When I get together with some friends, colleagues, and peers, the discussion often turns to stress. I am so stressed by work. I am so stressed by all my responsibilities. I’m so stressed by all of my obligations.
I believe this is because many people design their lives to be filled. They take jobs that require them to work a lot. They have large mortgages that require them to work those sorts of jobs. They go to workout classes after work. They get a dog, then have a kid. Then they have another kid even if they were already stressed and exhausted by the first one.
Then there are the daily obligations they place on themselves. They have to get a workout in every day and feel guilty when they don’t. They volunteer for this, that, and the other thing which causes them to run around harried. They have yard work to do every weekend and gutters to clean every fall. And before they can even pinpoint the cause of their stress, their lives are so filled to the brim with the things that cause it.
That is not the life for me, and I’ve always known it. I realize my own capacity and that I enjoy a fair amount of peace. I love waking up in a home that feels like a sanctuary. My home has only a few beautiful items in it. There is no noise. No obligation to do anything other than make a pot of tea and enjoy it while writing a few words in the mornings.
There are no throw pillows on my bed, just a white duvet that makes it easy to pull the covers up and have a freshly made bed every day. Every dish goes in the dishwasher, so there are rarely any on the counter. And because we have so few things in our home, the house is easy to keep clean.
Even my daily routine is simple, I have less than 60 items of clothing in my closet so getting dressed is a simple affair. My toilette consists of only a few items so it’s easy to get ready for the day. I put hot rollers in my hair, rub oils into my skin, brush blush on my cheeks, then comb through my curls and put my clothes on. It takes me ten minutes.
My work life feels very balanced. I fill my mornings with strategic and creative pursuits, but save plenty of time to write and edit in the afternoons. I get home between four and five and my evenings are free for whatever I want to do. I don’t have children to attend to, or pets to let out. I don’t have social media accounts to scroll through or television shows to watch.
I think some people can come home to five kids and a dog with a garden to tend and a lawn to mow and feel fulfilled by that life. There’s something about It feels busy and full, and they love that kind of life. And I can see why, but I know that I am not one of them, and so have designed my life according to my taste.
The practice of asceticism
To the mystics, this way of life was called asceticism. Which means always leaving a space.
When we think of ascetics, we think of hermits removed to caves, spending simple lives in ceaseless prayer and devotion. But asceticism isn’t about stripping something away, it’s about leaving space for something Else.
The alternative is known as excess. It’s eating too much. It’s feeling too full. It’s being too busy. It’s having no time. It’s buying everything you want. It’s filling your home with things. It’s spending all your money just so you can have the same lifestyle as your friends. It’s having another kid even though your current set are a handful.
That kind of life is too full for anything else. If a friend or family member falls ill, there won’t be the time or space to care for them. If there is an unexpected medical expense, there won’t be the money to pay for it. If a pastry chef concocts the most perfect lemon meringue, there won’t be space in the stomach to enjoy it.
Asceticism is the opposite. It’s leaving space in your belly when you eat. It’s leaving space in your calendar to breathe. It’s keeping your home empty of things so you feel spacious and creative. It’s keeping money in the bank so you can feel nurtured and taken care of. And this kind of life has space for something Else.
If a friend needs a place to stay, there is a place available to them. If a sister has a newborn baby and needs a night shift pulled so she can sleep, there is the time. If the opportunity arises to travel to the far reaches of the world, there are the funds to take it. If the most perfect almond croissant calls to you, there is space in the stomach to enjoy it.
There is certainly a balance. Just as excess can become excessive, so can asceticism become severe. There are religious who practice asceticism in the form of harsh self-discipline. Saint Francis of Assisi was one of old. David Goggins is a modern example. These individuals delight in self-denial. They see it as a punishment, and they use that punishment to achieve a sort of austere enlightenment.
In this way, deciding to minimize aspects of your life is a lot like Goldilocks. This feels too much. This feels too little. This feels just right. For me, it took getting to a place of too much (full-time job, teaching yoga class five times a week, running half marathons, heading up my volunteer organization), that helped me feel motivated to taper it back and discover what truly feels better (working a peaceful job, writing a beautiful book, spending time with my friends and family).
