Reflections on living the simple life

Simplicity is about
subtracting the obvious
and adding the meaningful.
–John Meeks

There is a movement afoot known as minimalism, and by this I mean a lifestyle characterized by simplicity.  The movement deserves a better name, something like simple living, since minimalism nearly always denotes a movement within the Fine Arts, e. g., music and painting.

You can view a growing number of websites and blogs dedicated to simple living.  One of the more prominent ones, and my favorite, is Rowdy Kittens with its 100,000 readers, a quite lovely site filled with wholesome counseling for uncluttering our lives,

The simple living movement traces back to ancient history.  Samson in the Old Testament was a Nazarite, or follower of an ascetic mode of living.  The early Christian community was also noted for its communistic regimen, with goods shared in common.   In Grecian times, there is Epicurus who cautioned moderation in all things and the danger of accumulating goods.

The East is even more famous for its preachments of the simple life.  I think of Buddha, Lao-zi, and Confucious.

In America, there’s my favorite, Henry David Thoreau, with his remarkably quotable Walden.  I have read this work several times over and you can see my enthusiasm for it abundantly evidenced in my omnivorous underlining and scribbled notations.

In fact, America, a country of abundant wealth, has a surprisingly vibrant tradition of simple living advocacy: the Shakers, now extinct, and the Plain People, or Amish, for examples.

Abroad, I think of another favorite author of mine, Leo Tolstoy, whose asceticism following his religious conversion, got him into considerable domestic difficulty as he sought to give up his wealth. “The Death of Ivan Ilyitch,” somber, intense, and profound, has always resonated well with me in its cautions again excess, and I have it almost by heart, as I taught it for nearly three decades as a college prof.

The greatest exemplar of this way of life in more recent times is Mohandas Gandhi.  I remember seeing the possessions of this man I have always loved: a mat, cup, sandals, a pair of wire glasses.

A nation where simplicity has been a traditional staple is Japan.  I will always remember the simple life I lived in the mountains surrounding the Nikko temples as a young serviceman on R&R: an unadorned kimono, raw fish and seaweed veggies, a hot bath, followed by a bed on the floor with a hard pillow, and sunset and sunrise setting the parameters of sleep.

Will this rediscovery of simple living take hold?  I think not, though to our great loss, for it has much to teach us, if we will listen.  We live with economies that preach growth, not sustainability, which may be the death of us.

Simple living is good not only for ourselves, but for our wounded planet that can only right itself if the majority of us, worldwide, heed the wisdom of simple living.

I wish I could be more hopeful.  It’s just that there exist two primary lifestyles: of possession and of being, with the former having the upper hand by a large margin.

Possession, or accumulation, leads to inequality, founds classes or social hierarchy, fosters envy, social strife, and spills over into war.

Being, on the contrary, begets concern for life’s essentials, our needs and not our wants.  There is no rancor when people live by their needs and do not exceed their fellows in goods.  Being means to prize people and not possess them; to see nature for its own sake and not as a quarry.  Being means an ability to let go.

Replacing anxiety born of compulsion, we find blessedness.

Do well and be well,


Author: RJ

Retired English prof (Ph. D., UNC), who likes to garden, blog, pursue languages (especially Spanish) and to share in serious discussion on vital issues such as global warming, the role of government, energy alternatives, etc. Am a vegan and, yes, a tree hugger enthusiastically. If you write me, I'll answer.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: