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Toward A Way Of Life That Is Outwardly Simple, Inwardly Rich
By Duane Elgin (Ram Dass, introduction)
April 1993 (revised edition), 240 pages
Quill / William Morrow & Co.
Excerpt: Chapter One
Voluntary Simplicity and the New Global Challenge
At the heart of the simple life is an emphasis on harmonious and purposeful living. Richard Gregg was a student of Gandhi's teaching and, in 1936, he wrote the following about a life of "voluntary simplicity:"
Voluntary simplicity involves both inner and outer condition. It means singleness of purpose, sincerity and honesty within, as well as avoidance of exterior clutter, of many possessions irrelevant to the chief purpose of life. It means an ordering and guiding of our energy and our desires, a partial restraint in some directions in order to secure greater abundance of life in other directions. It involves a deliberate organization of life for a purpose. Of course, as different people have different purposes in life, what is relevant to the purpose of one person might not be relevant to the purpose of another....The degree of simplification is a matter for each individual to settle for himself.1
There is no special virtue to the phrase "voluntary simplicity" -- it is merely a label and a somewhat awkward label at that. Still, it does acknowledge explicitly that simpler living integrates both inner and outer aspects of life into an organic and purposeful whole.
To live more voluntarily is to live more deliberately, intentionally and purposefully -- in short, it is to live more consciously. We cannot be deliberate when we are distracted from life. We cannot be intentional when we are not paying attention. We cannot be purposeful when we are not being present. Therefore, to act in a voluntary manner is to be aware of ourselves as we move through life. This requires that we not only pay attention to the actions we take in the outer world, but also that we pay attention to ourselves acting -- our inner world. To the extent that we do not notice both inner and outer aspects of our passage through life, then our capacity for voluntary, deliberate and purposeful action is commensurately diminished.
To live more simply is to live more purposefully and with a minimum of needless distraction. The particular expression of simplicity is a personal matter. We each know where our lives are unnecessarily complicated. We are all painfully aware of the clutter and pretense that weigh upon our lives and make our passage through the world more cumbersome and awkward. To live more simply is to unburden our lives -- to live more lightly, cleanly, aerodynamically. It is to establish a more direct, unpretentious and unencumbered relationship with all aspects of our lives: the things that we consume, the work that we do, our relationships with others, our connections with nature and the cosmos, and more. Simplicity of living means meeting life face to face. It means confronting life clearly, without unnecessary distractions. It means being direct and honest in relationships of all kinds. It means taking life as it is -- straight and unadulterated.
When we combine these two ideas for integrating the inner and outer aspects of our lives, we can describe "voluntary simplicity" as a manner of living that is outwardly more simple and inwardly more rich, a way of being in which our most authentic and alive self is brought into direct and conscious contact with living. This way of life is not a static condition to be achieved, but an ever changing balance that must be continuously and consciously made real. Simplicity in this sense is not simple. To maintain a skillful balance between the inner and outer aspects of our lives is an enormously challenging and continuously changing process. The objective is not to dogmatically live with less, but is a more demanding intention of living with balance in order to find a life of greater purpose, fulfillment and satisfaction.
Misconceptions About the Simple Life
Some people tend to equate ecological living with a life characterized by poverty, antagonism to progress, rural living and the denial of beauty. It is important to acknowledge these misconceptions so we can move beyond them.
Although some spiritual traditions have advocated a life of extreme renunciation, it is inaccurate to equate simplicity with poverty. My awakening to the harsh reality of poverty began on my father's farm in Idaho where I worked with people who lived on the edge of subsistence. I remember one fall harvest when I was about ten years old in the early 1950's. We were harvesting a 40 acre field of lettuce and a crew of twenty or so migrant laborers arrived to go to work. I still recall a family of three -- a father, mother and daughter about my age -- that drove their old Mercury sedan down the dusty road into our farm. They parked in the field and, with solemn faces, worked through the day doing piece labor -- getting paid for the number of crates of lettuce they filled. At the end of the day, they received their few dollars of wages as a family, earning roughly 65 cents an hour. That evening I returned to the fields with my father to check on the storage of the crates of lettuce and found the family parked at the edge of the field, sitting against the side of their car, and eating an evening meal that consisted of a loaf of white bread, a few slices of lunch meat, and a small jar of mayonnaise. I wondered how they managed to work all day on such a limited meal but asked no questions. When I arrived for work the following morning, they got out of their car where they had slept the night and began working another day. After repeating this cycle for three days, the harvest was finished and they left. This was just one of innumerable personal encounters with poverty. Over the next fifteen years, I worked in the fields each summer and gradually came to understand how most of these people did not know whether, in another week or month, their needs for food and shelter would be met by their meager salary.
