Friday, August 25, 2017

Living Simply

- Zion National Park -

I was “on vacation” last week, spending time with my family, exploring Zion National Park in Utah. Although a TV was available, we never turned it on and I hardly even glimpsed at the news or the social media; instead we spent most of our time resting under shade trees, engaging in long and leisurely conversations, sharing meals together and, of course, hiking the many canyon trails of that stunningly beautiful landscape.

When we returned home a few days ago I turned on the TV with its 700 available channels and then “fired up” my computer, “unmuted” my smartphone and started reading emails, browsing the media, checking my calendar, planning for an upcoming meeting and returning phone calls. I was suddenly struck by the fact that, even though I live out in a desert, my everyday life is way too cluttered and overly complex. I thought about the beautifully “simple” life we had all lived while on vacation last week and I wondered if the “busyness” of my ordinary routine may indeed be robbing me of joy and draining me of a deeper peace?

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 as simply as the flowers of the field and the birds of the air. Perhaps the ancient Taoist, Lao Tzu, sums 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 we 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 doesn’t demand a life of poverty, but rather it teaches us that we can live “more fully” with “less.”

Apart from not having a lot of unnecessary clutter in our bank accounts, accumulating useless clutter in our closets or spending all our time on our computers, smartphones, or TV sets, the wisdom of simplicity teaches us to “unclutter” our minds and our hearts.  It teaches us to clear away obsessions over what we did in the past, to free ourselves from the grip of constantly planning for the future and to live simply in the present, open to all the possibilities each day has to offer. This is what living simply is ultimately all about.

The priest and author, Richard Rohr, puts it this way:

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.

Leonardo Da Vinci once said:

Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.

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