By Gene C.
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
If withdrawal-simplicity is a moral
cop out, and engaged-simplicity self destructs, what is
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
Simplicty 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.