The Mindful Path to Perfection: You’re Already There

“In moments of stillness you come to realize that you are already whole, already complete in your being…”

-Jon Kabat-Zinn

I have a tendency to dwell a lot on perfection. I have something of a conviction that things would be easier if I were flawless. Even when I run through the logical extremes of this kind of perfection and realize that even perfection isn’t without flaw, I still crave that state of never-erring.

In a very kind note Duane Elgin sent to me, he pointed out that another definition of “perfect” is more along the lines of complete, pure, total.

Yet another definition is having both pistils and stamens in the the same flower, so clearly not all definitions apply, but this “perfection as wholeness” definition really resonates with me, especially as I’m getting deeper into my meditation practice.

In Full Catastrophe Living, Jon Kabat-Zinn writes, “In moments of stillness you come to realize that you are already whole, already complete in your being…” In this sense, the purpose of meditation isn’t to relax or to stop yelling at my kids or to change anything at all. The purpose is to give myself a chance to recognize that I’m already whole. If more good comes from that, it’s just icing on the cake.

In the body scan meditation CD I have, Kabat-Zinn assures the listener that, “from the perspective of mindfulness practice, as long as you are breathing there’s more right with you than wrong with you, no matter what the condition of your body and its history and no matter what you are facing in this moment.”

It occurs to me that those things that never err are those things that are static, unchanging, dead.

I’m breathing. I’m living. I’m changing, whether I intend to change or not. In that sense, I’m not perfect.

But I exist in this moment, whole and complete. And if I come to recognize this wholeness through meditation or mindfulness or some other means, I’ll not only be breathing, I’ll be living.

And it doesn’t get much more perfect than that.

You Win This Round, Walden

Walden by Henry David Thoreau
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I’m probably a horrible person who will never be able to fully embrace simple living because I can’t get through Walden. I know Thoreau has some gems in there, but they’re just hidden in the middle of so many words. I found it mind-numbingly boring.

I first started reading it to get a sense for New England when I discovered that we were moving here. I did the same thing with Wallace Stegner’s The Gathering of Zion when we moved to Utah and Helen Hunt Jackson’s Ramona when we lived in California, both times with great results. With Walden, however, I didn’t have such a great experience.

After a few months trying to trudge through, I decided to keep reading it because everyone says that you have to read Walden if you’re going to embrace the principles of voluntary simplicity. I disagree. I think something like Duane Elgin’s Voluntary Simplicity might be a better choice for someone hoping to get inspired towards simple living in the 21st century.

In the end, I decided to simplify my life by removing this book from my currently-reading list so it could no longer taunt me there. If you’re reading this review and have recommendations for books that will give an overall sense of the culture and history of New England (the stuff in the nearly 400 years since the Mayflower), please leave a comment.

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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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Simply Living: My Voluntary Simplicity Project

About ten years ago, my husband and I took a class series based on Duane Elgin’s book, Voluntary Simplicity. We met, did readings on various topics related to deliberate living and intentionally living with less, and discussed the changes we were each making in our individual lives. Reading Elgin’s book was not part of the class (although we read excerpts), and I didn’t finally pick up his book until this month.

The class was eye-opening and informed many of our life choices over the intervening years. But over the years, I distilled the teachings down to de-clutter, spend less, and do without. I seem to have lost the intentionality around voluntary simplicity and was going through the motions by rote.

Without the consciousness around my actions, I felt unfulfilled. I had a craving for simplification, but I wasn’t sure how to start. I wanted to live in a tiny apartment in the city or in an RV or in a cabin in the woods, but when my husband asked me why, I couldn’t articulate the reason. When challenged, I had to admit that those ideas weren’t particularly compatible with our lifestyle right now and, more than that, it wasn’t clear that these were even necessary or desirable goals for our family. Not only that, but they were completely incompatible with each other. If the answer was in one of these actions, we’d be up a creek if we chose the wrong one.

It wasn’t until I picked up Duane Elgin’s book this month that I figured out what was missing.

