Seven years into my working adulthood (after getting a job and making enough cash to buy stuff), I realized that physical possessions gave me a heavy feeling that weigh me down. The bigger and bulkier the item, the heavier it got. I felt that my possessions possessed me. In a way, they limited my future possibilities. I had obligations to take care of them (after all, I did spend my hard-earned cash on them), provide good homes for them if I didn’t want them (love craigslist and freecycle), and at the end of their lifetime, to dispose of them properly (save the environment!). I felt that I couldn’t easily change directions without taking care of these obligations first.
I’m sure the above sounds weird to the majority of readers. From observation, most folks don’t feel as I do. They use their fragile possessions “hard” and when broken, toss them into the trash without a second thought. And I’ve known people with a ton of possessions who don’t seem to be bothered at all and, I imagine, could just leave everything behind without a care as to what will happen to them. I don’t know why I feel as I do, I just do. I tell my friends that my goal is to be able to throw everything I own into my car and take off. Just imagining the possibility makes me feel lightweight and relieved.
As a result, I live a minimalist life. I only buy necessities and avoid purchasing conveniences. Once I had my physical possessions under control, I realized that I had mental “possessions” which needed to be gotten rid of also. And recently, I’ve had an inkling that there might exist spiritual “possessions” that I need to take care of as well. It looks like this journey is leading me somewhere… with my luck, I imagine a desolate desert location… and I’m kind of excited to see where it all ends.
Strangely, by nature, I often have strong urges to collect things… to complete a set of something. Not the best trait for a minimalist. In college, I became an anime fan and would collect all the fan-subtitled animes on video tape that I could get my hands on. These were VHS video tapes so they took up quite a bit of space. More strange, with the exception of one, I didn’t re-watch them. Why collect them at all? I don’t know why I did it; it was a compulsion that I didn’t think too deeply about at the time. All I know was that I dragged them from place to place, shipped them across the USA once I graduated, and kept them for years after that without re-watching them.
I grew up a bookworm. I read voraciously as a child but amazingly, did not collect books. I think this was because I didn’t have the money to buy books and more importantly, there were always the public libraries. After seeing all the books in the library, I realized early on that it was impossible for me to collect them all. So I gave up. I remember dreaming about owning a home with a huge personal library room with a ton of books… thankfully that dream died a quick death. Public libraries also explained why, with the exception of a few, I never re-read books. There are just so many books to be read that it seemed a shame to waste time re-reading. The few books that I own, I kept with me. I dragged them, along with all my heavy college books, several years into my early working life. I kept imagining re-reading my college books to fill the holes in my understanding that I didn’t have time to do during college; but I never opened any of the college books again. They were very expensive and I should have resold them back to the school.
With the rise of the Internet, came the digital age. It was the collector’s dream. I could have a hundred anime episodes and a thousand songs in the palm of my hand (think hard drive). No hassles to transport. Where was the downside? I started digitizing my music CDs and downloading anime from fan websites (before US companies started buying distribution licenses). Even crazier, I began to look into how to convert my VHS video tapes into digital movie files.
Soon the hard drive wasn’t big enough (this was in the days of 20-50GB hard drives) so I purchased a CD burner when it first became available. Though hard drive size grew fast (I kept buying bigger hard drives), the movie file sizes grew even faster (as quality improved, think high-definition video). When DVD burners appear, I had to get one (I remember when a blank DVD cost more than a dollar). I was on the bleeding edge of digital storage media; in addition to the CD/DVD burner, I had both 100MB and 1GB Zip drives and a 230MB MO (magneto-optical) drive.
Like the video tapes and books, once saved to digital media, I rarely ever accessed the content again.
I thought that going digital would allow me to save everything because there is only small physical mass involved. But I was wrong, digital mass took up my mental space. There was so much digital media, it was impossible to consume it all. I had anime episodes saved to DVD that I hadn’t even watched yet. The unconsumed media sat in my mind like a big todo list. It wouldn’t have been so bad, but I had many other todo lists in my head (or stored on my computer or paper notebooks) concerning books to read, movies to watch, video games to play, hobbies to pick up, projects to complete, places to visit, activities to do with family and friends, etc. They were all at the edge of my awareness and those unfulfilled dreams/desires started to become burdens because they grew and over time, I realized I could never hope to finish them all in my lifetime. Too much of a good thing is well, not good.
I came to realize that mental mass came with both physical and digital possessions. In the end, mental mass is what I needed to handle. It was what weigh me down so very heavily. I needed to actively prune to give myself room to grow. Like a hoarder’s house, if the mind is stuffed full, there isn’t room for new thoughts, new experiences, and new endeavors. When I encounter something new, instead of getting excited about doing the new thing right away, I had to add it to the end of the todo list (what a downer). I decided that I had to get medieval on the mental.
