Wednesday, April 6, 2016

The Practice of Simplicity

"Elegant Simplicity"
- in my meditation garden -

As I went to turn on my TV last evening I was struck with the fact of how complex a simple thing like turning on a TV has become. Because we are connected to the local cable company, the cable, the TV, even the internet are all connected to a remote device that I have to “program” properly just to turn the TV on. Then, when I final manage to get it on, I am confronted with the possibility of watching more than 700 channels, many of which are fairly redundant and most of which I will never tune in. On top of those 700 channels, if I wish I can turn on services like Netflix or Hulu and then a whole new myriad of additional viewing possibilities become available along with a seemingly endless array of “On-Demand” movies.

Yesterday as I engaged in the presumably simple act of turning on a TV set, I thought about how cluttered and complicated almost everything in today’s technological society has become and I wondered if all that clutter may indeed be robbing us of our joy and draining us of a deeper peace.

I think it’s no accident that the wisdom of almost every single world-wide spiritual tradition calls for the practice of simplicity in living every day. The Buddha called his disciples to live simply and so did Jesus who walked though fields of wildflowers and told his disciples to live without anxiety, as simple as the flowers of the field and the birds of the air. Perhaps the ancient Taoist, Lao Tzu, best sums up this wisdom when he teaches:

Manifest plainness
Embrace simplicity
Reduce selfishness
Have few desires

As I think about it, teachings like this are so contrary to our own complex, cluttered, “dog-eat-dog” world that they they almost sound like a foreign language. In fact, the very word, “simple” carries an awful lot of negative baggage in today’s popular culture. Often times, when it comes to technology, simple things are seen to be inferior to more sophisticated gadgetry –the more channels on your TV, the better. We also think of simple people as those who are less educated and less sophisticated and relegate them to the bottom of the social pecking order.

Another problem with the use of that word simplicity in popular culture is that many assume that the practice of simplicity teaches that, on a spiritual path, we should all live in dire poverty, “sell all we have and give it to the poor.” I actually think that the spiritual wisdom about leading a simple life is less about living in poverty and more about living a life without clutter. 

Apart from not having a lot of unnecessary clutter in our bank accounts, or accumulating useless clutter in our closets or on our TV sets, the wisdom of simplicity teaches us to “unclutter” our minds and our hearts.  It teaches us to clear away all the ideas about who we were and what we did in the past, free ourselves from the grip of constantly thinking about and planning for the future; and then with all the clutter gone, to live simply in the present, open to all the possibilities each day has to offer. This is what practicing simplicity is ultimately all about.


When I think about simplicity on a spiritual path I almost always turn to the life and teaching of the well-known 12th century saint, Francis of Assisi. The contemporary Franciscan priest, Richard Rohr, wonderfully sums up the profound wisdom taught by this simple saint- a necessary wisdom for all of us in our own day and age:

When you live simply
other people cease to be possessions and objects for your consumption and use.

When you live simply
you are free to enjoy what life has to offer
but you never let enjoyment become your master.
Every day you practice non-addiction and letting go.

When you live simply
you find a natural solidarity with people at the bottom or at the edges
because you stop idealizing the climb
and find there is no top anyway.

Leonardo Da Vinci once said:

Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.

1 comment:

  1. So true, yet difficult to encompass. I find that I regularly declutter my days, my home and my mind...only to find that they fill up again and again. Constant vigilance seems to be the only way as our culture is one that doesn't support living simply. There is a wonderful book by John Lane, called Timeless Simplicity, which echoes your thoughts that simplicity is not about destitution or self-denial, but in his words ‘the restoration of wealth in the midst of an affluence in which we are starving the spirit‘. Thank you for this beatutiful reminder xxxx

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