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Voluntary Simplicity and Spirituality December 14, 2012

Posted by Living Abundance in Uncategorized.

Does voluntary simplicity need a spiritual practice? Is a spiritual practice helpful to fulfill the goals set out by the movement? Or is voluntary simplicity universal, addressing basic human needs that transcend any spiritual tradition? The fact that voluntary simplicity is a widespread and growing movement might suggest that a spiritual practice isn’t required to live out the ideals. I know that for myself, spirituality has helped me make changes more in line with the goals of voluntary simplicity. I believe that Buddhist spiritual practice and voluntary simplicity complement each other. My spiritual practice helps me to clarify my values, ask the big questions, reduce distraction, and look to examples of how to live more simply.

Voluntary simplicity outlines a different set of values than mainstream society and culture. In contrast to extrinsic values of material possessions, money, status, outward appearances, work achievement, and career striving, voluntary simplicity places emphasis on intrinsic values. These values are rewarding in and of themselves, and serve my important psychological needs. These values include autonomy (having control over what I am able to do, such as how I work, how I allot my time and energy, what daily commitments I am involved in, and my leisure activities), connectedness (relationships with close others, building a sense of belonging to community, and connection with nature, other living beings, and our Earth), and authenticity (being true to myself, being who I really am in how I act and what choices I make).

My spiritual practice provides a framework for looking at exactly on what values I am placing priority. I am able to determine what provides fulfillment that is more than just on a surface level. More and more I am able to see how the ideas that I learned about what is “supposed to make me happy”, doesn’t really provide me with much satisfaction at all.

Spirituality helps me to ask the big questions: What matters? What is important? What is the purpose of my being alive? What gives me meaning? The answers to these questions can’t be found outside of me, but can only be found within. Meditation is a practice that helps me to come back to myself to find what is true for me.

In spiritual practice, I come face to face with the big question: What do I want to do before I die? Some people come to this question through spirituality, others through a personal disaster or trauma that makes them wake up to their own mortality. When I come to this question, I know that it is easier to determine exactly what is important and how I want to spend this time on our Earth. I don’t think that I am alone when the answer to this question has very little to do with accumulating more possessions or trying to impress others.

Buddhist spiritual practice is an excellent way to minimize distraction. Distraction is a very important part of meditation practice. Reducing or eliminating distraction helps to simplify my life when I can see what parts of my life situation have been taking up my time and attention that aren’t all that rewarding or satisfying. Eventually these aspects just fall away as I come closer and closer to what is more fulfilling and important. I really don’t miss all of the time I spent organizing my massive collection of music files on my computer, nor do I plan to go back onto facebook anytime soon.

Finally, Buddhist spirituality provides examples of how to live simply. First, retreats are very simple in their settings and activities. We leave behind our electronic gadgets and cell phones, and instead spend much of our time sitting, walking, silently eating, and being outside. The more simple the setting and the activities on the retreat, the deeper my spiritual development usually is. When there are less things to distract me, I am able to focus more on practicing mindfulness and looking deeply at habit patterns and internal formations.

I really enjoy going on retreats, and I find them to be incredibly rewarding. It never seems to surprise me how much I can actually enjoy doing an activity that seems so dreadfully boring otherwise. It can be quite refreshing to be outdoors walking, just to walk, and find it incredibly pleasurable to be using my body in a relaxed way. Or just being in the presence of other people, friends and strangers, without the need to talk.

Second, Buddhist monasteries can be an example for laypeople of the possibilities for just how to organize living circumstances around the idea of simplicity. I have never been to a monastery myself, but I have heard from friends and read a great deal about what the lifestyle would be like for nuns and monks. It is intriguing to see what modern “conveniences” the monastics give up in order to have fewer complications in their spiritual development.

Not that I think people should live in monasteries in order to realize what simplicity is really like, nor do I have any plans to do so, either. I just find it incredibly humbling to realize that one of the services or pleasures I thought I could never do without (“I would go absolutely crazy without access to the internet!”, etc.), there are people getting by quite fine without, thank-you very much. In fact, they can probably be quite happy in spite of having to do without.

These are just a few of the ways that my spiritual practice has helped me along in the voluntary simplicity journey. I have been surprised to see how over the past while I have given up activities and possessions I thought I could never do without, and take up new and exciting activities that give me great joy. I look forward to continuing the adventure in the future!

I would like to end with one of my favourite Buddhist stories about the complications of material possessions (a story I about which I often think when I see people digging their cars out of the snow in the winter):

(As told by Thich Nhat Hanh)
One day the Buddha was sitting in the wood with thirty or forty nuns and monks. They had an excellent lunch and they were enjoying the company of each other. There was a farmer passing by and the farmer was very unhappy. He asked the Buddha and the nuns and monks whether they had seen his cows passing by. The Buddha said they had not seen any cows passing by.
The farmer said, “Nuns and monks, I’m so unhappy. I have twelve cows and I don’t know why they all ran away. I have also a few acres of a sesame seed plantation and the insects have eaten up everything. I suffer so much I think I am going to kill myself.
The Buddha said, “My friend, we have not seen any cows passing by here. You might like to look for them in the other direction.”
So the farmer thanked the Buddha and ran away, and the Buddha turned to the nuns and monks and said, “My dear friends, you are the happiest people in the world. You don’t have any cows to lose. If you have too many cows to take care of, you will be very busy.
That is why, in order to be happy, you have to learn the art of cow releasing. You release the cows one by one. In the beginning you thought that those cows were essential to your happiness, and you tried to get more and more cows. But now you realize that cows are not really conditions for your happiness; they constitute an obstacle for your happiness. That is why you are determined to release your cows.



1. Mitra - December 14, 2012

Hi Andrea,
It is very interesting that you are connecting “Voluntary Simplicity” with Buddhist monasteries, perhaps more accurately forest monasteries. In literature on monasticism, not specifically Buddhist but general monasticism (Christian, Hindu included), we often find the term “voluntary poverty” as a defining feature. But I prefer “voluntary simplicity” to “voluntary poverty,” the former is positive and reacher in meaning. I would like to know more about this term, perhaps you can give some reference that talk about this term.

The story is great…I love it. It illustrates the point that you are making.
One quick observation: What Buddhist modernism (Thich Nhat Hanh is one of many spokespersons of the movement) has done, if nothing else, is the deliverance of monastic ideals to traditional non-monastic members, transcending the white and black division of Monastic-Laity division of Buddhist Sangha and creating a new categories within the Sangha: neither monastics nor laities.
Talk to you soon for a rich conversation.

Living Abundance - December 14, 2012

Hi Mitra, Thanks for your comment and for the helpful information. I would clarify by saying that I have heard about monasteries in the mindfulness tradition, and I would still consider them to fit with the voluntary simplicity philosophy. I would be more than happy to give you a reference. I own some of the books I mentioned in my last post that I would be happy to share. For a website (*sigh*), I’m sorry to say that, in spite of its mostly non-representative (white, male, educated, Western/industrialized) authors, the website Wikipedia has a great page under “Simple Living” that gives a general overview of the main tenets of the philosophy. Feel free to check out other related concepts (that I am also happy to talk about) that I have tried to practice (slow food movement, buy nothing day, buy nothing Xmas, freeganism, thrifting, stuff swap, do it yourself, urban homesteading, work/life balance, critical mass, car-free movement) or am interested in trying (couchsurfing, WWOOFing, small house movement, intentional living, intentional community, cooperative housing, flextime) or just find interesting (wabi-sabi, affluenza, wu-wei). Happy reading! – Andrea

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