Robert Witham

Nomadic minimalist, writer, and videographer

Category: Simplicity (page 2 of 2)

Minimalism and Nomadic Lifestyles

It is really no surprise that nomads are also usually minimalists. In fact, I cannot think of a lifestyle nomad who is not a minimalist. (There may be a few, but they would certainly be the exception to this rule.) Minimalism and nomadic lifestyles just naturally go together.

This is not to say that all nomads start off as minimalists, or that all minimalists are nomads. There are plenty of minimalists who have simply embraced the lifestyle for its many benefits while continuing to maintain a stationary existence. Nomads who take to the road (or the skies or the sea) while still owning a lot of stuff (or being owned by a lot of stuff) tend to quickly find it more practical to rapidly and significantly downsize and embrace minimalism.

I had a lot less stuff than most Americans when I set out to be a nomad, but it was still far too much. My preparations for hitting the road indefinitely in 2009 were accompanied by a significant purge. Still, despite ridding myself of most of my stuff, I still ended up storing some boxes of things that I was emotionally attached to with a relative.

An interesting observation was realized only a short time after leaving some things in storage. I found that I could not even remember most of what was in the boxes. This experience is certainly not unique as I have heard many people relate similar stories – whether or not they were minimalists. It occurred to me at this point that if I could not even remember what I had put in storage than it probably was not all that important.

The other thing that occurred around this time was when I was home for a visit and decided to go through the boxes that I had stored to start downsizing more. Obviously I did not need to continue to keep stuff that I could not even remember. As I started going through boxes I found that much of what I had stored was ruined either because of a water leak or rodents. This discovery cemented my resolve to stop storing things “just in case” or because of an emotional attachment to inanimate objects.

The bottom line of my experience with storing stuff while on the road:
1. Most of the time we forget what we even have stored, because it is not possible to keep track of that much stuff
2. Trying to hold onto things if often a fools errand, because thieves, rodents, and nature all conspire to steal or destroy

Not all nomads find it necessary or useful to adopt one-bag minimalism though. There is a growing tribe of jet-setting minimalists who do find it useful to downsize to one bag, and for some people this is certainly the best approach. Nomads who travel by vehicle or who have a trade that requires tools, equipment or supplies necessarily carry a little more than one bag on their journeys.

Traveling around the country or world while lugging several large, heavy bags is just not a lot of fun. Consequently, nomads tend to find it desirable (or even necessary) to travel lightly in the world. The only other option to minimalism or the self-imposed misery of carrying everything around is to store extra stuff for potential use at a later date. Storage fees can become a drain on many budgets though, and there is still the question of whether the stuff will be stolen, damaged, or destroyed while in storage. There is also the matter of the psychic strain of needing to think about stuff that is in storage.

Finally, minimalism not only makes it easy to travel or migrate, but it makes it easy to do so with very little preparation. I can, and have, made the decision to move across the country, packed, and departed within 30 minutes. More than once. This may be an extreme example, but the fact is that one-bag minimalism makes it possible to pursue whatever interesting opportunities arise with very little time needed for preparation.

Henry David Thoreau described this situation perfectly in Walden:

“It is desirable that a man be clad so simply that he can lay his hands on himself in the dark, and that he live in all respects so compactly and preparedly that, if an enemy take the town, he can, like the old philosopher, walk out the gate empty-handed without anxiety.”

I think of this quote often and try to maintain the same status myself. It may be unlikely that an enemy will take the town (though certainly not impossible, depending on the location), but there are definitely opportunities available to a minimalist who can walk out the door nearly empty-handed without anxiety that are not available to most people who are burdened by possessions.

Hunter-Gatherers and Nomadic Minimalists

Serious minimalists (one-bag style) maintain a lifestyle that is perhaps more similar to hunter-gatherers than any other historic model.

Serious or hardcore minimalists own, travel, and move with a minimum of stuff. Many serious minimalists can fit everything they own into one bag. The minimalist’s bag, in this case, becomes the standard by which possessions are measured: Does it fit and how much does it weigh?

