Simplicity and Spirituality

A Presentation given to the Learning Institute for Growth, Healing and Transformation (L.I.G.H.T.)
December 7, 2004

Mark A. Burch, © 2004

On most occasions I speak quite spontaneously. I use notes as a security blanket, drafting them quite carefully, then usually I ignore them. Tonight, however, our topic is such that I don't want to rely just on my memory and the improvisational flow of my free association to do justice to this topic. Even though it may not be evident from what I say, I really have thought a lot about this evening and want to choose my words carefully. For that reason, and because I think the topic is important enough to deserve great care, I'd like to adopt a little more of a formal presentation style, but all the while inviting you to be very informal in your listening. The appropriate image would probably be us sharing a bedtime story. That way you can even fall asleep if you want to, and I can still consider myself a screaming success.

When it comes to spirituality, I don't really know what I'm talking about. Anything I say should be taken as a momentary approximate expression of my very imperfect grasp of something which most often appears to me as a continually changing mystery. My understanding of spirituality--my own and others'--is forever provisional. I've learned through painful experience that I can enter into other people's realities only very imperfectly. I'm reluctant to generalize about what may or may not be true for others as there seem to be as many realities out there as people. It's usually challenging enough to express clearly what is true for me. Nevertheless, I don't believe we are radically alien to each other. In our common humanity, we share a very great deal. Having said that, however, I will speak tonight in the first person about my own experience, but I hope from a level which is inclusively personal rather than exclusively my own. To the extent that I can reach down through "me" into that which is both me-and-us, I hope I can speak about matters that are also familiar and meaningful to you. But in the end it is you who will decide whether what you hear is in fact familiar and meaningful, and therefore whether or not you have been touched. As Buddha said in his farewell address: "Diligently work out your own enlightenment."

Or as it was said by another of my spiritual mentors, Benedict of Nursia: "...let us rouse ourselves from our eyes to the light that can change us into the likeness of God." (Rule of Benedict - Prologue).

I should also clearly declare my perspective on the spiritual life: While I have been occasionally mistaken for a Buddhist--company I am unworthy to keep and honored to be mistaken for--I am in practice an Oblate of the Order of St. Benedict, a sort of "monk by adoption," you might say, and therefore I place myself within the Christian lineage of spiritual practice generally, and its Benedictine expression more specifically. I also have a great deal of empathy for Ira Progoff (1) a depth psychologist whose life and work have deeply gifted my own, who described himself as a "Buddeo-Judeo-Christian"--symptomatic, probably, of our post-modern identity dilemma.

So, my topic tonight is "Simplicity and Spirituality" and I plan to begin with spirituality and then segue over into describing voluntary simplicity and then segue back and talk about spirituality some more because I think the relationship between the two is quite circular, something I hope you will appreciate by the end.


Since there is such a thicket of diverse opinions, traditions, and self-anointed experts pronouncing on what may or may not have to do with spirituality, Miriam Webster may be as good a place to start as any! The definition she offers of spirituality is: "the quality of being spiritual." This makes spirituality a qualitative aspect of being, of how I "be" in life. So right away, I'm talking about ontology--which for some reason brings to mind Sun Tzu's book, The Art of War:

"When in difficult country, do not encamp. In country where high roads intersect, join hands with your allies. Do not linger in dangerously isolated positions. In hemmed-in situations, you must resort to stratagem. In a desperate position, you must fight. There are roads that [are best] not followed, towns that [are best] not besieged."(2)

This passage contains many lessons. Not the least of them is the fact that in the spiritual life, one never knows what will turn out to be useful. Sun Tzu was a 5th century B.C. Chinese philosopher who was writing a book of advice about military tactics. At first glance such a topic seems some distance removed from the gentle byways of spirituality, until one actually gets down to it. Then everything can change.

"When in difficult country, do not encamp..."

