Questions and Answers on Popular Conceptions of “Simple Living”

I originally wrote this paper as a fun but purposeful handout for a class that my wife and I gave called "Simple Living in Complex Times." The class itself has turned into my book, Finding Focus, and addressed the idea of "Simple Living" in its popular notion as a rural lifestyle. Some of the points from this paper are in the book, but others aren't, so I'm offering the whole here.

Q: Do I have to live in the woods?

A: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life…” This passage from Thoreau is often quoted as the hallmark of “simple living.” But the important element here is not woods, but deliberately. Simplicity comes from mental clarity, from a focus on what’s important to you. One is not better for where he lives. Peace and happiness are found within, not in outer forms; those forms can only, at best, reflect or express that which you are inside.

Q: Well, I should at least move out of the city, right?

A: It depends on your priorities. Certainly removing yourself from the restlessness of a city can be helpful if you’re suffering from stress, but such an environment can also be a wonderful opportunity for the expression of your priorities. Mother Theresa, as an example, lived in one of the most crowded, noisy, and polluted cities in the world (Calcutta, India). Yet she was a shining example of what most people who are attracted to the idea of simplicity hope to become themselves. If your expression involves working with inner city kids, “greening up” the urban environment, or helping to solve certain socio-political problems, you’ll be hard pressed to do these things on a 3,000-acre ranch in central Wyoming. In the end, how you experience life is a matter of the choices you make and the attitudes you cultivate. One can be joyful and content in a city as easily as one can be miserable in the country. (Fishing by the lake is great until the mosquitoes and deer flies appear!)

Q: Do I have to grow my own food, make my own clothes, and build my own home and furniture?

A: A man in a spiritual community was once asked by a visitor what the community members did about clothes. “We wear them,” he replied. The concept of “self-reliance,” derived from Emerson’s essay of that name, primarily means the willingnessto do what’s necessary in your life, if conditions demand it. Yet few of us are pressed out of necessity into do everything for ourselves. Indeed, if your life priorities are not best expressed through gardening, home spinning, chopping wood, and so forth (and it is for some, of course), trying to adhere to such forms can make your life far more complicated and difficult than it needs to be. Also consider that the self-reliant mountain man is no less active or busy than one who might purchase his necessities from others while focusing his or her life energies in other ways.

Q: Do I have to live on beans and rice?

A: It’s easy to make a big deal out of food as well as other necessities like clothes and shelter—how to “live on the cheap,” live in a home built from recycled tires, etc. Yet these too are just forms. If paying too much attention to such details distracts you from the focus of your life, you truly must question those decisions as much as you would question a decision to purchase a Ferrari or a timeshare in Tahiti. Indeed, simplicity of food, home, and clothing spring naturally from a focus onhigher purposes, precisely because you don’t want those thing (or your health, for that matter) to distract you. Fulfilling your necessities in an inexpensive or basic manner is not, in other words, the bottom line of simple living. Doing so merely enables you to live for higher ideals.

Q: But at least I should never eat out because it’s too expensive, right?

A: It makes little sense to force yourself to cook three meals a day out of guilt or out of conformity to someone else’s definition of a simple life. If you really enjoy your life and work outside the kitchen, what does it matter where you feed your body? Patronizing family-owned restaurants, in fact, can be a wonderful expression of many positive qualities, such as supporting people who are perhaps themselves trying to live a simple life by running their own business!

Q: Do I have to shop at second-hand stores?

A: Your clothes and home environment should clearly reflect your priorities. How can you claim to live for something like “beauty” while dressing yourself in rags? Opulence is certainly not necessary, nor is excess. But there’s much more to simple living than merely saving money. Saving money is merely a way to give you the freedom to choose how you express your priorities in your life.

Q: Do I have to give up my computer and other electrical goodies and live “off the grid” like the Amish and the Mennonites?

A: Public utilities were created so that people didn’t have to individually spend all their time worrying about such matters. Again, simple living is about focus, not form; it’s about knowing what’s important to you and filling your life accordingly rather than merely the “giving up” of things. If the things you own or depend on contribute to your focus, why make a fuss about it? Just think: any modern author who has written a book about simple living has probably used a computer (even if powered by a solar panel), a telephone, a fax machine, and whatever else was necessary for the publishing process! The key is non-attachment—be willing to let go of things when they are no longer necessary or when something you normally depend on (like electricity) become unavailable. In the meantime, if they serve your ideals, there’s no sense in giving them up just because someone else has decided to do so. Focus on your own ideals, not theirs.

Q: Well, I should at least think that living on a farm would be really cool, right?

A: Go live and work on a farm for a couple of months. Then ask yourself this question again.

Q: Do I have to homeschool my children?

