What would you carry in your spiritual minimalist backpack? Rabbi Rami Shapiro considers his own religious necessities after his recent conversation with Light Watkins for the S+H podcast.
Spirituality is the practice of living with total aliveness. Total aliveness is the realization that you and all life are a part of the nondual reality in which we live and move and have our being (Acts 17:28). Spiritual minimalism is engaging with total aliveness with the least amount of baggage possible.
Light Watkins, meditation teacher, spiritual minimalist, and author of Travel Light: Spiritual Minimalism to Live a More Fulfilled Life was my guest on a recent episode of the Spirituality+Health podcast. Reading his book in preparation for the interview, I thought about just how minimalist my own spirituality might be and conducted this thought experiment:
Step 1—I made a list of all the things that I use in my spiritual life:
Religion: Judaism, Advaita Vedanta Hinduism, Taoism, Zen, and Divine Mother worship.
Beliefs: Nature of God, self, soul, consciousness, free will or lack thereof, good and evil, the meaning of life, what happens after I die, etc.
Ethics: Rules governing my interactions with people, animals, and nature, complex theologies and theories of justice and compassion.
Books: Hebrew Bible, New Testament, Gospel of Thomas, I Ching, Tao te Ching, Chuang Tzu, Bhagavad Gita, Dhammapada, Heart Sutra, Blue Cliff Record, Mumonkan, Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous, books by Krishnamurti, Martin Buber, Alan Watts, Nasargadata Maharaj, Ramana Maharshi, Ramesh Balsekar, Toni Packer, Joan Tollison, Edmund Jabes, Jorge Borges, Franz Kafka, Dave Hinton, the list goes on. And on.
Accessories: Tallit (prayer shawl), tefillin (phylacteries), yarmulka, siddur (prayer book), tzedakah bag to hold cash I plan to give away each day, mala beads, journal, fine pen, desktop computer, meditation cushions, Buddha statues, pictures of my teachers, incense and incense burners, inspirational posters, a 4-inch by 4-inch ceramic Snoopy sitting at his typewriter, and again the list goes on.
Step 2—I then imagined I had to fit my spiritual life into a small day backpack. Everything that wasn’t essential would have to go. What would I keep?
Religion? No. All I need is Truth, and Truth is simple. As my Yiddish-speaking Zayde would say, Alles iz Gott: everything is God—YHVH, the Happening happening as all happening, and as the Chandogya Upanishad says, Tat Tvam Assi: You are That Happening.
Beliefs? No. Beliefs are ideas we insist are true without any evidence that they are true. So, again I will jettison beliefs in favor of Truth: Alles iz Gott.
Ethics? No. Once I know the Truth of Alles iz Gott, my ethics is determined by a single principle: Rabbi Hillel’s “What is hateful to you do not to another,” or if you prefer, Rabbi Jesus’ “Do unto others what you would have others do unto you.”
Books? Here I cheated. I’m not even a recovering biblioholic. You might say that, for me, a day without books is like a day without sunshine. But, honestly, I can do with a day without sunshine if I have lamplight by which to read my books. I will substitute my desktop computer for an iPad and a Kindle app and have all the books I want.
Accessories? My daily meditation practice is based on silence and the repetition of mantra in Hebrew and Sanskrit so I don’t need prayer books. I often wear a tallit during meditation, and I use a mala during the recitation of mantra, so I will keep these things. Tefillin’s message of uniting my mind, heart, and hand in service to holiness is worth remembering, and the tzedakah bag helps with that so they stay as well. I wear hats instead of yarmulkas, so I will have a hat. I like having a fine pen and journal, though mostly I take notes on my iPhone. And—there is no point in doing this if I’m not being honest—I would take my Snoopy with me also, ‘cause everyone needs a totem.
So that’s it; my entire spiritual life in a small bag: iPad, iPhone, tallit, tefillin, tzedakah bag, mala, hat, pen, journal, and my Snoopy. What’s missing? What’s missing is the stuff that can’t go in a bag: Truth, awakening, justice, compassion, love, and peace—the by-products of living spiritually. Spiritual minimalism makes realizing and living these things even more possible.
My thanks to Light Watkins for sparking this exercise. I hope you try it yourself.
Listen to the interview that inspired this essay here.