A perennial feature of "the spiritual life" associates it with journeys, with traveling, with some sort of change of scenery. This implies that I presently subsist in a way of being from which I must depart in search of another way of being which I must discover or fashion. I dare not encamp if I want to be on the journey, or as an ancient Ethiopian proverb puts it: "O God, let us never live in stone houses."(3)

Without, for the time being, trying to specify too exactly of what this perpetual journey of decampment consists, or what its destination might be like, or even if it has a destination, I want to invite you to consider that the spiritual way of being is a life of perpetual motion guided by a "strange attractor" that I will call "divine being." Very much like the strange attractors we have recently come to know and love from chaos theory mathematics, strange attractors have the property of organizing events that appear at first blush to be unorganized, even chaotic. Calling this strange attractor "divine being" is handy because it can denote either a  Divine Being--a transcendent / immanent, sacred, entity with whom I can develop a personal relationship--and / or--it can mean a divine way of being--enlightened consciousness, nirvana, moksha, satori, mystical marriage, holiness of living, or whatever you please. One has to call IT something or silence is our only refuge, which indeed is often the counsel of those who know better than to attempt talks like this one. As Chuang Tzu once observed: "He who knows does not talk, and he who talks does not know."(4)

As a matter of fact, the very simplicity and obscurity of the spiritual life is a personal affront. That's why it is my most cherished opinions that must be let go. My opinions introduce complexities. I thrive on complexities, because I think that by means of them, I can control something I really don't control. In this manner, "I" creates impediments in the spiritual life for my deeper, older self.

What is really  necessary is really simple.

Love divine being.
Love others.
Surrender (let go).
That's about it. A child could do it. An adult finds it maddening difficult.

This is disturbing.

The spiritual life turns out to be full of paradoxes that adamantly refuse reasonable solution. One such paradox is the fact that I am already fully realized within divine being, but I don't perceive myself as divine being, or as being divine for that matter. So I must set out in search of what I already am, but don't consciously know that I am. I must "go forth" as the Buddhists say, or I "must leave father and mother, and follow me" as we Christians would put it. Upon discovering that I already am what I was looking for, all my labors appear unnecessary. As T. S. Elliot says in "Little Gidding," "I return to the place and see it for the first time."

This is hilarious.

The spiritual life thus appears to be circular--the simplest and most perfect of geometric forms. And yet it isn't quite circular... I may have returned to this place to see it for the first time, but with each pass I'm seeing it differently.

This is a deep mystery.

But then again, nearly everything is mysterious to us Catholics. The name of our God is unpronounceable. We don't know where evil comes from. We don't understand fully what we're doing when we celebrate Mass. We don't understand why Christ had to suffer for us. We don't fully understand the mystery of redemption, of the trinity, or virgin birth, or the communion of saints. We're not sure what heaven is like. And the nature of God, well, Isaiah wrote: " thoughts are not your thoughts, my ways not your ways--it is Yahweh who speaks." [Is. 55:8] So to be Catholic one must perforce have a high tolerance for ambiguity.

Mysteriously, moving in circles changes me, my perception of myself and the universe I am one with, even as I seem recursively to visit the same "places," as it were--the same people, relationships, recurring "issues", dilemmas. Since it is the moving in circles that brings about this change in me, and not so much the places I visit and re-visit, it becomes more and more important to keep moving. Keeping moving is the only way this transformation keeps spiraling through me. Gradually it becomes more important to keep moving than it is to arrive anywhere.

This is unsettling.

My ordinary, daily self wants things to settle down in safe, predictable, ruts. But what the spiritual life requires is a willingness to let myself be drawn along in the slipstream of this strange attractor that at every step is both familiar (déjà vu) and also oddly unfamiliar--a journey I keep taking but keep seeing differently with each new turn.

Another truly disconcerting feature of the spiritual life is the fact that while I am decidedly moving, and seemingly moving in circles, which nevertheless are not precisely circular, but more like a labyrinth, I am being drawn forward while looking backward. I want to think I can see where I am going, to make plans, to predict and control the future, to call the cards before they're turned. I want to take credit for achieving some goals. But if I'm honest, I realize I just can't do it. I can only see where I've been.

This is a wonderful thing.

"In country where high roads intersect, join hands with your allies..."

Admitting to myself that I'm moving forward while looking backward requires trust. The basis for this trust is found in what it is that I can see, that is, the history of my life unfolding in a miraculous labyrinthine pattern which is perfectly efficient in progressively transforming my being, and with it, my way of seeing. Yet it is mostly beyond my conscious control, except for giving or withholding my assent to the process. Only volunteers take this trip. Looking backwards I see this. Looking forwards is impossible. Little by little I form the conviction that I am in the arms of something trustworthy, which is nevertheless completely out of sight, breaking trail somewhere ahead of me where I can't see it. As the Franciscan priest Richard Rohr put it, "We are being carried in a net we can't fall out of."(5) Since I don't experience this journey as being "lost in space," veering aimlessly this way and that, but rather as being held, the chaos of my daily life takes on a pattern which, I'll say it again, is labyrinthine and not merely maze-like. My journey is taking me somewhere and not just round and round nowhere.

