To see things more clearly, we must sometimes learn our lessons the hard way. These days, the "hard way," of course, is the current economic crisis resulting from poor financial-management choices over the last several years. Hordes of people reached beyond their means in an attempt to fulfill an ironically empty "more-is-more" philosophy. They overextended and amassed right down to foreclosure and bankruptcy. And they did it all to keep up with the Joneses.
This may seem like a simplification, but the chief tenets of such a cautionary tale are clear. The temptations of the American consumption race, which separates the "haves" from the "have-nots," has left us Ӆ unhappier now than when we began our initial pursuit for rich abundance," according to "Simple Prosperity" and "Affluenza" author David Wann.
It doesn't have to be this way, though; living within one's means by eschewing material prosperity in favor of personal growth is the central feature of the voluntary simplicity movement. Duane Elgin, author of the 1981 book "Voluntary Simplicity," says: "We can describe it (voluntary simplicity) as a manner of living that is outwardly more simple and inwardly more rich, a way of being in which our most authentic and alive self is brought into direct and conscious contact with living."
Asceticism isn't a new concept, and you can't reach it by force. Some of us are accustomed to a plain and frugal lifestyle because we have no other choice. The Shramana did it. As did Buddha, the biblical Nazirites and Mahatma Gandhi. The Quakers, Mennonites and Amish all live "simply." But while asceticism has spiritual roots, it can also be a non-sectarian lifestyle choice where proponents reduce consumption, thereby reducing the need to sell one's time for money. It's a conscious effort more Americans are making in favor of the hectic lives they led during the booming economic past.
Henry David Thoreau's sojourn to a self-built cabin on Walden Pond is a classic example of stepping out of industrial complexity to achieve a richer sense of self. Thoreauarguably one of the most celebrated naturalists and authors of the 19th centuryalong with fellow writers of the American Transcendental movement, emphasized self-reliance, solitude, contemplation and a close proximity to nature as a means by which individuals and societies might transcend their typically "desperate" existence. That is, an existence where consumption and reliance on monetary gain ultimately limit us.
But voluntary simplicity doesn't necessarily equate with extremes; you don't have to move to a cabin in the woods or escape society altogether in order to reap its benefits. Indeed, true believers are already living next door: They are your co-workers and co-op clerks, your teachers and teammates. Anyone can adopt the lifestyle partially with small changes to daily habits, or fully with large-scale shifts in the way you conduct your life.
Either way, one cannot ignore the movement's positive societal and ecological implications. Disconnecting from our industrial complex and learning to live sustainably reduces your carbon footprint and cuts down on greenhouse gas emissions. Expanding your mind in lieu of filling your house with junk allows you to become more aware and appreciative of the few things you choose to keep. The pursuit of knowledge and search for creative outlets almost always leads to education and understanding within a community. And the active decision to become more self-reliant not only saves money, it also brings about a sense of accomplishment and ownership that a spendthrift might never realize.
So while the evening news might fill some with a sense of dread, our situation isn't hopeless. To those of us who've already chosen a simpler existence, it's nothing more than a long overdue wake-up call to make some much-needed life changes. There really couldn't be a brighter, more hopeful time for Americans; the path to such a sun-filled place is not only free, it's simple.
SIMPLE STEPS for Spring
• Take on a new simplicity challenge every week starting now, and by summer you'll be well on your way to a simpler, more fulfilling, lifestyle.
• Ditch your car at least one day a week for the bus, your bike or your own two feet.
• Replace all conventional light bulbs in your house with LEDs
• Replace your normal showerhead and sink faucets with low-flow models.
• Start composting and participate in your city's recycling program.
• Weed out unnecessary junk, keeping only the things you absolutely need and ones that have strong sentimental value. Donate the rest to a local charity's thrift store.
• If circumstances allow for it, move to a smaller, more efficient house/apartment, or research co-operative housing.
• Change the way you think of pre-fab housing; the newest compact pre-fab homes are not only paragons of sustainable building, but stylish, too!
• Expand your mind by taking a continuing education class at your local university or technical school.
• Forgo television for a good book or lively conversation with a group of friends.
• Take up meditation and practice yoga to clear your mind and body.
• Get up and get out! Show your children the joys of playing outdoors, and make nature an extension of your home life.
Disconnect from the Industrial Complex
• Stop relying on Wal-Mart for all your goods, and start relying more on yourself.
• Frequent recycled goods Web sites for items you need: Check out FreeCycle.com, or bookcrossing.com.
• Hold a clothing swap with your friends, or shop your local thrift stores instead of the mall.
• Take up knitting and learn to sew.
• Join a CSA (Community Sponsored Agriculture) farm and/or shop at your local farmers' market.
• Plant an organic garden and learn how to collect rainwater.
• Learn to can/preserve your homegrown bounty to use during the winter months.
• Lend a helping hand: Offer to help your neighbor build a garden shed in exchange for their service on a future project of yours.
Simple Living with Wanda Urbanska
The Simple Living Network
Awakening Earth, the Web site of Duane Elgin
Simple Living Institute