A: Obviously homeschooling is the least expensive means of giving your children a good education, assuming that public education in your area is inadequate and that you are willing to put the necessary time and energy into the process. That's the tradeoff. If educating your children yourself falls in line with your life priorities, then homeschooling will satisfy everyone’s needs. Otherwise, it’s better to do something you love in order to financially support your children’s education than to spend every day resenting the lessons more than the children do themselves! The depth of your relationship with your children is much more important than total hours. Consider also your example: would you like your children to see you happy and fulfilled for five hours a day, plus weekends, or miserable and grumbling for sixteen hours a day, seven days a week?

Q: Do I have to meditate 6 hours a day?

A: While the practice of meditation is central to developing simplicity of consciousness (that is, mental clarity), it doesn’t have to consume your life. Seek balance. When you sit to meditate, be serious about it and resolutely set everything else aside for 10 or 15 minutes. Depth—or intensity of awareness—is much more important than length. Remember also that meditation, or the practice of touching your inner joy, should be a joyful practice, not a grim duty.

Q: Do I have to become a back-to-the-land environmentalist and join the Green Party?

A: By virtue of consuming no more than you really need—that is, living with “enough”—you certainly reflect timeless ecological principles and naturally incline toward more environmentally responsible attitudes. At the same time, whether your priorities in life lead to political expression is an individual matter—there is no set definition is “enough,” and perhaps an SUV really is the best vehicle for what you do (as it might be for an National Park ecologist)! This is again why it’s so important to see simplicity as a matter of consciousness and conscience, not specific forms or expressions. Remember that no matter what your priorities and expressions happen to be, never judge anyone else for theirpriorities and expressions.

Q: Do I have to “slow down” and not do anything meaningful or ambitious?

A: Popular images of “simple living” often contrast what we think of as work (sitting at a computer, holding a job, etc.) with what we like to think of as play (fishing at a lakeside cabin, running around naked in the sunshine, etc.). Yet think—how long would you really feel satisfied doing nothing but dancing in the meadows and foraging for berries? Simple living does not have to be a sleepy exercise in mediocrity. Consider the example of Mahatma Gandhi who lived far more simply than almost anyone in the West yet led India to political independence! Again, simplicity begins with focus and concentration upon your highest priorities; complexity comes from being scattered. Whether the expression of your focus happens in an office or in the woods, or whether it involves hard work and long hours or not—it simply makes no difference: the simple joy and freedom you seek is in your heart.

Q: Do I have to be financially independent? Isn’t working for someone else akin to slavery?

A: Financial independence merely gives you the freedom to choose how you can express your priorities in your life: you no longer need to trade hours of your life for the money you need to pay your basic expenses. Financial independence isn’t a requirement—many people live simply while continuing to earn their living expenses in work that’s meaningful to them. It’s also not an either/or proposition: every dollar you earn from investments is simply a dollar that you don’t have to earn with your time. Consider also that work is a very important part of the human experience, not an unfortunate burden. The ancient sage Patanjali, in fact, described work as the “giver of all gifts,” something to be greatly desired. If you find gainful work that both serve your priorities in life and provides for your needs, financial independence isn’t even necessary.

Q: So can I quit my job?

A: One can live simply in body and mind in many lines of work. Just as one is not better for where he lives, one is not better for what one does. As with so many other aspects, you cannot judge any particular kind of work as falling under the “simple living” category or not. What matters is whether it helps you, as an individual, direct your energies toward your priorities. Finding suitable employment is a wonderful means of satisfying both your inner and outer needs simultaneously. If your present employment seems at odds with your direction, it’s certainly something to examine. Remember, though, that running away isn’t usually the answer—seek first to understand exactly why you don’t think its working. Perhaps the problem lies in your attitude rather than your workplace. Consider also the impact on your co-workers if you were to up and quit. If it is right for you to leave, trust that circumstances will, in their own time, allow you to do so harmoniously.

Q: My significant other or my family doesn’t support my desire to live simply—what should I do?

A: Again, running away usually isn’t the right choice. This is the time for patiently taking one step at a time, realizing that harmonious relationships are an important aspect of simple living. There are probably deeper issues involved than appear on the surface. Talk about why it’s important to you to make lifestyle changes, and why it’s important to your loved ones to maintain the status quo. What’s probably happening is that they are uneasy or even terrified about the specific formsthat you have in mind (or on your tongue) and their only defense is to resist such thoughts completely. Face it, they simply might not share your enthusiasm for moving to a farm and milking cows every morning! But they probably do share many of your values and ideals, which is why you have these relationships to begin with. By focusing on those values—that is, on what’s important to all of you—you can then find expressions that work for everyone. In the process, you will probably discover many wonderful opportunities to deepen your relationships.

Have other questions you'd like to see here? Drop me an email and I'd be happy to add a response.

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