Minimalists from across the spectrum of minimalism are out of step with mainstream Western culture – one-bag minimalists especially so. Nomads and perpetual travelers seem to gravitate toward minimalism easily as they quickly learn, both practically and experientially, that possessions are baggage. Possessions literally weigh a person down and restrict freedom of movement. Possessions quickly possess.

Nomadic minimalists carry only what is really needed or truly provides value as they roam the world, migrating at will. These minimalists rely on finding what is needed, when it is needed, where it is needed. In many cases, these minimalists work remotely while traveling or run microbusinesses from wherever they happen to be.

The nomadic minimalist life differs from subsistence farming or nearly any other form of urban existence in history. Most vocations require ties to a geographical location, while many require tools or real estate that likewise hinder movement. Perhaps the only historical model to which nomadic minimalism can be compared is that of a hunter-gatherer.

A hunter-gatherer needed to travel light out of necessity. Carrying more than the minimum slowed a person down, especially if traveling on foot, but even on horseback there are real limits to how much can be carried. Further, any food that is successfully obtained on a hunt or through foraging must also be carried until it is consumed.

The hunter-gatherer would necessarily need to travel (migrating to find food and other resources), and would also need to travel light (only what could be carried on his/her back or pack animal), relying on skill and luck to find food and other resources as they were needed.

This model is remarkably similar to today’s nomadic minimalists. The nomadic minimalist travels (migrating for any number of reasons), travels lightly (only what can be carried conveniently), relying on skill and luck to find work or business, food, housing, transportation, and anything else that is necessary.

Consider too that both the hunter-gatherer and nomadic minimalist have a work-life-travel blend that is remarkably different from most Western, career-oriented lifestyles.

The typical Western model that many consider normal forces artificial distinctions between work time and personal time (life) while reducing travel to something allowed only on a rare vacation. In other words, what is frequently considered normal is an artificial, dualistic worldview that seeks to separate life into convenient boxes beneficial to the corporation, but harmful to the individual.

The nomadic minimalist, by contrast, frequently (and necessarily) blends work, life, and travel together in a holistic lifestyle. Work, travel, and life blend together organically, which is not to say that a nomadic minimalist never struggles with keeping everything in balance. Having abandoned the pursuit of possessions, however, it often becomes easier to focus on what is important.

It is perhaps no coincidence that I have seen a resurgence in interest in the simplicity of the hunter-gatherer societies in recent years. (Which is not, of course, to say that interest is becoming mainstream.) Interestingly, pursuing simple living based on the model of nomadic minimalism may be more viable and sustainable for those who are intrigued by such things than would the ancient hunter-gatherer model. In many ways then nomadic minimalists are the new hunter-gatherers of the digital age.

Minimalism: My Pursuit of Simplicity

The embrace of minimalism, for me, grew out of a lifelong pursuit of simplicity. It was around 1999 when I first began to get serious about minimalism, systematically reducing and eliminating my possessions. I was a minimalist even before minimalism was cool, though I lacked the vocabulary to easily describe my philosophy; usually it ended up lumped in with simplicity.

Minimalism is…

“Minimalism is a tool to get rid of superfluous excess in favor of focusing on what’s important in life so you can find happiness, fulfillment and freedom.”

Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus in Minimalism: Essential Essays

I long understood that there was at least room for minimalism (and simplicity) in religious expression, perhaps even a necessity for simplicity and minimalism. It was not until I read Richard Foster’s The Freedom of Simplicity that I began to appreciate just how central simplicity was to the Christian message. Later study of the Church Fathers would further reinforce the conviction that the related disciplines of simplicity and minimalism are an inescapable part of a Biblical worldview.

Thoreau is my hero – minimalism as philosophy

Minimalism does have its challenges, but it also provides opportunities and benefits not otherwise available. Some of the benefits of minimalism include saving money (not buying stuff you don’t need anyway), easier travel or relocation (I literally own less stuff than most people take on vacation, thus moving is rather simple), and reduced stress from having fewer possessions to maintain and care for. Minimalism can also facilitate new opportunities as it becomes easier to experiment and risk failing without the excess baggage and commitments so common in our culture.

