Buddhism, Seneca, and Tyler Durden

People are always asking me if I know Tyler Durden…*

Last week I wrote about my two week hike through Swedish wilderness.

Turns out, two weeks of carrying a heavy pack through sunlight-drenched silent congregations of pine trees is a good way to do a few things:

It’s a good way to sweat (I came back 5 kilos lighter).

It’s a good way to reset your body clock (I started going to sleep and waking up with the sun).

And it’s a good way to think.

One of the things I kept thinking about was a passage I’d read just before leaving Edinburgh, concerning how little we actually need as human beings.

“Do you know what limits the law of nature ordains for us? Merely to avoid hunger, thirst, and cold.” – Seneca

It played in my mind because it was very close to how I was living. I was carrying the bare minimum of food, finding water as I went, and sleeping each night under the roof of some wilderness cabin.

But, far from finding myself wanting, in many ways I felt happier and freer than I had in a long time.

It’s such a simple idea. That all we need is: a place to keep us warm, a little water to drink, and a little food to eat. Yet this simple frame shows us that much of what we desire in modern life is, at best optional, and at worst blatantly superfluous.

Did you ever see the movie: ‘Book Of Eli‘?

Denzel Washington plays a man travelling through a post-apocalyptic landscape on a Mysterious Quest. Resources are at a premium, including water, plastic bottles, and all kinds of other commonplace items. When the plucky young sidekick (played by Mila Kunis) asks the main character what life was like ‘before the flash’ he replies:

“People had more than they needed. We had no idea what was precious and what wasn’t. We threw away things people kill each other for now.”

I’m no scientist, but it seems obvious (even to a layman) that our current rate of consumption (coupled with population growth) will soon reach a level that is unsustainable.

Which is an issue.

So what are you saying dude?  That we shouldn’t have the nice things? That we should be, like, in a cult where we renounce the unholy iPad and live like animals in the forest?

Not really.  Unless that’s your thing.

The problem isn’t the having of the nice things (you’re talking with someone who has a music studio in their apartment). The problem is not being able to stop wanting… just a little more.

Because, as those Buddhist guys have been telling us since the jump, wanting is the thing that makes us unhappy.  Wanting is our nameless hunger. It never ends, and is never satisfied. And today, regrettably, we are conditioned to want more than ever before.

“Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don’t need.” Tyler Durden (famous Buddhist)

But Do Not Fear, you have the antidote to this particular malady already in your possession and it’s a cinch to take:

Because if you can remind yourself that all we actually need is: a little water, a little food, and some warmth, when you look at some of the things you *think* you need, you can see that they’re optional, which can help you let go of wanting them. 

You don’t even need to let go of wanting them completely.  In fact, a little goes a long way.

And we’ve been aware of this for a hot minute. In fact, in 63AD Seneca wrote :

“It is not the man who has too little, but the man who craves more, who is poor.”

(In case you’re wondering, Seneca’s the guy from Fight Club.)

Even further back, in the misty before times of the 6th century BC when a man said to Gautama Buddha:

“I want happiness.”

Buddha replied:

“First remove ‘I,’ that’s the Ego, then remove ‘want,’ that’s desire. See now you are only left with Happiness.”

Understanding and being cognizant of how little we actually need helps you to let go of wanting.  Letting go of wanting allows you to be happier, and is much better for you than not letting go of it.

Fuck it.  Maybe I should go back to the forest.

*People don’t really ask me this, it’s just the first line from the movie version of Fight Club.

If you liked that, you may also like: my article on fear, risk, and the Scottish mountains; my thoughts on how to build an audience; or this meditation on the beauty to be found in brokenness.

What Did You Think?

What did you think of this post?  Did you love it?  Hate it?  All genuine thoughts and views are welcome  – the comments box is just below.

