The Buddha had a disciple named Sona, who couldn’t progress in his meditation. He was so disheartened that he wanted to abandon the ascetic life, and went to ask the Buddha for advice.
“Sona,” the Buddha said, “before you became a monk, you were a musician. What happens when the strings of a lute are tuned too tightly?”
“It sounds unpleasant and the strings can break at any time,” Sona replied.
“What about a string that is too loose?” the Buddha asked.
Sona replied that a loose string doesn’t produce a sound. Instead, “The string that produces a tuneful sound is the one that isn’t too tight nor too loose.”
“In the same way, Sona,” the Buddha said, “Find the right pitch for your practice.”
After speaking with the Buddha, Sona continued with his meditation. In due time, he found his balance, neither practicing too intensely nor too idly. Soon, the story goes, Sona achieved enlightenment.
Finding a Middle Way
This story is often used to illustrate taking the Middle Way, a way of living that doesn’t veer towards extremes, but finds a balance that is neither too tight nor too loose.
It’s the way I tend to think about a lot of things these days, including materialism and minimalism.
Materialism is the promise that you’ll be happy once you have more things, while minimalism is the belief that you’ll be happy once you have fewer things.
But if we’ve experienced both abundance and lack enough times in our lives, we know neither extreme works. Consuming without limits overwhelms us, but not having enough starves us.
Finding happiness is not about falling into either extreme, but weaving a middle path that is neither too tight nor too loose; a way of living that works for us.
How to Find Balance
The middle path between extreme consumption and curation will look different for each of us.
Some people don’t need a lot of clothes, but find that a collection of books brings them a lot of joy. Some people can be content with few books, but having a fully stocked kitchen brings them delight. Some will find a small house to be enough, but others will find it too restrictive.
It’s realizing that things can bring momentary joy, but never lasting satisfaction, and that chasing after the next new thing is fueling a desire that will never end.
It’s also in realizing that things are not the enemy, and that having less doesn’t automatically raise your happiness. If having less doesn’t change your attitude to possessions, then all the nothing in your life won’t make you happier.
Either approach can be a means to an end, but never the end itself, which is to live a more conscious life.
The Number of Things You Have Don’t Define You
Having enough — enough food, enough shelter, enough money, enough friendships, enough education — nourishes us.
Having enough also means that we know our boundaries, and don’t allow too much — too much food, too much stuff, too much to do — to crowd out the important things in our lives.
And living more consciously means that we understand it’s not about how much we have or don’t have, it’s really about our state of mind.
If we can let go of the belief that there will ever be a perfect moment when the ‘right’ amount of things will finally make us happy, then we can let go of the dissatisfaction inherent in wanting and not wanting, which opens a space for happiness in this very moment.