Also paradoxically, even as I take each step by "stepping back" as it were, this often leads me into relationships with others and into spiritual community. At each turn in the road, each precipitous incline, I meet friends if I need them, or if they need me right then. I was in the Rockies near Banff one day climbing Sulphur Mountain--a very modest undertaking, but still the first mountain I'd ever tried to climb--when I came to a place in my ascent where I was "stuck". Suddenly, the way ahead seemed to have disappeared as well as the way back down, since I was foolishly scrambling over a rock face without any climbing equipment and even less experience. Naturally, under such circumstances, I resigned myself to death. Then suddenly a man's head appeared several meters above me. He smiled and asked, "Stuck?" I nodded. Then he said, "If you just put your foot right over there, you'll find a little ledge, and then you can keep climbing." From his vantage point, he could see something I couldn't. My wife screamed at me to come down from such a foolish stunt, but then the head appeared again to chastise her by saying, "Leave him alone! The man has a calling!" Then he disappeared. In country where these high roads intersect, as Sun Tzu says, we join hands with our allies or can just fall off the mountain.

"In hemmed-in situations, you must resort to stratagem..."

Even more paradoxical is the fact that I make my labyrinthine journey by sitting still. The Psalmist says: "Be still and know that I am God." (Ps. 46). Or, if you prefer, the 17th century French philosopher Blaise Pascal: "All human evil comes from a single cause, man's inability to sit still in a room."

This is humiliating.

I want to be a spiritual hero, to fast for days on end; to travel to the high reaches of Tibet and there in a snowy cave sit shivering at the feet of a master and soak in his wisdom; or I want to fly into the desert with Anthony of Egypt and live in a little mud hut crawling with sand fleas but glowing with holiness. What I want is to be better than the general run of ignorant humanity. I want to look down from my holiness pillar and shed my grace on the poor, sniveling masses of spiritual couch potatoes who without my example would surely go to hell, or to rebirth as snails--take your pick. Discovering that I must simply sit still and let go of all these notions in order to keep moving is disappointing. I can't take credit for the spiritual life in me. It's too simple. It's too slippery a thing upon which to plant my flag, to make a mark, to pitch a tabernacle. The crystalline sphere of the spiritual life is limpid, bright, diamond hard and totally impenetrable by my vanity. Even my loftiest notions of holiness fail to stick to it. The spiritual life defies me at every turn and I often battle with it.

"In a desperate position, you must fight."

Not only must I sit still to keep moving, I must learn to be stillness itself. This involves practicing ever deeper forms of stillness: stillness of body, of mind, of heart, of imagination--even stillness of will. My very desire to be still must be stilled. Unless the hermitage is swept completely clean--as the Desert Fathers used to say--it is not ready to receive the divine guest. "Sweeping the hermitage" as the anonymous author of the 14th century spiritual classic, The Cloud of Unknowing (6) observed, entails just the opposite of filling my head with "correct doctrine." Instead, I must empty out everything I think I know about the strange attractor that draws me around the labyrinth. There is no way I can get an "A" on this exam! It's exactly like that maddening Rinzai koan about "the sound of one hand clapping." The very "catch" in the mind that this self-negating proposition induces is a millisecond taste of the stillness I'm looking for, even though I always carry it within me. So the spiritual life in some sense involves consciously embracing what St. John of the Cross called the "dark night of the soul." (7) He meant something completely different from the modern construction we place on the phrase. Today we use it as a synonym for depression, or for a really bad day of midlife angst. What he meant is that as I move around the labyrinth inexorably approaching the center, everything I think I know about divine being is cast into a "dark night" of unknowing--not a crisis of depression, but rather the overshadowing of every one of my dear ideas that prevents me experiencing something which so wonderfully surpasses my imagination, my desires, that the only adequate preparation for it is simplicity. And this simplicity is inner as well as outer.