18 Replies to “Buddhism, Seneca, and Tyler Durden”

  1. I live a luxuriously frugal life where a second-hand book I’ve been hoping to find is on a shelf for 50 cents or a dollar…when a walk in the forest becomes a blissful meditation drawing me deeper into the beauty of nature or an art exhibit/festival/event is free and inspiration is there for the taking. Living in Mexico was the starting point, in bare rooms with just a bed and a battered writing table, daily walks to buy the simple ingredients for our meals and so much art to breathe in, I found myself feeling so much happiness that I couldn’t contain it. Coming home after that first 3 month visit, we realized that we were living with too much and I’ve been editing/decluttering our spaces ever since!


  2. While there is some truth in what you are saying, human societies have gone so far that a complete return to a simple life is nearly impossible. This is because our values are now woven around material abundance. Secondly, many people who lived simply though they limited their desires they didn’t live long eg. Thoreau.

    Generally speaking, simple living is now considered a philosophy of the poor and fearful. From experience, I have found some truth in that as well. According to Nietzsche there is only one way to reap the greatest fruits that life offers and that is risky living; solving some significant societal problem that every sane person avoids because of the associated danger – this is is the key to “the grocery store” of life.

    Maybe living simply worked for the ancient philosophers but things have changed. Most people now want to be loved, respected and have many friends and be happy. Living simply offers peace of mind. It does not necessarily lead to happiness, I think.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hey there,

      First, thanks a lot for taking the time to read my post, and to write this thoughtful of a reply, I really appreciate both.
      I maybe did not communicate what I wanted to say in my writing quite as well as I’d hoped. If so, this is my fault and I apologize. I’ll try and answer your queries by salient point.

      I’m not really sure if living simply today is considered a philosophy of the poor and fearful. That seems like quite an assumption. Have you heard of the burgeoning ‘minimalism’ movement? Typified by books like ‘Essentialism’, or the many ‘minimalist’ youtube channels and social media accounts, it would seem to me that there is, in fact, a growing need for information on, and a return to this worldview.

      In reference to Nietzsche, I’m not sure your reading reflects the totality of his views here. In fact, in many of his books he extols the virtue of the simple life. He talks about walking in the ‘high areas’ of the world for his health, and for his thinking, during which he stayed in simple cabins to write (whilst surviving on his somewhat meagre university pension). His main aim (in my reading) seemed to be his idea of Amor Fati (or ‘the eternal recurrence’) – an idea which says the goal of life is to develop such a love for it that one would return to it again and again. He also extols the virtue of things like great art in books like ‘The Birth of Tragedy’.

      You are absolutely right, things have changed massively since the time of the ancient philosophers. Unfortunately, human beings have not changed so much. If you read something like Seneca’s letters, you see just how many of the problems we face today (things are too busy, how do we balance work and life, how to we concentrate, how can we best be happy etc etc) are the same problems we had 2000 or so years ago.
      You are right again, living simply does lead to peace of mind. In my experience, the more peaceful my mind is, the happier I feel. This seems to be borne out by every study I’ve read about things like meditation using neuro-imagery etc.

      I’m curious, where is it that you think happiness comes from?

      I hope you take this reply in the spirit in which it was written – to further dialogue, and I look forward to your reply.

      Have a good one, and thanks again,

      – J

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Nietzsche extols the simple life at the same time he encouraged us to live joyfully and fully, to be “highermen.”

        Philosophically, we are all free to live as we wish and simple living may seem plausible in relation to the problems we face in this world. But philosophy or philosophical movements can be deceptive. One must be careful not to reason oneself out of the true joys of life which is “abundance.” Peace of mind is intermediate between anxiety and happiness. Aiming at peace of mind is being on the right track but to be really happy requires “abundance.” Living simply will not do it I’m afraid. I’m speaking from experience.

        I think real joy comes from a regalement of the instincts as opposed to reason. It’s a social state.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I think you mean ‘the Übermensch’, which is more accurately translated as ‘Overman’.

          My friend, you speak with such certainty. You should remember, only a Sith deals in absolutes ;-)

          Seriously though, your experience, and your conclusions differ greatly from mine.

