Simple living is not an end in itself. We may save money (but not always) and increase our freedom and security (again not always), and our life may reflect the special beauty of simplicity (but only if we cultivate the tastes appropriate to it). But more than anything else, simplicity is a means of clearing a "space" within which something new can be born. It is this "something new" that simplicity is for.
The "space" we clear can be physical as we reduce the clutter in our lives. It can also be social as we may trade some financial gains for more time to enjoy family, friends, and community. The "space" we open may be emotional insofar as we reduce stress, worry, fear, competitiveness, and so on. We may also gain relaxation, peace, and co-operative relations with others. The "space" can also be spiritual since the old gods of consumerism are deposed in favour of a new spiritual awareness.
Simplicity: Gift of Time, Energy, Freedom
There is another aspect of this "something new" that has to do with what human beings are for. It is the purposes of our lives that must expand to fill the space provided by simplicity if both simplicity and our lives are to be meaningful.
At its most basic, the gift of life is a gift of time, energy, and freedom. But nothing about simply being alive answers the next question: How shall we use our time, energy, and freedom to express the meaning of our life in the world? Put differently: What shall our being alive amount to?
We always answer this question in some way, even if we just repeat what we learned growing up.
In his thought-provoking book Ishmael, Daniel Quinn says that every society and every individual life is a story about the questions: What is the world for? What am I for?
Consumer Culture or Voluntary Simplicity
The basic story of consumer culture says that the Earth was created for the use and pleasure of human beings and that the purpose of human life is to conquer and subdue the Earth for human purposes, including the delusion that we can live without connection to the sacred powers. The result of living out this story is what we see around us: a damaged environment, social inequity and violence, psychological and emotional pain, and spiritual emptiness. If we find this story unfulfilling, two things are required: first, that we stop acting out the old story, and second, that we start acting out a new story. In general, people don't give up their old story until they have a new one. Voluntary simplicity is a blank book in which we can write a new story. Daniel Quinn also suggests an exciting opening strategy: Instead of telling a story about how the Earth belongs to us, we could tell a story about how we belong to the Earth.
We are conscious, spiritual, reflective beings capable of living with simplicity and elegance in caring for the Earth we belong to. It would be a cause of regret if we just consumed the planet and left in its place the refuse of a very brief and selfish party. It would also be a cause of regret if we passed our days living in the fear of death, the denial of our interdependence with other species, and the futile delusion that we can somehow control and dominate the living communities that sustain us.
If human beings belong to the Earth and living things depend on each other, then we all belong to each other. Now a new story, which is also an ancient story, can begin. It will be a story about belonging, and will express itself through acts of belonging and of relationship. This is the meaning of love, and love is life in consciousness of Divine Being. Might we come to realize that the idea of the human domination of the Earth is part of an old story that a growing consciousness of our life in Divine Being can change? Might we think that by becoming more conscious of Divine Being manifesting itself through us we aspire not to transcend our life on Earth but to live in a sacred and compassionate way within it, as part of it?
The Challenge of Simple Living
Simple living presents us with the challenge not to veer back into nostalgia, myth, primitivism, false asceticism, or any of the other "-isms" that have been part of our history. We cannot return to being hunter-gatherers. But we can tell ourselves different stories about the meaning of our being here on Earth. We can see simplicity as part of that new society that will appear based on the new story. We belong to the Earth, and the Earth belongs to Divine Being. We were made to tend a garden we belong in.
The emotional linchpin of the old/new story is our fear of death. Our society took a rather dramatic turn exactly when we humans tried to take control over our own lives and deaths in defiance of Divine Being. Our basic choice in life is either to try to hold our lives in our own hands or to entrust them to the hands of Divine Being. From this choice, everything else follows, for good or ill. Our lives are, in fact, in the hands of Divine Being -- always have been and always will be. It is when we imagine that we can take them back that we harm ourselves, each other, and the Earth. The issue then is not really whether we will live or die, but whether we will live and die in the hands of Divine Being or alone in our own hands and the hands of our technology.
The fear of death may also account for some people's uneasiness with voluntary simplicity. Letting go of material possessions foreshadows the greater letting-go that is death. Maybe it is even a kind of training for it! Maybe we accumulate possessions to bolster the illusion that we are safe from death.
Living Differently Through Simplicity
If I look into the "space" created by simplicity, I see people living differently. I see us applying ourselves creatively to belonging to the world and to each other. I see people using science to understand and appreciate the world we belong to, not to manipulate it for personal gain or to avoid death, but simply to understand and appreciate it and to know how to live in it with greater and greater harmony. I see us using technology to enhance our belonging to the Earth and to each other, not to increase profit and luxury for a few. I see people working hard to grow spiritually, to appreciate beauty, and to cultivate compassion, peace, tolerance, and social harmony. I imagine us travelling to the stars not as conquerors looking for new planets to subdue, but rather as people looking for other worlds and other beings to appreciate and understand.
Developing consciousness of our "belonging" to the Earth and to Divine Being calls for the practice both of simplicity (which provides the "space" for new awareness) and of mindfulness (which is the method for developing new awareness). We cannot understand that we belong to the Earth unless we somehow experience our belonging. We cannot experience our belonging unless we become aware of it. We cannot become aware of it unless we clear away whatever might distract us from developing new awareness and re-direct our attention to those experiences that testify to our belonging in creation.
Simplicity: Developing Mindfulness
Developing mindfulness requires no exceptional aptitude. If we could measure awareness, we would probably find out that we all have about the same "amount" of it. The issue isn't to "expand" awareness so that we "have" more of it, but to redirect our attention so that we notice different aspects of our experience and our place in the world. Both the artist and the art lover have the same kind of eyes. Yet artists direct their attention in such a way that their works of art draw our attention to things we never noticed before. The gift of artistic talent makes it seem that such people "see the invisible" when in fact we might see the very same thing if only we directed our attention appropriately.
So what is voluntary simplicity for? It is for developing mindfulness. And mindfulness helps us discover that we belong to the Earth and, together with the Earth, in the hands of Divine Being. Knowing this makes all the difference. It will help us tell a new story with our lives.
This article is excerpted with permission from the book:
Reprinted with permission of the publisher, New Society Publishers. ©2000. http://www.newsociety.com
About the Author
MARK BURCH is a freelance educator, writer and workshop facilitator. He currently teaches courses on voluntary simplicity as an adjunct faculty member of The University of Winnipeg and offers workshops on simpler living and adult environmental education across Canada. He has been a featured guest on CBC TV "Man Alive", CBC Radio "Ideas" and in the Knowledge Network documentary series "The Simpler Way". He is the author of Stepping Lightly as well as of Simplicity: Notes, Stories and Exercises for Developing Unimaginabl.... Mark Burch cultivates stillness, gathers Chi, and tends a garden in Manitoba, Canada.