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Creative Living in a Consumer Society
By John Lane, Clifford Harper
Green Books LtdCopyright © 2009 John Lane
All rights reserved.
Why Voluntary Simplicity?
Always bear this in mind, that very little indeed is necessary for living a happy life. MARCUS AURELIUS
Frugality, we must remember, is to be conceived not as harsh austerity or poverty but an elegant frugality, as doing more with less. HENRYK SKOLIMOWSKI
The friends who had so often spent evenings with us in our London slum soon found their way here, and the house was often full at weekends. David would go to the station to meet them, and I would stay behind to finish a batch of cakes. Philip and I would hear the train run and in a few minutes we would see David and our friends coming up the lane that was a short cut to the station. Then I would whip off my apron and Philip's overall, take the cakes out of the oven, put on the kettle and spread the cloth on the kitchen table — for we had meals there — and be just in time to meet them at the gate. I looked forwards to these times, and the extra work they made was richly rewarded by the talks and walks and the friendly way in which everyone accepted our simple way of living. ... These were great days, and other days too there were when David was happy and eager and would take Philip on his shoulders, and I carrying the lunch, we would go to Thurnam Castle on top of the Downs, or to some lovely spot along the Pilgrim's Way. There we would spend the day, Philip playing in the grass and sleeping when he was tired; David reading to me, or going off for a little walk by himself — while I sewed — returning with something for Philip — a rare orchid, or a large striped Roman snail shell, or a piece of strangely shaped flint. Then down again in the evening and back to Rose Acre which after such a day of sweet contentment would look welcoming and homely. HELEN THOMAS
Man falls from the pursuit of the ideal of plain living and high thinking the moment he wants to multiply his daily wants. Man's happiness really lies in contentment. MAHATMA GANDHI
The attraction of simplicity is mysterious because it draws us in a completely opposite direction from where most of the world seems to be going: away from conspicuous display, accumulation, egoism and public visibility — toward a life more silent, humble, transparent, than anything known to the extroverted culture of consumption. MARK A. BIRCH
WHY DO SOME PEOPLE CHOOSE to live less cluttered, hectic and complicated lives? And what does the subject of this book, voluntary simplicity, actually mean? This chapter seeks to answer these questions both in terms of the quest for greater personal contentment and the continuous violation of life on Earth by a feelingless utilitarianism. For the sake of clarity, I have divided the chapter into two sections, but they are, of course, inseparable. What is good for the world will be good for us.
THE QUEST FOR PERSONAL CONTENTMENT
A good way of looking at simplicity might be a consideration of the standard against which accomplishment is measured in our society.
In a capitalist society, money is generally considered the primary measure of value. This is because the maximization of returns on financial capital is one of its defining objectives. Competition, individualism and material consumption are therefore nurtured as favoured cultural norms. Levels of income, stock prices and the gross domestic product (GDP) have thus become the measure of progress and success. Evidence of this can be seen in the fact that each day more than two trillion dollars are moved around the world in search of quick profits. London's tallest building is no longer a cathedral, but a commercial enterprise.
In our money-based culture, everyone needs to make use of money as the primary means of exchange and in order to purchase life's necessities: shelter, clothing, food. But after the bare necessities have been purchased, what else is required? Three holidays a year? A swimming pool in the garden? A second home in the south of France? A new kitchen and a more luxurious car? Where do you, my reader, stand along this spectrum of needs and wants? If your responses are weighted towards the enjoyment of affluence, then this book may have little relevance for you. You enjoy a generous salary, good food, freedom of action, exotic holidays — why change what already provides so much pleasure? But if you are dissatisfied with your current life, feeling that you are missing out from something that you cannot yet define, and are looking for greater contentment, then what I am calling 'living simply' may yet hold an attraction for you.
What then is simpler living, or 'voluntary simplicity'? Although the term was made popular by Duane Elgin (whose classic account Voluntary Simplicity was first published in 1981), the phrase was first used by Richard Gregg, a follower of Mahatma Gandhi:
Voluntary simplicity involves both inner and outer condition.
It means singleness of purpose, sincerity and honesty within, as well as avoidance of exterior clutter, of many possessions irrelevant to the chief purpose of life. It means an ordering and guiding of our energy and our desires, a partial restraint in some directions in order to secure greater abundance of life in other directions. It involves a deliberate organization of life for a purpose. Of course, as different people have different purposes in life, what is relevant to the purpose of one person might not be relevant to the purpose of another. ... The degree of simplification is a matter for each individual to settle for himself.
