Abandon, Embrace

The art of soul minimalism

Words by Joel Tefft

“Our body limits the spiritual divine spark which we call our soul. In the way that a vessel gives form to the liquid or gas which is put into, our body gives form to our spiritual being. If the vessel is broken, that which was in it no longer retains the form it had and flows out. Does it receive a new form? Is it united with other beings? We know nothing of this. After death the soul becomes something different, something indescribable.

Death is a liberation of the soul from the material personality in which it existed in this world. For those who live a spiritual life, there is no death.”

–Leo Tolstoy | A Calendar of Wisdom

Today, I abandon…
Today, I embrace…

Each morning, I sit down with my journal, and these words prompt a paragraph of thoughts that emerge from a deep place within my heart. A place I do not visit often enough. These prompts and the words that they inspire have begun to change my life. 

But I am getting ahead of myself. First, a little context. In practice, minimalism is about reducing clutter in every area of life. It is not merely having fewer things or living a stoic, ascetic lifestyle (although these practices can certainly help with minimalism!). 

Minimalism is the intentional reduction of clutter so as to increase capacity for what is essential. 

This will look different for every person, depending on the aim of their life. One universal tenet of practical minimalism is minimalism of the soul.

Soul minimalism goes a bit further than dealing with the clutter and possessions in your life. The soul is the place I collect the most clutter. I keep my room pretty clean. My desk is well organized. I donate or recycle old items with ease. The garage… Okay, I might need a pass on that one. In general, I try to keep my life and my living area uncluttered. My soul is another matter. I’ve got years and years of stuff piled up, often in dark corners I’ve forgotten about. Forgotten, that is, until I accidentally stumble into those dark places, tripping over the mounds of undealt with junk hiding in the shadows. 

The soul is perhaps the most important “room” of our existence and is often the room we neglect or avoid the most. 

The pace of life, the demands of our routines, the distractions of our leisure time, and the expectations others have of us can become barriers to attending to our soul. It is not to say that this is intentional; life happens, and we get swept away in the current.

Or, perhaps you are paralyzed by the fear of knowing what lies in wait for you if you truly began to shovel through the piles of memories, heartaches, and wounds. Ignorance, in this case, is more appealing. Ignorance does not imply stupidity. It means to actively ignore what is otherwise a self-evident reality, dismissing what is true as if it didn’t exist at all. You can undoubtedly overlook what you’re carrying, but ignoring it does not mean you are not carrying it. We simply pretend it is of no consequence to us while the piles grow in the shadows, little by little.

I began to notice I was establishing this same pattern of avoidance and neglect. To address this problematic occurrence, I needed to develop a habit. That is why I began a daily practice of decluttering my heart while simultaneously inviting more of what is essential. It’s effortless and has become central to my daily routine. 

Here’s how it works. Each morning, begin with thoughtful introspection. What is troubling you? What is weighing you down? What is causing fear within you? Once you have that answer, write this simple sentence down:

Today, I abandon…

Finish that sentence with whatever flows naturally from your pen. If you feel it would be helpful, write a few more sentences about what you’re letting go of. It doesn’t matter. It’s just important to get that thing out and on paper into the real world.

There is something powerful about the word abandon. Previously, I would write “Today, I let go of…” however, letting go doesn’t have the same strength. Abandoning something has connotations of a deliberate rejection. It is the intentional process of removing clutter from your heart. You abandon things that are weighing you down. Isn’t that what minimalists do with their possessions? We discard whatever is non-essential to our being. Why not also do this with your heart? 

You cannot embrace something new if you have not made room in your cluttered heart.

How can you accept such goodness if you are overcrowded? The practice of abandoning is to admit you carry things that no longer belong to you, nor do they belong within you. And this exercise is not merely lip service. The intent is to provide you with clarity of thought that becomes a catalyst for you to enact real change in your life.

Perhaps it’s an old anger or a wound that never properly healed. You may decide to abandon something that once seemed promising, like a way of thinking, a habit, an old friend, all of which once had their place, but no longer. 

It is not healthy to bind yourself to things like habits, to say, “that’s just what I do,” and to not be willing to frequently reevaluate the utility and benefits. We should never be attached to anything so much so that it becomes our identity. How will we live without it if it were taken away from us? If you attach yourself to things like habits or beliefs, your habit will become you instead of serving you (as habits ought to do), and you will not be free-thinking and liberated in your actions.

Once you have written out what you are abandoning, it is time to embrace something. So, write:

Today, I embrace…

You may need to embrace some kind of harsh reality that you’ve been avoiding in some cases. For example, I have sat down to write these words after deciding that I will embrace and befriend my shadows so that I can abandon them in due time. Knowing I first must admit they exist is why I embrace them before expulsion.

However, on most days, you will think of something positive, uplifting, and meaningful to welcome into your life. The rest of your day, you can reflect on what you are letting go of and enjoy what you are embracing. It’s powerful to walk through your day with these reflections in your heart! 

And this is precisely the point: 

Make room in your soul by abandoning clutter, and you instantly increase your capacity for goodness and beauty. 

This is the way to live a good life. Further, this is a way to practice the good life. Finally, this is the way to face the end of your life with courage, lightness, and dignity. Indeed, removing clutter from your soul brings light and nobility to your character because you refuse to carry anything that does not ultimately lead to goodness.

Goodness for you will become goodness for others, for those you love. Even strangers will benefit from your lightened soul because you will not unconsciously burden them with your attachments and the garbage you have not dealt with.

To lighten your soul allows you to live life in true liberty. The good life is not binary; that is, it is not either all addition or all subtraction. It is balance. It is like the symbol of this newsletter, the Ouroboros. It must be two things at the same time, or you will never be truly free. You must let go while you are embracing. You must allow even good things to be purged, and sometimes you must embrace things that lurk in the shadows. It is the way it must be if you desire to live the good life.

You may have heard it said that the “pursuit of happiness” is the most destructive lie we’ve ever believed. Happiness comes as an indirect result of pursuing goodness, not possessions. The same is true of the soul, I suspect. The good life comes as an indirect result of keeping your soul light and uncluttered.

I leave you with the Tolstoy quote:

“Death is a liberation of the soul from the material personality in which it existed in this world.”

Once your soul has been liberated, what do you carry? What will you take with you?

It is clear that it matters, even if we do not fully know why. 

Joel Tefft

Joel writes short thought-pieces on life, culture, philosophy, and spirituality for people who want to live more empathetic lives. His mission is to encourage, edify, and inspire his readers with his weekly newsletter, Mostly Useful.

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