Book Review: Duane Elgin’s Voluntary Simplicity

Voluntary Simplicity: Toward a Way of Life That is Outwardly Simple, Inwardly Rich
Voluntary Simplicity: Toward a Way of Life That is Outwardly Simple, Inwardly Rich by Duane Elgin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

My husband and I took a “Voluntary Simplicity” discussion course back in 2000/2001. The course was from Northwest Earth Institute and was based on Duane Elgin’s book and scads of other terrific writings about simplicity and mindfulness. It was remarkably influential on how we lived our newly-married life together, but for some reason, it took me more than ten years to pick up Elgin’s original book (well, the 1993 revision).

When I finally did read the book, I was blown away by the simplicity and compassion with which Elgin presents the idea of Voluntary Simplicity.

The book consists of three main sections. The first introduces the idea and contains excerpts from the written replies on a 1977 survey of people committed to voluntary simplicity to give a sense of how some people live the principles of voluntary simplicity. The second expands on the idea of voluntary simplicity, dissecting both the “voluntary” and the “simplicity” aspects of this way of living. And the third was a rather apocalyptic vision of the future if we choose not to address our current ecological problems head on.

The first section was a little dry at times, but I found it interesting to note the demographics of the respondents as I read their responses. It was encouraging that so many people from all over the country and with so many different ways of life embraced voluntary simplicity and were finding similar benefits (and challenges). It was also interesting how similar the culture of 1977 seems to be to the culture of 2011. My dad would laugh to hear me say that and make some comment about how it wasn’t that long ago and how he was there when I was born, after all. But being that I was less than a year old then, it seems like a long time ago to me, and it seemed odd how little things have changed, really, in the past 34+ years.

The second I found inspiring as Elgin made it clear that there’s no one way to live a voluntarily simple lifestyle. It’s about making individual choices with awareness of both their direct and indirect effects on us and on the people and environment around us. Two people can live lives of voluntary simplicity that look vastly different from one another. The important piece is to stop living on automatic pilot. We must wake up and make conscious choices.

The third section I approached with some trepidation. Elgin empathizes with the discomfort the reader will likely experience considering the possible collapse of civilization as we know it. “All of the hopes and fears that lie in uneasy though quiet repose in our everyday lives become starkly visible as we consider the depth and scope of change that lies ahead.” He encourages us to embrace these changes as natural: “Our anxiety about transformative civilizational change is lessened when we realize that it is part of a natural and purposeful process.”

I wasn’t really comforted.

It took me a week or so to pick the book back up, but last night I screwed up my courage and finished the book. And it really wasn’t so bad after all. Elgin outlines three possible cultural responses to the current ecological, societal, and governmental problems:

1. Overshoot and collapse. Basically we continue to increase our rampant consumerism and individualistic focus until the ecosystem can no longer support us and society collapses because we’re not at all prepared for the disasters as they mount. The human race experiences a massive die-out due to disease and famine and civilization enters an extended dark age. This was the one I was worried about reading. On to the next…

2. Dynamic Stagnation. This is the one where we as a culture fight so hard to maintain the status quo that we don’t really make anything all that worse, we’re just not well prepared for what comes so we end up making the changes necessary to survive but not to thrive as a species and a civilization. We depend too much on existing institutions rather than taking personal, local, and global responsibility for the changes necessary to make it through this “Winter” period of our culture. This is bad, but not so bad compared to #1.

3. Reconciliation and Revitalization. This is the one that made it possible for me to go to sleep last night once I closed the book. Individuals come together in a grass-roots effort to build up new decentralized institutions to provide for the needs of our population on a more local level and to put pressure on our government and the global community to make choices based not on isolationism and personal gain but on a collective desire to see humanity thrive. We enter a period of unprecedented cooperation and compassion which results in a New Renaissance of cultural, artistic, and governmental advances.

Elgin concludes by making the case for compassion as the basis for our society and for our species going forward. “If we value our freedom and vitality as a species, we are obliged to do no less than learn to love one another as a human family or else destroy ourselves in the learning,” he writes.

I immediately began to think of ways that I could act in my own life to improve the health of my community. Voluntary simplicity from Elgin’s perspective isn’t about a back-to-the-land movement or about living a life of deprivation and social/geographical isolation. On the contrary, Voluntary Simplicity requires making conscious choices not only in our own homes but also in close cooperation with our communities and being active in creating the changes that we need on a national and international level. I thought of things that I could do to connect with my neighbors and to be a part of our small city and our religious community that would also serve my introverted needs for physical space and quiet reflection. Learning about the history of our town, inviting the neighbors over one or two families at a time to talk and share food, asking for assistance in gaining expertise about issues from home repair to hiking trails, and sharing yard and garden-care equipment were all ideas that came to mind. It will be a challenge to engage like this, but I think that if I do it prudently, we’ll experience a much richer involvement in our community.

The key really isn’t simplicity so much as it is consciousness. Making conscious choices, we understand the larger impact of our consumption patterns. For example, when we buy a television, we recognize not only the price tag, but the materials and labor and research and marketing that went into bringing us that television. We understand the social impact of the manufacture of the television on the community where it was assembled. We understand that our perceptions and our desires will be shaped not only by the programs we choose to watch but also the advertising that we see between and within the programs and by the time we spend watching television rather than interacting. In addition, we understand where that television will go when its useful life is over (or when we choose to upgrade to a newer model) and what affect that later life will have on our environment and on the health and wellbeing of the communities surrounding the television’s final resting place. Voluntary Simplicity doesn’t mean not buying the television; it means knowing what it is we’re really buying.