As I worked side-by-side with these fine people over the years, I saw that poverty has a very human face -- one that is very different from "simplicity." Poverty is involuntary and debilitating while simplicity is voluntary and enabling. Poverty is mean and degrading to the human spirit where a life of conscious simplicity can have both a beauty and functional integrity that elevates the human spirit. Involuntary poverty generates a sense of helplessness, passivity and despair where choiceful simplicity fosters a sense of personal empowerment, creative engagement, and opportunity. Historically, those choosing a simpler life have sought the golden mean -- a creative and aesthetic balance between poverty and excess. Instead of placing primary emphasis on material riches, they have sought to develop, with balance, the invisible wealth of experiential riches.
If the human family sets a goal for itself of achieving a moderate standard of living for everyone, computer projections suggest that the world could reach a sustainable level of economic activity that is roughly "equivalent in material comforts to the average level in Europe in 1990."2 If we do not delay but act with decision and determination, then humanity need not face a future of poverty and sacrifice. The earth can sustain a moderate and satisfying material standard of living for the entire human family.
Turning Away from Progress
Ecological living does not imply turning away from economic progress; rather, it seeks to discover which technologies are most appropriate and helpful in moving towards a sustainable future. Ecological living is not a path of "no growth" but a path of "new growth" that includes both material and spiritual dimensions of life. A simpler way of life is not a retreat from progress; in fact, it is essential to the advance of civilizations. After a lifetime of study of the rise and fall of the world's civilizations, the historian, Arnold Toynbee, concluded that the measure of a civilization's growth was not to be found in the conquest of other people or in the possession of land. Rather, he described the essence of growth in what he called the "Law of Progressive Simplification."3 True growth, he said, is the ability of a society to transfer increasing amounts of energy and attention from the material side of life to the non-material side and thereby to advance its culture, capacity for compassion, sense of community and strength of democracy. We are now being pushed by necessity to discover freshly the meaning of "true growth" by progressively simplifying the material side of our lives and enriching the non-material side.
Although the simple life has been advocated as a way of achieving more direct contact with the infusing Life-force and, although this suffusing presence is often most evident in the natural world, this does not mean that people must move away from urban areas and live on farms. Still, in the popular imagination, there is a tendency to equate the simple life with Thoreau's cabin in the woods by Walden Pond, and to assume people must live an isolated and rural existence. (Interestingly, Thoreau was not a hermit during his stay at Walden Pond -- his famous cabin was roughly a mile from the town of Concord and every day or two he would walk into town. His cabin was so close to a nearby highway that he could smell the pipe smoke of passing travelers. Thoreau wrote that he had, "more visitors while I lived in the woods than any other period of my life."4 ) The romanticized image of rural living does not fit the modern reality as a majority of persons choosing a life of conscious simplicity do not live in the backwoods or rural settings; they live in cities and suburbs. While ecological living brings with it a reverence for nature, this does not require moving to a rural setting. Instead of a "back to the land" movement, it is more accurate to describe this as a "make the most of wherever you are" movement.
Denial of Beauty
The simple life is sometimes viewed as a primitive approach to living that advocates a barren plainness and denies the value of beauty and aesthetics. While the Puritans, for example, were suspicious of the arts, many other advocates of simplicity have seen it as essential for revealing the natural beauty of things. Many who adopt a simpler life would surely agree with Picasso who said that "art is the elimination of the unnecessary." The influential architect, Frank Lloyd Wright, was an advocate of an "organic simplicity" that integrates function with beauty and eliminates the superfluous. In his architecture, a building's interior and exterior blend into an organic whole and the building, in turn, blends harmoniously with the natural environment.5 Rather than a denial of beauty, simplicity liberates the aesthetic sense by freeing things from artificial encumbrances. From a transcendental perspective, simplicity removes the obscuring clutter and discloses the spirit that infuses all things.