There's a story about Anthony of the Desert, a Christian hermit of the 3rd century, who, in response to what he thought was a prompting of the Holy Spirit, gave away all his possessions--of which he had very few to begin with--and finally gave away even his Bible. Thinking by now that he must have earned the grace of inner peace, he was distraught to find himself still in turmoil. Finally, he called to heaven, "What more do want from me?" And then the story goes that he heard Jesus' voice saying: "Anthony, give me your sins." (8)

Like I said, this is humiliating--in the best sense of the word. Most of the time I fail to appreciate that in the spiritual life, disillusionment is as much my ally as belief.

"In country where high roads intersect, join hands with your allies..."

The question then arises how one enters this labyrinthine "journey of sitting still" in the first place. For a lucid outline of this, I turn to Marsha Sinetar's account in Ordinary People as Monks and Mystics. (9) I do so not because I think it is normative for everyone, but again because it has been descriptive of my own experience and may also be meaningful to you.

The spiritual life begins, Sinetar says, with some modicum of self-knowledge and the will to act on it. I wake up to the fact that I have an inner life, first of all, and in light of this awareness, I decide to accord some value to it. This is the exact opposite of the extroversion of attention and obsession with appearances that so pervades consumer culture. In consumer culture perception is reality as they say, while in the spiritual life, nothing could farther from the truth.

According value to the inner life, the source of the spiritual life, also involves the further step of acting in such a way as to honor what the development of the interior life requires of me. That is, we take it seriously by giving it time and commitment. Painfully, in most cases, this will imply stepping back from established patterns of thinking, relating, and behaving--and the "step back" is the beginning of the journey into a new way of being. The only way I can become more aware of my authentic nature is to withdraw attention and participation from socially customary patterns to create the silence, solitude, and leisure that increasingly sensitizes intuition to the comings and goings of the inner world.

This heightened awareness of the interior life, deciding to accord it value--to give it the time of day, so to speak--and then to weigh and act upon the intuitions and subtle promptings that arise from this dimension of our experience Sinetar refers to as "a call". In Christianity, this is a specifically personal call from a personal divine being to a loved part of itself the intent of which is to assimilate my life more and more completely to the divine life--its highest realization. In non-theistic traditions like Buddhism, for example, "the call" is much more an organically growing awareness of the pervasiveness of suffering, the "unsatisfactory" character of the human existential predicament, and a growing desire for liberation, together with the belief that liberation is possible through the practices prescribed by Buddhist tradition.

Once we give assent to the call, in effect allowing ourselves to be drawn along by it, we are always free to abandon it, but for some reason are progressively less inclined to do so. In describing this to my students I often liken it to falling in love--gradually moving through the seasons of initial meeting, acquaintanceship, familiarity, friendship, infatuation, disillusionment, and then finally, a mature love in which the beloved becomes essential to our own lives and living without them becomes unthinkable.

So there comes a time when, rather imperceptibly, the balance tips away from the ordinary way of being in the direction of a quite extraordinarily different way of being. Everything in one's life comes to be assimilated to, or organized around, responding to the rhythms and requirements of this interior adventure.

I've already alluded to the fact that this implies "letting go" of my own opinions, presuppositions, cherished self-deceits, old security anchors. Sinetar goes further and mentions letting go of "collective opinion"--especially the opinions that others have of us; letting go of "living unconsciously"--of pretending that I don't know what is right for me or expressing it in my existence; letting go of "safe routes of accomplishment" in favor of pathways that imply greater ethical, social or intellectual risks, and finally, letting go of my own "risk avoidance tendencies"--my laziness and readiness to avoid difficulty in favor of reliability, commitment, and responsibility.

To assist with all this, Sinetar found that the lives of people living out this call tend to take on a characteristic shape. The spiritual life is consciously structured to reduce financial and social demands, and to secure more time for silence, solitude and "non-doing"--i.e., sitting still--to support a more inner-directed focus of attention. In addition, the time and space made available by this "strategic withdrawal" from conventional life is used to cultivate a variety of practices and habits that heighten awareness of one's inner world. One may choose to live alone, make spiritual retreats, practice silence. We spend a great deal of time carefully studying the river of consciousness, finding its less troubled pools, gazing deep into them where the water is still and clear, and where we hope we may see something bubbling up from the underground spring that feeds it. All of this in turn leads to an increasingly rigorous obedience to the inner authority that one is discovering daily to grow more luminous and present. This obedience isn't the slavish observance of external regulations, but rather a spontaneous attentiveness to the growth of something precious--as we might be "obedient" to the needs of our garden, or of a child learning to walk, or of a lover. And as this relationship grows, deepens and matures, since we are constituted by our relationships, we are changed by it.