Although the above quote dates from 1936, the practice itself is much older — virtually timeless. Forgoing overindulgence has been a holy virtue acknowledged by Buddhists, Christians, Taoists, Muslims, Stoics and Essenes. (Islam does not object to the profit motive or entrepreneurial initiatives, but emphasizes charity.) The figures of Muhammad, Origen, St. Francis of Assisi, Lanzo del Vasto, Gandhi, Wittgenstein and the Japanese Zen master Dogen, are of this company no less than Prince Siddartha, no less than Jesus Christ. All these (and numerous others) have lived with frugality, and yet there is little evidence that their lives were less fulfilled than those of, say, Rupert Murdoch or Donald Trump, the Aga Khan or the Duke of Westminster. The lives of those religious figures were less cluttered and complicated; less luxurious, too, but not necessarily less contented — and according to the evidence almost certainly more so.
The instigators of the great religions and their followers simply never expected to look for inner fulfilment in outer possessions, but in the riches of the inner life. "The ancient philosophers," wrote Henry David Thoreau in Walden, "Chinese, Hindoo, Persian, and Greek, were a class than which none has been poorer in outward riches, none so rich in inward. None can be an impartial or wise observer of human life but from the vantage point of what we should call voluntary poverty."
What right have you to take the word 'wealth' which originally meant 'well-being' and degrade and narrow it by confining it to certain sorts of material objects measured by money? JOHN RUSKIN
Voluntary simplicity has nothing to do with the debilitation, destitution and despair associated with enforced deprivation, nor has it anything to do with a simplistic 'back-to-the land' movement based on a subsistence smallholding on, say, the Derry Peninsula. Nor has it anything to do with any single common doctrine. It is a Zeitgeist, not an ideology. Rather the opposite: voluntary simplicity is about as unideological as it is possible to be. The spirit is inclusive: Thoreau's self-reliant primitivism, the Catholicism of Eric Gill, the early Christian radicalism of Tolstoy, the uncomplicated homesteader or the more intellectual one (the American Scott Nearing, for example) all are, were and must be called adherents of voluntary simplicity — and not in different degrees, but equally. The phrase embraces all of the following: a state of consciousness; those who are in retreat from industrialism; those making a personal response to what they see as an increasingly wasteful world; and those seeking to discover a deeper personal fulfilment than that which they are finding in their stressful work and extravagant life.
Its practice involves, as the term implies, a decision to live with more simplicity, and to do so voluntarily. In other words, to turn one's back on needless clutter and distraction, the treadmill of working necessitated by the maintenance of a high 'standard of living' which has lost its meaning. It is to turn towards a manner of living that may be outwardly simple — the enjoyment of gardening, walking, cycling, reading, bread-making, friendships, music — but which is neither particularly expensive nor demanding to maintain. It is to attend to those needs which are culturally indivisible and satisfying, to the concerns and values of the human spirit. To live a life of voluntary simplicity is an expression of the human freedom to choose rather than to be dictated to by the incessant reinforcements of consumerism.
It is also to choose to live more mindfully. It is to have direct and wholehearted participation in life: the taste and touch of actual things; the experience of the moment; the delight inherent in creative doing. Lose the possibilities of such experiences and a sense of boredom can begin its subtle but insidious invasion of the human heart. It is then that we most feel the need to fill the vacuum with a consoling substitute: another dress, another computer game or holiday. It is not acquisitiveness but boredom which can lead to regular and compulsory shopping — 'retail therapy' — as a relief from the lacuna of an unfulfilled life.
My experience tells me that the more we lose the power to live, the more we come to depend upon the short-term fun which activities like shopping can provide. At times, many of us have wanted to have more, because we thought that by having more we would be able to live more; yet so often the opposite turns out to be the case. Shopping, like, narcotics, can become a serious addiction, so we can end up buying things we don't really need, and too often with money we don't really have.
In order to break the habit, we need to work quite hard: to focus on other activities and revolutionize our habitual assumptions about what it means to 'have a good time'. A fulfilled person is one who has explored his or her capacities and looks back with satisfaction at a life enriched by personal discoveries; an unfulfilled person is often one who has become over-dependent on external stimuli. Dependence on externals, dependence on peer-group affirmation, dependence on the seductions of modern life, are all characteristics of the consumerist mentality.
