Searching for Serenity: A Minimalist Approach

Post written by Monica Gaylor.

“When we are unable to find tranquility within ourselves, it is useless to seek it elsewhere.”  ~ Francois de la Rochefoucauld

“Sometimes, if you stand on the bottom rail of a bridge and lean over to watch the river slipping slowly away beneath you, you will suddenly know everything there is to be known.”  ~ Winnie the Pooh, Taoist Master

Serenity is the state of being calm or tranquil.  For me, it is so difficult to achieve and fleeting at best.  It seems it is a harder and harder state to achieve in this day and age of unstable gas markets, unstable food markets, unstable economies, less-pay-for-more-work environments, unethical insurance companies, multitasking, instant gratification, instant access / reach-ability, and an information highway where speeds seem to exceed that of the Starship Enterprise.

In our search for serenity, fulfillment, or simply contentment many of us endeavor to purchase it.  After all, that is the American Way.  We try to buy that one item that will in some way make us feel – better, more whole, part of the community, like the Jones’, happy, safe, confident, etc.  But, is it even possible to buy a state of being?

In my past purchases of “stuff,” I too have searched for and tried to buy tranquility, serenity, and an overall sense of contentment.  But even deeper than those states of being – I craved, searched, or bought for security.  Not only the security of safety, but also the security of self-reliance and survival.  That “thing” that would give me the ability to handle any situation that would come my way:  hurricane, tsunami, illness, unemployment, economic instability, fire-breathing dragon, etc.  You know – any one of those major life-changing events that catch us off guard and reduce us to a rapidly-moving decapitated chicken.  I, personally, have spent more time in this state than I care to confess.

I now realize that I cannot buy any item that will make me calm in a crisis.  Or fill that deep well of inner strength.  It is something inside.  It is not something outside. And in actuality, the more outside stuff that you let into your psyche the more chaotic it becomes.  For a long time now, I have wanted my life to be run by “the one who sits in the center and knows.”  Not my ego.  It is a daunting task to walk amid the chaos and be perfectly at peace.

I think the answer is counter-intuitive to our instinctual natures.  We evolved from baser creatures that were at the whims of nature and circumstance into planners who hunted and gathered and hoarded and thus could survive previously unendurable situations – and this served us well for millennia.  However, our instinctual drive to acquire and collect and hoard scarce resources in this age has devolved into selfishness, entitlement, uncompassionate behavior, disorganized world affairs, and a non-unified human race.   If you think these things are untrue today, ask yourself:  In the American society, that is the richest the world has ever seen, why should anyone go without health care?  In a world where there is enough food supply to feed all of the inhabitants, in the time that you have been reading this article – approximately 24 human beings have died of starvation.  Etc.

But back to the smaller scale – a more individual look at personal serenity issues would yield the same results.  Again – I believe the answer is counter-intuitive to our instinctual natures.  Although we are hard-wired to collect, save, hunt, and hoard for more difficult times, in this society – at least, it is no longer necessary.  I would even argue that a minimalist approach to living would increase the securities and serenity we so long for.  I have found that my sense of security in relation to being able to handle financial stresses and economic worries has increased with the less I buy and the more that I get rid of.  Obviously, purchasing less has led to increased savings and the realization that I only need a little bit to be happy, sated, and content.  It’s not the “stuff” in life that made me secure.  It’s the attitude.  It’s not the designer clothes / cars / junk that make me appear (to the world) beautiful, confident, and successful; it’s the money in the bank that insures my bills will be paid in full and early, even during a downturn in the economy.

Having a lot less stuff gives me a sense of freedom in cases where all may be lost (i.e. hurricane, tsunami, fire-breathing dragon, etc.)  It is a very nice feeling to know that I don’t have a huge amount of money wrapped up in things that mean nothing when your life is at stake.  Can you imagine the stress of having to leave a huge expensive house full of very costly furnishings on a moments notice due to a whether event?  I have seen the people on TV in these various scenarios, crying, saying they are glad to be alive, but what they worked for their whole life is lost.  Why would you own something so expensive that should it be lost or ruined it becomes a catastrophic event?

Maybe it is our priorities that need to be replaced?  About 3 years ago, I decided that I had to simplify my life more.  And in the last year that I have been writing this blog and thus thinking about minimalism, Taoism, Buddhism, and the likes in a very serious and critical (observational) way, it seems my thinking on the issue of “stuff” has become even more ascetic.  When I said to my friends 3 years ago that “less is more,” I meant that there was a huge weight lifted off of my shoulders when I got rid of the excess stuff and the house was big and organized and so much easier to clean – it was such a relief!

My paradigm has been in flux for 3 years now.  Today, when I say “less is more,” I am contemplating a future without a home and with very little furniture and with a lifestyle that enables me to have / purchase experiences and opportunities that people so rooted in “old-thinking” and trapped by “stuff” could never have or even contemplate.