Eight years into my working life, I had the above realization and with it, came a strong urge to make a change. Because I didn’t know what the best way to effect the change was, I decided to do the easy stuff first. I gave away some video tapes and threw the rest into the trash. I sold a couple of college books (thanks to half.com) and donated all but a few books to the public library. I shredded and threw away binders full of my digital media (CDs, DVDs, Zip disks, MO disks). If it didn’t fit on my current hard drive, it or something else had to be deleted to make space. Finally, I ruthlessly pruned todo items and even deleted whole todo lists.
With these actions, I initially felt much lighter. But with a more sensitive awareness of the weight of mental mass, I could see that there was a lot left to explore and hopefully, jettison.
The Unbearable Lightness of Being
It turned out that the mental mass from physical and digital possessions was the easy, light-weight stuff to get rid of. The “real” mental mass potentially has density greater than a neutron star and gravitational pull short of a black hole. I’m talking about the regrets of the past, fears of the present, and worries of the future. They get even worse when we are dealing with scars from relationships gone bad with significant others, family, friends, coworkers (including bosses), acquaintances, and maybe even strangers (road rage?).
Regrets, who doesn’t have some… need some? If only I hadn’t made that rash decision, my life would be so different. If only that hadn’t happened to me, my situation would be so much better. If only I hadn’t said those angry words to my parents… and on and on. Many regrets cause us to excessively criticize and question ourselves. Regrets feed into fears of the present and worries about the future. Am I in a dead-end job? What if this is the wrong decision? Will I still be a loser in 5 years? When will my sister talk to me again? If I do this, will I be hurt in the end? What if I end up alone? Will it be painful?
All I can say is regrets, fears, and worries have got to go. This mental mass weighs down on my life and prevents me from going outside my comfort zone (to try scary new, unknown experiences). I have better things to do with my time on this Earth (I dearly hope so). But what to do? Being a very private person, I can’t imagine airing my dirty laundry in front of a professional like a psychologist, much less family or friends. The only solution for me is self help. Doctor, heal thyself!
This type of mental mass accumulates and re-enforces itself. It will require a lot of hard digging to find and remove, and then constant viligance to prevent the addition or return of. I will need the rest of my life to handle this nasty stuff.
Why Don’t You Be In the Moment While I Kick Your Behind?!
I am in the middle of a multi-year research into how to get rid of this mental mass and how to stop accumulating more. First, I believe we should look at how to prevent more damage from occurring. Along that thought, I’ve explored and tried several options. The most effective so far derives from the new age movement, epitomized in the statement “Be in the Moment”. Evidently, if you can be in the moment, you won’t have time for regrets (past) or worries (future). If you are really in the transient moment, you won’t even have time for fears. But do you know what? Being in the moment is freaking hard, and impossible for more than a couple minutes. I don’t think the normal human mind is designed for such a sustained focus.
The reason it is hard to maintain such a state is because there is a lot of stuff happening in our mind. Concentrating on staying in the moment takes tremendous will power and the moment you get distracted, you are out of it. Our senses (five or more) are constantly bombarding us with a torrent of information. Thoughts and feelings are instantly appearing left and right, sometimes triggered by reaction to our senses, memories, and probably just from random noise. What’s a poor brain to do? If our brain didn’t organically evolve into this chaos, then god (or whatever entity designed the brain) must have a wicked sense of humor.
(I’m not going to explain the following well because I’m still don’t understand it fully myself.) The method I’m currently using is not to be constantly in the moment, but to be aware of the creation of new thoughts and feelings. If you are conscious of these new thoughts and feelings, you will have the opportunity to handle them before they start a chain reaction that results in you doing or saying something which you may regret (and which then feeds back into the cycle, increasing your mental mass further). Basically, be in the moment for that split second when a new thought or feeling comes into being. Believe that the thought or feeling is totally random (don’t try to figure out why it came into being), accept its existence without judgement (this is very important because if you resist/deny, you will give it more power), and then decide whether or not to take action on that thought or feeling. Easy as pie, right? All I can say is that after a year of constant practice, it should get much easier; though constant practice is still required to prevent relapse into unawareness of new thoughts and feelings.
I plan to provide more details on this method and the method I use to clean out the existing mental mass in future blogs. Hopefully, someone out there will read this blog and say, “Thank goodness, I thought I was the only one going crazy from this!” If not, then I must be totally and uniquely bonkers.
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- Zen Habits: The Wastefulness of Decluttering; or How to Make Less Count for More
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