THE PRACTICE OF SIMPLICITY
The ceaseless demands of today’s world so easily fill up our days. With our smart phones and computer screens we often remain caught on the surface of our lives, amidst the noise and chatter that continually distract us, that stops us from being rooted in our true nature. Unaware we are drowned deeper and deeper in a culture of soulless materialism. There is a vital need to return to simplicity, to create an inner and outer space that allows for a real connection to what is sacred.
In response I find it more and more important to have outer activities that can connect us to what is more natural and help us live in relationship to the deep root of our being, and in an awareness of the moment which alone can give real meaning to our everyday existence. Over the years I have developed a number of simple practices that bring together action and a quality of mindfulness, or deepening awareness, that can nourish our lives in hidden ways. These activities, like mindful walking, cooking with love and attention, can reconnect us with the web of life, our natural interconnection with life in its beauty and wonder. They can help us “declutter” our outer life and instead become rooted in what is simple and real. One of these practices, which combines action with mindfulness, is simplicity.
Simplicity, patience, compassion.
These three are your greatest treasures.
Simple in actions and in thoughts,
you return to the source of being.
Patient with both friends and enemies,
you accord with the way things are.
Compassionate toward yourself,
you reconcile all beings
in the world.
The boat people of Southeast Asia, the Moken, have few possessions. They can only carry what they need in their small boats. They also have no word in their language for “worry.” But when the tsunami came, they were attentive and watchful of the water; they saw the sea first come high on the beach and then recede far out. They remembered their stories, their myths of what happens to the seas, and so took their boats into deep water and survived the tsunami. The local fishermen did not survive; their boats were destroyed. They did not watch, they were not attentive.17
How can we be fully attentive when our lives are cluttered with so many possessions, so many attachments, so many desires? Will we have time to remember the stories, to watch and move our little boat to deeper waters? Or will we be like the local fisherman, inattentive to the need of the moment, sunk by the tsunami of materialism? We live in a culture in which we are constantly bombarded, our attention distracted, no longer just by the “ten thousand things” of the ancient world, but by ten million things. Everything is demanding our attention, wanting us to consume, to buy, to spend our money and our time. And we do not even know the depths and subtleties of this web of consumerism, its powers of deception.
How can we create a space of clarity, of attentiveness? How can we return to what is essential? How can we remember what really matters, what gives meaning and substance to our daily lives? How can we return to a simplicity of life that honors the simplicity of our essential nature, that gives space for the sacred?
First, we have to acknowledge that our whole culture is caught in the grip of unnecessary desires and recognize the poison of accumulation for what it is. We are conditioned and pressured to want more and more—this is the myth of continual economic progress. This myth has become a monster destroying our ecosystem, taking our money and our life energy. It has polluted our consciousness with its slogans and jingles, designed to distort, to manipulate. And we do not even know the power of its dark magic, how much it has us in its grip, feeding us false promises of a better life, assuring us that “things go better” with the purchase of a product. It has saturated every corner of our culture. We are pressured to consume packaged food and even packaged spirituality. We no longer know the ingredients of our lives.
Second, we have to have the strength to say “no.” To go against this toxic flow, to resist the power of its empty promises and the corporations behind them, we have to regain an essential simplicity, return to what we need rather than what we think we want. Only then can we begin to hear the music of life, be attentive to the inner and outer need of the Earth. Only then can we become alive with what is sacred and true.
Third, we have to learn to discriminate, to clear our inner and outer clutter. In the classical love story of Eros and Psyche, one of Psyche’s almost impossible tasks is to sort a huge pile of seeds. Like Psyche, we have to sort the many things in our life; we have to make conscious what is of value, what we really need.18 Discrimination is never an easy task. But as Psyche is aided in her task by some willing ants, we too have help, in the form of an instinctual wisdom, a quiet quality, that is present to us if we are paying attention. And it becomes easier after time and practice. As we clear more space in our inner and outer lives, we become more attuned to what is necessary, more aware of the deceptions and false promises of unnecessary “stuff.” We see more clearly how our possessions take more than just space, they also take our attention.
Personally I love the old Taoist ways, the ways of the hermits whose spirituality and nature were blended together, their poems a flock of wild geese crossing high in the sky. They lived an essential simplicity that speaks to my soul: their possessions one robe and one bowl, the decoration of their mountain hut “the moon at the window.” I have tried to recapture this simplicity in my life, but today we seem to need so many things just to get by. Again and again I have tried to empty my room, especially when I was younger. But family life demanded more and more possessions—many more than needed by a hermit in a hut—though my children would still complain that I threw out too many things.
So over the years I have tried instead to keep an inner simplicity, an empty space in as many moments of the day as is possible. Now I am getting older, once again I feel the tug of this other landscape, a longing for a small cottage and rain-swept hills—maybe the beautiful and bleak Scottish highlands I knew as a child. But my life remains full, though more with people than possessions. So I keep this simplicity as an inner secret, an emptiness that I crave.
Still I have to be careful. I use modern technology: a computer, the Internet, and I love listening to music on an iPod. All around me I feel consumerism and its dark web of desires that so easily entangles us, more than we realize. And often it is not enough to clear out the physical clutter in our homes; we need also to bring a simplicity to how we spend our time, how we use our attention—to be mindful in how we live.