Ev Bogue, famous famous from his now-deprecated blog Far Beyond the Stars and several e-books on minimalism, recently described it this way:

“I like living this way. It gives me a lot of flexibility to go where I want.

“It also lets me take bigger risks, and fail harder than most people. It lets me succeed bigger, and enjoy my successes more than most people, too.”

The Art of Being Minimalist – Ev Bogue

My journey toward minimalism occurred as a series of steps.

The first step was my embrace of the philosophy of simplicity and simple living.

The second step occurred as I began a cross-country move in 1999. This move encouraged (almost required) downsizing and reducing possessions. There are few things as effective as moving your family more than 2,000 miles in a small station wagon to force a careful evaluation of which stuff is really important (and which is just junk).

The third step occurred as a result of frequent travel, and the desire for more frequent travel. I did not want to be burdened by a bunch of stuff back home that I needed to worry about; less stuff makes it easier to move or travel on a whim.

Finally, I learned quickly that putting extra stuff in storage is a powerful motivator to minimize. Renting storage space wastes hard-earned money. Storing stuff for any length of time also proves just how little we need the stuff as it is nearly impossible to even remember what is in storage after a little time has passed. I also learned the hard way that things left in storage tend to deteriorate, whether due to water leaks, rodents, or other factors.

Ultimately, it was not any single event or decision that prompted me to embrace minimalism, but rather a series of steps along a journey to minimalism that started with a quest for simplicity.

Pursuing minimalism is not nearly so difficult as many people would have you believe. The decision to embrace minimalism may be the hard part; the actual implementation of that decision is rather simple. If you are ready to implement minimalism in your own life all you have to do is throw your crap in a dumpster.

Why I Write About Simplicity and Minimalism

I write about a variety of topics. My interests are eclectic; therefore, my writing also tends to be eclectic. One of the things I am passionate about, and therefore like to write about, is the discipline of simplicity, along with the related discipline of minimalism.

Why do I write about simplicity and minimalism? Several recent conversations with people in the offline (real) world have revealed a perception that I am trying to convince people to live as I live. People sometimes think my objective in writing about simplicity and minimalism is to persuade everyone to be a minimalist, to get rid of everything they own, and to live out of one bag.

Truthfully, my objective is not to convince everyone to live as I live. It would be a boring world if people were all the same. My hope, instead, is to demonstrate that there is another way to live, that there is an alternative to mindless consumerism. It is not necessary, or even desirable, to live as a slave to consumerism and materialism (in other words, to live as a typical, 21st century American). My hope, in sharing how I live as a minimalist, is to demonstrate that it is possible to live a good life without all of the stuff that corporations spend billions of dollars each year trying to convince people that they need.

“Most of the luxuries, and many of the so-called comforts of life, are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind. With respect to luxuries and comforts, the wisest have ever lived a more simple and meager life than the poor.”

Henry David Thoreau
I am not opposed to material possessions. Viewing all material goods as inherently evil is to fall into the ancient error of Gnosticism. On the other hand, consumerism and materialism is an unhealthy and destructive lifestyle that will always disappoint. No amount of stuff will make your life complete and meaningful. Accumulating more stuff will, however, increase your stress and cost more of your life. As the American philosopher Henry David Thoreau wisely observed, “The price of anything is the amount of life you exchange for it.”

“Of course, there is great gain in godliness combined with contentment; for we brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it; but if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these.”

St. Paul

Contentment is a wonderful state of being – and one that is not dependent on any amount of possessions. More possessions will never bring contentment for contentment comes from within. Not only are possessions not a prerequisite for contentment, they usually serve as an obstacle to contentment. In sharing how I can be content with what most people would consider to be ridiculously few possessions, I hope to challenge others to at least consider simplifying their own lives – even if not to the same extent as I have mine.

My philosophy of minimalist living is summed up well in these words from Thoreau:

“It is desirable that a man be clad so simply that he can lay his hands on himself in the dark, and that he live in all respects so compactly and preparedly that, if an enemy take the town, he can, like the old philosopher, walk out the gate empty-handed without anxiety.”

Henry David Thoreau
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