It is important to acknowledge these misleading stereotypes because they suggest a life of regress instead of progress. These misconceptions make a simpler life seem impractical and unapproachable and thereby reinforce the feeling that nothing can be done to respond to our critical world situation. To move from denial to action, we need an accurate understanding of the nature of simpler living and its relevance for the modern era.
Common Expressions of Ecological Ways of Living
There is no cookbook for defining a life of conscious simplicity. Richard Gregg, for example, was insistent that, "Simplicity is a relative matter depending on climate, customs, culture, and the character of the individual."6 Henry Thoreau was also clear that no simple formula could define the worldly expression of a simpler life. He said: "I would not have anyone adopt my mode of living on my account....I would have each one be very careful to find out and pursue his own way..."7 Nor did Gandhi advocate a blind denial of the material side of life. He said, "As long as you derive inner help and comfort from anything, you should keep it. If you were to give it up in a mood of self-sacrifice or out of a stern sense of duty, you would continue to want it back, and that unsatisfied want would make trouble for you. Only give up a thing when you want some other condition so much that the thing no longer has any attraction for you..."8 Because simplicity has as much to do with each person's purpose in living as much as it does with their standard of living, and because we each have a unique purpose in living, it follows that there is no single, "right and true" way to live more ecologically and compassionately.
Given that there is no dogmatic formula for simpler living, there is a general pattern of behaviors and attitudes that is often associated this approach to living. Those choosing a simpler life:
Tend to invest the time and energy freed up by simpler living in activities with their partner, children and friends (walking, making music together, sharing a meal, camping, etc.), or volunteering to help others, or getting involved in civic affairs to improve the life of the community.
Because there is a tendency to emphasize the external changes that characterize simpler living, it is important to reiterate that this approach to life is intended to integrate both inner and outer aspects of existence into a satisfying and purposeful whole.
Maintaining Ourselves and Surpassing Ourselves
An ecological approach to living invites us to continuously balance two aspects of life -- maintaining ourselves (creating a workable existence) and surpassing ourselves (creating a meaningful existence). A statement by the philosopher and feminist, Simone de Beauvoir, is clarifying in this regard. She said, "Life is occupied in both perpetuating itself and in surpassing itself; if all it does is maintain itself, then living is only not dying." On the one hand, if we seek only to maintain ourselves, then, no matter how grand our style of living might be, we are doing little more than "only not dying." On the other hand, if we strive only for a meaningful existence without securing the material foundation that supports our lives, then our physical existence is in jeopardy and the opportunity to surpass ourselves becomes little more than a utopian dream. Although many of the expressions of a simpler life listed above emphasize actions that promote a more sustainable existence, this should not distract from the importance of the surpassing or inner dimensions of a life of conscious simplicity.
The many expressions of simpler living, both inner and outer, indicate this is much more than a superficial change in the style of life. A "style" change refers generally to an exterior change such as a new fad or fashion. Simplicity goes far deeper and involves a change in our way of life. Ecological living is a sophisticated response to the demands of deteriorating industrial civilizations. Simpler ways of living in the ecological era will result in changes as great as the transition from the agrarian era to the industrial era. In an interdependent, ecologically conscious world, every aspect of life will be touched and changed: consumption levels and patterns, living and working environments, political attitudes and processes, international ethics and relations, the uses of the mass media, education, and many more.
The Push of Necessity and the Pull of Opportunity
Two compelling reasons exist for choosing more ecological approaches to living: the push of necessity and the pull of opportunity. The combined impact of the various pushes of necessity are staggering to contemplate. Here is a sampling of problems that gives an overview of our predicament:
In 1930, the world had 2 billion people, in 1975 roughly 4 billion people, and by the year 2000 population is expected to exceed 6 billion people. By 2025, the world's population will approach 9 billion people. The vast majority of the increase in human numbers is occurring in the less developed nations. Because the world's ecosystem is already under great stress, as these new billions of persons seek a decent standard of living, the global ecology could easily be strained beyond the breaking point, producing a calamity of unprecedented proportions.