Making conscious choices, we see the world with open eyes, and we realize that there is nothing we can do that doesn’t somehow affect someone else. And that’s comforting, when you really think about it.

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Uni-tasking With Children: The Impossible Dream?

I’ve been making a point of Doing One Thing these past several days. It’s been nice when I can manage it. I’m feeling more calm and dishes washed by hand shine a lot better than they do when they come out of the dishwasher.

Buoyed by this relative success, I’ve begun to try to extend my Doing One Thing to eating. Trouble is, it’s difficult to Do One Thing when I’ve got kids asking me for a glass of milk or to re-wrap their burrito, or making bird noises and quizzing me about which bird they’re mimicking, or spilling their milk all over the seat and the floor and the heat register, or asking me to wrap their burrito again.

I remind myself that Doing One Thing isn’t about ignoring all other thoughts and stimuli. It’s not about being an empty vessel; it’s about bringing awareness to the present moment. It’s totally okay to go from one task to the next and then back to the first, as long as I’m aware in each one. I can be aware of the patterns that the oil floating on top of my chicken soup makes and then I can be aware of the spill pattern of the milk I’m wiping up and then I can look my daughter in the eye while she’s trying to mimic a Stellar’s jay mimicking a red-tailed hawk.

But what about those times when I don’t want to be aware? When my daughter is yelling at my son in the backseat to “Be quiet! I don’t want to hear you talking!” I want to turn up the radio and sing along to Beck (“Baby, I’m a lost cause,” seems particularly appropriate in those moments). When my son has decided to tell me he has to go poo after he’s already gone in his pants, I want to distract myself with thoughts of how I’ll blog about it later rather than being aware of the poo-cleaning process.

Or when my son wants me to do his dinosaur puzzle with him for the 57 billionth time, or my daughter wants us to be dogs for the day. I’m embarrassed at the intensity of my boredom, and I want to call someone and chat on the phone or get my laptop and check my e-mail while helping my son find the T-rex’s foot.

I’m reminding myself that, small as it sounds, Doing One Thing is actually a big challenge, especially for someone who lives in her mind as much as I do.

“What’s your grand plan?” my husband asked about my Voluntary Simplicity Project the other night. “You’re doing the dishes mindfully. What else is on the list?”

“Nothing,” I said, somewhat embarrassed to say it. “I’m just Doing One Thing for a while. That feels like enough for now. I’ll add something else later, but I don’t want to get caught up in my usual flurry of planning or get consumed by the external appearance of simplicity and miss the point of the project.”

“What’s the point of the project, then?” he asked.

“To live more consciously. I figure simplicity will naturally follow if I can live more consciously.”

This project is a process, not an endpoint. I’m not going to get to a point where I am living every moment in conscious awareness and can just check that off my to-do list and move on to something else. If I can be aware just once a day of a moment in which I’m trying to escape the intensity of interacting with my children, if I can stop myself, look my child in the eye, and just be there for her completely one time during the day, that’s a start. And that’s actually pretty huge.

I suppose the appropriate thing to do with those feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt and worries that I’m just not accomplishing enough stuff fast enough is to be aware of them and let them go. That’s pretty huge, too.

Last night, out of the blue, my husband told me he likes my new project.

“But is it okay if I still use the dishwasher?”

“Sure, you can use the dishwasher,” I said. “Just use it mindfully.”

Conscious Sacrifice

Here’s part of what I read today in Marion Woodman’s Addiction to Perfection:

The overconscientious perfectionist knows she cannot control her obsession; she recognizes at the center of her whirlpool another power to which she is hostile. The whirling through her daytime efficiency and nighttime compulsion avoids as long as it can the confrontation with the Eye. That confrontation demands surrender of the rigid, self-deceptive “I.”

…The attitude of the ego towards the Eye is everything. If the ego is hostile, then it experiences itself as victim and sets itself up for self-murder. If the attitude is one of acceptance–not resignation, but open receptivity–then murder is transformed into conscious sacrifice. That change in attitude opens the heart to the power of love radiating from the Eye–the all-embracing, nourishing love that can support rather than destroy the “I.” Psychologically speaking, so long as conscious and unconscious are enemies, the ego experiences itself in constant danger of death. Once they are in harmony the ego experiences itself open and supported by the maternal matrix of love.

This idea of murder being “transformed into conscious sacrifice” is intriguing to me. In the book, Woodman writes about a woman who eats compulsively choosing to fast for a week. The choice to sacrifice through fasting yields remarkable insights for this particular woman. This leaves me considering what the difference is between the “Biggest Loser” boot camp model of weight-loss and the inside-out sacrifice of fasting.

Listening to RadioWest on KUER this afternoon, I caught a portion of an interview with Judge Thomas Buergenthal about his memoir, A Lucky Child, which deals with his past as one of the youngest survivors of the Auschwitz concentration camp. Buergenthal spoke about one instance in which prisoners were selected for hanging and then their close friends were ordered to perform the executions. One young man went to put the noose over his friend’s head. The friend took the noose and put it around his neck himself, kissed his friend’s face, then jumped from the platform. He turned a murder, literally, into a conscious act of sacrifice.

I don’t mean to imply that my situation is anything near that of a concentration camp prisoner or a compulsive eater, but I do think there are common human experiences from which I can learn. I don’t need to be a prisoner sentenced to death to engage in a conscious act of sacrifice. But the haunting story of this prisoner’s final act of rebellion, which was also an act of love for his friend, could give me insight into how I might move towards a similar state of psychological harmony.