Wholistic simplicity rejects withdrawal and engages with others to improve the world…while protecting one’s inner peace through the spiritual practice of non-attachment.
By Gene C. Sager
The words “simple” and “simplicity” are currently undergoing a variety of uses and misuses. For instance, the first time I saw Real Simple magazine on the newsstand I snatched it up, perhaps naively expecting informative articles about how to escape the frenetic complexity and materialism of our culture. But far and away the most powerful impact of the magazine came from the slick, full page ads which promoted anything but simplicity. Half of the issue promoted runaway materialism – eighty-six of the one-hundred-and-seventy-one pages; I counted them in disbelief. A prime example is the Mercedes ad: “Here’s How You’ll Get Your Thrills. The 302 horsepower V-8 engine can ‘hyperspace’ you from zero to sixty in 6.1 seconds.” So the magazine usurps the appeal of the word “simple” and promotes its opposite.
Say “simplicity” and many people think of a return to a primitive lifestyle, a carrying-water-and-chopping-wood situation. Or perhaps the life of a monk who has only his habit and a soup bowl. Some Americans think of Henry Thoreau and take simplicity to mean withdrawal from civilization. More contemporary ideas of simplicity are associated with financial independence, as in the book Your Money or Your Life by Vicki Robin and Joe Dominguez. Popular author Duane Elgin has published very engaging books about a simple life that includes volunteering, environmental activism, and participation in civic affairs. He says the definition of simplicity is an individual matter. The Simple Living Network also implies a relativism, saying, “there are as many definitions of simplicity as there are individuals.” Some see the simple life as a withdrawal; others see it as a kind of engagement.
Relativism confuses the issues and counters genuine attempts to find a general concept that will pass muster in today’s world. I recommend here a concept and a practice – wholistic simplicity – that cuts through the confusion. I believe it is simplicity come-of-age because it integrates simplicity with concerns about the environment and justice.
Writers on simplicity cannot avoid the irony when readers raise the question, “Why do articles on simplicity get so complicated?” It is a fair question, and it has a fair answer: Sorting through the confused concepts of simplicity can be a complicated, messy business. But once we have the right concept, the practice is a simple matter.
Withdrawal vs. Engagement
Anyone who has tried to practice simplicity has encountered a dilemma: On the one hand, we desperately need to drop out of the rat race and drop out of the hyperactivity of our culture; on the other hand, we want the satisfaction that comes from engaging others and helping to point our society in the right direction. We would like to help create a greener, more just world for ourselves and for our children.
The original or basic concept of the simple life is to slow down, reduce consumption, and enjoy the release from all the hassle and stress. Withdrawal from the workings of our society is a blessed relief; “sweet sister simplicity,” as St. Francis of Assisi called it, allows time for self examination and a measure of inner peace. Thoreau expressed it poignantly in his journal: “I am prepared to let this bustling nineteenth century pass me by.” And as for improving the world, he wrote, “I came into this world not chiefly to make it a better place, but to live in it, be it good or bad.”
Withdrawal has many advantages, and I am sometimes very attracted to it. But it comes at a terrible cost. Withdrawal is morally bankrupt. If I don’t pitch in and help, I make others carry more of the burden. And even life in a hermitage on a pond can be ruined by pollution, logging, or urban sprawl. As for politics, no one is apolitical. If I chose to make no political impact, I am choosing to affirm the political choices others are making. The Trappist monk Thomas Merton used to say he was a “guilty bystander,” and the term is revealing. Withdrawal is a moral cop out; a sensitive person cannot embrace it. Thoreau himself eventually engaged his contemporaries concerning slavery and other social issues.
The other pole of the dilemma – engaged simplicity – drops out of the race for material status and uses the new-found time and energy to improve the world, especially the environment. Like withdrawal-simplicity, engaged-simplicity means less consumption, so it is already green; but engagement means more that this. It includes actions like boycotting ungreen companies, recycling, and working with environmental organizations. Authors like Duane Elgin and Lisa Newton see engaged-simplicity as including participation in civic affairs to create a greener community.
No one can fault the moral zeal of engaged simplicity. But does such a lifestyle become too complicated? As a form of simplicity, it is liable to self-destruct. The race for a seat on the City Council is not the proverbial materialistic rat race, but it is a race nonetheless. So is the race to save the rain forests, the whales, the polar bears. And researching the issues about green and ungreen corporations is no simple matter. Engaged simplicity can get stressful and complicated very quickly.
One of my inveterate greeny friends suggests that one can avoid undue stress of engagement by taking on only one major project. However, the mind does not deal with such matters mathematically. For example, if I am stressed about a single engaged project, my mind creates turbulence about it around the clock. The intensity and duration of the disturbance is not correlated to the number of concerns. To put it simply: Engagement comes at the cost of inner peace. Simplicity is supposed to bring us relief and inner calm, but engaged simplicity can readily backfire on this score.
If withdrawal-simplicity is a moral cop out, and engaged-simplicity self destructs, what is wholistic simplicity?
The term “wholism” here refers to the view that the entire world is one interconnected and interdependent whole. This means that withdrawal is impossible; the world is everybody’s backyard. Wholistic simplicity rejects withdrawal and engages others to improve the world. We will see how it avoids self-destruction in this process.
Seeing the world as one means seeing Nature and human society as partners. Bustling big cities are not a cancer that necessarily taints the pristine purity of wilderness. The simplicity movement and the environmental movement have sometimes been plagued by the sense that human culture is essentially in violation of the ecosystem. But it is all Nature – wild Nature and human nature, even with our technology. Take computers as an example; we need them to monitor our use of technology, to watchdog the big corporations, and to communicate with others to create a greener and more just world. Wholistic simplicity uses technology insofar as it really improves the world. For any piece of technology, the burden of proof comes to this: On balance, does it make the world greener and more just? Clearly, many of our vehicles and gadgets fail on this standard.
Wholistic simplicity calls for a slow pace, low consumption lifestyle. It can accommodate an occasional period of rapid and intense activity, but not the regular hyperactivity that has become the North American way. When it comes to consumption, the “first world” squanders resources because we want so much, having forgotten what we really need. In addition to the basics, a wholistic approach opts for simple pleasures such as the company of family and friends, gardening, hiking, and local entertainers.
Simplicity is often thought to follow the easy way and the less expensive way, but these are partial truths. My son calls it a drag, but we hang our clothes outdoors on lines instead of using an electric dryer (Southern California weather cooperates most of the year). As for expenses, sometimes a more expensive product is greener: Organic food is greener and healthier. Contributing to environmental organizations and boycotting ungreen businesses can complicate our lives. Sometimes, green practice even gets involved in pitched battles with big corporations, including massive information campaigns, court cases and crucial deadlines.
What with these concerns and efforts, will we not lose our inner simplicity and get lost in scurry and worry? The answer to this is a spiritual technique called non-attachment. It subverts the tendency of the mind to create turbulence when faced with challenges. Non-attachment heals fragmentation and yields a sense of oneness. It is a time-honored method found in all the world religions, but one need not be religious to use it effectively.
The main cause of stress is “attachment” – the mental inclination to cling or attach to an activity or goal. When the going gets tough or our success is threatened, we inevitably stress out. The stress continues in our mind even when we are not actively working on the project. In this way, attachments erode our health and disrupt our concentration. Our discernment is inhibited and we actually became less effective in pursuing the project we are attached to!
But this process is not inevitable. We can become non-attached to our project by understanding what attachment is. Commitment to a goal is not equivalent to attachment. Attachment is an extra mental/emotional hook. Commitment to a project is the motivation to pursue it because it is right; it does not cling or clutch. Attachment causes stress, and it is a drain on our body and mind. It makes us lose our capacity for balanced judgments. Once we see clearly (without denial or distraction) what an attachment is, we can let it pass. We simply look at it; we do not fight it or deny it. Once an attachment is seen in its true colors, we see it is a self-wrought hindrance and only a hindrance. Seen in its true colors, it begins to fade and then disappear.
In sum, and when it comes right down to day to day practice, I believe wholistic simplicity is most effective in its sense of oneness and its non-attachment. The resulting inner peace is the space where we can make calm discernments. We can see our way clear to work for a better world without losing our soul. And it’s that simple.
Gene C. Sager is a Professor of Philosophy at Palomar College in California, and a regular contributor to Natural Life Magazine, where this article was first published.