Four juxtapositions

Minimalism and simplicity are often and erroneously made to be synonymous. Minimalism is a style of art and aesthetics, while simplicity refers to a style of life or of being, although it can refer to a style of doing things. It may seem that our life-style should be a form of art, and that therefore one can conflate the two terms. However, minimalism attempts to identify what can be quantitatively removed with the increasingly better results, as in a work of art or music. Colors, objects or musical notes are removed in order to achieve an effect constructing the work with fewer parts or pieces, with fewer notes or shades, but creating a new and different effect. In painting, a canvas with one color is presented. But the intent is not simple. The intent is to absorb the multiplicity of reality into a particular mood of sudden expectation, of sudden realization. In music, minimalism often repeats a series in order to achieve an effect that, as with art, is absorbing the whole of reality at the moment, and brings the listener to a poignant mood. This achievement of mood is the whole purpose of any piece of music, but in minimalism the effect is specific: emotional, poignant, evanscent.

In simplicity, life is streamlined of complexity as to convey plainness, normalcy, and regularity, an approachability based on clarity. Simplicity can be material clarity, reduction without loss of function, plainness in its deliberate elimination of color, nuance, hue, or time lapse. But simpllicity does not evoke emotion, rather drains it, neutralizes it, eliminates it as subjective. Simplicity is not the minimalizing of complexity but the return to original state, to what was sufficient at one time and can be restored to that state, appreciated as it was. Simplicity calls for a lack of judgment, opinion, or subjective imposition. Minimalism still wants you to go somewhere, while simplicity is self-sufficient and exists without you.

No better reference to a clarifying tradition in regard to minimalism and simplicity is to be found as in wabi-sabi. Here the emotional content of solitude and impermanence penetrate the assumption of control, artistic or otherwise, and the notion of imperfection (in nature and in the human product) undermine any goal of self-sufficiency. Thus, our minimalism must be precise in conveying emotion, yet it will be contrived if removed too far from nature itself and from the patterns we observe in nature, which include simplicity.

Religion and spirituality are seen as synonymous in belonging to a pool of thinking about social and historical events and phenomena. But spirituality has never been a necessary component of religion, and is often at odds with the anthropological and cultural function of religion.

Nowadays, people who are religious belong to particular sects, while those who still miss an other-worldliness derived from religion, construct an idealized, somewhat sanitized, version of religion that is called “spirituality.” As Western religious sects declined in influence during the twentieth century, spirituality as an alternative emerged. Usually spirituality was pursued by those encountering Eastern thought and realizing the primitive lack of depth in their own Western tradition. Theosophists and New Thought adherents had begun this process long ago, with a curiosity about India and Tibet, and twentieth-century successors rediscovered China and Japan. Spirituality assigned to Eastern thought allowed a new perspective for Westerners that their old religions had never pursued, with their anthropological emphasis on ritual and rote belief. Eastern thought promised a spiritual dimension accessible without ritual or weekly tithes. Undoubtedly, Western religions stopped growing (qualitatively) when their secular counterparts, the nation-states of the West, collapsed into internecine civil wars (dating from turbulent late medieval times) on to the international wars (the destructive World Wars). But more fundamentally, Western religions exhausted their theology, after which spiritualized forms of mysticism emerged. Mysticism blurred the hard definitions, dogmas, and categories so favored by ecclesiastical authorities, so that the reaction to mysticism further desiccated the religions. No wonder that today’s expression “I’m not religious but I’m spiritual” or a version of it rings inevitable but also a bit vacuous. One wants to be more specific about truth.

Meditation and relaxation are not dictionary synonyms, but given the restless mood of modern society, the desire for tranquility equates methods of relaxation with the credentials of meditation. But relaxation is the temporary suspension of the effects of traumatically ruthless society and culture, and bound to expire as soon as the individual is plunged back into the modern world. Relaxtion is sold by business interests specifically as the remedy for coping, but it was never the remedy for coping with harsh materialism, but rather for dropping out of it to discover and pursue the temporary pleasures. In this process, popular media legitimizes a particular socio-economic status and its conditions, endorses an existing relationship to money, labor in a modern technological world, and the acceptance of the materialization of culture.

Hermit and recluse are old favorite terms of juxtaposition often made synonymous by dictionaries. Strictly speaking, with a few technical exceptions, a recluse has a psychological fear of people, whereas the hermit does not. The so-called “North Pond” hermit of Maine is a classic recluse who dared not encounter people, though his fear of them was because he stole from them. What hermit would steal from anyone! Perhaps his reclusion was strategic, but it certainly made for mental stagnation and dependence, certainly not eremitism. Yet the popular media continues to call him a “hermit.” Juxtapose Po Chu-i or Ryokan, true hermits, who expressed the sentiment: “It’s not that I don’t like people, it’s just that I am so very tired of them.”