But, but, but... I also live in the physical world and must devise some solutions to the practical issues of living. This was true as well for the people whom Marsha Sinetar interviewed for her book. These practical steps in arranging one's life so as to honor and reflect an emerging spiritual way of being entails accepting even more paradoxes and some discomforts as well. Since I am so often called to step back from "normal" ways of being, obedience to the inner authority means letting go of security. It means being responsible for, and therefore responsive to, whatever my labyrinthine journey may require, whether or not other people understand that or respect what I'm doing. It also implies, I think, the creative practice of voluntary simplicity... which brings us to the second part of our story.

What is Voluntary Simplicity?

I imagine many of you know what voluntary simplicity is. Sharon assured me that you are probably all advanced practitioners of simple living and that I could practically skip this part. So I won't belabor the point, but I will say just a word or two in case we don't have the same thing in mind when I use the phrase "voluntary simplicity".

Millions of people have read Sarah Ban Breathnach's book, Simple Abundance, and are quite sure that voluntary simplicity is about making potpourris out of weeds you can find in the backyard, or a really good moisturizing bath out of just pennies worth of recycled motor oil. Millions of other people have read Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin's book, Your Money Or Your Life, and are confident that voluntary simplicity is really a financial management plan for early retirement. Once you've securely invested your little hoard in an unsustainable and exploitative capitalist economy, you are free to kick back and do good things for humanity. Or maybe you've read one of those scores of other books, mostly written in the breezy tones of self-made American optimism, with hundreds of suggestions about how you can simplify your life by selling your timeshare in Tuscany and moving back to the farm, or finding freedom by getting rid of the damned cabin cruiser! But none of these has anything to do with what I mean by voluntary simplicity, and even less to do, I think, with the relationship between simple living and divine being.

Closer to the heart of the matter, and more relevant to our topic, was Richard Gregg's original definition of voluntary simplicity, when he introduced the term in 1936: "Voluntary simplicity is the deliberate organization of life for a purpose." Or to be still more complete:

"Voluntary simplicity involves both [our] inner and outer condition. It means singleness of purpose, sincerity and honesty within, as well as avoidance of exterior clutter, of many possessions irrelevant to the chief purpose of life. It means an ordering and guiding of our energy and our desires, a partial restraint in some directions in order to secure greater abundance of life in other directions. It involves a deliberate organization of life for a purpose. Of course, as different people have different purposes in life, what is relevant to the purpose of one person might not be relevant to the purpose of another...the degree of simplification is a matter for each individual to settle for himself." (10)

To be fair, many sages, philosophers and spiritual teachers have advocated simple living for 2,800 years in the Western cultural tradition, and perhaps as long as 5,000 years in the East. So Richard Gregg didn't invent the idea, but he did introduce the contemporary term for it.

His definition, I think, is far closer to something that has direct importance for our topic because it is cultivating a spiritual way of being in the world that forms the central purpose around which I can deliberately organize my life. Simplicity is thus a practice which serves this purpose.

As Rabbi David Cooper expressed it:

"[In the spiritual life], one sits, walks, eats, sleeps, dresses, and takes care of personal hygiene. These are the basic physical needs. Keep it as simple as possible--clean, light, uncomplicated, spacious, empty--and use this pristine external form as a vehicle for the reflection of what we want for our inner being." (11)

But let me describe a little more specifically how I understand voluntary simplicity by briefly outlining four of its key values and practices that I think have direct relevance to our topic. These have been gleaned from a great variety of sources over many centuries since there seem to be almost no sources that synthesize them all in one place.

Voluntary simplicity is voluntary. It is rooted in free choice. Voluntary choice is the hallmark of a creative life, of self-expression, of taking responsibility for my choices, of desiring to be the architect of my life rather a victim or a "consumer." Reflecting back on Sinetar's description of the call to the spiritual life, it is something that I freely assent to listen to, to accord value, and to act on.

