A Simpler Life
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A Simpler Life

A guide to greater serenity, ease, and clarity

Alain de Botton, Alain Botton

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📖 eBook - ePub

A Simpler Life

A guide to greater serenity, ease, and clarity

Alain de Botton, Alain Botton

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About This Book

This book explores ideas around minimalism, simplicity and how to live comfortably with less.

The modern world can be a complicated, frenzied, and noisy place, filled with too many options, products, ideas and opinions. That explains why what many of us long for is simplicity: a life that can be more pared down, peaceful, and focused on the essentials.

But finding simplicity is not always easy; it isn't just a case of emptying out our closets or trimming back commitments in our diaries. True simplicity requires that we understand the roots of our distractions – and develop a canny respect for the stubborn reasons why things can grow complex and overwhelming.

This book is a guide to the simpler lives we crave and deserve. It considers how we might achieve simplicity across a range of areas. Along the way, we learn about Zen Buddhism, modernist architecture, monasteries, psychoanalysis, and why we probably don't need more than three good friends or a few treasured belongings.

It isn't enough that our lives should look simple; they need to be simple from the inside. This book takes a psychological approach, guiding us towards less contorted hearts and minds. We have for too long been drowning in excess and clutter from a confusion about our aspirations; A Simpler Life helps us tune out the static and focus on what properly matters to us.