Elgin writes,

Western cultures…have fostered the understanding that a state of continual mental distraction is in the natural order of things. Consequently, by virtue of a largely unconscious social agreement about the nature of our inner thought processes, we live individually and collectively almost totally embedded within our mentally constructed reality. We are so busy creating ever more appealing images or social facades for others to see, and so distracted from the simplicity of our spontaneously arising self, that we do not truly encounter ourselves or one another.

The idea of slowing down provokes anxiety in me. I’ve spent most of my life proving to myself and trying to prove to others that I’m smart, and I tend to equate multitasking and constant thought with intelligence.

In reality, I think much of the mental chatter that comes with multitasking is a distraction. If “continual mental distraction” is part of our social contract, then in order to live simply, we must opt out of that contract.

For some, this might mean moving to a farm in the middle of nowhere or going on a meditation retreat or taking a vow of silence. I’m not in a position to make such a dramatic change right now, and I don’t think I even need to make a big change in order to live more deliberately.

As Elgin points out, you can follow voluntary simplicity in a city, in the country, in a suburban neighborhood, or, like my friends Victoria and Tucker and their kids, on a sailboat. It’s about filling our lives with what we value most and cutting out the rest, and that’s something we can do anywhere. I need to strive for conscious living within the life I lead right now. It means deciding what activities are crucial and cutting out the rest so that I have adequate time and energy and attention to devote to living my core values.

Back in my corporate days, I took a Stephen Covey course called “What Matters Most.” In it, the instructor used the visual of a clear bucket representing a day that you needed to fill with rocks representing all of the large and small tasks of our days. The key to fitting them all in the bucket was adding the big rocks first, then the next smaller and next smaller down to the tiniest pebbles which could fill in the gaps between all of the bigger rocks. I still want to put the big rocks in first, but I’m thinking that perhaps there’s no reason to fill in all of those little gaps. I think those spaces left in my day are where I’ll be able to breathe and deepen my experience and understanding of myself and others.

I’ve come to realize that when I’m frustrated at my kids or when I feel frazzled or overwhelmed, it’s because I’ve not created the space necessary to be conscious with my children and with myself. So, I want to create that space. And in order to create that space, I need to cut out those things that are unnecessary. But I want those cuts to be meaningful and to be consistent with my values. If the cuts I make cause me to feel deprived, that’s missing the point of voluntary simplicity. The goal of voluntary simplicity is to live more with less, to spend more time and energy on the things that we truly value and only cut those things that we don’t value as much. If we only cut things that don’t matter so much to us, it won’t feel like we’re depriving ourselves.

With this in mind, I don’t want to start from the “cutting” side. I want to put in those big rocks first and just leave the small ones be if they don’t fit easily. If I jumped in with enthusiasm and used someone else’s formula for simple living—reducing my wardrobe to an arbitrary number of items or challenging myself to make our home into a zero waste household or cooking on a wood stove—I would run the risk of continuing to feel unfulfilled, especially if those cuts weren’t where I need to cut or if those changes were done by rote rather than as a result of conscious intention.

So, I’m starting with consciousness.

And this, I think, will be my new Project to follow up my Happiness Project. The goal will be to be more conscious. Unlike my Happiness Project which I set out for myself month-by-month for an entire year, I won’t have a plan beyond the challenge of the moment. As I find something that works, I’ll keep that thing and add to it.

Last week I started Doing One Thing. That one thing was dishes. When I did dishes, I did only dishes. I didn’t listen to the radio, I tried not to think about what I was going to do next or what I would rather be doing or what my RV/cabin in the woods/tiny city apartment would look like. I just did the dishes.

It’s surprising to me just how much calmer I felt just Doing that One Thing. I found I had more patience for my children, and I even found myself, once or twice, being present for them rather than rushing us through to the next task all the time.

I’m going to keep up with Doing One Thing while doing the dishes this week. And I might even try Doing One Thing while cooking dinner or while talking on the phone.

And when I think about it, when an insight strikes that I can put into words, I’ll let you know how things are going.

The soapy dishwater is the key.