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I’ve noticed myself slowing down lately. I walk slowly, one step at a time. Not keeping pace with anyone, feeling the ground beneath my soles. It’s nice: no hurry, no worries. It’s a practice of engaging in the journey, not just rushing toward a destination. Embracing the how along with the what.
A similar kind of slowing down or re-examining is at the heart of voluntary simplicity or simple living. But it’s not a bad kind of slow; rather, it’s an assessment of what makes us happy and fulfills our ideals. “At the heart of the simple life is an emphasis on harmonious and purposeful living,” said author Duane Elgin.
There are as many ways of practicing voluntary simplicity as there are people to practice it. It’s about living life directly and eliminating distractions, which may be different for each one of us. Janet Luhrs wrote, “You choose your existence rather than sailing through life on automatic pilot.”
Contrary to some notions, simple living doesn’t necessitate any regress in terms of technology, but rather an assessment of the technologies that are most right and purposeful and that best support true growth. According to Elgin, historian Arnold Toynbee said that true growth “is the ability of a society to transfer increasing amounts of energy and attention from the material side of life to the non-material side and thereby to advance its culture, capacity for compassion, sense of community, and strength of democracy.”
In “Your Money or Your Life,” Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin write about the all-consuming nature of the typical job. We identify ourselves by our profession. Painters don’t just paint: they are painters. We shop for recreation, and yet acquiring more material wealth has not raised our quality of living.
A wonderful parable by an unknown writer brings some humor (not to mention self-examination) into this discussion. In the story, an American banker meets a Mexican fisherman while on vacation. He asks why he doesn’t spend more time fishing than the small while it takes him to catch enough for his family, and what he does with the rest of his day. The fisherman replies, “I sleep late, fish a little, play with my children, take siesta with my wife, Maria, stroll into the village each evening where I sip wine and play guitar with my amigos, I have a full and busy life, señor.”
The banker then offers to help him, touting his Harvard graduate degree, and suggests that the fisherman spend more time fishing in order to afford a bigger boat, in order to afford a whole fleet of boats, in order to expand his enterprise and eventually move it to a big city. The fisherman, skeptical, asks how long all that would take. 15-20 years, the banker replies, and after that, he says the fisherman would have earned millions and could retire. His retirement plan? “Move to a small coastal fishing village where you would sleep late, fish a little, play with your kids, take siesta with your wife, stroll to the village in the evenings where you could sip wine and play your guitar with your amigos.”
In a PBS NOVA episode called “The Fabric of the Cosmos: Universe or Multiverse?,” physicist Brian Greene calls elegant simplicity “a single master equation that would explain what we see in the world around us.” He’s talking about string theory, but I see it relating to lifestyles too. We can live an elegantly simpler life by assessing our life in terms of our highest ideals and deepest happiness and making any number of small or large changes accordingly, from sharing more to working less to choosing a clothes line over an electric dryer.