Buy nothing for a year

Several times while on the road alone I either thought or said these exact words: “I wouldn’t care if my whole apartment burned down as long as Maggie got out.”

Each time it was a revelation.

Baba Ram Dass said of the guru’s effortless state (sahaj samadhi): “He goes into one-with-it-all into the void and he comes back into form in order to love it all and then through his love he goes back into it again. It’s like making love to somebody and you pick your face up from your lover in order to come down to experience aren’t we having a ball? And then you go back into one-ness.” (Be Here Now, p.71)

I didn’t feel liberation living without much “stuff”: I was simply living in a liberated kind of way. The feeling of liberation came when I remembered what I was doing. My skin tingled those several times when I said those words and I realized that I actually meant them. Each time, I also fell deeper in love with Maggie. I smiled. I was having a ball. I would wonder about it and then move on to something else and return to unconsciously having that ball.

Okay, so I’m not my stuff, I need very little to be happy, and it’s all right here. (Even Maggie, while gone, was still “right here”.) Sometimes I come to and realize what I’m doing, that I’m actually on this literal and metaphoric trip, and my ego is amazed at “my” “progress” and I feel another little piece of my own bullshit die. I feel a little more clean, a little more calm, a little more mischievous. How do I keep having this ball?

The morning after I returned to Boston, I wrote “The trip is not over.” And it’s technically true: the trip you’re on never ends. Because it’s all just you. You can’t rush it and you can’t force it; you can only acknowledge it. But I think I meant something different from the technical truth. What would living be if I kept living the way I had on the road? What if I viewed coming home as just an extended stop on the trip? But, but, but…

I’d made friends in other places and wished I’d had the time to know them better.

You could get to know your friends here better.

I’d been to new places and every day promised something new.

You’ve been in Boston for almost ten years and you still haven’t seen even a fraction of what it has to offer and not because you’ve been just holding the couch down for a decade.

I had more time because I didn’t have to work.

You had more time because you made different priorities. And besides: you know time is a measure of quantity and not quality, right?

But that was vacation, maaaaan.

You said yourself, while traveling, that it wasn’t a special little bubble away from life that needed special rights or protections, that you were just living your same life in another place at the moment.

But I was able to live in the moment more often while I was out there.

And what, exactly, is stopping you from doing that here?


Maybe I didn’t actually mean something different from the technical truth.

The first step, I supposed, in testing all of this would be to not accumulate any more things. I told Maggie that I wanted us to buy nothing for a year. She agreed. I half-joked that we should blog about it. To my surprise this time she agreed again, and that’s how this thing started.

The idea of buying nothing for a year came from a blog post I read while on the road. The Minimalists are a couple of guys named Josh and Ryan who write about “living a meaningful life with less stuff”. (They’ve got an interesting story and there is honesty and directness in their writing that I like, so please check them out if you have time. They also happen to be very nice people.) One of Josh’s experiments was to see if he could go a year without buying anything material except food and hygiene products. As it turns out, he spilled tea on his laptop and, even though he is a writer, went to great lengths to avoid buying a new computer- writing by hand and typing on friends’ computers- until he finally relented. Our experiment will not forbid replacing things we use regularly if they become unusable.

Our current general guidelines are as follows:

  • We will neither give nor accept any material gifts for one year, beginning on January 1st.
  • We will neither buy nor acquire new toys, tchotchkes, games, etc.
  • We will buy no new clothes, except what is necessary for work.
  • We will replace things we use regularly if they break, but the standard has to be pretty high (i.e. the hard drive of the computer I’m typing this on, but not the TV we barely watch).
  • It’s not about deprivation; this is a tool for focusing on what matters. Since it also doesn’t sound like much fun to live in an entirely gift-free world, we’re focusing on experiences instead of things. This would include gifts like: dinner, a bottle of whisky, concert or museum tickets, long walks on the beach, etc.
  • If we break these guidelines, we’ll come clean and tell you about it.

Maggie and I’s individual challenges are different. I’m not as prone to acquiring stuff (except for books, dear God except for books) but I am way more prone to other forms of excessive consumption that take me out of the present. Upcoming posts will discuss some of these details as well as the getting-rid-of-stuff phase that began about a month ago.

How is this all going to pan out? I have no idea. The trip isn’t over.

Any suggestions?


6 Comments on “Buy nothing for a year”

  1. bepare says:

    You mention whiskey as a gift being okay, but how are you viewing regular alcohol consumption or cigarettes?

    • Joe says:

      That’s an interesting question. I hadn’t thought about that, so thanks for asking.
      Let’s see.
      I have no problems controlling my alcohol consumption and it’s never taken me away from anything important except a good night of sleep here and there, so I don’t see any reason for me to abstain from it on principle.
      The only downside I experience with alcohol is that it makes me want to smoke more, which leads to the more troubling part: I don’t smoke many per day (usually around 5), but I am incredibly addicted to cigarettes. I know I shouldn’t be smoking, but more importantly I don’t always want to be smoking. I really do enjoy it as an aesthetic pleasure sometimes- I really LIKE smoking- but the physical need makes me do things that feel inauthentic (like putting on slippers to go crank down a butt in the snow).
      If I were viewing it from the outside, I’d tell myself to keep doing what I do with alcohol because it works for me and to quit smoking cigarettes for a year because it doesn’t work all that well for me.
      What do you think?

      • bepare says:

        I would agree. As you say, this is not about deprivation. It’s about moving away from consumerism. Drinking alcohol, while not necessary, is not really a consumerist endeavor, and it can certainly enhance experiences.

        I would definitely look at this as a motivator to quit smoking though. It has a direct negative impact on your life, and I feel like much of this experiment is about finding more meaning, happiness, contentment, and general positivity in your life. I realize that the act of smoking provides some sense of enjoyment, but if you are looking to find enjoyment from non-material things, it may be a good excuse to find the enjoyment you get from smoking from things other than smoking.

  2. Lukas Cheney says:

    an admirable goal guys. Good luck with it. I’ve had to pare my life down to a suitcase over the past year of traveling. I’d suggest getting ruthless with the throwing away and allowing yourself to have new things if you make them or you learn about how something works in the process. Joe… get a kindle mate. I love mine.

    • Joe says:

      That’s a great perspective and suggestion, Lukas.
      The kindle, though. The kindle. The problem with a kindle is that I can’t look over to my shelves for inspiration. With a kindle, I can’t pull out books and include them in a conversation when I’m involved in one of those four hour ones that goes from Nietzsche to Einstein to Euclid in 90 seconds. I am very much attached to the physical presence of books because I use them regularly. I’m going to be writing about that soon, and I know it will be a very difficult essay to write.
      I am willing to be sold, though, and my mind is somewhat open. Sell me. What do you love about it?

  3. Eli says:

    See y’all tonight!

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