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III. A Simpler Lifestyle

i. How to live in a hut

There’s a dread that we normally keep at the far edges of our minds but which occasionally – particularly at 3 a.m. on a restless night – floods our thoughts. It is that if we don’t constantly strive to achieve – if we slip up, or if some new catastrophe strikes the economy – we’ll lose pretty much everything and we’ll end up living in a caravan, a tiny one-room flat or – God forbid – a hut in the middle of nowhere.
The bleakness of this image of destitution – whatever form it may take for you – spurs us on to ever more frantic efforts. We’ll settle for almost anything to avoid it: oppressively long working hours, a job that holds no interest, risky money-making schemes, a loveless marriage that keeps us in the family home or, perhaps, decades suffering the whims of a grim relative in the prospect of an inheritance. The hut is a symbol of disaster and humiliation.
It’s in this fear-laden context that we might consider the case of a man called Kamo no Chōmei, who was born in Japan in around 1155. His father was the well-to-do head of a prominent religious shrine near Kyoto, which was then the capital, and Chōmei grew up in luxurious circumstances. He received a refined education and in the early part of his adult life had an elegant social circle. When he was still in his twenties, his grandmother left him a large house and his future looked bright. But then it all started to go wrong. He made enemies and was sidelined in his career; he got into financial difficulties and, by the time he was fifty, he had alienated his former friends, had practically no money left – and was going bald.
Chōmei was forced to reform his lifestyle and exist on the most slender material means. He built himself a tiny hut far out in the country, where no one else wanted to live – just 3 metres (or 10 feet) square. It was, he reflected, one-hundredth of the size of the mansion in which he’d grown up. It wasn’t even a permanent structure; his situation was so precarious that he had to ensure his home could be dismantled and carted away.
A modern reconstruction of the hut shows just how small and basic it was – but doesn’t convey its isolated position in the hills near Toyama, an area that was considered the back of beyond. Rotting leaves collected on the roof; moss grew on the floor; the water supply was just a rickety bamboo pipe leading from a nearby stream to a little pool by the door. Chōmei cooked outside, eventually rigging up a small awning to keep the rain off in wet weather. He slept on a pile of bracken on the floor, had no furniture and lived mainly on nuts, berries and wild root vegetables, which he foraged from the woods – though quite often he went hungry. The only people he saw were a peasant family who lived at the foot of the hill and who his former grand friends would have dismissed as lowly rustics. He could only afford clothes made from the coarsest cloth and they soon became mere rags, leaving him indistinguishable from the beggars he used to see in the city. It was here, in this way, that Chōmei lived for fifteen years, until his death in his mid-sixties.
Reconstruction of Kamo no Chōmei’s hut within the Kawai-jinja Shrine, Kyoto, Japan
It was also here that he wrote a short book, The Ten Foot Square Hut – one of the great masterpieces of Japanese literature. It’s not – as we might expect – a lament, poring over the misfortunes and betrayals that led him to this degraded condition. Instead, it’s full of good cheer, happiness and pleasure; one of the most touching lines is the simple affirmation: ‘I love my little hut, my simple dwelling.’
What was it that enabled Chōmei to find fulfilment in such an apparently unpromising place? It wasn’t that he was naturally drawn to a minimal material life: no one who’d known him earlier, in his days of prosperity, would have imagined that he would thrive under such circumstances – least of all himself. He wasn’t someone who for years had been hankering for the simple life. He moved to the hut in desperation and against his inclinations; it was only once he was there that he discovered that he liked it – that it was, in fact, his ideal home.
Chōmei was guided by a distinctive philosophy. For us to follow this is a principle of hope, for we can’t magically take on another individual’s personality – but we can understand, and perhaps come to share, their ideas. Temperament may be fixed, but philosophy is transferable. From his book, we can identify four crucial ideas that together transformed what could have been an utterly grim experience into one of deep and tranquil satisfaction.
1. Beauty is very important
It seems like a strange place to start. Normally, one would imagine beauty to be the outcome of immense wealth: elegant possessions, a gracious home and trips to Venice and St Petersburg. But these expensive things are just the most obvious examples of beauty. As our taste becomes more sensitive and our imagination more expansive, the link with monetary wealth falls away – because many truly lovely sights are readily available to those who know how to look.
Around his modest home, Chōmei – with a sensitive eye – discovered endless sources of beauty: autumn leaves, fruit trees in blossom, melting snow, the sound of the wind rustling through the trees and the rain beating down on the roof. All were free. He was entranced by flowers: ‘In spring I gaze upon swathes of wisteria, which hang shining in the west like the purple clouds that bear the soul to heaven.’ He found a delightful spot on the hillside: ‘If the day is fine … [I] look out over Mount Kohata, Fushimi Village, Toba and Hatsukashi,’ and at night ‘the fireflies in the nearby grass blend their little lights with the fishermen’s fires of distant Makinsohima.’
The idea of having to cope with constant ugliness is part of what makes a lower-level economic life so frightening. Chōmei’s antidote is to stress the continuing opportunities for visual delight, even on the most minimal of incomes.
2. Time is more important than money
Although we say that time is precious, our actions reveal our real priorities: we devote a huge portion of our conscious existence to making, and trying to accumulate, money. We have a detailed and definite sense of financial accounting, while time invisibly slips away.
Chōmei, on the contrary, had a keen sense of the value of his own time, without interruptions, impediments or duties: ‘I can choose to rest and laze as I wish, there is no one to stand in my way or to shame me,’ he remarks. He had time to practice playing the biwa (lute): ‘My skills are poor,’ he admits, but he had no audience and wasn’t trying to please or impress anyone: ‘I play alone, I sing alone, simply for my own fulfilment.’ He read and reread the same few favourite books, which he came to know almost by heart; he had time to reflect and to write; he meditated, took long walks and spent a lot of time contemplating the moon.
Chōmei’s activities were self-directed: he did them simply because he found them enjoyable, not because anyone had asked him to do them or because they were expected of a civilised individual. And he had this luxury only because he had disregarded the nexus of money, and the pursuit of status that is so closely connected to it. Theoretically, Chōmei could have found a job, however lowly. But he preferred to cut down his expenses to zero in the name of something truly valuable: his time.
3. Everything is transient
Chōmei opens his book with a metaphor comparing human life to a river:
‘On flows the river ceaselessly, nor does the water ever stay the same. The bubbles that float upon its pools now disappear, now form anew, but never endure long. And so it is with people in this world, and with their dwellings.’
With this, he is reminding himself – and us – of the half-terrifying, half-consoling fact that our existence, and all our pleasures and troubles, are fleeting.
Our lives are brief, and so it is the quality of our experiences, rather than the extent of our possessions, that matters. The more things we own, the more we are exposed to misfortune: a fashionable home will soon be outdated, our prestige in the eyes of others will fluctuate for trivial reasons and the monuments we hope to be remembered by will be misinterpreted or torn down. The hut is an impermanent accommodation – it might be blown down in a storm or washed away in a flood, officials might arrive at our door and force us to leave – but by living here our needs become so simple that chance has less to work on.
4. ‘Worldly’ people are less happy than they seem
One fear that erodes our willingness to live a simpler life – in a hut, if need be – is the haunting thought that other people are having a wonderful time while we are not. Perhaps we could manage to get by, but surely we’d always be conscious of how much we were missing out on.
Chōmei continually reminded himself that a ‘worldly’ life – which in his early and middle years he knew intimately – carries a heavy load of limitations, defects and sorrows. The life of the well-to-do is less enviable than it outwardly seems. The fashionable world is full of what he called ‘cringing’: ‘You worry over your least action; you can...

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APA 6 Citation
Botton, A. (2022). A Simpler Life ([edition unavailable]). The School of Life. Retrieved from https://www.perlego.com/book/2987695/a-simpler-life-a-guide-to-greater-serenity-ease-and-clarity-pdf (Original work published 2022)
Chicago Citation
Botton, Alain. (2022) 2022. A Simpler Life. [Edition unavailable]. The School of Life. https://www.perlego.com/book/2987695/a-simpler-life-a-guide-to-greater-serenity-ease-and-clarity-pdf.
Harvard Citation
Botton, A. (2022) A Simpler Life. [edition unavailable]. The School of Life. Available at: https://www.perlego.com/book/2987695/a-simpler-life-a-guide-to-greater-serenity-ease-and-clarity-pdf (Accessed: 15 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Botton, Alain. A Simpler Life. [edition unavailable]. The School of Life, 2022. Web. 15 Oct. 2022.