          For example: I have felt great joy by myself, which would seem to contradict your assertion that ‘joy is a social state’. I have also been very poor in my life, but also very happy at the same time, so cannot agree that happiness comes from abundance. These do not seem to be solid axioms in which to build any kind of substantive argument.

          I hope you are well, joyride, and happy.
          Have a good night, and thanks for writing to me. – J


          1. I have read some really great stuff on your blog and as a fellow artist, offering what I have assimilated and believe to be true (concerning the world) is the least I can do. So I think I have made my point already. All best.


            1. I am really grateful for it. I hope it came across that I was not trying to ‘win points’, merely to engage in dialogue. Your views were thought provoking and, offering freely that which one believes to be true is a great thing.
              More power to you, see you,
              – J

              Liked by 1 person

  3. I sometimes live vicariously through some of your blog posts. Imaging trudging a long in the wilderness with your loved one. The sites, the sounds, breathing in the beautiful fresh air. It’s like a lord of the rings adventure.
    I think with all things it’s a case of balance. Balancing the things we need with the things we want.
    Very thoughtful piece of writing as always.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thankyou so much for your thoughtful reply, and for reading my post.
      You are always welcome to live vicariously through anything I write. Makes me happy.
      You are one thousand percent right. Balance. Balance is the thing.
      Have a great (and balanced) day,
      Speak soon,
      – J


  4. I like you post, James.
    I agree, to be satisfied with what we have, give us a much better and easier life. There will always come wishes into our lives, then we need to look at these and ask ourselves, if we really need this wish or why we would like to have it. Sometimes it is practical help of a kind, the wishes, other times something not needed.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hey there Irene,
      It is lovely to hear from you.
      Thanks so much for both reading, and for taking the time to reply. You are awesome.
      I think sometimes I write to think my way through something that I need to learn.
      This is definitely one of those ;-)
      Hope you are well, have a great day, speak soon,
      – J

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Nice one James.

    So much truth in what you wrote.

    We are serfs to an idea of value based in scarcity.
    When most things were genuinely scarce, the idea that markets measured a good proxy for value generally had some merit.
    Today we have the automated technology to meet all the reasonable needs of everyone on the planet, with minimal use of anyone’s time; and yet the quest for market value (a value based in scarcity) is driving the insanity we see today.

    We make laws to preserve scarcity just to maintain market value – we call them intellectual property, as if that idea makes any real sense.
    We have entire advertising industries that are there to create needs in us that we really don’t need – but the economic system needs us to keep on needing, to be able to continue generating the sort of value it makes.

    So yes.
    We need to rethink value.
    We need to accept that markets are now useful only in measuring a very small component of the values people have, and if left to their own incentive structures will tend to destroy all other values to create more scarcity value. That is actually a mathematical recipe for societal level extinction.

    We can do better than that.
    We must do better than that.

    We need a simple hierarchy of values:
    1/ Individual sapient life (human and non-human, biological and non-biological);
    2/ Individual liberty, and that demands of us
    3/ Individual responsibility.

    Liberty cannot mean doing anything, because some things are actually a threat to life, and life comes first.
    Liberty must be within the constraints of social and ecological responsibility if it is to acknowledge the higher value of life in the long term.

    Markets cannot do that.
    Markets and money are internally incentivised to destroy any abundance – because market value is optimised at a certain level of scarcity.

    That is why we must go beyond markets.
    But that is not a trivial change, as markets currently empower many levels of functions that are essential to our survival – like distributed networks, distributed coordination, distributed arbitrage and conflict resolution – the list is huge.
    Universal Adequate Income may be part of a useful transition strategy, but is not any sort of long term solution to the problem of valence based in scarcity.

    So we live in interesting times.

    Real security can only come when we each choose to take on whatever level of responsibility we can see as being required of us.
    Not comfortable, and as you have noted here, rewarding in its own way.

    Liked by 1 person

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