Voluntary choice implies mindfulness of my interior experience, a refusal to remain unconscious but rather a "right intention" as the Buddhists say, continually to grow more conscious by (paradoxically) surrendering to the grace that grows consciousness within me. It would be wonderful if this choice could simply be made once and for all--like saying "I do!" at a wedding. But the fact is, just like in marriage, I have to remake this choice and this commitment every day, over and over again, or it doesn't mean anything. Yesterday's "yes" doesn't apply to today. Every day I must sit still in order to move forward. Every day I must exercise the choice to try to wake up rather than remain asleep. Every day I must recommit to something that is maddeningly simple. As the 18th century samurai warrior Yamamoto Tsunetomo, put it:

There is surely nothing other than the single purpose of the present moment. A man's whole life is a succession of moment after moment. If one fully understands the present moment, there will be nothing else to do, and nothing else to pursue. Live being true to the single purpose of the moment. ... once one has come to this understanding, he will be a different person from that point on, though he may not always bear it in mind.

When one understands this settling into single-mindedness well, his affairs thin out.
(emphasis added) (12)

Practitioners of voluntary simplicity also value freedom - freedom from conditions that detract from the good life, and also freedom to exercise our human powers to develop our full potential as persons. This freedom takes specific forms:

Freedom from clutter - Sufficiency, minimalism; anti-consumerism; deliberate reduction of consumption, noise, social over-commitment, superfluous ornamentation, and scale. One of the perennial themes in the voluntary simplicity tradition concerns discovering freedom from the clutter, both physical and psychological, that accumulates in our lives like barnacles on a ship.

Mildred Binns Young saw simple living as part of getting ready to create a new, more just and peaceable world. Her comments though, could be easily applied as well to cultivating the spiritual life:

... Poverty, or some approximation to it, willingly assumed, would set us free both for finding our responsibility and for fulfilling it when found. That is why I have called it functional poverty. ... It is to be taken up as a way to freedom, and as a practical method for finding the time and strength to answer one's deepest need to be serviceable for a new world.

Functional poverty means an adjustment of the mechanics of living by clearing off the rubble. This is a clearing off that opens the way for new growth in wisdom, love and function. ... (emphasis added) (13)

So even when voluntary simplicity is taken in its grossest meaning--that of reducing the scale of our material consumption--there is another motive at work: that of freeing oneself for the creation of a new kind of existence, a new world even.

Freedom to pursue what is highest - Many of those who have praised the simple life and lived it themselves, have recognized that the freedom conferred by simple living is not an end in itself, but a means, a vehicle to something better. They have often seen it as the pre-requisite to developing their full potential--the image and likeness of divine being within--or the Buddha nature if you prefer. In a sense, we are fools if we continue to accumulate more than we need, because we spend all our time "getting ready" for a journey we never take.

But what is this "life" that we are freed by simplicity to venture upon right now? In the words of philosopher Robert Nisbet:

From Benedict to Kropotkin there is a profound conviction that the highest possibility of true morality and love is to be found in the life that is as liberated as possible from complexity and over-refinement of function. In the mainstream of the ecological tradition this has never meant stark austerity or abstinence. One of the greatnesses of Benedict's Rule is its insistence upon as normal a life as possible, with ample sleep, rest, good food, and the best of wine, with continuous development of man's mental as well as his spiritual nature. There is, nevertheless, a clear and unwavering emphasis upon simplicity. Precisely the same is true of More's Utopia. There is no morbid denial of natural appetites, nor a precious eschewal of the technology that makes a civilized existence possible: none of this. But always, from monk to anarchist, there is an insistence that simplicity should reign in all things. (14)

We have a priceless opportunity in life to pursue what is highest, and there is a power in simple living that liberates us to pursue it. That may be the search for spiritual truth and wisdom, or some other goal or purpose that holds the same place in our lives.

Nonviolence - Consumer culture everywhere entails violence perpetrated against other people, other cultures, and other species. The practice of simple living is a direct contribution to a less violent world. Of most specific relevance to our topic, I think it was Nhat Hanh who noted: "It is impossible to come home at night from a hard day of thieving and killing and then hope to cultivate mindfulness and inner peace."

This principle extends also to myself. In practicing simplicity, I let go of many things. I let go of violence toward others and toward nature. But I also let go of any violence toward myself. I refuse to judge myself, to inflict pain on myself, to compare myself with others, to take up habits that harm me physically or emotionally, even in the name of spirituality. None of this furthers the deepening of my relationship with divine being.

