Our life is frittered away by detail… simplify, simplify. ~ Henry David Thoreau
Have you ever felt, as I have, a strangely wonderful sense of liberation when you pack for a trip? Limiting yourself to only what will fit into a suitcase or backpack really makes you think about what you really need to carry with you while you’re away from your familiar environment. For me, it usually turns out to be surprisingly little! And that always makes me surprisingly happy.
Seventeen years ago, I enrolled in a month-long yoga teacher training (YTT, as we call it) at The Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health in Stockbridge, Mass. The main building at Kripalu used to be a Jesuit monastery so the rooms are cell-like (though windowed) and the bathroom is down the hall. Unless I wanted to spring for a big increase in my tuition to upgrade to a single room (I didn’t), I would be sharing this space with another student and all our stuff. For. Four. Weeks. Yes, I was assured, there was laundry on premises and a large sliding drawer under each bed, but room for hangers, fugetaboutit. We would have, my roommate and I, two drawers each of a very small four-drawer chest.
Since March is cold in the Berkshires and I knew I would want to get outdoors, I wondered where I would find space for the jackets, sweaters, warm socks, hats, gloves, and a pair of boots I planned on bringing. Yikes! True, we would be spending most of our time in class (in fact, we didn’t get a day off or visitors for two weeks) so I knew I would need to bundle up and get outside to avoid cabin fever.
Summer camp with the ample footlocker for little more than shorts and t-shirts and bathing suits was nothing like this. So, there I was, age 57, fronting the fact, in my best Thoreauvian guise, that I had too much stuff. I had only to spread it all out on the bed to realize that half of it wasn’t going anywhere but back in the closet or chest. I got a quick, necessary lesson in the art of layering for warmth. Fortunately, yoga clothing doesn’t crush — I wear it outside of class even now for this reason — and is eminently packable and quickly washed and dried. And as meditation master instructor, Jack Kornfield points out, after the ecstasy, the laundry.
When I remember how much better I was able to focus on my yoga training when I didn’t have a lot of choices about what to wear (and no hairdryer or makeup), not to mention all the time I saved for more worthy activities, it takes my breath away. Even as a couple who enjoys our comforts, we’re hardly shopaholics. Our kids know better than to give us stuff without a lot of careful thought, so when they do, it is almost always an in-the-moment treat like a terrific assortment of special teas. Birthday or holiday gifts tend to be certificates for a massage or to an interesting restaurant. When you realize how full of redundant things your life is, a fun exercise is how much stuff you can pack into donation bags for the Vietnam Veterans of America who come right to your door to pick them up. Even so, in moments of mindfulness, we know we’re living a far from simple life. We travel; we have a huge library of books; we’ve failed the 100-mile food challenge. We like our AC, our Internet access, our smartphones.
From a planetary perspective. I believe simplicity is a vastly unrated strategy for dealing with the materialism that we Americans have adopted as a lifestyle and are so busily exporting elsewhere. Or even worse, creating working condition we would never endure domestically, in distant factories that churn out so-called ‘cheap’ clothes and the stuff that clutters our homes. The mantra, “recycle, repair and reuse,” is merely the choice we’re left with when we couldn’t resist buying whatever it was in the first place. And the three R’s are no match for the wanting that comes naturally to us as humans, but is sharpened to a fever pitch by, well, the endless pitch. This isn’t news to you, but here’s an example: a moment ago, I wanted to find the name of a book I have stored on my Kindle app in my phone. So I click on it, and up pops this message:
Stay Connected. By enabling notifications, we’ll occasionally send relevant book recommendations, tips, and other updates to help you get more out of reading.
Thanks, but no thanks. I am on a 30-day trial because I need (or want?) to refresh the music playlists for my yoga classes. When I’ve accomplished that, we’ll part company. No wonder The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing by Marie Kondo soared to best-seller heights, despite the truly terrible writing (or translation, perhaps). In the middle of a Joseph Goldstein talk on You Tube, he asks the audience how many could resist pouring through a catalog because, surely, there must be something here I want. Embarrassed laughter.
Wanting (aka craving) is one of the instinctive responses our ancestors needed because their survival depended on getting enough of what was often difficult to get, or in short supply. In times of crisis, humans often resort to these behaviors, witness the fights breaking out in the refugee encampments or when potable water is delivered to a rural area in the developing world. Advertising appeals to that primitive part of our brain by creating desire or manufactured need. Voluntary simplicity suggests that we don’t have to be slaves to wanting, that we can override these behaviors, and learn — as the great UU Minister, Forrest Church, put it, “to want what we have.” As our planet struggles to absorb the end result of our rampant materialism, this sounds like very sound and timely advice.