SPROUTING AS REMEDIES to the vacuity and speediness of consumer culture and its endless opportunities for distraction there’s now a handful of popular movements (which I’ve touched on recently) that have got ever bigger in recent years. Each have their own flavour, gurus and disciples.
I’m talking of course about the minimalism/simplicity, slow and mindfulness movements. Broadly speaking they all shelter under the “simplicity” umbrella and they also all have a relationship with “mess”.
What I mean by “mess” is not only life’s inherent untidiness, the tottering piles of papers on tables and benchtops, unwashed clothes, the shambolic study desks, sheds and garages … what I’m talking about is life’s fundamental unpredictability.
In the simplicity and minimalist camp there’s a helluva lot written about how to get your life organised. How to control spending, get fit, handle relationships, how to control clutter. In the slow movement the emphasis is on downshifting and savouring the simple pleasures.
The simple living faithful and the minimalists come at it from the point of view of “distraction”, mostly in a material sense. One of their central tenets is that we fill our lives with extraneous stuff: objects, ideas and activity. And that this stuff — and the obsession with it — only serves to distract us from being able to take notice and focus on the more meaningful and essential core of our own lives (whatever that happens to be). It’s about finding the efficiencies and “life hacks”. It’s fundamentally about taking “control” over our lives.
The Slowness camp meanwhile come at it from a point of “appreciation” rather than “control”. Carl Honoré, author of In Praise of Slowness, the book that The Financial Times referred to as the Slow Movement’s Das Kapital put it this way:
“The Slow philosophy is not about doing everything at a snail’s pace. It’s about seeking to do everything at the right speed. Savoring the hours and minutes rather than just counting them. Doing everything as well as possible, instead of as fast as possible. It’s about quality over quantity in everything from work to food to parenting.”
You could think that in both these approaches that there’s an element of mindfulness involved. And you’d be right, but there’s also a key point easily misunderstood as we strive for simplicity, according to one of the fathers of the mindfulness movement.
“You might be tempted to avoid the messiness of daily living for the tranquillity of stillness and peacefulness. This of course would be an attachment to stillness, and like any strong attachment, it leads to delusion.” – Jon Kabat Zinn, Wherever You Go, There You Are: mindfulness meditation in everyday life
Kabat Zinn, Professor of Medicine Emeritus and creator of the Stress Reduction Clinic and the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, has written a host of books on mindfulness.
His first book was titled Full Catastrophe Living. It’s an imposing title, but as Kabat Zinn explains, “‘full catastrophe’ is the nature of the human condition,” he says.
“At times you can encounter uncertainty, stress, pain, loss, grief, sadness and also tremendous potential for joy, contentment, connection, love, affiliation – and all of that is the ‘full catastrophe’. It’s not just the bad stuff, it’s everything.”
“The question is: can we love it? Can we live inside of it [the full catastrophe] in ways that enliven us and allow us to be fully human,” he says.
Kabat Zinn maintains this is precisely a reason to cultivate mindfulness. And understanding that it’s not about control. It’s not about focusing on the “good” stuff or trying to avoid the “bad”.
“The process is reconnecting with how it is now. It doesn’t actually matter how it is now… You can think of mindfulness as the awareness that arises when we pay attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non judgmentally, as if our life depended on it.”
It’s the simplicity of the present moment — even if the moment is a messy one.