We don’t need that much stuff
Jon Jandai is a quaint man by contemporary standards. He is a farmer from northeastern Thailand, the founder of the Pun Pun Center for Self-Reliance, and an advocate for natural buildings in Thailand. In his TED Talk, Life is easy. Why do we make it so hard?, Jon goes through the story of how he made life easy despite societal pressures of chasing “success.” Although his life experiences may be very different from ours, the lessons he learned can be very beneficial to all.
He starts by talking about how everything was so fun and easy as a kid in a poor village from northeastern Thailand. But when the TV came, and many people came to the village, people told him: “You are poor. You need to chase success in your life. You need to go to Bangkok to pursue success in your life.”
In the previous blog post, we learned of Epicurus and his three categorizations for desires. As a kid, Jon had fulfilled his natural and necessary desires, but other people told him he needs to pursue vain desires such as prestige and concrete shelter in the big city.
So he listened. He went to Bangkok for university and work. To his dismay, he found that life became much harder. He studied hard and worked at least 8 hours a day, yet all he could afford to eat was a bowl of noodles per meal. He even had to save for a month just to buy a pair of jeans. In his words,
“I felt like I’m poor, like I’m not handsome. I tried to dress like somebody else, like a movie star…I spent one month to save money to buy a pair of jeans. When I wore them, I turned left, I turned right, looked at the mirror. Every time I look, I am the same person. The most expensive pants cannot change my life. I felt like I’m so crazy, why did I have to buy them? Why do we need to follow fashion? Because when we follow fashion, we never catch with it because we follow it! So don’t follow it, just stay here! Use what we have.”
Most people can relate to Jon’s experience of chasing vain possessions, such as luxurious clothing, cars, and other physical possessions. Jon realized that luxurious clothing does not make a person happy. If we use Epicurus’s logic, desiring luxurious items would make us look at even more luxurious items, and then we would get stressed from the possibility of being unable to afford those even more luxurious items. Hence, Jon’s insight was to be content with what we currently have.
After being unhappy in Bangkok, he started to reflect:
“Life was so hard, and I felt disappointed. I started to think, why did I have to be here, in Bangkok? I thought about when I was a kid, nobody worked eight hours a day. Everybody worked two hours, two months a year: planting rice one month, and harvest another. The rest is free time; ten months of free time…People have a lot of time. They have time to be with themselves. And when they have time to be with themselves, they have time to understand themselves. When they understand themselves, they can see what they want in their life.”
Many people today have very little free time. They do so much in life and wonder why they lack fulfillment. The insight Jon reached was that chasing vain possessions had taken up too much of his time and energy. The village people were always happy because they had so much time, which allowed them to understand themselves, to build relationships with others, and to fully enjoy the present moment. Thus, fulfillment does not come from doing many things in life, but rather doing the fulfilling things, which are understanding oneself, building deep relationships with others, and fully enjoying the present moment. If we are too busy for these fulfilling things, then our priorities are wrong.
After reflecting for a while, Jon decided to return to his former life in the village to make life easy again. However, he had four concerns:
When he went back to the village, he started a vegetable garden. He said, “I spent 15 minutes per day to take care of the garden. I have more than 30 varieties of vegetables in the garden, so six people cannot eat all of it. We have a surplus to sell in the market.”
Although most of us cannot simply pack our bags and move to a farm village, we can learn from Jon to be smarter with our spending on food.
For shelter, Jon started building natural earth hut. He said, “I thought that stupid people like me, who never got a good grade at school, cannot have a house. Because people who are more clever than me, who are number one in the class every year, they get a good job, but they need to work more than 30 years to have a house…But then I started to do earthly building; it’s so easy. I spent two hours per day…And in three months, I got a house. And another friend, who’s the most clever in the class, he spent three months to build his house too. But he had to be in debt. He had to pay for debt for 30 years. So compared to him, I have 29 years and 10 months of free time.” Jon goes on the explain that even 13-year kids at the village school built a library in a month, so his house-building skills are not special.
Again, most people cannot simply move to a village and build their own earth hut, but we can guard ourselves from desiring luxurious shelters beyond our basic needs. The earth huts that Jon built are not huge like the 2 story houses in North America, but they are certainly big enough for a family (see picture).
For clothing, Jon simply stopped buying clothing and just used what he had. He said “20 years, I have never bought any clothes. All the clothes I have are leftovers from people. When people come visit me, and when they leave, they leave a lot of clothes…and when I stopped buying clothes, I felt like, it’s not only clothes, it’s about something else in my life. What I learned is when I buy something…I buy it because I like it, or because I need it. So, if I buy it because I like it, that means I’m wrong. So, I feel more free when I think like this.”
Jon is able to be content with what he has because he understands that spending his time, energy, and money on something simply because he likes it will not make him happy. By only spending his resources on things he needs (i.e., the natural and necessary desires as defined by Epicurus) when he needs them, he feels much more liberated and stress-free. We can all learn from his example.
Lastly, Jon found an unorthodox way to approach the need for medicine. He said “I really worried in the beginning because I had no money. But, I started to contemplate more. Normally, sickness is a normal thing; it’s not a bad thing…So I learned how to use water to heal myself, how to use earth to heal myself. I learned how to use basic knowledge to heal myself.”
While it may be hard to believe that Jon could cure illnesses with just water, earth, and knowledge, keep in mind that big concrete hospitals and packaged pills are relatively new. Herbal remedies were the norm in the past, and they are still popular today. People nowadays are used to going to big hospitals and buying pills for even for minor sickness and discomfort. We can learn from Jon’s example by being patient and calm during the discomfort of sickness, and to only go to the hospital when necessary.
In the conclusion of his TED Talk, Jon summarizes what he’s learned in his life: “We were taught to make life complicated all the time…We were taught to disconnect ourselves from everything else, to be independent, so we can rely on the money only…But now, to be happy, we need to come back, to connect ourselves again, to connect to other people, to connect our mind and body together again.”
By letting go of our desire for vain possessions, we free up time and energy to pursue the fulfilling things in life: understanding ourselves, building deep relationships with others, and fully enjoying the present moment.