What having nothing taught me about having everything.
I’d just turned 30, in the prime of my life and I had everything; I lived in a house overlooking the beach, I had a top corporate job with a flash car, I was living the dream as some of my friends suggested but I was increasingly unfulfilled, I felt weighed down and trapped by the stuff I had and the rat race I was part of. So when I turned 31 I decided to try a different tact and opted for the simple life. I quit my job, my house and gave most of my possessions away. I wanted a taste of the simple life, made up of what really matters, making room for real things, the things that are necessary for happiness.I took the advice I’d read about that seemed to work so well for others and got rid of everything in my life that didn’t make me happy and made room for the things that would. It was like unpacking the suitcase of my life that I’d been dragging around for the last 30 years getting heavier and heavier and I was determined to only put back what I needed and what was good for me.I set off on a journey across the world doing the things that made my heart sing. I lived in Ashrams, volunteered in Northern Thailand and visited all the countries I’d longed to see. Before I left I’d laid out all the things on the bed I thought I’d need and then realised half of it was not going to fit in the bag and after much culling I had a backpack ready to go which I couldn’t lift off the floor. It’s surprising what you really need when you can only pack the bare essentials and nothing encourages you to pack light than having to carry it around on your back for 12 months!I found that by clearing out the things I didn’t enjoy I had time and space to do more of the things I did. I realised I could make do with one pair of shoes, I didn’t need a wardrobe overflowing with clothes I’d only wore once, I could live without wifi if I had to as checking facebook daily was not as important as my useage suggested. If there was something I needed that I didn’t have I made do with what I had, found an alternative or went without. What really brought this home was seeing how others lived, the hill tribes villages of northern Thailand where the kitchen consisted of a fire to cook on and a floor to sit on, there was no oven, dishwasher, dinning table or dinner service. However the room was filled with what mattered; family, love, laughter and more than enough food to go around.Spending time living the simple life you realise how little we actually do need and by not having it how much more room you have for things in your life that really matter. We have put too much emphasis on having many things and it’s easy to make the mistake of thinking that if you have something you want you’ll be happier with more. We struggle in the modern world with debt, obesity and addiction as a result of this mantra. But as Seneca put it “that man is poor, not who has little but who hankers after more”At some point in our lives we are forced to reduce the amount we have, whether it’s financial reasons, divorce, sickness, natural disaster or eventually death. Guess what we won’t take with us when the inevitable happens, everything. Having less stuff does not mean less quality of life and this is clear to me now. It opens more space in your life for the fun stuff, the things that really matter, there’s less to clean, insure and pack each time you move!Going on this journey taught me how to appreciate the things we take for granted each day. Cold fresh water, a comfy bed with a nice warm duvet, a spare seat on the bus, having your own room. Living simply has also taught me to be grateful for what I have. When you don’t have something and miss it you realise how grateful you are that it’s there, whether this is your bed or your family, it’s the simple things that matter.
So the ‘stress’ of Christmas is over, the presents have been opened, we’ve filled ourselves with an abundance of food and we hopefully are now able to relax and breathe, at least until the credit card statement arrives! It can certainly seem a lot more complicated these days than it used to be.For me Christmas is about family, living overseas this is one of the few times I get to be with my family and as we sit having Christmas dinner pulling crackers across the table I can’t help but feel grateful for the time we have together, the abundance of things that really matter and how fortunate we are in a world where so many others are not. At this time of year I am also reminded of Christmas’s past and those family members who can no longer be with us and wish that I’d really taken the time to appreciate the big Christmas gatherings we had when we were children, the joy of Christmas and being with those we love, those times can never be repeated and during the moment we often overlook this.
"Enjoy the little things, for one day you may look back and realize they were the big things." Robert Brault
I look at the fridge bulging with food and the presents under the tree and I’m grateful, but it’s so easy to take these things for granted in our overdeveloped world, we run the risk of forgetting it’s not like this for everyone and we are in fact very lucky. This Christmas I travelled home through Thailand where I volunteered with under privileged children. Seeing how happy these kids are when they have so little made me think long and hard about gratitude.We have a habit of focussing on what we haven’t got instead of all the things we’re lucky to have, even the basics like food, warmth, health, education, freedom. It is human nature to focus on the tiny bits that are not right rather than the large chunks that are. We overlook the good stuff and tend to concentrate on what could be better. This leave us feeling dissatisfied and always wanting more but that is a never ending journey, you’ll always be left wanting more.A monk spoke to me recently about his upbringing in a hill tribe village in remote northern Thailand where he had to learn to cook, clean, plant, harvest and how to navigate life, as a result he tells me he learned where things come from and to appreciate what he has, he told me “as a kid in the hill tribe if I wanted to play with a toy I had to make one so I would carve a gun out of wood from a banana tree. Rich kids, if they want something it is given to them, they grow up having no idea how to live and they don’t appreciate what they have”.
“Happiness isn’t about getting what you want it’s about loving what you have”
We have put too much emphasis on having many things. It is true that if we are out in the cold in a forest with no food and no clothes we will not be happy but if someone gives us shelter, a blanket and something to eat we will be happy. So if a little of something is good then it follows that more must be better but a person with $2M is not twice as happy as a millionaire. You can also have too much of a good thing (as I have found with Mum’s mince pies)!It’s easy to make the mistake of thinking that if you have something you love or desire you’ll be happier with more, as a result of this mantra we struggle in the modern world with debt, obesity and addiction.We feel we have to ‘have’ things to be free when in fact it’s the opposite, our struggle to hold onto things brings the very pain we are trying to avoid, we are terrified of letting go for fear we’ll have nothing but this is the true path to living. I look at those who live simply and can’t help thinking they know the secret, they have mastered the art of living. After all, everything material we have can be lost tomorrow and the irony is if you’re asked what you most value it’s likely to be the things money can’t buy and put under the tree, things like love, your health and your family. So this Christmas take a few minutes to think about all you have in your life and be grateful and remember those who are not so fortunate.
“That man is poor, not who has little but who hankers after more” Seneca