January 24, 2005

Simplicity: Navigating the Maze to a Simpler Life

by Victoria Register-Freeman

When I set out to write a Constrictive Living article on simplicity my life became complicated. After all, what is simplicity? Is it really looking with three ingredients as a best selling cookbook proclaims? Or is it growing your own food and making your own clothes? Or is it sticking labels on junk mail that say "Please remove me from your mailing list?" Or is it refilling a travel kit that night of one's return? Simplifying life means different things to different people.

Indeed, Richard Gregg, who coined the term "voluntary simplicity" in 1936 struck a decidedly Moritist note with his new term. "Voluntary simplicity involves both the inner and outer condition. It means singleness of purpose... as well as avoidance of exterior clutter, of many possessions irrelevant to the chief purpose of life."

And just how does one develop this purpose?

The fledgling simplifier must answer three questions, according to Gerald Celente, director of the Trends Research Institute, in Rhinebeck, N.Y. These questions are: How much do I really need? How much do I really want? How much work am I willing to do to get it?

And what drives people to ask and answer these questions? Mark Burch, author of Simplicity: Nine Stories, says, "Simplicity is a life way that offers a personal means of reducing stresses arising from lifestyles that have become too complex to be healthy or fulfilling."

Ron and Cindy Green are two CL instructors who have asked and answered the key questions. In 1984 the Greens decided that their life purpose was to help make Zen Buddhism available to others since the practice fo Zen had added so much to their own lives. To achieve this purpose Ron and Cindy decided to make a transcontinental move from Denver to a Zen monastery in Mt. Tremper, New York, a move which required the selling of Ron's 20-year-old, established podiatry practice. "My biggest fear," said Cindy, "was to not have enough money and be old, sick, and poor. But being clear about my purpose, the fear could still be there as I moved toward my purpose."

The simplification master plan, which the Greens crafted with the help of an audio taped course from the New Road May Foundation, took almost six years to accomplish. "The obstacles were numerous," said Cindy, "they included the sale of Ron's practice at a time of reimbursement change, the transplanting of a teenager, the soothing of my mother, and the reality of organizing our finances to the point that we were able to leave our professions. Actually, at this point, I still fly back to Denver six times a year to assist in surgery both to bolster my skills and assist us financially."

However, even with the six surgery trips, the Green's life is a model of radical simplicity. Their days revolve around the monastery's timeless rhythms of sitting meditation, liturgy, interview, and work practice. After selling their N.Y. house, the purchase of which they have decreed their one major mistake, they will live on monastery property in an A-Frame which has neither running water nor a private bathroom. They do not read newspaper, watch TV, cook, or commute.

While the Greens have radically simplified their life, other CL instructors have taken smaller steps down the same path. According to a random survey, Constructive Living instructors are selecting various simplification strategies. Some of their suggestions are similar to those make by Elaine St. James, author of Simplify Your Life: avoid credit cards, unclutter your house, your diet, your friendships, your wardrobe and your finances. One recurring theme from those interviewed, is to have more by desiring less. Cut off the TV (or mute commercials), avoid mall strolling, cancel ad-intensive magazine subscriptions and take steps to stop junk mail.

Another repeated point is the importance of attention and mindfulness. A special bond exists between the cultivation of simplicity and mindfulness. Perhaps the relationship is cause and effect. Since mindfulness allows one to fully experience the color, scent, movement, sound, and texture of an item or action, one's life can be totally filled with fewer items and actions. And with fewer wants comes the possibility of change, the possibility of crafting a life which has some free time.

And what does one do with the free time that results from stepping out of the hamster wheel? Again, according to Mark Burch the possibilities are limitless, "Like freeing time to spend with a lover, lovers of simplicity free their lives of everything that might draw down their energy or obstruct the way toward their highest goals. For Jesus, that goal was proclaiming his Father's kingdom; for Socrates, it was the pursuit of the Truth; for Thoreau, self-reliance and spiritual communion with his beloved New England; for Buddha, it was self-liberation. Though most of us keep less exalted company, we still know the pleasure of time with our children, our spouses, our craft or our art form, the calling of our work, or contributions we wish to make to our communities..."

On a very small scale I have seen some of the results Burch has mentioned. Three years ago I decided to turn my urban lawn into a vegetable garden and to bring no items of clothing into the house unless the same number of items left. The garden idea has worked well. It has simplified yard work, grocery shopping, and even garbage pickup. All wet garbage goes into the compost pile thus reducing the number of malodorous curb cans that are so beloved by the neighbor's roving Rottweiler.

The clothing exchange has worked slightly less well. I no longer engage in recreational shopping, thus freeing up hours of my time to read, write in my journal, work in the garden, and do community service. When I do make a purchase I try to make it with full attention. By applying an exercise out of Your Money or Your Life I am aware of how much of my "life time" I am spending. In other words, how many hours must I work to pay for the item.

And, yet, there are definite setbacks. For example, I kept a black skirt, purchased at a garage sale, in the back seat of my Mazda for three weeks until I decided on an exchange skirt in the closet. When I chastised myself for being a pseudo-simplifier my inner Moritist directed me to a pale green Post-it note that I had stuck on my closet door two years ago, "Keep on doing what needs to be done!"
So simple; so true!

Victoria Register-Freeman is a CL instructor who raises basil and runs a middle-school in Jacksonville, Florida.

Posted on January 24, 2005 9:14 PM

I was actually going to drive 80 miles round trip yesterday to get a newer, better, more attractive celllphone! I am incredulous at how difficult the decision not to do that was to make! I, who have stickers on the back window of my car and my bathroom cabinet, must decide this morning whether or not I need cellphone service at all. Some of the choices are not so easy to make; with free weekend minutes, I call my children often. But free weekend minutes are not free @ $40/mo, especially for one who has decided that going out to lunch is an unnecessary luxury.

Perhaps the ultimate questions to ask in all decisions is whether this choice is consistent with my chosen values, and which choice will enable me to spend my time and money doing the things that really matter.

Posted by: Sarah McMahan on August 15, 2005 8:50 AM
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