These are not isolated problems; instead, they comprise a tightly intertwined system of problems that require us to develop new approaches to living if we are to live sustainably. To live sustainably, we must live efficiently -- not misdirecting or squandering the earth's precious resources. To live efficiently, we must live peacefully for military expenditures represent an enormous diversion of resources from meeting basic human needs. To live peacefully, we must live with a reasonable degree of equity or fairness for it is unrealistic to think that, in a communications-rich world, a billion or more persons will accept living in absolute poverty while another billion live in conspicuous excess. Only with greater fairness in the consumption of the world's resources can we live peacefully, and thereby live sustainably, as a human family. Without a revolution in fairness, the world will find itself in chronic conflict with wars over dwindling resources and this, in turn, will make it impossible to achieve the level of cooperation necessary to solve problems such as pollution and population.
The United Nations Human Development Report of 1992 said, "In a world of 5 billion people, we discovered that the top billion people, hold 83 percent of the world's wealth, while the bottom billion have only 1.4 percent."12 We cannot expect to live in a peaceful world with such enormous disparities between the rich and poor. The prosperity of the technologically interdependent, wealthy nations is vulnerable to disruption by terrorism by those who have nothing left to lose and no hope for the future. Only with greater equity can we expect to live peacefully, and only with greater harmony can we expect to live sustainably.
If the world is profoundly divided materially, there is very little hope that it can be united socially, psychologically and spiritually. Therefore, if we intend to live together peacefully as members of a single, human family, then, each individual has a right to a reasonable share of the world's resources. Each person has a right to expect a fair share of the world's wealth sufficient to support a "decent" standard of living -- one that provides enough food, shelter, education and healthcare to enable them to realize their potentials as a productive and respected member of the family of humanity. This does not mean that the world should adopt a single manner and standard of living; rather, it means that each person needs to feel part of the global family and, within a reasonable range of differences, valued and supported in realizing their unique human potentials.
With sustainability, we can expand our experiential riches of culture, compassion, community and self-determination. With a growing abundance of experiential riches the entire process of living will be encouraged and a self-reinforcing spiral of development will unfold. Therefore, reinforcing the powerful push of necessity is the pull of opportunity -- the potential of the simple life to yield a more satisfying and soulful existence. Many persons in developed nations find life to be psychologically and spiritually hollow -- living in massive urban environments of alienating scale and complexity, divorced from the natural environment, and working in jobs that are unsatisfying. Many yearn for a more authentic approach to living -- one that provides a fulfilling relationship with one's self, with others, with the earth, and with the universe. Time magazine and CNN television conducted a survey of Americans for Time's April 8, 1991 cover story on "The Simple Life." The results are striking:
69 percent of the people surveyed said they would like to "slow down and live a more relaxed life," in contrast to only 19 percent who said they would like to "live a more exciting, faster-paced life."
Another survey reported in a 1989 article in Fortune magazine titled, "Is Greed Dead?" found that 75 percent of working Americans between the ages of 25 and 49 would like "to see our country return to a simpler lifestyle, with less emphasis on material success."13 Only 10 percent of those polled thought that "earning a lot of money" was an indicator of success. These polls reveal that a large fraction of the American public has experienced the limited rewards from the material riches of a consumer society and is looking for the experiential riches that can be found, for example, in satisfying relationships, living in harmony with nature, and being of service to the world.
The combination of the push of necessity and the pull of opportunity working in concert creates an entirely new situation for humanity. On the one hand, a life of creative simplicity frees energy for the soulful work of spiritual discovery and loving service -- tasks that all of the world's wisdom traditions say we should give our highest priority. On the other hand, a simpler way of life also responds to the urgent needs for moderating our use of the world's nonrenewable resources and minimizing the damaging impact of environmental pollution. Working together, these pushes and pulls are creating an immensely powerful dynamic for transforming our ways of living, working, relating and thinking.
