Simplicity, simple living, is the key to living a healthy life and towards building a healthy society says Michael Lewin.

A story tells that the great Buddhist saint, Nagarjuna, moved around naked except for a loincloth and, incongruously, a golden begging bowl gifted to him by the King, who was his disciple. One night he was about to lie down to sleep among the ruins of an ancient monastery when he noticed a thief lurking behind one of the columns. “Here, take this,” said Nagarjuna, holding out the golden begging bowl. “That way you won’t disturb me once I have fallen asleep.” The thief eagerly grabbed the bowl and made off—only to return next morning with the bowl and a request. He said, “When you gave this bowl so freely last night, you made me feel very poor. Please teach me how to acquire the riches that make this kind of lighthearted detachment possible.”

Michael Lewin

The call of simplicity can lead us to a better life, a more skillfully enriched life. It’s a call that gave Nagarjuna an inner peace—freeing him from an agitated mind preoccupied with the worry of looking after possessions. But how many of us are really listening to that call, how many of us are prepared to tread Nagarjuna’s path?

Our society is increasingly influenced by a fierce, consumer-led, market economy where financial value seems to be attached to everything. ‘Sales forecasts’, ‘Marketing strategies’, ‘Production targets’, ‘Distribution networks’ are just a few of the terms used in an economic language that seems to penetrate every dimension of our lives, seeking us out, even in our very homes through television, the internet, radio, newspapers, magazines, telephone sales, promotion leaflets, etc. Who can resist then, the temptation to buy, especially when so many people see their ‘purchasing power’ as a normal function of everyday living? The proliferation of shopping malls and retail parks attest to the effectiveness of this language, which insists that we increase our consumption of goods and services despite any reference to real need.

Yet, despite our engagement with an unprecedented level of consumerism, and its implicit promise of a better life, health problems (both physical and mental) are increasing—sharply in some areas. It seems that although our material needs are being met, deeper, more personal needs are not.

Another consequence of our consumerism is the amount of time we give up; not only in the activity of buying, installing, maintaining and replacing goods and services, but also in the time we spend at the work place in order to pay for it all. Time, along with our health, is the most precious commodity that we have so we must spend it wisely, but unfortunately, in our busy lives (which are now re-branded ‘busy schedules’), we just don’t seem to have the time!

Simplicity gives us more time to focus on what’s important in our lives; it provides opportunities for reflection, it provides space so that a more contemplative frame of mind can open up, leading to deeper insights, clearer understanding, and to panna vimutta (liberation through wisdom).

Simplicity helps to make our lives more manageable, less stressful with all that it implies for our health.

Simplicity gives us time to enjoy ourselves more.

Simplicity brings greater moments of contentment and well-being.

Simplicity helps in our relationships, making them less strained.

Simplicity increases the quality of life, increases our enjoyment.
Simplicity brings a presence of mind that aids clarity.

Simplicity cultivates mindfulness, and mindfulness makes us more alert, more sensitized.

Gandhi once said: “Civilization, in the real sense of the term, consists not in the multiplication, but in the deliberate and voluntary reduction of wants.” This promotes real happiness and contentment. Simplicity, in all its manifestations, enriches our lives in proportion to how much we let go. It takes us away from acquisition and greed that can otherwise flourish inside us. This is not to suggest that simplicity is easy, that we can quickly and effectively bring it into our lives. Simplicity is a constantly evolving issue that needs negotiation, compromise and flexibility. We need to regularly look at the finer details of our lives to see if we can make appropriate adjustments and reductions. The quest for a simpler life may involve us in some struggle with others, and with ourselves, but a rich harvest will eventually follow if we pursue our aims skillfully and mindfully.

The work ethic shows no signs of abating. Indeed many reports highlight widespread increases in the number of hours we officially work. The ‘overtime culture’ is now the norm. Workaholics are no longer a rare breed. The prevalent attitude of, ‘It’s good to work, lazy not to, so carry on and do as much as you can’ is flawed. Studies show that after 50 hours of work per week, our performance drops by as much 25%. After 70 hours of work, we are not really contributing anything and may be even ‘undoing’ our previous efforts. Another problem with the ‘work is good’ brigade is their indiscriminate approach. Work is considered good irrespective of its intrinsic merit. This traditionally supports some industries (like the manufacturing and selling of armaments) because, it is argued, they contribute to the economy and provide employment; but this gives no account whatsoever of the harm and damage that they may cause in a wider context.

Stress-related illnesses have shown a marked increase in recent years; our attachments to over-burdened work activity cause some of the damage. In our present over-achieving climate, we rush through our days telling ourselves that we can manage, that we may be able to push our boundaries or performance even further. Is this what we want, or are we just being swept up in a competitive neurosis?

The quest to achieve in a harsh, competitive market place may indicate deeper, underlying motives. The psychologist, Cary Cooper, has shown that many high achievers: “... recalled vividly, memories of loss, whether of parents or place, and associated feelings of insecurity.” It seems that where we have been lacking in some areas of our lives, we may try to seek out some form of compensation elsewhere.

Slowing down and letting go can reward us in so many enriching ways, if we are prepared to listen attentively to its message. The choice is ours. Do we decide to keep on the treadmill of activity and acquisition, that can cause us so much damage, or do we follow the call of simplicity that can release us into a more manageable, saner world?

Nagarjuna knew the answer to this question and followed the call of simplicity, but it is unlikely that we could ever commit ourselves to his degree of personal engagement—after all, we are not Buddhist Saints! However, the path of simplicity invites everyone to journey along its way, and this is what we must do, accept the path, in the knowledge that it is progress that we are seeking and not perfection.

“Tis a gift to be simple”
—A Shaker Saying

Mick Lewin is a teacher and writer, living in London. He can be reached at: lewinmick at hotmail.com.
 

This article was printed in New Renaissance, Vol. 12, No. 1  Posted on the web on January 10, 2007