Simple life. Two words with an enticing message. We want this life. We are no longer content to live on the run, sailing through on automatic. We want to be in life, not just watching it pass by at 75 mph. Life has more for us than the brief encounter allotted to harried tourists rushing from one monument to the next. We want to go inside the monument and feel it, experience it, smell it, maybe taste it … LIVE it. A simple life is one that allows us to stop, take a deep breath and reclaim our lives.
Where have our lives gone? To work, to the grocery store, the clothing store, the auto store, this store and that store, back to work again, to the bank to pay on our credit cards, to this class and that one, to this installment payment and the other one, to overtime, to the mortgage, the furniture store … to the wild and reckless pursuit of our visions of success and prosperity.
We’re exhausted, but we know the pinnacle of prosperity is right around the corner: “If only we make $10,000 more a year, THEN we’ll be satisfied. If only we get rid of this junker and get one of those new cars, THEN life will be easier. If only our houses weren’t so small, THEN we’d be able to relax. If we wore more expensive clothes, THEN we’d command more money and THEN we’d have a better life.”
A simple life means slowing down on the outside and finding fulfillment on the inside instead. It means getting to know ourselves. A meditation teacher once told me that we make our lives complex so we don’t have to experience what is really going on. When we live simply, we slow down and see and feel. This may be uncomfortable at times, he said; we are quiet and mindful and see the pain, dissatisfaction and wanting. We think we’re happy because we’re not paying attention.
We’re raised to think that the more we earn or the more prestigious is our job or car, the more “successful” we will be. Trouble is, we never stop long enough to check and see if this feels OK. We don’t stop until we’re stressed to the limit and we have to start making appointments to see our friends three weeks in advance. Or until we decide we’d like to switch jobs or careers, or quit altogether, but can’t because the mound of installment payments is too large to push out of the way. And we rarely take the time to just be … with ourselves, with life.
We’re not alone. An organization called Trends Research Institute in New York said voluntary simplicity was one of the top 10 trends of 1994. This trend is not simply a reaction to recession and job layoffs, the institute spokesman said. He said the trend toward voluntary simplicity is different from “forced frugality.” Different because people are looking for more than just ways to save money until they get a job again. They are looking for spiritual meaning and deeper values.
The institute says people are tired, too. We are working 165 more hours a year than we were 20 years ago. And we are previewing our own mortality in the deaths and illnesses of our parents. This makes us sit up and think about how to make our own lives different.
One way we want our lives to be different is by paying more attention to our hearts. Our hearts are those little voices inside asking us about the meaning of our lives. The voice that asks when we are going to go for walks in the neighborhood with our kids or friends. The voice that says how nice it feels to stop and be nice to each other rather than trying to scramble over the top of one another to get somewhere. The voice that says thank you when we share a home-cooked meal with friends and the same voice that gets mad when we shove cardboard-style food down our throats as we are driving to another appointment. The voice that really starts yelling when it gets buried in bills and schedules and too many hours spent at work, leaving no time to just “be.”
There is help. There are books. Three books in particular are my favorites. The first explains voluntary simplicity so well it is called “Voluntary Simplicity” (Quill Books, 1993) by Duane Elgin. Elgin is a modern-day rekindler of Thoreau’s message: Live simply and really live. Elgin tells us what can happen once we strip off the layers and layers of “successful” trappings covering ourselves - that we can find joy and meaning instead. “Your Money or Your Life” (Viking, 1992), by Vicki Robin and Joe Dominguez, equates money with the meaning of our lives and gives us nine steps to transform our relationship with money and achieve financial independence. “Simplify Your Life” by Elaine St. James is a small, yet practical guidebook that tells us how to bring the philosophy to everyday living.
There are also study circles where you can gather with others in search of simplicity to support one another and exchange information. To learn more about forming a circle, call (206) 392-2354.