was wrong or missing until I had discovered and owned that perfect purchase. And the longer I “researched” and obsessed, the more exciting the fulfillment would become.

Companies know this to be true. Product marketing and branding professionals place significance on products and features, each year offering a better version of the last. What came last year was good, but what we have this year is even warmer, better, safer, more breathable, more resilient, better customized for specific applications, smaller, lighter, revolutionary, cutting edge, or just plain game changing. Every year we are told our lives will be better with this unique, more improved product.

And in some cases this is true. But when I walk around in my hi-tech, rain proof jacket with storm flaps, pit zips, and a material guaranteed to keep moisture out while still remaining breathable I should remind myself that the first few individuals to climb Everest or walk to the South Pole did so with animal furs, cotton, and wool. Do I really need the latest advancement in waterproof protection to help on the walk from my car to the office? Do I really need a survival knife with just the perfect balance between length, weight, and steel? Will 1095 carbon, VG10, or 154cm really make a big difference on those 20 mile r/t backpacking or simple car camping trips on heavily populated trails (if you understand this sentence, you may too have a problem)? Will the jump from 140 to 160 lumens in a flashlight make a difference in my way of life?

But Robert, you say, this is a hobby! Sure. I get it completely. Its fun to learn and use this knowledge. But is this the best use of your time or could you possibly be filling in space that could be more useful as, say, room to breathe?

For the past five months, as part of a New Year’s resolution, I have almost entirely cut out extraneous spending from my life, and by default obsessive product researching. I have purchased only the very basics, and then only just a few items. On two separate occasions I began the process of looking for something I deemed “necessary”, my brain tricking me into old behaviors. And after feeling the obsessive and emotional inclinations pop back up, I cancelled the search. That was as or perhaps more rewarding as not purchasing in the first place.

After the first two months I began to notice an increase in the time I had available. I started going to the gym, attending a weekly meditation class, and spending time reading. I went out more often and spent time wandering around the city. Most importantly I spent time thinking critically about where I was and where I wanted to be.

Critical thinking is something that is a bit of a challenge when applied to the self. We all know the old adage about the unexamined life, but we also know how much easier it is to pick the problem out in someone else than to see the glaring error in what we do ourselves. And we also get caught in patterns of behavior rather than look at what those behaviors mean.

Throughout the last few months I have been keeping tally of my emotional impulses (what else can I do with all of this free time?). There are trends in what and how I look for purchases. Some results include:

  • I am inclined to purchase survival type equipment when I feel powerless
  • I am inclined to research vacations or travel options when I feel stuck
  • I am prone to distract myself with entertainment when I know I have something serious to consider or accomplish
  • I am inclined to purchase cooking equipment when I feel tired of what I’m doing at home

Do you see the trend? My inclination towards purchasing and distraction are directly correlated with a deficiency in my emotional well-being: aka, I have been self-medicating. My purchasing has not been meaningless. It has a cause and an effect. The cause is the set of emotions that are felt due to stressors and variables felt in my life. The effect is that I am unable to deal with the cause because I am not aware of it due to the fullness of my mind in relation to purchasing. The emotional impulses are not satisfied, they are simply brushed aside.

In the short time I have been stepping back from purchasing I have noticed small windows of growing clarity. I’m already finding that I have time for to create better boundaries, channel impulses, create opportunities, be more present in every moment, ease stress and the feeling of being overwhelmed, and develop more room to breathe and examine what is really going on in my life.

There was a study once in which researchers looked at the lives of lottery winners. They found that after their win, these new millionaires would keep purchasing more and more expensive items and adapting to a more expensive lifestyle. Essentially, what thrilled them once no longer thrilled them and they needed more and more spending to feel the enjoyment they once felt. This was termed the hedonic escalator.

Take that idea and apply to purchasing, entertainment, or anything else that is enjoyable but capable of moving into a space out of control. I joke with people that I am either spiraling upwards or downwards. I am either moving towards positive actions or negative. I cannot stay still. I know that I’m not alone. The question then becomes, what are you moving towards, and are you aware of this movement? What could you gain by taking a step back?

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