Historical Roots of Simplicity
While simpler living has unprecedented relevance for coping with the current ecological crisis, this way of living has a long history with deep roots in human experience. Although these historical roots are far too extensive to examine in depth, a brief review helps to reveal the breadth and richness of this approach to living.14
Christian Views of Simplicity
Jesus embodied a life of compassionate simplicity. He taught by word and example that we should not make the acquisition of material possessions our primary aim; instead, we should develop our capacity for loving participation in life. The bible speaks frequently about the need to find a balance between the material and the spiritual side of life; for example:
"Give me neither poverty nor wealth." Proverbs 30:8
A common basis for living simply in all the world's spiritual traditions is expressed in the "golden rule" -- the compassionate admonition that we should treat others as we would want ourselves to be treated. The theme of sharing and economic justice seems particularly strong in the Christian tradition. Basil the Great, Bishop of Caesarea, stated around 365 A.D.: "When someone steals a man's clothes we call him a thief. Should we not give the same name to one who could clothe the naked and does not? The bread in your cupboard belongs to the hungry man; the coat hanging unused in your closet belongs to the man who needs it; the shoes rotting in your closet belong to the man who has not shoes; the money which you hoard up belongs to the poor."15 In the modern era, this implies that if people in developed nations consume more than their fair share of the world's resources, then we are taking food, clothing and other essentials from those who are in great need.
A contemporary expression of simplicity in the Christian tradition is found in the "Shakertown Pledge" -- a statement developed in 1973 by a diverse group of Christians in an effort to describe a lifestyle appropriate to the new realities of the world.16 Two key commitments give a feeling for it: "I commit myself to lead an ecologically sound life," and "I commit myself to lead a life of creative simplicity and to share my personal wealth with the world's poor." These commitments are not meant to produce a pinched and miserly existence; instead, they are intended to encourage an aesthetic simplicity that enhances personal freedom and fulfillment while promoting a just manner of living relative to the needs of the world.
Eastern Views on Simplicity
Eastern spiritual traditions such as Buddhism, Hinduism and Taoism have also encouraged a life of material moderation and spiritual abundance. From the Taoist tradition, we have this saying from Lao Tse, "He who knows he has enough is rich."17 From the Hindu tradition, we have these thoughts from Mahatma Gandhi, the spiritual and political leader for India's independence, "Civilization, in the real sense of the term, consists not in the multiplication, but in the deliberate and voluntary reduction of wants. This alone promotes real happiness and contentment..."18 Gandhi felt the moderation of our wants increases our capacity to be of service to others and, in being of loving service to others, true civilization emerges.
Perhaps the most developed expression of a middle way between material excess and deprivation comes from the Buddhist tradition. While Buddhism recognizes that basic material needs must be met in order to realize our potentials, it does not consider our material welfare as an end in itself; rather, it is a means to the end of awakening to our deeper nature as spiritual beings. Self-control and a simple life are valued highly as is the practice of charity and generosity without attachment to one's wealth and property.19 A modern expression of this view is given by the monk, Sulak Sivaraksa, who describes the necessity for a more compassionate and simple way of living: "We can only save ourselves when all humanity recognizes that every problem on earth is our own personal problem and our personal responsibility.... Unless the rich change their lifestyle considerably, there is no hope of solving [the problem of famine in the world]."20
E.F. Schumacher, author of the classic book, Small is Beautiful, described Buddhism as a middle path that emphasizes simplicity and nonviolence.21 Applying the middle way to economics, Schumacher described a Buddhist economy as one that provides an adequate range of material goods, and whose production processes are in harmony with both the environment and available resources. The middle way of Buddhist economics moves between mindless materialism, on the one hand, and needless poverty on the other. The result is a balanced approach to living that harmonizes both inner and outer development.
