The Garden of Simplicity
Relax. Take a deep breath. Smile. Read this.
by Duane ElginA quiet revolution in living has been underway for the past few decades in the United States (and in a number of other "post-modern" nations around the world). Surveys done in the U.S. show that as much as a quarter of the adult population has made significant changes in living and working in an effort to shift away from consumerism and toward simpler ways of living. Perhaps because of their commercial bias, the mainstream media have largely overlooked this historic shift. To the extent that simpler ways of living are considered, they are generally equated with a life of material sacrifice and then portrayed with images of people who are recycling, buying used clothing, and planting gardens. While these may be a few of the outward expressions of the simple life, this narrow portrayal misses much of the joy, meaning, and purpose of this approach to living. In contrast to this superficial stereotype, in the two decades since my book Voluntary Simplicity was published, I have seen the simplicity movement blossom into a rich diversity of expressions with great relevance for our future.
To present a more realistic picture of the scope and significance of this way of life for today's complex world, described below are ten different approaches that I see thriving in the garden of simplicity in the United States. Although I have done a great deal of research on this subject, these ten categories are drawn primarily from personal experience and observation.
Understandably, others may see alternative forms of life growing in the garden of simplicity. Although there is overlap among them, each expression of simplicity seems sufficiently distinct to warrant a separate category. As well, each approach to the simple life is described in a positive manner as I believe there is great merit in them all. So there would be no favoritism in listing, they are placed in alphabetical order based on the brief name I associated with each.
1. Choiceful Simplicity—Simplicity means choosing our path through life consciously, deliberately, and of our own accord. As a path that emphasizes freedom, a choiceful simplicity also means staying focused, living voluntarily, diving deep, and not being distracted by consumer culture. It means consciously organizing our lives so that we give our "true gifts" to the world—which is to give the essence of ourselves. As Emerson said, "The only true gift is a portion of yourself."
2. Commercial Simplicity—Simplicity means there is a rapidly growing market for healthy and sustainable products and services of all kindsÑfrom home-building materials and energy systems to foods. When the need for a sustainable infrastructure in developing nations is combined with the need to retrofit and redesign the homes, cities, workplaces, transportation systems of "developed" nations, then it is clear that an enormous expansion of highly purposeful economic activity will unfold with a shift toward sustainability.
3. Compassionate Simplicity—Simplicity means to feel such a sense of kinship with others that we "choose to live simply so that others may simply live." A compassionate simplicity means feeling a bond with the community of life and drawn toward a path of reconciliation—with other species and future generations as well as, for example, between those with great differences of wealth and opportunity. A compassionate simplicity is a path of cooperation and fairness that seeks a future of mutually assured development for all.
4. Ecological Simplicity—Simplicity means to choose ways of living that are sustainable; for example, by reducing our ecological footprint on the Earth by limiting over-consumption and by increasing our satisfaction in living by developing creative and sustainable alternatives (e.g., using solar power and telecommuting). An ecological simplicity appreciates our deep interconnection with the web of life and is mobilized by threats to its well-being (such as climate change, species-extinction, and resource depletion). It also means fostering "natural capitalism" or economic practices that value the importance of natural eco-systems and healthy people for a productive economy, both local and global.
5. Elegant Simplicity—Simplicity means that the way we live our lives represents a work of unfolding artistry. As Gandhi said, "My life is my message." In this spirit, an elegant simplicity is an understated, organic aesthetic that contrasts with the excess of consumerist lifestyles. Drawing from influences ranging from Zen to the Quakers, it celebrates natural materials and clean, functional expressions such as are found in many of the hand-made arts and crafts from this community. An elegant simplicity is also an unpretentious aesthetic that appreciates a second-hand couch with worn pillows that welcomes your body.
6. Frugal Simplicity—Simplicity means that, by cutting back on spending that is not truly serving our lives, and by practicing skillful management of our personal finances, we can achieve greater financial independence. Frugality and careful financial management bring increased financial freedom and the opportunity to more consciously choose our own path through life. Living with less also decreases the impact of our consumption upon the Earth and frees resources for others.
7. Natural Simplicity—Simplicity means to remember our deep roots in the natural world. It means to connect with the ecology of life in which we are immersed and to balance our experience of the human-created environments with time in nature. It also means to celebrate the experience of living through the miracle of the EarthÕs seasons. A natural simplicity feels a deep reverence for the community of life on Earth and accepts that the non-human life of plants and animals have their dignity and rights as well the human.
8. Political Simplicity—Simplicity means organizing our collective lives in ways that enable us to live more lightly and sustainably on the Earth which, in turn, involves changes in nearly every area of public life—from transportation and education to the design of our homes, cities, and workplaces. The politics of simplicity is a media politics as the mass media are the primary vehicle for creating—or transforming—the mass consciousness of consumerism. This is also a politics of community and conversation that builds upon networks of relationships emerging around the world through the enabling power of the Internet.
9. Soulful Simplicity—Simplicity means to approach life as a meditation and to cultivate our experience of intimate connection with all that exists. A spiritual presence infuses the world and, by living simply, we can more directly awaken to the living universe that surrounds and sustains us, moment by moment. Soulful simplicity is more concerned with consciously tasting life in its unadorned richness than with a particular standard or manner of material living. In cultivating a soulful connection with life, we tend to look beyond surface appearances and bring our interior aliveness into relationships of all kinds.
10. Uncluttered Simplicity—Simplicity means taking charge of a life that is too busy, too stressed, and too fragmented. An uncluttered simplicity means cutting back on trivial distractions, both material and non-material, and focusing on the essentials—whatever those may be for each of our unique lives. As Thoreau said, "Our life is frittered away by detail. . . Simplify, simplify." Or, as Plato wrote, "In order to seek one's own direction, one must simplify the mechanics of ordinary, everyday life."
As these ten approaches illustrate, the simplicity movement contains a flourishing garden of expressions whose great diversity—and intertwined unity—are creating a resilient and hardy ecology of learning about how to live more sustainable and meaningful lives. As with other ecosystems, it is the diversity of expressions that fosters flexibility, adaptability, and resilience. Because there are so many pathways of great relevance into the garden of simplicity, this cultural movement appears to have enormous potential to grow in the future. May the garden thrive!
This article was circulated by AltWire.
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