The art of simplification
I remember someone once describing feng shui to me like this: if you keep a lot of things beneath your bed, you can’t see them, but you might struggle to fall asleep because your mind feels cluttered. If there is nothing beneath your bed at all, you sleep well, because your mind feels clear.
That’s when it clicked for me. Sometimes I’ll go in someone else’s home and feel that the walls are closing in on me. Even though it is a large home, there are so many things in it that it feels claustrophobic. Or there are so many sounds that my mind feels disassembled. There are loud refrigerators, motorized lawn mowers, there’s the sound of dogs walking around on the floor. Those small sounds add up to create an almost imperceptible feeling of being in a crowd.
That’s why we have so few things inside our home. It is beautifully designed to our liking, with black walls, a large blue velvet sofa, a plush sheepskin rug, and tropical palms reaching toward the ceiling, but there are no things in it. There are no end tables. No bowls full of things on the counters. No pictures on the fridge. No “decor.”
I have plenty of space around my furniture so I can walk through my home without bumping into anything. I don’t have a coffee table because I love having space to stretch out on the rug before bedtime. And there are no sounds. We own a quiet dishwasher, and a quiet fridge, a rotary lawnmower. There are no beeping sounds from our home alarm system. I even own the quietest hairdryer available so I don’t have to start my day jarred.
This leaves space. When you sit at my dining room table, with the taper candles lit, listening to Miles Davis crooning on the speakers, my home feels so peaceful. And you might not even be able to tell me why. But it’s because there are no sights to clutter your vision and no sounds to clutter your ears. My home is like a pinot noir, it’s single note. There’s no stimulation. Your senses aren’t overwhelmed by your surroundings. It just feels like clean space to breathe.
All of that comes from designing our lives that way, and that is something I have had to learn over time. I used to purchase things because they were beautiful, only to end up with too many things and become overwhelmed. I used to take harp lessons, but then I felt stressed by having another thing to be responsible for practicing every day. I used to teach yoga classes five days a week in addition to my day job, only to realize that I’d rather spend time with friends.
Now I think through each thing consciously. Would that black sweater be the perfect accompaniment to my wardrobe? Or will my closet feel cramped by owning it? Will having a dog be a romantic adventure? Or will we become overwhelmed with vacuuming hair and boarding it when we travel? Will buying a house be a beautiful place to live? Or will we be paying off that mortgage forever, and feel stuck in high-paying jobs in order to do so.
It’s easy to add to our lives. And I think a lot of people do that by default. The sweater is beautiful. The dog is cute. The house is the dream. And at face value, that feels like enough to go on. So we add, add, add. And I still do that sometimes. But when I don’t think through the ramifications of my adding, the number of things I become responsible for drastically increases, and my peace of mind drastically decreases.
The space to create
According to the Apocrypha, after the death of her son, the Virgin Mary lived the rest of her days with the disciple John in Turkey. Her days as a mother were over, and so she could concern herself with the development of other things. Calling to mind the ascetics, Mary, once seen as a vessel that contained God, becomes quite simply, a vessel. An empty space.
In Christian symbolism, that space is known alternately as the womb, the chalice, or the desert. The idea being that if there is a space that contains nothing, it can be used to create Anything. Feng Shui operates by the same principals: that by cleaning out one’s wallet, there is the space for more money to be earned. That by cleaning out one’s closet, there is space for a romantic partner to come into your life, that by setting aside a nursery in your home, there is the space for a baby to be born into it.
When I sit at my dining room table in the mornings, writing the words to my forthcoming novel, I feel the endless capacity to be able to do so. My imagination can wander to far reaches of the world, exploring exotic landscapes and dreaming up decadent plot lines. And I know that it is because my life is empty, that I can create worlds.
Nicholas Cage (one of my favorite actors) does this as well. He keeps his personal life somewhat minimal so he can go completely mythical in his work. In a recent New York Times Magazine article he defined his ethos by paraphrasing Flaubert: “Be as normal in your own life as you can be, so you can be as messed up as you want in your art.”
(Flaubert’s original words were: “Be regular and orderly in your life like a bourgeois, so that you may be violent and original in your work.”)
I agree. I see the value of the empty chalice. The desert. That when my life is free from responsibility, my mind is free from clutter, and my environment is free from distraction, I have the fathomless space to create. And it is for that reason that I am close to completing my first novel, and am already anxious to begin my next one.
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