Early Greek Views on Simplicity
Plato and Aristotle recognized the importance of the "golden mean" or a middle path through life characterized by neither excess nor deficit, but by sufficiency. Like many spiritual traditions, they did not view the material world as primary but as instrumental -- as serving our learning about the more expansive world of thought and spirit. Socrates also advocated a golden mean between wealth and poverty (as did his most famous pupil, Plato). Aristotle advocated a balanced life that involved moderation on the material side and exertion on the intellectual side. He said that "temperance and courage" were destroyed by either excess or deficiency and could only be preserved by following the golden mean.22
Puritan Views on Simplicity
Paradoxically, although the United States is the world's most blatantly consumerist nation, the simple life has strong roots in American history. The early Puritan settlers brought to America their "puritan ethic" which stresses hard work, temperate living, participation in the life of the community, and a steadfast devotion to things spiritual. Puritans also stressed the golden mean by saying we should not desire more material things than we can use effectively. It is from the New England Puritans that we get the adage, "Use it up, wear it out, make do, or do without." Although the Puritan tradition tended to be hierarchical, elitist and authoritarian, it also had a compassionate side that encouraged people to use their excess wealth to help the deserving poor. Puritans were not opposed to prosperity itself, but to the greed and selfishness that seemed to accompany excessive abundance.
Quaker Views on Simplicity
The Quakers also had a strong influence on the American character; particularly with their belief that material simplicity was an important aid in evolving towards spiritual perfection. Unlike the Puritans, their strong sense of equality among people fostered religious tolerance. Quakers emphasized the virtues of hard work at one's calling, sobriety and frugality. Although they thought it only natural for one to enjoy the fruits of their labor, they also recognized that our stay on earth is brief and that people should place much of their love and attention on things eternal.
Transcendentalist Views on Simplicity
Transcendentalist views flourished in the early to mid-1800s in America and are best exemplified by the lives and writing of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry Thoreau. The Transcendentalists believed that a spiritual presence infuses the world and, by living simply, we could more easily encounter this miraculous and vital Life-force. For Emerson, the Transcendental path began with self-discovery and then led to "...an organic synthesis of that self with the natural world surrounding it."23 The Transcendentalists had a reverential attitude towards nature and saw the natural world as the doorway to the divine. Nature was seen as the most fitting place for contemplation and receiving spiritual inspiration. By communing with nature, Emerson felt that people could become "part and parcel with God," thereby realizing the ultimate simplicity of oneness with the divine. Henry Thoreau also viewed simplicity as a means to a higher end. Although he felt that a person "...is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone," he was not particularly concerned with the specific manner in which someone lived a simpler life. Instead, he was most interested in the rich inner life that could be gained through undistracted contemplation. For both Emerson and Thoreau, simplicity had more to do with one's intentions than with one's particular possessions.
This brief overview illustrates the long and rich tradition of simplicity of living in human history. Historian of the simple life, David Shi, describes the common denominator among the various approaches to simpler living as the understanding that the making of money and the accumulation of things should not smother the purity of the soul, the life of the mind, the cohesion of the family, or the good of the society.24 Clearly, the simple life is not a new social invention -- its value has long been recognized. What is new is the urgent need to respond to the radically changed material and ecological circumstances in which humanity finds itself in the modern world.
The Responsibility for Change
Unless dramatic changes are made in the manner of living and consuming in industrialized nations, we will soon produce a world of monumental destruction, suffering, conflict and despair. Within this generation, we must begin a sweeping reinvention in our ways of living or invite the collapse of our biosphere and allow global civilization to veer off into a long detour and dark age.
Because we face a crisis in the interconnected global system, changes at every level are needed. At a personal level, we need a magnified global awareness and simpler lifestyles. At a neighborhood level, we need new types of communities for sustainable living. At the national level, we need to adopt new policies with regard to energy, environment, education, media and many more. At a global level, we need new partnerships among nations. Although changes are necessary at every level, the foundation upon which success can be built is the individual and family. It is empowering to know that each person can make a difference by taking responsibility for changes in their immediate lives.
Just as we tend to wait for our problems to solve themselves, so too do we tend to wait for our traditional institutions and leaders to provide us with guidance as to what we should do. Yet, our leaders are bogged down, trying to cope with our faltering institutions. They are so enmeshed in crisis management that they have little time to exercise genuinely creative leadership. We may keep waiting for someone else, but a key message of this book is that there is no one else. You are it. We are it. Each of us is responsible. It is we who, one by one, must take charge of our lives. It is we who, one by one, must act to restore the balance. We are the ones who are responsible for making it through this time of sweeping change as we work to reconcile the human family around a sustainable future for the planet.
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