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Meditation and Voluntary Simplicity December 7, 2012

Posted by Living Abundance in Uncategorized.
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I would like to write a post about meditation and voluntary simplicity, which are two activities in which I am dedicated that are quite important to me. This post is prompted by an upcoming book club meeting I will be attending in a few days to discuss Less is More by Cecile Andrews and Wanda Urbansky. I also wanted to write about these two topics together, because I recall that I became interested in both of them at the same time, and its easy to see how interest in one may have prompted interest in the other, and vice versa.

First I will start with a statement that I think should be included in any discussion of voluntary simplicity: I occupy a position of privilege and power that allows me the luxury to be able to choose voluntary simplicity that many people can’t afford to make. I have to acknowledge that my existence as a White, university-educated, middle-class, able-bodied, English-speaking, young, healthy woman makes it much easier for me to choose a different lifestyle than it would be for others. In other words, people can’t afford to choose voluntary simplicity when they are denied their basic rights and struggling to make ends meet.

So what is voluntary simplicity? Simply put, it is choosing to simplify my lifestyle, or to live a more “simple life,” by scaling back on the unnecessary details that occupy my life situation and end up only making me miserable. Much of the philosophy has to do with scaling back on material possessions and external goals, to live a more balanced life valuing intrinsically satisfying goals and inner experience.

However, to tie the philosophy specifically to the practice of meditation, I’ll focus on one important aspect of voluntary simplicity: slowing down. Voluntary simplicity involves slowing down the hectic pace of my life situation to take the time to enjoy the pleasures of being alive, while I am still living on our Earth.

In this way, voluntary simplicity is closely linked to a similar movement, the Slow Food movement. The philosophy behind the Slow Food movement is that when taking the time to grow, buy, prepare, and/or eat our food at a slower pace results in food that will be much healthier for our bodies and more satisfying.

Besides slowing down food habits, voluntary simplicity supports slowing down different areas of the modern lifestyle as a protest to the hectic, fast-paced modern world of electronic gadgets and work productivity. If I am always rushing from one task to the next—from sleeping to dressing to transportation to work to eating to exercising to recreation to socializing—I’m not really enjoying any of my experience because I’m so caught up in “nexting,” in getting to the next thing.

Meditation practice can be a way to slow down and simplify my life situation. I think it could be said that there are some forms of relaxation meditation that might be away to maintain a fast-paced habit, when meditation would be used to relieve the symptoms of experiencing stress in a fast-paced world. Relaxation meditation could be a way to recover the body and mind for a short time, in order to get up and do it all over again.

I don’t see mindfulness meditation as meant for the purpose of relaxation, although relaxation is an essential ingredient for the practice if I want to do it skilfully. Instead of using meditation to relieve or cover up the symptoms, mindfulness meditation has the goal of curing the disease. The goal is to cut the root of what makes me stressed in the first place. And efforts toward that goal aren’t always necessarily experienced as relaxing.

Meditation is slowing down because I am deliberately setting aside the time for formal sitting practice. That is time that I could be using being busy and productive and getting other stuff done! In this sense, meditation at first seemed almost anti-productive. Nevertheless, when I actually started to practice meditation regularly, I realized that it can make me more productive when I am more aware of how I am doing tasks in a more skilful, efficient way. Meditation also fulfills the mind’s need for rest and space, a concept that seems completely foreign in this day and age. Meditation practice can be refreshing and revitalizing when it gives the mind a break from the relentless, habitual thought patterns that leave me worn out. I can get up off the cushion feeling much more prepared to face the day.

Mindfulness meditation is a form of slowing down because in order to do a task mindfully, I have to do it slowly. I have to give my full and complete attention to whatever occupies my activity in the present moment. Thich Nhat Hanh teaches about having a Day of Mindfulness, where we take twice as much time to do anything (cooking, eating, cleaning, tidying, organizing, bathing, washing dishes, drinking tea, gardening, walking). It is at this slow pace that these simple tasks I overlook on my busy days actually become quite enjoyable in and of themselves.

Mindfulness is also slowing down because I am doing one thing at a time if I do it mindfully. Mindfulness supports the practice of uni-tasking! I have to do one thing at a time if I want to actually be aware of what I am doing. In this sense, mindfulness can contradict a multi-tasking culture that expects humans to run like computers: constantly, at high speeds, processing multiple amounts of information at once. When I am multi-tasking, like cooking and talking on the phone at the same time, I end up being less productive or efficient. If I pay close attention to the quality of what I am doing, I see that I end up doing two (or more) tasks at once to a poorer quality, because I make mistakes and I don’t remember what I did afterward.

Spending time in meditation communities reveals to me that the people who attend these groups often have adopted similar attitudes and philosophies of slowing down and having a more simple life. It is quite refreshing to spend time with these people as a break from the dominant culture. Finally, I will add that one of the main reasons I chose not to pursue a PhD, despite many people’s insistence that I should take that route, was that the end goal of having a doctorate degree was completely opposite to voluntary simplicity. The academic lifestyle is not at all what I would describe as balanced or slow, and it didn’t appeal to me in the least.

I chose to focus specifically on the practice of meditation as related to voluntary simplicity, but my meditation practice is part of a larger spiritual practice that incorporates many more of the values of voluntary simplicity. I am quite excited for this upcoming book club meeting, and I know that I have enjoyed similar events in the past.

Speaking of books, here are some of the many titles I have read over the past few years on or related to the topic:

In Praise of Slow: How a Worldwide Movement is Challenging the Cult of Speed by Carl Honore

No Impact Man: The Adventures of a Guilty Liberal Who Attempts to Save the Planet, and the Discoveries He Makes About Himself and Our Way of Life in the Process (should be no impact family in my opinion) by Colin Beavan

Better Off: Flipping the Switch on Technology by Eric Brende (androcentric writing warning)

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life by Barbara Kingsolver

Made from Scratch: Discovering the Pleasures of A Handmade Life by Jenna Woginrich

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Comments»

1. Mitra - December 8, 2012

Hello Andrea
As always, it was pleasure to read this piece as well. I could not agree more with the points that you are making. You have beautifully laid out the pleasure, benefit and significance of “slowing down” in every day life. If I understand you correctly, by slowing down we in fact increase our productivity, in contrary to what the term literally means. I like the words “nexting” and “uni-tasking.” I find the former describes our tendency the latter prescribes what needs to be done to embody “slowing down.” Well done my friend!
In reference to the pursuit of a PhD, a PhD on the idea and practice of “slowing down” seems to be a great idea. But the pursuer needs to embody the practice itself. Perhaps, you could be the ideal person for the job. Such a PhD would simultaneously be the path and goal of your research as a Chinese Buddhist philosopher said “sitting meditation is itself both the path and goal of Buddhist spiritual life.” Thanks for sharing your insights!
Mitra

Living Abundance - December 8, 2012

Hi Mitra,
Thanks, I’m glad that you enjoyed it! Yes, that has been my experience that allowing for spaces and periods of rest and stillness allows me to be more productive during periods of activity when I am taking better care of my energy. ‘Nexting’ is one of my favourite words, too! I think I read it in a book of mine, can’t remember exactly which one now. Its a strong habit of mine so it helps to give it a name that really captures what happens.
Ha ha, yeah a PhD on Applied Buddhist Studies specializing in Slowing Down would be quite the accomplishment. But the best part is I can do it just by practicing without having to get any grades or pay tuition…ha ha! Mhmm, it is definitely important not to confuse the goal with the path. As long as I am on the path, I can be confident that I am expressing the goal itself.
Thanks again, and I’ll see you again soon.
– Andrea


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