Voluntary Simplicity: A Path To Freedom From Consumerism

By: David Astor, Sensei 曦 肯

     Many of my Dharma Talks have been about ways to consider and understand the practical aspects of Buddhist thought, and how to bring our practice alive in order to promote human flourishing. For you see, living the lessons of the Eightfold Path are real, it is not a theory to discuss and debate. The Four Noble Truths points directly, in practical and useful ways, to achieving a life full of meaning and wonder when we take the time to contemplate the joys available to us in this vast world we have a chance to become aware of. It is a way of letting go in order to be reconnected with what is important that will bring harmony and happiness into our lives. We let go in order to reconnect to what is real. It is easy for Buddhist teachers to stick to presenting dogmatic Buddhist principals in our dharma talks. To use legacy language that colors our speech from the cushion to attract attention. But you will rarely hear me use such approaches unless I talk directly about a historical topic or present a specific philosophical principle, or when I choose to speak with a “Zen voice.” But don’t misunderstand me, these are important methods of Buddhist teaching as well, and we should all have a grounded perspective of the specific Buddhist platform we have chosen to stand on and practice, but in the end, we must step on the stage of life and engage others. And it is this social engagement that I respectfully ask to be your guide and present to you my thoughts and personal experiences gained from my own developed worldviews that can act as pointers in order for you to find useful elements and tools for your own life-journey. This is a primary role of a Buddhist teacher. So, today I wish to speak to you about the importance I have learned in my own journey of keeping life simple. It calls for us to act with voluntary intent to live with deliberate thought, and to consume less. By taking this step, you will not only enhance your own life, but also the sustainability of our planet.
At the heart of the simple life is an emphasis on harmonious and purposeful living. There is no special virtue to the idea of voluntary simplicity; it is merely a somewhat awkward label. Still, it does acknowledge explicitly that simpler living integrates both inner and outer aspects of life into an organic and purposeful whole. To live more voluntarily is to live more deliberately, intentionally, and purposefully. In short, it is to live more consciously. We cannot be deliberate when we are distracted from life. We cannot be intentional when we are not paying attention. We cannot be purposeful when we are not being present. Therefore, to act in a voluntary manner is to be aware of ourselves as we move through life. This is why a meditation practice is so important to the inner life: to develop awareness and mindfulness. Words you often hear in relationship to Buddhist practice. This requires that we not only pay attention to the actions we take in the outer world, but also that we pay attention to the intent of these actions. To the extent that we do not notice both inner and outer aspects of our passage through life; then our voluntary, deliberate, and purposeful actions are diminished.
To live more simply is to live more purposefully and with a minimum of needless distractions. The particular expression of simplicity is a personal matter of course. We each know where our lives are unnecessarily complicated. We are all painfully aware of the clutter and pretense that weigh upon our lives and makes our passage through the world more awkward. To live more simply is to unburden our lives and live more lightly. It is to establish a more direct relationship with all aspects of our lives with the things that we consume, the work that we do, our relationships with others, our connections with nature and the global community. We, they, and everything else are interconnected and interdependent. We must begin to see this in real ways and experience this reality in both our inner and outer lives. Simplicity of living means meeting life face-to-face.
When we take these two ideas and integrate them into our inner and outer lives, we can describe “voluntary simplicity” as a manner of living that is outwardly more simple and inwardly more rich, a way of being in which our most authentic and alive self is brought into direct and conscious contact with living. This is a big challenge I know, but one we can achieve with surprising little change in the way we live. The objective is not to dogmatically live with less, but is a more demanding intention of living with balance in order to find a life of greater purpose, fulfillment and satisfaction.

While simpler living has unprecedented relevance for coping with the current ecological, environmental, and economic global challenges, this way of living has a long history with deep roots in the human experience. As is the case with every spiritual tradition, Buddhism has encouraged a life of material moderation and spiritual abundance. An expression is common within the Buddhist tradition, that of the middle way, witch expresses the idea that moderation of our wants increases our capacity to be of service to others and thus true civilization emerges. We in the West think of ourselves as being civilized. But is a narrow platform of living based on grabbing the ring at any cost the act of a civilized individual? The middle way of economics moves between mindless materialism, on the one hand, and needless poverty on the other. The result is a balanced approach to living that harmonizes both inner and outer development.