The practice of meditation and mindfulness can clear the clutter of our minds. A few trips to the goodwill or charity store can clear the clutter from our homes. And then continual attention is needed so that the currents of accumulation do not fill the empty space we have created.
And beyond the clutter of thoughts and things, we also have to watch that we are not caught in constant activity, our culture’s emphasis on endless “doing” rather than “being.” We need space in order to watch, to listen, to walk, to breathe—to be present. The Tao Te Ching teaches the value of not doing:
Less and less is done until nothing is done,
When nothing is done, nothing is left undone.
Through a quality of emptiness we can access a deeper rhythm than the surface jangle of constant activity. We used to be held by the rhythms of the seasons and the soil. Now we have to struggle to return to a rhythm and a space that are not toxic with consumption, that belong to the seasons of the sacred, where life still flows true to its essential nature. Simplicity, patience, and compassion can guide and keep us inwardly aligned. Gradually we can once again listen to the Earth, to Her wisdom and beauty; we can feel the beating of both Her heart and ours. We can feel again the deep belonging that allows us to be present in every moment, not as a practice but a simple state of being. We can remember why we are here.
Simplicity is the essence of life. The word itself comes from the Latin simplex, meaning uncompounded or composed of a single part. Simple things reflect this essential nature, which belongs to everything in creation. When we honor the simple things of life, we bring ourselves back to this oneness, our true Home.
All the practices in this book are a return to simplicity. Breathing, walking, growing food, cooking … these are the “chop wood, carry water” of our day. If we honor what is essential in our lives, we connect with the life force that runs free of the dramas of our individual and collective psyche. Here we are connected and responsive.
Begin by giving extra attention to your simple daily activities, like rising from bed and putting two feet on the floor. Pause there. You are awake; you are alive. Take note of how you feel in your body, and how your feet touch the floor. Be aware as you move towards the bathroom, towards the kitchen and the coffee or tea. Be grateful for water in the sink, for oranges that made your juice, for milk in your tea. Drink slowly. Appreciate your food. Appreciate your family, the sun coming in the window, the beauty you see in your partner or children. Simplicity reveals itself through slowness, in quiet moments when you can see, feel, taste, touch. Take time during the day to stop rushing. Move through the day with respect and openness.
Take an honest inventory of your life. Look at the things you have that take up time and psychic space. Look at your activities and commitments. What of these things do you actually need? Which are habits and entanglements that take up space and weigh you down? Which reflect your real values, feed your soul, touch you with love? Do you need or just want that new thing, that new activity, that has caught your eye? For a short time, try going without some of the things of your life. Maybe you don’t need them after all.
Let nature teach you. In nature, we are students of simplicity. The way a tree grows towards the sun, the way a cat stretches beside the fire, the way the seasons come round again and again without fail, can teach the simplicity of what is. The essential nature of our own lives—the cycle of birth, death, suffering and joy, and even liberation—also reflects this simplicity. We might make our lives complicated by how we relate to these—fighting death, avoiding suffering, searching for freedom and happiness—but that is our superimposed experience, not what is. Look for ways to attune to the natural simplicity of life that underlies the complications of our human experience.
Bring yourself back again and again to what is simple, to what does not change over time, to what shines steady through the fog. Ask yourself, do we need more than these things? Do we need more than the beauty of a crab apple tree in spring, a warm house in the winter, the way water sounds flowing through a stream, a cup of tea with friends? Do we need more in our lives than love?
Practicing simplicity doesn’t mean giving away all our things, quitting our demanding jobs, and moving to a mountain hut or living off the grid. It simply means being very honest about what we value within our lives, what sustains us, brings us joy and meaning, and devoting ourselves to those activities, people, or things. While we might end up having fewer possessions or changing some of our habits, simplicity compels a return, not a rejection—a seeing through and within, rather than looking somewhere else. When we live from a place of simplicity we naturally find we need less, and instead are more open to life.
Don’t be afraid of simplicity. It can feel stark and empty because it is free of psychological complexity and the coverings of accumulated need and desire. But our attention and our genuine response—awe, gratitude, appreciation, and respect—help transform that starkness into the richest of human experiences.
- Before the 2005 tsunami that caused so much loss of life, the nomadic Moken sailors who live among the islands in the Andaman Sea, off Myanmar (Burma), recognized the signs of the coming disaster in the dolphins and other fish suddenly swimming to deeper water. So they too took their boats further from the shore and rode out the waves, unlike the Burmese fishermen who were not attentive to the signs of nature but stayed close to shore where they perished as their boats were wrecked by the tsunami. The Moken said of the Burmese fishermen, “They were collecting squid, they were not looking at anything. They saw nothing, they looked at nothing. They don’t know how to look.”
- In this love story of classical mythology, Aphrodite gives Psyche a series of seemingly impossible tasks. In She: Understanding Feminine Psychology, Robert Johnson gives a simple and profound interpretation of this story in relation to feminine psychology.
Adapted from Spiritual Ecology: 10 Practices to Reawaken the Sacred in Everyday Life. www.spiritualecology.org © 2017 The Golden Sufi Center, Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee & Hilary Hart.
Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee is a spiritual teacher and author, Hilary Hart is an author with a focus on women and feminine consciousness.
Categories: Articles by Contemplative Leaders