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Saturday, March 24, 2012

Roots and routes: Keys To Happiness & Wellbeing

Abraham Maslow identified it as one key level in his hierarchy of needs.  Almost every living thing – from vegetation to Homo sapiens – relies on it for foundation, development or support.  It is our roots.  Each of us craves the sense of belongingness that our roots provide, and, even when those roots are rotted or missing, we seek out alternative routes to connectivity.

The Unabomber – David Kaczynski – was not necessarily seeking aloneness when he retreated to the remote wilderness of Montana.  Rather, he used this base of operations to demand, in pathological fashion, to be noticed and to connect to those that he felt had wronged him.

Wolves and domestic dogs gather in packs, while migrating birds seek connectivity through the flocks they join as they head south for the winter. Social gatherings form voluntary roots to the like-spirited people that we call friends.  Fish school for protection, while whales gather to fish for krill.  And, when “krilling” is completed, those same whales migrate thousands of miles to breeding grounds.

The family may be the most visible and durable of roots, but it is not the sole source of support.  Work cliques and coffee klatches form, impromptu, to exchange ideas and share the workload. 

Many family roots are severed, sometimes through unavoidable tragedy and others through dysfunction.  Yet, the longing for knowing our origins attests to the desire to repair those ruptures. Even those who call adoptive parents “Mom” or “Dad” often seek out biological origins.  It is knowing those foundations that gives us comfort, much like a security blanket.

Part of the problem with breaks in family relationships or friendships derives from a feeling that we are not being embraced “as we are.”  We expect to be accepted, without condition, by blood relatives.  In turn, we may place impediments to acceptance in front of others, as a test of loyalty.  We often are disappointed.

To achieve unconditional acceptance and belonging, we must first accept others and ourselves, as we exist.  Not all bonds will be immutable, though.  Even family members have individual issues and priorities that will preclude strong bonds.  But those roots are essential to our sense of wellbeing and completeness.

“Belonging” is not automatic.  Like well-travelled trails to desert oases, or roads to popular destinations, we need to travel a variety of routes to find belonging. 

The journey often is difficult, but, however long the route, finding a place that we can call home, whether it is a group of friends or a close family connection, when those roots are planted and dig deep, we will thrive.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Labelling Minimalism, Voluntary Simplicity, Simple Living and Frugal Lifestyles

The most significant problem with labels such as minimalist, living simply, voluntary simplicity or frugal living is that the categorizing itself is purely subjective.  A minimalist may eschew all possessions, or focus on a few premium pieces.  Voluntary simplicity suggests that one can acquire anything he wants, but opts for a Spartan existence. Frugal lifestyles seem to imply that the subject lives “on the cheap” with everything.  Living simply, too, evokes images of backwoods, back-to-the-earth survivalism.  Yet, each may describe the same lifestyle.  Rather than attempting to label, it is easier to visualize the concept of selective possession, and view true minimalism as a way of filtering out the excesses.

I, for example, own few material possessions, live in a yurt and often harvest wild plants.  Yet, far from being bereft of money or liquid assets, we own a newer Prius, holiday three or four times each year in exotic or far-flung locales and live a life free of worry about finances.  Our choices are the envy of many friends, yet are options available to anyone who wishes to prioritize his life similarly to us.  We do not measure ourselves by what we own, but how we live.  We own few tangibles, yet also own a library of memories and pleasurable moments.

How many of us, though, are mentally and financially prepared to make the sacrifices that allow us to make choices focused on voluntary simplicity?  A simple test will reveal our capacity to not only adapt, but to embrace this alternative way of living.  Oddly, the first time I tested myself using this simple strategy, I felt significant stress and anxiety – a little like being lost, alone and in a strange country.

 Choose a mid-week day for your trial. Leave home without your cash, credit or debit cards, and no means to access them.  If you take the bus or subway to work, carry the tokens essential for a trip to and from work, nothing more.  No coffee money, no gift cards for restaurants and so on.  If possible, leave your cell phone at home, and, under no circumstance use it to access a friend’s support or make purchases.  Sounds simple, right?  Almost certainly, the minute you are isolated from any means of funds to make spontaneous purchases, you will begin to go through a withdrawal, regardless how minor.  Yet, do we really need that morning latte, the afternoon drink, the chance to make an impulse buy?  A mere day of deprivation will reveal just how essential these comfort buys are to you, and whether you are emotionally ready to embrace a minimalistic lifestyle wholeheartedly.

That one day was tough?  Now set yourself up for three days, or a week. 

My first test, predictably, found me longing for my daily coffee fix, and wondering what I would do if a crisis occurred.  The fact that no such dilemma had confronted me for months (or perhaps years) prior was not material.  The “what ifs” drove my thinking for much of that day.  However, at the end of the day, I discovered that I was not embracing my return to materialism, but was, instead, exhilarated by my newly found freedom.  I have always been a spendthrift or a tightwad, depending upon the moment and the mood.  For years, I carried upwards of four to six thousand dollars cash in my pockets, and my low-limit credit card as backup.  Now, I carry no credit cards, no debit cards, and rarely have more than fifty cents in my pocket.  Do I long for the days of superfluous cash?  Hardly. 

The measure of whether you, too, are suited to involve yourself in a life of voluntary simplicity  really is whether you fear the lack of possessions or love the thrill of attempting to discard all of the excess you own.  In order to adopt this new way of viewing your possessions, you need to adopt a new way of viewing your life.  Is your life defined by the moments of pleasure you get from all of life, or is it defined by the status you feel that you acquire by owning and displaying material items?  Each of us finds our oasis of enjoyment in life uniquely, and the owner of a $450,000 sports car or a $3,000,000 painting is no less entitled to enjoy life his way as you are to choose a more focused yet Spartan way of living.  The labels attached to materialism or minimalism do not define you or your priorities.  You define, by the route you choose.  A minimalist simply chooses to cozy up to fewer possessions, and more moments.  Yet, even each minimalist is uniquely different from the next, regardless of the label attached.