I am not pleading for poverty but praising simplicity.
— Eknath Easwaran

Out with the old, and in with the new. What is up with that in our society?

I’ve had plenty of cause to ponder this question in the last few of weeks, which has made me wonder why we hold “old stuff” in such low esteem.

Too. Much. Stuff.

Too. Much. Stuff.

Apple releases its new iPhone 5s, and people are scrambling to chuck their old versions, even if their current phones are working just fine. We got caught up ourselves, and investigated upgrading from our  iPhone4s because we’d had our old ones for so long — three years(!) But we became so annoyed upon discovering that we would also have to replace all of our cords, including car chargers, that we decided to stick with the old awhile. Why can’t companies design for universal cords? What is up with that?

We have spent the last three years shedding accumulated stuff and simplifying our lives. We’ve twice significantly downsized our living space. This was inspired in part by having to clean out two houses after my parents' deaths that were chockfull of stuff. I'd estimate that 60 percent of it ended up in a landfill.  Last week, we spent part of a day preparing for the installation of organizing systems in our high-rise condo. As we cleared out the closets for what seemed like the gazillionth time in three years, I still came across several things I forgot I had and never use. Scientific research is showing that, once basic needs are met,  acquiring more stuff  doesn’t correlate to more happiness. (We highly recommend the book Affluenza by John DeGraaf, Dave Wann, and Thomas Naylor  or The Story of Stuff if you want to learn more.) Why do I still cling to stuff I have forgotten I have? What is up with that?

Gene "Wild Man" Marshall, 81, out-dancing everyone.

Gene "Wild Man" Marshall, 81, out-dancing everyone.

Our attitudes toward “old” also often extend to people. At a time when we could most benefit from the wisdom acquired from people’s extensive experience and expertise, we suggest older people  retire and make way for the younger generation. Companies shed long-time workers, often because their salaries are the highest. The amount of institutional knowledge and general wisdom sent out the door is clearly undervalued. I was struck by this — quite forcibly — after meeting at our annual authors retreat a vibrant and connected man whose chronological age is 81. He freely shared his rich life experiences, his insights and his life force. People were eager to engage him in one-on-one conversation (and most of us, with a few exceptions, are hardly spring chickens.)  The entire community was enthralled by his exuberant and indomitable spirit. Then we were completely blown away when he outdanced everyone at our Saturday night festivities. He didn’t take a single break as the DJ played rock, R&B, zydeco and swing tunes for more than two hours. Not one! Yet most people would look at him and just see an “old” man. What is up with that?

I wish I had answers. The question seems relevant to our modern times, and finding the answers seems imperative. But I am encouraged by the Systemic Authenticity initiative of Patagonia, a successful outdoor clothing and gear company. The company launched an advertising campaign that actually encouraging people buy less, or buy used. The company makes products that last three times longer than most of its competitors, and its mission includes deep commitment to sustainability. This company encourages customers to buy less, but still posts healthy profits.

What is up with that? I’m not sure, but I’d love to see more companies and consumers follow Patagonia’s example.



Yvon Chouinard, founder and former CEO of Patagonia. (Brandon Aroyan.)

Yvon Chouinard, founder and former CEO of Patagonia. (Brandon Aroyan.)

Patagonia founder and former CEO Yvon Chouinard, who describes himself as “kind of a Zen Buddhist,” is an accidental and reluctant businessman.

Chouinard bought a coal-fired forage from a junkyard in 1957, along with some blacksmithing tools. As an avid mountain climber, he was unhappy with the European-made pitons (spikes used to secure climbing rope) that were manufactured from soft iron. He wanted durable pitons he could use again and again. He made his own, shared with a few friends, and soon friends of friends were clamoring for the new pitons. He started selling them for $1.50 each.

From that humble beginning, Patagonia has become a company that generates nearly $500 million in sales and has expanded to include gear for many of Chouinard's other passions — fly-fishing, kayaking, skiing, and surfing.

After viewing a 2007 interview with Tom Brokaw, I bought and read his book Let My People Go Surfing, where I discovered the company truly is cut from a different corporate cloth. His organizing principles don't come from a by-the-book MBA. It struck me that they could have been taking from Patanjali's Yoga Sutras.

In the foreword to Yoga Wisdom at Work, lululemon athletica CEO Christine Day makes the point that "yoga is more a philosophy... than just another type of exercise. You do not have to be on a yoga mat to practice yoga." In fact, taking yoga off the mat and into the world offers far more opportunities to practice — something Chouinard does whether he is aware or not.

Chouinard's business philosophies contain many of the yogic precepts we write about in our book. For example:

Lead an examined life — educate yourself first, then act

  • This level of examination can be a "pain in the ass," says Chouinard, because you can never rest. In yoga, the practice of self-study (svadhyaya) is about consciously cultivating self-awareness. The practice asks for a continuous assessment of your beliefs, assumptions, habits and ways of engaging others.
  • Such assessment is aided by the practice of non-lying (satya), which calls for painstaking honesty with yourself and others.
  • Acting on this newly created self awareness requires discipline (tapas) to hang with the discomfort that accompanies growth and change.

Make a great product and do no harm

  • Ahimsa is the yogic practice of non-violence. One of the ways Patagonia tries to honor this precept is to ensure their products are not harming the environment. For example, the company invested four years to find a replacement for petroleum-based neoprene wetsuits, In 2012, Patagonia announced a partnership with Yulex to make wetsuits from a plant found in Arizona, which will smell better, keep the body warmer and dry faster without using petroleum. "Patagonia doesn't plan on making money on this initially, says Patagonia Surf Director Jason McCaffrey. But the company is committed to making business changes to "inspire change to the environmental crisis."
  • McCaffrey's statement illustrates the yogic precept of aparigraha, or non-greed. The company's values statement, authored by Chouinard, includes a statement that states the intention to make a profit — but that is not Patagonia's primary mission. "Growth and expansion are not values basic to this corporation."

Let go of attachment

  • Ishvara-pranidhana is a practice of surrendering yourself to a greater good. It also asks that you give you best efforts toward a goal without being attached to the outcome. In his book, Chouinard uses the Zen archer's lesson to illustrate surrender. The archer does not focus on the target, but instead stays present to the process of shooting the arrow — stance, placement of the arrow on the bow, breathing, etc.
  • Fostering contentment, no matter what the outcomes are, is a practice of santosha. Choice is a powerful component of contentment. No matter how disappointing or frustrating circumstances can be, people have a choice about whether to let those circumstances derail equanimity or to practice santosha and choose for contentment.

"How you climb the mountain is more important than reaching the top," Chouinard says. In my estimation, his philosophies make this accidental businessman and accidental yogi as well.