It has to be emphasized that voluntary simplicity is not amenable to measurement; it cannot be quantified, as, for example, a certain level of income or a certain number of possessions can be. It is and has always been an attitude of mind, not a prescription of an absolute standard. As if in confirmation of this viewpoint, there is a painting by the Dutch artist Vermeer: the Woman Holding a Balance (c.1664) in the National Gallery of Art, Washington. The picture shows a woman holding a balance in her hand; she stands before a table on which have been placed jewellery boxes, a gold chain and some strands of pearls. Although the scales of the balance are empty, the jewellery and its boxes belong to, and are valued within, the temporal world. They represent temptations of material splendour. Nevertheless, the character of the scene is not a worldly one; it is imbued with a serenity of spirit, moral seriousness and meditative calm. In worldly terms, the standing woman is a wealthy one, but we sense that her soul has not been corrupted by wealth. It has the virginal simplicity of a child's.
Those choosing to live in a simple way have often sought the middle way between poverty and wealth. They have concentrated on moderation: quality rather than quantity. They have sought to live a more balanced and measured life, one which not only protects the mind, encourages creativity and helps the good of society, but at the same time acts a corrective to the materialistic excesses of a culture more preoccupied with indulgence than the consequences of profligacy. Voluntary simplicity is a pathway towards the maintenance of a life that is comfortable but not luxurious; frugal but not pinching, decent but not boring; one that seeks to discard the specialist's divisions between work and life, art and everyday activity.
A question remains about the validity of a particular acquisition — where, if anywhere, does one draw the line between self-indulgence and potential need? To take but one example, is it justifiable to spend money purchasing a recording of Handel's oratorio Theodora, or to invite a group of friends to dine in a relatively expensive restaurant? There is no easy answer to this puzzle: simplicity is about the acceptance of limits, yet it cannot exclude the enrichment of music and the celebration of friendship. Both are rich in ends. Both contribute in subtle, meaningful ways. So the answer depends on motivations and frequencies, priorities and budget as well as the maintenance of a balance between rekindling the spirit and living the virtues of a simple life.
To live is to make a voyage of discovery. Such a journey can as much include listening to Handel's music or sharing food with friends, as making chutney or meditating.
The practice of simplicity should not imply any kind of fundamentalism. There is no doctrine to be followed. I know a carpenter, Howard HouseKnecht, who lives in his self-built house in the Pacific North-West of the United States; a masseuse, Erica Ward, who lives in a white-painted clapper board house near Christchurch, New Zealand; a gardener (and author), Jeremy Naydler, who lives in a simply furnished ex-council house in Oxfordshire; a poet, Joan Poulson, who lives by herself in a terraced house near Manchester; and a translator, Stephen Piggott, who lives with his family in a traditional wood-framed house in a village in the mountains in Japan. Their lives could not be more dissimilar, yet they have much in common: a desire to live with a minimum of machines — no freezers, no TVs, no microwaves, no kitchen blenders. They all have one overriding ambition: to live their lives as simply as possible so that they can give the maximum attention to the things which are really important to them. "I love to think that those things which I regard as most important are undemanding of energies other than my own," writes Joan Poulson. "I choose this way of being and living because I am challenged by it, enjoy it and believe it is a more fulfilling and ecologically sustainable way of living in this world, in contrast to much of modern society," adds Howard HouseKnecht. Another friend says: "I got rid of all which is not strictly necessary."
To live in this manner, my friends have had to make sacrifices. To keep themselves afloat they have chosen to subsist on relatively low levels of income. For to think that a simple existence means an easy life is a dangerous delusion; it never protects one from the common vicissitudes — illness, accidents, ageing, difficult teenagers, disasters of all kinds — and more often than not it will involve harder physical work: chopping logs calls for more effort than switching on the central heating. Nonetheless, I'd guess that none of the people I have mentioned feel in the least deprived. On the contrary, they enjoy the freedom of lives unencumbered by the excesses, over-complications and distractions of modern life. They have learnt the language of enthusiasm for things accomplished with love.
Many other examples are known to me, but I will mention only two more: one an Indian merchant, the other an English painter who practised her art somewhat episodically, asserting that "living and people come first." The first, living in a minimalist culture, has inherited rather than chosen a simple life. This is the merchant Mahalchand Bothara and his wife, with whom I stayed in Ladnun, Rajasthan, in 1993. The Botharas live in a beautiful traditional house. Its rooms light-filled but sparsely furnished; its kitchen equipped with utensils of the most minimal kind, but the food served was no less delicious because of its simplicity. On the occasion of my visit, luncheon was followed by an unselfconscious but ardent recitation of the host's poetry. Here there was none of that slightly puritanical thinness that sometimes characterizes the simple-lifer in the affluent nations; there was magnanimity, dignity and grace. A sense of the divinity of things apparent in everything.
Excerpted from Timeless Simplicity by John Lane, Clifford Harper. Copyright © 2009 John Lane. Excerpted by permission of Green Books Ltd.
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