Live simply.Posted: November 7, 2011
“I saw an exhibition of Miro once. Miro the painter. His very last painting was a dot. I was wondering why everyone says he’s a great painter. I can make dots. Yet he is a great painter. I looked at his evolution. First I thought he couldn’t draw. Then I saw his early drawings, and they’re works of art. His figures are full of detail, his landscapes. It’s like looking at a photograph. So I looked at his evolution, and saw that gradually there were fewer details. He was paying less attention to the external, and more to the internal. I thought about it, that little dot, and I understood. Everything else was false, he had just retained the truth.”
Other than watching Yamakasi again, last night I somehow found myself reading about simple living.
By this I mean the phenomenon, in many western countries, of people making a voluntary, long-term lifestyle change, one that involves accepting significantly less income and consuming less. The phenomenon is also known as downshifting, or the ‘quiet revolution’.
The 2003 Australia Institute Survey Into Downshifting found that 35% of downshifters – white collar and blue collar – were doing so to spend more time with the family. This was the most common reason for downshifting. They were swapping long hours to fund consumption-heavy lifestyles with fewer hours, simpler living and more time with their loved ones. Psychologist Jim McKnight’s research into downshifting found the same: that a major motivation for downshifters was to regain a sense of community with their family, friends and neighbours, and the broader community.
Other motivators included the need to overcome illness or depression, a desire for greater life balance, and, for a minority, the desire to live ethically by rejecting consumerism and adopting an environmentally friendly lifestyle. For a tiny minority, downshifting involves a more radical change than simply reducing working hours, choosing more fulfilling work, and making the necessary income determined consumption sacrifices. These radicals do things like sell possessions, move into alternative communities, or find creative ways to sustain and support themselves outside of the conventional workforce.
People choosing to downshift in this way are sometimes referred to as “post materialists”- those who go beyond materialism, explicitly, as a matter of principle. They may be involved in what is known as the voluntary simplicity movement.
Samuel Alexander, a part-time lecturer and doctoral student at the University of Melbourne Law School, is the founder of the Life Poet’s Simplicity Collective. It is a grassroots network founded upon the idea that a simpler life of reduced consumption is a viable and desirable alternative to consumer culture – one that is good for our lives, the lives of others, and the planet. Samuel defines here voluntary simplicity as a way of life that “rejects the high-consumption, materialistic lifestyles of consumer cultures and affirms what is often just called ‘the simple life’ or ‘downshifting.’
There are three main reasons for choosing voluntary simplicity: 1) a desire not to add to environmental degradation caused by Western-style consumption; 2) the unethical nature of high consumption lifestyles in a world of great human need; and 3) the meaninglessness of extravagance and acquisitiveness – “the meaning of life does not and cannot consist in the consumption or accumulation of material things” he writes.
Samuel articulates the lifestyle, the philosophy, and addresses the misconceptions (prejudice, really) about Voluntary Simplicity beautifully on the Simplicity Collective website here. You will find many other thought provoking posts. I recommend reading all the pages. So happy to have stumbled upon the Collective’s website – the Introduction he wrote to the anthology, Voluntary Simplicity, is titled “Voluntary Simplicity: The ‘Middle Way’ to Sustainability” (read the Philosophy page of this blog and you will understand why that’s a cause for excitement). I’ve got some more reading to do!
Many in the mainstream regard those engaging in ‘Voluntary simplicity’, those moving to alternative communities or “going bush”, as just plain weird. The more radical choices some people are making in order to live according to their consciences do not resonate with me. All the activities I want to continue doing are fairly urban oriented: writing and sharing ideas, blogging, film storytelling, supporting Pacific and community Arts, basketball, and community activism. But, in our own way, my small household and I are endeavouring to simplify and bring balance to our living – for the perceived financial savings and, more importantly, life. Simplifying is also a constructive response to the consumption-related degradation of the environment. You don’t need to erect a hut from found objects to downshift. There are things you can do to make your city life – and city mind – simpler, cleaner.
DOWNSHIFTING IN THE SUBURBS.
I grew up in a tiny rental home, and never felt lacking in anything. Similarly, today, I have few possessions, as does the household. I mostly take public transportation, which in my city is relatively clean, affordable, and mostly wheelchair accessible. I take local taxis when I need one – being in a wheelchair, this is sometimes essential. My household is moving from sourcing our groceries from big supermarkets to locally grown produce, and we also have a small, no frills, evolving food garden, that has produced some great bounties over the last few years (including the sweetest cantelope I have ever tasted, a surprise picking we did not plant deliberately). Like many households that took advantage of the former Rudd Government’s solar power rebate program, we have solar panels, and are trying to be more economical with water usage. Keeping things simple, unostentatious and green, paradoxically, makes us feel richer. I really wouldn’t have it any other way.
PHILOSOPHY OF SIMPLICITY.