Some people tend to equate ecological living with a life characterized by near poverty, antagonistic to progress, rural living, and the denial of artful beauty. It is important to acknowledge these misconceptions so we can move beyond them. Although some spiritual traditions have advocated a life of extreme renunciation, it is inaccurate to equate simplicity with poverty. Poverty has a very human face, it is involuntary and debilitating while simplicity is voluntary and enabling. If the human family sets a goal for itself of achieving a moderate standard of living for “everyone”, a study I recently read suggested that the world could reach a sustainable level of economic activity that is roughly equivalent in material and standard of living to that of Europe in 1990. Now, I am not sighting this study to say we need to move backwards in our technological advancements in a few decades to achieve global fairness, but if we do not delay but act with decision and determination, then humanity need not face a future of poverty and sacrifice. This is just an example that the Earth can sustain a moderate and satisfying material standard of living for the entire human family if we had the will to act.
Ecological living does not imply turning away from economic progress; rather, it seeks to discover which technologies are most appropriate and helpful in moving towards a sustainable future. Ecological living is not a path of no growth but a path of new growth that includes both material and spiritual dimensions of life. A simpler way of life is not a retreat from progress; in fact, it is essential to the advancement of civilizations from my point of view. We are now being pushed by necessity to discover anew the meaning of “true growth” by progressively simplifying the material side of our lives and enriching the non-material side.
There is no cookbook for defining a life of conscious simplicity. Given that there is no dogmatic formula for simpler living, there is a general pattern of behaviors and attitudes that is often associated with this approach to living however. I took some time over the past few weeks to compile a list of 18 things I thought would contribute to a simpler life. I used for some of these examples my experience both in living a monastic life and my experience of living and traveling on a sail boat for 12 years; encountering various cultures, standards of living, varying worldviews, and spiritual practices. These personal experiences have informed me of how and with what kinds of benefits one can have when living a deliberate and simple life style:
1. Invest the time and energy freed up by simpler living in activities with your family, friends, or volunteering to engage with others, or get involved in civic projects in your community.
2. Work on developing your potential in physical, emotional, or spiritual & educational pursuits.
3. Take the time to feel an intimate connection with the earth and a reverential concern for nature. Learn that the ecology of the earth is a part of our extended body/mind awareness.
4. Develop an awareness of and compassionate concern for the world’s poor.
5. Lower your overall level of personal consumption by buying less “feel good” items. Buy what you need and learn to control your wants.
6. Change your patterns of consumption in favor of products that are durable, easy to repair, non-polluting, energy efficient, functional and aesthetic.
7. Shift your diet away from highly processed foods, toward foods that are more natural, healthy, simple and appropriate for sustaining the inhabitants of a small planet. If you have the space, grow some of your food which can be both fun and rewarding.
8. Reduce undue clutter and complexity in your personal lives by giving away or selling those possessions that are seldom used and could be used productively by others.
9. Educate yourself on consumption by boycotting goods and services of companies whose actions or policies you consider unethical.
10. Take the time to recycle.
11. Pursue livelihood or work that directly contributes to the well being of the world and enables you to use more fully your creative capacities in ways that are fulfilling.
12. Develop personal skills that contribute to greater self-reliance then upon experts to handle your life’s demands when you can.
13. Learn to live on a smaller scale and in a way that fosters a sense of community.
14. Learn to alter male/female roles in favor of nonsexist patterns of relationships.
15. Develop new styles of communication that simplify nonverbal forms. Learn the eloquence of silence, hugging and touching again, the language of the eyes. When your body and mind reflects healthy intent, your communication will be natural and comforting.
16. Develop practices like meditation, Qigong, and regular exercise to promote health of the body-mind.
17. Devote time to compassionate causes
18. Change your transportation modes in favor of less energy demanding types. Enjoy living closer to work, riding a bike and walking.
Because there is a tendency to emphasize the external changes that characterize simpler living, it is important to reiterate that this approach to life is intended to integrate both inner and outer aspects of existence into a satisfying and purposeful whole. Unless dramatic changes are made in the manner of living and consuming in industrialized nations, we will soon produce a world of monumental destruction, suffering, conflict and despair. Within this generation, we must begin a sweeping reinvention in our ways of living or invite the collapse of our biosphere and allow global civilization to veer off into a long detour and possible dark age. There is a recent documentary that reports scientific research that identified a possible earth cycle of 26,000 years where we switch between a golden age to dark age and back, and we are in a down turn now heading toward a period of decline. Something to think about anyway.
Because we face a crisis in the interconnected global system, changes at every level are needed. At a personal level, we need a magnified global awareness and simpler lifestyles. At a neighborhood level, we need new types of communities for sustainable living. At the national level, we need to adopt new policies with regard to energy, environment, education, media, justice for all worldviews, and much more. At a global level, we need new partnerships among nations. Although changes are necessary at every level, the foundation upon which success can be built is the individual and family. It is empowering to know that each person can make a difference by taking responsibility for changes in their immediate lives.
Just as we tend to wait for our problems to solve themselves, so too do we tend to wait for our traditional institutions and leaders to provide us with guidance as to what we should do. We are beginning to see some intelligent and informed younger leaders emerge. Just in time perhaps. But we do not need to wait. We are it. Each of us is responsible. It is we who, one by one, must take charge of our lives. It is we who, one by one, must act to restore the balance. We are the ones who are responsible for making it thorough this time of sweeping change as we work to reconcile the human family around a sustainable future for the planet.
I want to leave with you the message that the spiritual life is a life which must take into account EVERYTHING in the outer world. Jesus said, “For as much as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me”. Do not think solely of mere charity, of the giving of alms and of kindly speech, but think also of all the conscious and unconscious acts we do that has global impact because of the way we are blind to life as it is for others. Me must take hold of life and understand what our true needs are. We must see that we are not like “dumb driven cattle,” driven by fashion, by these false preferences and desires which are in the world today. If we take time to recognize some of the unsatisfactoryness in the world around us we will find that our life can be made more beautiful with fewer needs than we ever could think possible. If we reconcile the outer need with the inner need, we may find that it is perfectly possible for all of us on this planet to live even in a modern age having all that is necessary, but simply, beautifully, not torturing each other, and above all not cramping the spirit of human wonder. That is what we allow to happen today I’m afraid, and it is for every person to determine to work so that the shackles which now hold us down in these bonds dictated by false economic ideals are broken, till the spirit of our compassion rises upward and communes with the social-self. We must learn for ourselves that we are all interconnected and dependent on each other for global flourishing.
I challenge each of you to pick up some of these ideas and put them into practice. Just one a month is a good start. See for yourself what a change it can make in how you see the world around you. Your Buddhist practice will become empowered. Quite the mind, become mindful of the world around you, learn to see the intent of your thoughts and actions, and then apply them in practical ways that brings a new recognition that you are expressions of the Universe, and can make a difference. And when you sit, you are at the threshold to that Universe. Sit in silence and listen. And you too may become a Buddha too.

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