Friday, August 17, 2018

Seeking Simplicity

              Quite a few years ago, I gathered with a number of other folks from our community for a 6 week series on “Voluntary Simplicity”.  The workshop sessions were designed to raise our consciousness about the methods by which we can simplify our lives in all kinds of ways, from de-cluttering to down-sizing to re-cycling and on and on.  The idea being that, in many cases, small and less are better - that there is liberation in simplification.   Even though I have not necessarily made lifelong friendships with the people in the group, they are still “there” as a virtual support group for my own personal efforts to simplify my life.

Fast forward to today, the work is ongoing.  My “support group” currently resides between the covers of three books: EVERYDAY HOLINESS by Alan Morinis,  FREEDOM OF SIMPLICITY by Richard Foster, and THE BUDDHIST PATH TO SIMPLICITY by Christina Feldman.

As my husband and I age, we are acutely aware of a desire not to leave a huge mess for our kids when we “shuffle off this mortal coil.”  So simplifying has a very concrete reality attached to it.    We need to downsize our pile of “stuff.”  I am the first to admit that this process is physically, emotionally and spiritually exhausting, as well as very time consuming. Every book, every tchotchke, every old photo, every piece of furniture evokes emotions, memories, and the inevitable choice of whether to retain or let go. 

To maintain a bit of momentum with this process, I have engaged Morinis, Foster and Feldman as my spiritual “clean-up” support people.  Much to my delight I have found that the spiritual practice of simplicity is well developed in Buddhist, Jewish and Christian tradition.   My first eye-opening reminder came from Foster: “The first insight into simplicity that we receive from [the Hebrew Scriptures] is radical dependence, the second is radical obedience.  Perhaps nowhere is this more graphically seen than when Abraham was called upon to surrender his most priceless treasure- his son Isaac...through a long and painful process Abraham’s life had been honed down to one truth - obedience to the voice of YHWH.  This “holy obedience” forms the grid through which the life of obedience flows.”

As I reflect on the notion of “radical obedience” I am aware that this is a challenge to the various idolatries of  “more”, “bigger”, “shinier”, “newer.”  “Radical dependence” implies letting go of a lot of contingency plans - the illusion that I can create a  secure, worry free future if I can acquire just the right “stuff.”    And that inevitably leads to more complexity - - how to insure it all?  where to store the excess?  how to protect from the corruption of moths and dust?   As Foster notes: The idolatry of affluence is rampant.  Our greed for more dictates so many of our decisions.”   

 On a personal level, greed might determine where I choose to live, how I spend  my resources, what I demand in the way of services and resources to keep me comfortable in the manner to which I have become accustomed.  In the larger world greed for more determines whose land will be violated for more oil.  Greed determines which oceans will be polluted with untold square miles of plastic waste.   The need to protect what we “have” dictates who may enter this country and who must leave.  Greed dehumanizes life from the highest levels of government on down.   Radical dependence and radical obedience are somewhat alien concepts - - easily rejected challenges to our unexamined way of being..

      Alan Morinis  offers a brief bit of wisdom: “An American visitor was passing through the Polish town of Radin  and stopped to visit the Chafetz Chaim.  Entering the great sage’s simple apartment he was struck by how sparsely it was furnished.  ‘Where is your furniture?’ the man asked.  ‘Where is yours?’ replied the Chafetz Chaim.  “Oh, I am only passing through,” answered the man. ‘I too am only passing through,’ was the Chafetz Chaim’s reply.”

The principle behind this wisdom is “being content with what we have,”  perhaps identifying what we really need and separating it from all that we want.   Again from Morinis: “A need is different from a desire.  A need really is essential.  A desire on the other hand, is backed by an emotional force that turns it into a virtual demand: I have to have it.  And it is our desires that create trouble for us.  Desires can commandeer our lives on behalf of their fulfillment. And when they go unrealized, they deliver up anxiety, anger, frustration, and unethical behavior that we want to avoid.”

Thankfully, when confronted with our everyday desires, most of us have a built in mechanism that keeps us from veering into unethical behavior in order to achieve what we want.  But I would venture to say that few of us are free of the anxiety and frustration that accompany our desires.   Therein lies the challenge to simplify, I think - - to do the spiritual work of downsizing in the “desire department” in order to experience a simpler sense of inner peace.

         My morning reading today led me to Christina Feldman’s notion of compassion as a key element in a life of simplicity.  She describes Kuan Yan, the bodhisattva of compassion, as “one who  listens to the sounds of the universe.”  Feldman writes of compassion: “Compassion is a true vastness of the heart and a depth of wisdom that listens to, embraces and receives suffering.  It is an antidote to hostility, resistance, and division.  Learning to listen to the sounds of the universe is learning to soften and melt our armory of fear, mistrust, and imprisonment of self.”

Whew!!  Exploring the path to simplicity is anything but simple.  The very micro-environment of my home becomes a constant external reminder of the internal work I need to be doing.   So - just for today - my inner focus will be on “learning to listen to the sounds of the universe” in order to discern more clearly where I need to dismantle my own personal “armory of fear, mistrust, and imprisonment of self.” 

It seems to be a fundamental truth that a path to liberation, whether in the inward realms of spirit or in the external world of wealth, power and politics, may be found in the discipline of simplicity.

Vicky Hanjian

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