As Samuel discusses on the Simplicity Collective’s website, simple living is not just about a lifestyle. I think it resonates with a deeper need that some are recognising within themselves, to buck the values and underlying assumptions of the dominant economic culture, cut out all the extraneous noise in their lived experience, and focus mind, body, and (what some would call) “spirit”, on what is nourishing to all of those three. Nourishing, too, to human community, and non-destructive to the natural systems and processes that allow us homo sapiens to, you know, exist. But meeting this need, I think, would require a radical re-thinking about the way one constructs a sense of self.
I’ll try to explain this with my own example.
After sustaining the injury that bound me to my wheelchair (the culmination of multiple personal crises) I detached from any desire to participate in “the rat race”. I stopped judging myself against cultural norms of fashion/beauty. I stopped caring about academic award or superiority, and stress-inducing considerations linked to prestige, “productivity”, competition, superficial attractiveness, and “value” in a worldly sense. I know this is atypical. It is normal to derive a sense of self, in part, from others – a sense of self that is dependent on who we are in relation to others, relationships, or recognition. Many derive their sense of self entirely from external conditions, recognition, achievement and “stuff” – consumer culture would not exist without this ego. For me though, life experiences have forced the very opposite to occur. External circumstances have repeatedly provoked a natural tendency to go deep within for answers, healing, and, crucially, for a sense of self and self value that isn’t dependent on anything or anyone external to me.
I think this is more common amongst people who’ve experienced severe loss, or who must live out their lives on the ‘outside’, in some way. It is a curious example of how something seemingly bad can be enriching on a deeper level, if you figure out how to transmute it. More than once, I have found myself with absolutely nothing, bereft and alone. And more than once, I have found myself physically grounded, unable to move. Under those conditions, I could do nothing more than search for a place within to retreat to. After my injury, I found this place. I feel a sense of timelessness and blissful peace here. And when I live from here, my mind is balanced – I feel centred. The simplest of daily chores becomes a meditation, and nothing is mundane. Rather than being isolating, being with people is even more awesome – one is able to be present and give unconditionally with ease.
Staying here, however, whilst still interacting with a mass culture that isn’t, is a challenge. Simple living as a philosophy, to me, thus involves practicing a degree of detachment from the externals in the midst of them; without that, one is vulnerable to being knocked off-centre, by mistaking the externals (people, objects, external judgments) for everything that is simple, pure, and true. Not surprisingly, the manic depressive episodes of the last two years coincided with such a corruptive disturbance to my psyche. Thankfully, I truly am getting my bearings again. Adopting a simpler lifestyle and philosophy requires an outlook that values inner needs more than outer judgements, eg. the need for family and community overrides ego-sating in the form of high priced goods, and admiration they attract. Ones centre inevitable shifts from outside to inside.
THE GOAL IS A STATE OF BEING.
Many people, upon realising they want to live simply, find themselves having to drop or change their goals and dreams in order to fulfil their new dream and vision. I have not given up on my goals, on activities related to them. However, the hunger to attain any of them is dissolving as I go deeper into the simple philosophy. With this dissolution, a sense of peace is slowly being restored – a peace I have known at other times when I’ve had to completely let go of attachment to an outcome. I’m no longer attached to them, to some future mythic place where I’ll finally be happy, or successful, or less lonely. My attention is turning to the present, to within, once again. My swings of mood are becoming less severe. The static noise in my head is quieting. I’m shedding the baggage, the perceived judgements of others and of myself. The externals.
Having said that, I realised not long ago that all my life goals/dreams are actually aligned with simple living – perhaps a wise thing for people to do, although this was not a conscious decision on my part. I formulated my goals & dreams after a few weeks of self-imposed depressed isolation, recovery. Once again, outside events provoked me to go within. I found myself meditating one day. Nothing fancy, just breathe awareness until my mind went from batshit incessant chatter to stillness. After this, I wrote down, without any hesitation, a list of things I felt. The list came through so pristinely. Number one had nothing to do with anything material, or external – not a relationship, nor a thing, nothing to own or have. What I really wanted, more than anything, was a state of being. I wrote down I wanted “Peace in my mind & body. Enlightenment.” Essentially, the state of being free.
And this is what simple living, I think, boils down to: a state of being, of awareness. Cutting out the B.S. Not filling ones life with material goods or ones head with destructive thoughts, destructive attachment. Not crowding ones mind with utterly useless information, but focusing ones awareness now, and using ones intellect and wit as tools on what is really, truly, important. That is, not just what is going to bring financial reward, or win admiration, but that has real potential to improve the quality and richness of life, raise people’s consciousness, encourage civility, and preserve nature (for our own sake). Such awareness – I have experienced at a previous time – is also a great condition for creativity. And it is the foundation that allows for unconditional love.
It’s worth returning here to another line borrowed from Simplicity Collective: