Are you seeking harmony in everyday life? then you will I am sure be most interested in the views of Michael Lewin. Put your feet up and enjoy the read; and last but not least, have a great week-end. xxx
In the Beginning Was Simplicity
In our ever expanding, complex and competitive world,
- which is driven by a corporate business culture that ruthlessly pursues the maximization of profit,
- which exploits the world of natural resources including the "commodity" of labour,
- which is unelected, undemocratic and largely unaccountable,
- which wantonly fuels the fires of possession and greed in people through a multi-billion pound advertising industry,
- and which contributes massively to adverse climatic changes,
I seek refuge…
I seek refuge in a life of chosen simplicity. I affirm a positive commitment to a life that deliberately disengages from participating in the dynamics and growth of greed.
The goals of economic and material prosperity that governments encourage us to pursue in the name of promoting individual liberties and freedoms are, I believe, fundamentally flawed. The driven competition inherent in the marketplace, which is seen as the engine of development, is in reality a tool of separation. Its power, based on the Victorian principle of Social Darwinism – survival of the economically fittest – is instrumental in achieving financial prosperity for the few and poverty for the many. The explosion of the global market in recent years has enabled multinational corporations to build a dominating power base to safeguard their interests whilst slowly destroying indigenous, community-based, "organic" economies that have met the needs of their people for centuries. Tawney’s dictum, which I read many years ago now, has never left me:
"Freedom for the pike is death to the minnow."
On an individual level we note that with all the financial abundance that the privileged few attain (some individuals now have wealth far in excess of the GNP of many third world countries), there is no evidence to suggest that happiness follows in its wake. Indeed it seems that wealth can, and does, create many additional problems of social and personal malaise.
"I find all this money a considerable burden."
John Paul Getty, Jr.
Real abundance, the abundance of personal contentment and equanimity, can only be cultivated in the fertile ground of simple, right living which does not set out to exploit anyone or anything, for it celebrates cooperation not competition. It implicitly recognizes the needs of all people to live in a fair and caring world by reaching out to greater humanitarian and egalitarian ideas.
But what exactly is simplicity and how can it be achieved?
One distinction that needs mentioning at the outset is that highlighted by Duane Elgin in his seminal work: Voluntary Simplicity. In this remarkable book Elgin distinguishes between voluntary simplicity that is chosen consciously by individuals as a way to direct their lives, and involuntary simplicity that is enforced on people who have no choice – in reality poverty. He continues to say that "To bring the quality of simplicity into our levels and patterns of consumption, we must learn to live between the extremes of poverty and excess. Simplicity is a double-edged sword in this regard: living with either too little or with too much will diminish our capacity to realize our human potential. Bringing simplicity into our lives thus requires that we understand the ways in which our consumption either supports or entangles our existence. We must learn the difference between those material circumstances that support our lives and those that constrict our lives. Simplicity requires living with balance."
But simplicity is not solely about adjusting our lives to be in tune with more agreeable levels of material consumption, for it embraces in its widest compass aesthetic and spiritual realms as well. All interrelate in supreme moments of harmony to give to the individual a precious gift: a sense of personal, innate rightness without any corresponding feeling of smugness. This psycho/spiritual attainment – which dissolves the desire and need to put oneself above others whilst simultaneously recognizing everyone’s unique qualities – is a cherished state of mind which goes against the grain of our normal deep-seated egotistical concerns and obsessions. But because of the many powerful distractions and hindrances within society that work on us to create false views we can easily stay embedded within that framework, unable at times to see the broader, deeper picture.