I am contemplating a “nimble” life.  I think a life of much less stuff and far more experiences regarding the art of living would be more enjoyable.  Right now, I rattle around in my huge 800 sq. foot house and maybe only really use a 1/3 to ½ of the space, furniture, clothes, and appliances, etc. and I dream of selling it all and having true freedom to live anywhere, invent myself anew, and experience more of the world around me rather than be locked into a time and a place and a job.  I think it would feel so liberating to know that all you own could be loaded in a car and driven away within a few hours of hearing a “fire-breathing dragon” warning.  To be able to decide at that moment that it is time to move on to the next town and the next set of experiences simply because you can seems so enticing and liberating. (Just contemplating.)

I finally realize that the path to serenity (and security-perhaps) lies on the road of less attachment.  Not only attachment to things and stuff, but ideas, jobs, characters that we play, places, and times.  I recently read this great line in a book by Simon Green.  The main characters where getting ready to travel through time so they were talking and walking with Old Man Time.  They had to sort out the details, etc.:

“What?” said Suzie.

Time stopped abruptly, and we almost ran into him.  He looked over us with his cold, crafty gaze. “Pay attention, this is important….”

Immediately my mind took it out of context and put it into my own context.  Time just keeps ticking by and I keep spending it as if it will never end.  And – I am not paying attention to the moments.  Many of the moments (like – working) I am either dreading or waiting for them to pass.

My idea of serenity is being totally in the moment, enjoying it, letting it play out, and not caring about the outcome because I am so secure within myself that any outcome can be handled in a calm, gracious, grateful, and tranquil manner.  Do you remember how Kwai Chang Caine was always able to do that?  He is my idol.

(For the youngsters in the room – an explanation of who Kwai Chang Caine was follows this post.)

As I surf the net and read about all kinds of minimalists, I realize that they (we) are all just searching.  Searching for what?  Release from the human condition, or release “to” the human condition, inner peace, pleasure, trying to escape pain, enlightenment, joy, bliss, their own broken-ness, trying to spend “time” wisely, or outrun it, yin, yang, eternity, and /or answers perhaps.  I don’t think any answers are found without looking, probing, trying, failing, realizing, living, hiding, feeling pleasure, feeling pain, and experiencing all that lies in between.  The glass that we look through could be minimalism, consumerism, wealth, poverty, health, illness, kindness, selfishness, politeness, rudeness, or even rose-colored.

Today your cup might runneth over and your bread might be soft and warm.  But, tomorrow your cup could be empty and your bread moldy.  Would you ask the universe different questions or the same questions with different underlying motives?

Today.  This moment.  Contemplate with me: serenity, authenticity, contentment, non-attachment to ______?  What path would you like to walk down?  Reinvention.  Hope.  Humility.  Lack of burden.  My search continues.

(Kwai Chang Caine is the main character from the 1970’s television show Kung Fu.  Caine is a Taoist Monk trained at the famous Shaolin Temple in the arts of Kung Fu, compassion, enlightenment, etc.  Caine is the embodiment of humility, compassion, and inner strength for other characters on the show.  He walks through the American Southwest desert barefoot carrying all of his belongings with him.  His belongings consist of a small bag, a blanket and a coat.  Metaphorically speaking Caine represents truth.  But, others see Caine through the eyes of “stuff”, prejudice, or outward appearance.  To the world that doesn’t see – Caine appears to be homeless, poor, downtrodden, and a minority.  But, Caine is “the one who sits in the center and knows.”  Humanity without ego.  Love.

Caine is happy and content when he is wandering through the desert or working and sleeping in a barn.  He subsists on very simple food and meditation.  He has that inner strength that we all search for and he is always at peace with himself and the world around him.  He is blissfully happy because he can be.  Caine has a quiet dignity that does not have to shout to be heard.  He goes through life trying to help those that would be helped and trying not to hinder those that would not like help, knowing that their path may be wrong or hard but that it is “their” path.  He is independent of outcome and not attached or defined by it and at the end of every show he walks on.

Many people have the mistaken impression that Kung Fu was about Kung Fu and fighting, but it was not.  In actuality the fight scenes had to be kept to a total of two minutes for the entire show.  And so, in reality there was very little fighting.  In most cases, I would argue that it to was a metaphor for the deeper Taoist teachings.)

I recently watched the 3-year series – as an adult.  It still holds up as quality TV.  I would say it even surpasses today’s really good shows. And it doesn’t seem dated.  It seems timeless.  I highly recommend it as enlightening recreation.  I would anxiously await my disc to come in the mail because I came to regard my “Kung Fu” time as my “meditation” time.  A time to sit with “the one in the center” and know truth for what it is.

“Listen for the color of the sky. Look for the sound of the hummingbird’s wings. Search the air for the perfume of ice, on a hot summer’s day. If you have found these things, you will know.”  ~ Master Poe, Kung Fu

Some recommended links to more reading on similar thoughts: