Recently, some of my hip friends have been telling me that simple living is "hot" and that I should write something for the masses. (I have written on the subject for thirty years and have tried to live simply for most of that time.) One friend offered to produce a calendar if I would write twelve simple-living thoughts. Here's what I wrote. I guess it didn't match the sensibilities of the current fad; my friend read this and never mentioned the subject again.
For some people, being alive is such a passionate endeavor that they are fully consumed by it. For others, there is no meaning, no reason, and no passion in being alive; for these people, free time is not a gift but something that must be endured. For this group, filling up time can become an obsession.
A continuum runs from one extreme to the other. At neither end is there much choice. The passionate person will slash all wasted effort and every mindless path out of his or her life. For the person to whom free time is a burden, no amount of mischief or melodrama, and no mountain of possessions, can be enough to assuage the terror of free time.
Most of us are somewhere on the continuum, not at either end. To move toward the passionate end, we need to simultaneously make more free time for ourselves and to fill it with our passion. Simple living makes more free time, and fully living our life feeds our passion.
We do not know what passion is. We cannot find it by looking for it. Passion is a dimension, a focal point. We can sit in a chair and read with lassitude. or we can do it with such intensity that the world around us stops. We can run while daydreaming and work up a healthy sweat, or we can run so that the universe flows into our mouth and out our toes. Many of us know this intensity of passion in orgasm. Some of us know it in the taste of one bite after a fast, or one swallow of water after days in the desert.
Intensity is passion, a dimension of living, the focal point that makes the rest of the world evaporate. As we find the consuming passions in our life, we want more free time to live in that intensity. It is hard to be intense and at the same time have to worry about feeding the cat while 300 miles away from home, or to worry about the answering machine running out of tape or the rain leaking through the roof and ruining a good pair of shoes.
The ideal world, for me, would be one where I could lease everything that isn't consumed, like food and toilet paper. The leasor would be responsible for the maintenance and replacement of everything in my life; I would just use it and be careful with it.
One of America's great industrialists, Roger Sonnebend, loved his work so much that he removed almost all possessions from his life. He owned no houses but kept hotel rooms in New York, London, and Los Angeles, where he traveled regularly, and had a closet of clothes in each one, which the hotel kept clean.
It is easy to live with few or no possessions if you have a great deal of money: You can rent cars, planes, and hotel rooms, eat all your meals out, and use commercial services for every daily need. It is also easy to live with few or no possessions if you are poor: You can live in a monastery, be a backpacker, or join the Conservation Corps. Why is it so hard to live with few or no possessions when we are neither very rich or very poor?
The tradition of simple living is very old in America. Among the first European settlers there were many religious communities founded on simple-living principles, including the Puritans and the Quakers. Their goal was to have a life devoid of distraction so that all energy and attention could be focused on the daily practice of religion.
The American military was founded by anti-British rebel volunteers who valued simple uniforms and eschewed the ostentation of the Redcoats. The word pompous comes from pomp, and expresses contempt for uniforms with epaulets, gold braid, and elegant fringe. Our army tradition associates austerity with clarity of purpose and dedication.
Africans brought to this country carried with them the West African virtue of sharing all personal wealth with others. West Africans valued generosity so highly that living simply was evidence of social wisdom. Our ninteenth-century poets and writers believed that simple living was a virtue associated with nature, rural life, and rugged individualism.
Twentieth-century immigrants brought the simple-living idea of bohemianism to our shores. Bohemians valued poverty as a source of literary authenticity and creativity. Bohemian simple living contradicted earlier notions of cleanliness and prudery; the value of leisure time and sexual freedom were celebrated.
Most recently, Zen Buddhism has brought us a new version of simple living, which combines an esthetic of simplicity (three flowers in a vase, rock gardens, rustic pottery) with a devotion to meditation and living in the moment.
Simple living in America is a big tent. The simple-liver next door can be very different from you, yet have much in common.
Do we have possessions or do they have us?
I've seen homeless people pushing shopping carts filled with their prized possessions&emdash;junk to many middle-class observers. The shopping cart is an obvious burden because it is heavy. It can't be left behind for fear of it being taken, and it limits the places the person pushing it can enter. How are our middle-class possessions different from this?
Many middle-class possessions need maintenance and insurance due to fear of loss. But they are different from the possessions in a homeless person's shopping cart in other ways.
I don't know if homeless people with shopping carts do this but most middle-class people keep an inventory in their mind of their possessions; some keep good inventories, others bad ones. Some carefully think about the location of every item, including those loaned out, hidden, and lost. Others keep a bad inventory and keep buying the same thing over again. They spend time trying to find something when it's needed and are distressed when they think something is lost. No matter how you look at it, possessions clutter up our minds.
A clear difference is that to the middle-class person, the maintenance, insurance, and security of possessions are a fixed cost. As our fixed costs rise, we have fewer options to take lower-paying work. We begin working for our possessions. We work to keep the country house, or to have a bigger apartment to store all our stuff. Fixed overhead is the ultimate burden.
Finally, the possessions of the middle-class person can generate envy, even when they are not ostentatious. Envy can arise from having possessions that others don't&emdash;not the best emotion to generate in your friends. Envy can create covert hostility, the kind that closes doors to your choice of livelihood and community.
One of the most effective ways to clutter up your life is to add melodrama to it. Conversely, getting rid of melodrama is an important way to simplify your life.
If you want to consume large amounts of spare time and a great expenditure of energy, try some of the following: have sex with your neighbor's spouse; spread lies about a family member behind his or her back; be dishonest in a situation where other people are depending on you. If the consequences of these actions don't consume enough time, borrow any of the themes from daytime television melodramas.
A person with few or no possessions can find that he or she has no time left after making false accusations, betraying a friend, or making defamatory statements about important people. It almost looks like the Ten Commandments and the Old Testament list of laws in Deuteronomy were intended to protect religious people from spending their time and energy on fruitless trials and internecine battles.
Simple living depends on ruthlessly avoiding melodrama, unless your livelihood is writing TV soap operas.
Simple living generally means having few possessions. Is there a way to reconcile the need to reduce the number of possessions in your daily life with the need to have the proper selection of tools for your trade? Yes and no.
A carpenter may need many tools to run his/her shop and very few objects to live. While we need the efficiency supplied by tools for working and living, we don't need more than one of any kind of tool, or specialized tools that take the place of those that can perform more than one task.
The simple liver values efficiency because it generates free time in daily life. In work, the object is to proceed with directness and clarity, both synonyms for efficiency. The workplace should be uncluttered, and all the necessary tools to perform tasks should easily at hand. This applies to kitchens, closets, and studies as well as to offices.
The longer one has a business, occupation, or income-earning skill, the more efficient that person becomes over time. I advise all my business clients to visit several people who have been in their line of business for more than ten years. Carefully observing their habits, including how and where they store supplies, dispose of waste, file, select customers, handle problems, and manage time can save a person new to that business countless hours and many costly mistakes. Tools of the trade become efficient with time, so the shortcut is to study someone who has learned the shortcuts.
Duplication is often necessary in business. In the old days, an answering machine was so essential that it was important to have an extra machine on hand in case the first broke. Similarly, the specialization of tools is very common. Special shelves are built for supplies, unique designs are needed for repetitive motions, and many tools are designed for a single purpose.
On the other hand, multipurpose tools are fairly common in daily life. One knife can be used for many cutting functions, and a wok can be used to stir-fry, deep-fry, and steam foods.
I'm a careless slob when it comes to wasting time, and I have wasted plenty. Is the issue of wasting time important in simple living?
Passion is one of the stimulae for simple living. Sometimes people with great passion spend all their free time on their passion. But I can't help noticing that people who just want to take a walk, or hike in the mountains, or fish as a way to waste their time seem to also have a drive for simple living. These are not always the same people. Often, walkers are good listeners; they observe the world, they taste it, they smell it, they wallow in it with great spontaneity. For them, simple living is an open door that they wander out of, not into.
There are some people, maybe only a few, who are both passionate and spontaneous. What a blessing to have a double motivation for simple living!
Simple living is not the same thing as stinginess or miserliness. Those aren't virtues, and they aren't enough fun to be vices. The problem is that simple living requires friends and community support, both of which encourage generosity.
There is one important area to be generous with: your expenditures on health. Our health is our main long-term asset; without it life has less sparkle and enchantment. I will spare nothing for good health.
Sometimes high-quality food is more expensive, as in the case of organic vegetables and fruit and naturally raised meats. But food that contributes to our good health is worth the extra expenditure. Exercise and preventive expenditures are worth it, for they are essentially prepaid health insurance. Yoga and Chi Gung are great ways to ensure that your future body will be stronger, less creaky, and more flexible. If you prefer a certain kind of exercise, put money into supporting it. Pay for a club that has swimming 24 hours a day, if swimming is your fun. Runners should buy the best shoes and replace them often. If exercising is easier with companions, make it a point to seek out those people and to foster your relationship with them.
Finding ways to spend money on health is an open-ended vista if you have more money than you need or wish to save. You can study the healing arts, pay for others to learn about health, organize exercise events, and travel around the world to take advantage of various healing sciences and methodologies.
For simple-livers, the two words marriage and children are the equivalent of a rocky shore and a hurricane for the sailor. In my experience, it is virtually impossible for an individual to live simply when married to a consumer. The consumer dominates. The consumer's values become the couple's values, with very little of the concept of simple living affecting the consumer. Regardless of the emotional makeup or power balance in the marriage, this is a pattern I've seen countless times. Even among older couples, where individual living patterns are well established, the same thing happens. Most couples pair up without regard for this eventuality, but it is worthwhile to know the consequences.
Children are an even more extreme plight if a simple-liver is married to a consumer. The children will not get much exposure to simple-living values, and they will demand to be consumers just like all their friends. This kind of typical American child is very expensive to raise.
If both parents are simple-livers, the problem is still serious, though it can be lived with. We need to explain to our children from their earliest time of comprehension that they are part of a unique family where different values prevail. Long before the matter becomes an issue, you can tell them: "You are not going to have the newest, latest stylish clothes unless you buy them yourself." This can be said to a child several years before first grade. The net effect is that, difficult as it can be, you may be able to have children and maintain your simple life.
We are going to be very much the same in old age as we are today. If we like bingo now, we will then; if we don't now, we probably won't then. If we like swimming now, we will still like swimming later. If we like young people today, we will still like young people when we are older, and if we like to complain now, we will continue doing it, with less sympathy from others, and more aches to complain about, in later years.
Knowing we will be the same person in old age should govern our present behavior. We will need to keep our present friends and replace the ones who die (by age 65, about a quarter of our male friends will have died) with young friends. We will have to be flexible physically and emotionally. Ensuring flexibility may mean practicing yoga, studying Chi Gung, taking improvisational theatre training, and stretching our capacity for accepting diversity. Tolerance is the by-product of living and working with people who are distinctly different from us. We will need to be interesting, too, to attract friends. Being interesting in old age is the by-product of doing interesting things in our younger years, and continuing to do them as we grow older.
The fear of not having enough money to live on in old age cannot be overcome with logic. One way to deal with this is to take a simple-living vacation for a month or several months. Live on the minimum amount of money you can live on. Eat simple, inexpensive meals (lots of rice and beans); use public transportation and libraries. Do everything you can think of to keep your expenses to the bare minimum, but have fun with the time you have. Keep track of all your expenses. When you add them up, you will know how much money you will need to live on later.
Knowing this amount will help you to separate future monetary needs into two categories: comfortable survival and luxuries. Now you can adjust your life so that present joys and desires don't get frittered away in order to gain a surplus of money in your old age.
Consider what earning skills you'll have in old age. The majority of my older friends are still earning money. They work as consultants, advisors, artists, authors, and journalists, and many continue to run businesses they love.