Voluntary Simplicity

Jon Kabat-Zinn
716 words, 8K views, 8 comments

The impulse frequently arises in me to squeeze another this or another that into this moment.  Just this phone call, just stopping off here on my way there.  Never mind that it might be in the opposite direction.

I've learned to identify this impulse and mistrust it.  I work hard at saying no to it.  It would have me eat breakfast with my eyes riveted to the cereal box, reading for the hundredth time the dietary contents of the contents, or the amazing free offer from the company.  This impulse doesn't care what it feeds on, as long as it's feeding.  The newspaper is an even better draw, or the L.L. Bean catalogue, or whatever else is around.  It scavenges to fill time, conspires with my mind to keep me unconscious, lulled in a fog of numbness to a certain extent, just enough to fill or overfill my belly while I actually miss breakfast.  It has me unavailable to others at those times, missing the play of light on the table, the smells in the room, the energies of the moment, including arguments and disputes, as we come together before going our separate ways for the day.

I like to practice voluntary simplicity to counter such impulses and make sure nourishment comes at a deep level.  It involves intentionally doing only one thing at a time and making sure I am here for it.  Many occasions present themselves:  taking a walk, for instance, or spending a few moments with the dog in which I am really with the dog.    

Voluntary simplicity means going fewer places in one day rather than more, seeing less so I can see more, doing less so I can do more, acquiring less so I can have more.  It all ties in. 

It's not a real option for me as a father of young children, a Thbreadwinner, a husband, an oldest son to my parents, a person who cares deeply about his work to go off to one Walden Pond or another and sit under a tree for a few years, listening to the grass grow and the seasons change, much as the impulse beckons at times.  But within the organized chaos and complexity of family life and work, with all their demands and responsibilities, frustrations and unsurpassed gifts, there is ample opportunity for choosing simplicity in small ways.

Slowing everything down is a big part of this.  Telling my mind and body to stay put with my daughter rather than answering the phone, not reacting to inner impulses to call someone who "needs calling" right in that moment, choosing not to acquire new things on impulse, or even to automatically answer the siren call of magazines or television or movies on the first ring are all ways to simplify one's life a little.  Others are maybe just to sit for an evening and do nothing, or to read a book, or go for a walk alone or with a child or with my wife, to restack the woodpile or look at the moon, or feel the air on my face under the trees, or go to sleep early.

I practice saying no to keep my life simple, and I find I never do it enough.  It's an arduous discipline all its own, and well worth the effort.  Yet it is also tricky.  There are needs and opportunities to which one must respond.  A commitment to simplicity in the midst of the world is a delicate balancing act.  It is always in need of retuning, further inquiry, attention.  But I find the notion of voluntary simplicity keeps me mindful of what is important, of an ecology of mind and body and world in which everything is interconnected and every choice has far-reaching consequences.  You don't get to control it all.  But choosing simplicity whenever possible adds to life an element of deepest freedom which so easily eludes us, and many opportunities to discover that less may actually be more.


By Jon Kabat-Zinn.