In order to reach the summit of ‘right view’ (in the Buddhist sense), we need to work on our spiritual development in a forthright and consistent fashion. Remember, your destiny is where your character leads you…
One notable example of this quest for character refinement is Mahatma Gandhi. He constantly worked in a disciplined and conscientious way to try to purify his life by working on the impediments that blocked his path to the cultivation of a simple lifestyle and corresponding character. Many have testified to his heroic sincerity in pursuing this end, but it was never easy. In his early days whilst studying to become a lawyer in London, Gandhi, like many other aspiring Indians influenced by British values, did try to take on the ‘dandy’ persona of Edwardian society. But slowly and perceptively Gandhi underwent a deep-seated metamorphosis. He had started reading an assortment of works including the Hindu classic The Bhagavad-Gita, The New Testament, and Unto This Last. This latter work was thought to be very influential with early socialist M P’s who identified with Ruskin’s argument that community and fellowship, not wealth, lie at the heart of society. Even when Independence was gained by India and Gandhi became its first Premier, he still pursued in a very real, engaging and truthful way the road of simplicity in the style of living he embraced and in how he treated all people who came into his orbit, from Heads of State to Untouchables. Gandhi’s legendary humility blossomed in the soil of commitment to character training influenced by rich spiritual values; it did not just ‘happen’.
"Complete self-surrender [is] the price for the only real freedom that is worth having."
My personal commitment to the simple life has always been deeply influenced by Thoreau. I constantly seek to find, through personal exploration and experiment, how I can best go forward in simplicity given my particular set of circumstances.
One area of interest in which I have been keen to engage for the last few years is the growing of organic vegetables for personal consumption on a local allotment (a small piece of rented horticultural land). Although I have shared the work with a friend, it has undoubtedly been hard physical work in transforming a hitherto neglected plot of land into a well-organized growing site complete with a new purpose-built shed constructed from recycled timbers. I have gained enormous pleasure from all aspects of this work: satisfaction from engaging in meaningful activity, companionship with a community of gardeners, enjoyment of the wonderful taste of home-grown food, observation of the seasonal wonders of nature in a very direct way and finally, the opportunity to reflect in a mindfully aware state on the mutual dependency of everything in nature.
The East London allotment site is situated at the rear of a fine community building (The Assembly Hall) that has inscribed over its Portland stone facade in large bold letters the following words of Walthamstow’s most famous son:
"Fellowship is life, and lack of fellowship is death."
These are words that I remember from my school days in Walthamstow, which have nourished and inspired me over the years.
Another area of interest for me – which has been a continuous, enduring thread running throughout my life – is the Arts and Crafts Movement. I very much come from a ‘tool culture’ where exploration and expression of materials was considered appropriate and rewarding in itself. Unnecessary dependency on other peoples’ labour (products, maintenance and repairs) was a considered a luxury that we could not afford. If we could not make it or repair it, we went without! Working mindfully with materials to produce well-designed functional objects that informed our lives was, although I did not realize it as a child, a very fine aesthetic experience – a spiritual practice. The sight of my Dad in full concentration, working on so many different projects, using a wide variety of different materials, has been an enduring image that I have drawn upon in my remembrance of him. Today amongst my large collection of tools are many that I inherited from him; they are still regularly used in the work I undertake.
The pioneers of alternative, simple lifestyle communities that engaged in the ‘noble crafts’, like Ruskin, Ashbee, Carpenter, Gill (and many more, in many lands) are indelibly etched upon my mind because of their passion not to be incorporated into an exploitative industrial society that placed no value on the very people who produced the real wealth in that society. Their visions of opening up better ways of simple living found expression in a number of successful communities that placed at their heart the worth of each and every member of that community.
Today we face a stark choice: We either scale-down on corporate business, which is undoubtedly damaging our world through the adoption of wrong values, or we continue at full throttle and run the risk of more social and environmental destruction. I know what Thoreau would say, and it is as relevant today as it ever was: "Simplify, simplify."
May we ALL find that ground…
About The Author
Michael Lewin, who has a degree in Psychology, has spent 25 years teaching and supporting a variety of different groups, from children with special needs to adults with learning difficulties. He is active in a number of UK-based Buddhist groups and has regularly published articles in a number of UK psycho/spiritual magazines. As he says, "I am at that stage in my life that I want to pursue the spiritual path even further to find out the depth I can penetrate. I am a seeker, if not for perfection, then at least for some kind of personal progress that can bring me joy, contentment and happiness." Contact Michael at: firstname.lastname@example.org.