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What is Minimalism?

A long branch with simple leaf

The trend toward minimalism is obvious for people who have chosen a nomadic lifestyle, a tiny house or when they upload videos about sleeping in a snow cave for the weekend. There is something refreshing about learning how to live with only the basic necessities.

Minimalism can be applied to décor, art and even as an outlook.

The ancient Taoist and Zen masters practiced minimalism in expression with their koans. They also cultivated a minimalistic mindset that allowed one to witness the great mystery.

In the Tao te Ching, we are told:

Remove your desires and you will see the mystery.
Be filled with desire
and you will see only the manifestation.
These two are the same
yet, they diverge in nature
as they issue forth.

Desire and Manifestation

Desire is a simple word, that can become a suitcase full of distractions. Our desires can weigh us down in a way that limits our ability to experience joy.

Desire suggests filling intention with outcomes that can only lead to disappointment. When we unburden ourselves of desire, we can approach the threshold of awareness as a witness. We have to be present and willing to see how life speaks to us through the unexpected.

A squirrel jumps from one tree to another. The sudden branch movement captures our attention. Because we are quiet and observant, we can hear the faint gobble of a wild turkey in the distance.

The mystery is similar to a rainbow that requires perfect conditions to exist. Walk up to it and you will not find its beginning; follow behind and you will not see its end.

It is the sweet song of a robin that can be easily disturbed when we attempt to locate it. We observe – but do not grasp. We co-exist in wonder. We wander in the unfathomable and identify with the infinite.

Desire limits what we experience – we are only looking for the manifestation, rather than seeing the magic of what is. The bird song can fill our heart, but beyond that, we fail to see how perfect the moment might be – how the universe brought us specifically to that moment so that we can learn to be a better witness to its mysteries.

The difference between the mystery and the manifestation is how we hold onto it, or try to capture it. Disappointment comes from attempting to go to the same spot tomorrow, expecting to hear the same song.

Action Without Striving

Practice action without striving
and all will be in order.
To understand the person, observe what they nourish.
One that is detached is one with all.

Wu wei is a way of understanding minimalism in action. How much of what you do is driven by reactions? The idea of not-embroiling means to hover at the threshold without the need to classify or judge. Whatever it is that is unfolding is always perfect in time.

Today what you call bad – can turn out to be good tomorrow. Why classify? Why travel to the two extremes of good and bad and waste so much precious energy?

Striving is a type of action that also relates to a desire for a specific manifestation. We want to achieve something with our actions to the point of missing what might be guiding us on our path. We might have an idea of where we are going, but events can unfold as a way of leading us toward where we need to be.

One who cultivates an opportunity for joy – reaps joy. Cultivate hunger and your hunger can leave you unsatisfied. Cultivate fullness and you are a vessel worthy to serve the world. To understand the person, look at what they cultivate.

Tao orchestrates order, sometimes through disorder. When we remain detached, we are one with the flow. When we are a witness to the mystery, it can surprise us and even leave us breathless.

Minimalist Poetry

Whether through Haiku or three-line Taoist poems, poets use words to bring form to the just-is-ness that emerges from learning to be a witness. The following poems of Basho reveal this minimalist style:

the cicada's cry
drills into the rocks.
Winter solitude--
in a world of one color
the sound of wind.

In modern times, this ‘less is more’ approach inspired this minimalist poem by George Swede:


Or this one by David R. Slavitt:


And Douglas A. Mackey:

The Last Breath of a Famous Philosopher
Why . . .

Today, many movies are created in a minimalist style because a message is more impactful when a is is conveyed through simplicity. We find minimalism in art when simple shapes are suspended on a background of color.

In this way, minimalism actually creates focus. It can lead us to be more subtle with our perceptions. A minimalist lifestyle means that we become more observant of what is important by releasing unnecessary distractions.

Minimalism and Emptiness

Thirty spokes share the hub of a wheel;
yet it is its center that makes it useful.

The Tao te Ching portrays life’s many manifestations as the spokes of a wheel. You can think of the center of the wheel as how ideas originate from your center. When you strengthen your center, you can observe the manifestations, undisturbed by how events can incite endless reactions.

As a witness to your inner world, the mystery will reveal a carnival-like show of what you are projecting. It can become entertaining to watch how you are chasing your tail of desire.

When you recognize the power you can tap by remaining centered, you can cultivate acceptance, benevolence and gratitude. You become responsive - not reactive and the manifestations will celebrate your changed outlook.

If you are calm and at peace, life will reflect it.

You can mold clay into a vessel;
yet, it is its emptiness that makes it useful.
Cut doors and windows from the walls of a house;
but the ultimate use of the house
will depend on that part where nothing exists.

A minimalist outlook is how you can remain open to change and possibilities. Being open makes us malleable. The unexpected actually becomes a gift. Our potential is given to the 'woodcarver' to carve away what hides our authenticity.

Therefore, something is shaped into what is;
but its usefulness comes from what is not.

So often we get caught up in shaping something into what is – but life appears to return us to our center by revealing what is not. We expected ‘that’ and got ‘this.’ However, the ‘this’ has personal meaning.

'That' is a journey of 10,000 miles, where only the landscape changes. 'This' strips away the illusion that we need to search for anything. To return to the 'just is ness,' we can blossom outward.

Each time you meet the unexpected, you can see it as a reminder that you have traveled away from your center – or from the threshold of being a witness to your journey. Minimalism comes from Taoism and both teach us how to let go.

Minimalism of Routine

As a philosophy, Taoism is a practice of removing boundaries and classifications. It is the art of letting go of the unnecessary attachments we create by striving and embroiling in outcomes. Just as we reduce our attachment to possessions, we can eliminate our attachment to pre-conceived judgments.

Why should we stop living life as a routine? Because it is the only way we can witness the great mystery.

The ancient masters of Tao:
So wise, so subtle, and profound.
So deep in their understanding,
that they were themselves misunderstood.
They were:
Tentative, like crossing a stream in winter;
Hesitant, like one aware of danger;
Courteous, like a visiting guest;
Subtle, like the melting of ice;
Simple, like the uncarved block;
Vacant, like a valley;
Obscure, like muddy water.
Who can be muddled and settling slowly
become clear?
Who can remain still and stirring slowly
come to life?
Move too hastily and it becomes clouded again.
One who holds fast to the way
does not wish to be full.
Because one is never full
they are worn, and yet can be newly made.

Minimalism can actually lead to a more expanded sense of existence because it is about detachment. When you stop holding the self to be separate from, or more important than anything around you – you grow.

This change in outlook allows you to become a vessel capable of so much more. You limit your potential by attaching yourself to the misconception of limitations.

Minimalism allows us to live a life of possibilities and wonder. Unburdened by the unnecessary things we carry, we open to joy.

Through minimalism, we learn to trust that everything flows perfectly in time. In other words, we will always have what we need, when we need it.

Perhaps the best explanation of how Taoism relates to minimalism:

Without doing anything, nothing is undone.

This is the art of living in flow.