Paradoxically, however, as the practice of simplicity deepens, there is a season in the spiritual life, and in the practice of simplicity itself, when both become ferocious. This is the best word I can think of because it is the only word that avoids the sappy sentimentality that so often surrounds spiritual talk. Simplicity is a ferocious form of nonviolence. Once we've had a glimpse or two of our guiding purpose, once obedience to this purpose becomes clearer, the practice of simplicity is refined in the intense flame of this consciousness. Then the practice of simplicity itself, like all the rest of the life caught up in this journey, is intensified.

This kind of ferocity is visible in the story of the Rich Young Man who comes to Jesus after having practiced a life of formal observance of the Mosaic Law, but asks Jesus what else he must do to be perfect and Jesus answers, "Let it all go and follow me"--that is, follow me exclusively, purely, simply.

It is visible in a story about another desert hermit whose name I don't recall, who, thinking work to be essential to the spiritual life, spent all year weaving baskets from papyrus rushes until his cave was full of them whereupon he set them all on fire, then sweeping out the ashes, started all over again weaving baskets. This story is completely in alignment with the Buddhist practice of making mandalas from colored sand.

It is visible in Mahatma Gandhi, a trained lawyer who could have been well-off and politically powerful to boot, but who chose never to own anything that could not also be owned by the poorest of his countrymen.

It is visible in the Rinzai roshi who stalks behind sitting monks whacking them on the back with a bamboo cane whenever he thinks their concentration is slipping, or at the precise moment when the fruit can be seen to be ripe and only needs a nudge to fall into our laps.

It is visible in Francis of Assisi who lived in a lean-to slung against the wall of church, begging for a living, but lost in the ecstasy of his love affair with Lady Poverty.

None of these people became masochists on the spiritual journey, but rather only became the captives of what they loved. In their loves, they never mourned what they gave away to win them.

This ferocity, like simplicity itself, becomes necessary at a certain point simply because some things are difficult to do. There are things that take all our time and attention, like raising babies or birthing really fine artworks. In spite of the fact that the heart of spiritual practice, I think, is something very simple, that is not at all the same thing as saying that it is easya popular mis-association to the word "simple". Life in consumer culture is so replete with trivial distractions that are nevertheless presented as matters of great urgency, at some point I must decisively close my doors and windows to this nonsense and concentrate on what really does matter.

While this is not an exhaustive summary of the values and practices that constitute voluntary simplicity, I think it's enough to illustrate its relevance to spiritual ways of being. Simple living isn't an end in itself, but it is a supremely skillful means--something that helps clear away impediments and distractions from the interior focus, the daily reaffirmation of sitting still and letting go, the fashioning of an outer way of being that at least partly carries what we are permitting to be fashioned within us.

When we have practiced simplicity in arranging the outer details of our lives, letting go of non-essential material things so that we can concentrate with fewer distractions on the central purposes of our lives--and when we have extended the practice of simplicity inwardly, letting go of whatever might encumber us in making the journey we have been called to--and when we practice day by day letting go of our opinions, ideas, presuppositions, memories, feelings, goals--in short, when we have practiced letting go of everything we falsely think is the real us--then at last, when we reach the end of our lives, I think, we are tethered here by the slenderest of threads. We have already learned to trust the strange attractor at the center of the labyrinth as no longer strange, but completely familiar, even though still unseen. Then, letting go of the final thread is something we have been practicing with every breath in a hundred thousand smaller ways for a long, long time. Then, it will be nothing new--nothing special--nothing to worry about. The cell is swept clean. We are open--available for the "Wonderful, Wonderful," that we no longer need to second guess or figure out. Then we wait with empty hands and trusting heart for "the full measure, pressed down and poured into our laps." We see clearly, face to face.

I would leave you with one final thought, gleaned from Walt Whitman, an American poet of the 19th century:

This is what you shall do: Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off you hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body.... (15)

Thank you.


  1. Progoff, Ira (1975). At a Journal Workshop. New York, NY: Dialogue House Library.
  2. Clavell, James (ed) (1983). Sun Tzu - The Art of War. New York, NY: Dell, p. 37.
  3. In: Rohr, Richard (1991). Simplicity: The Art of Living. New York, NY: Crossroad Publishing Co., p. 88.
  4. Yutang, Lin (transl./ed.) (1948). The Wisdom of Laotse. New York, NY: The Modern Library.
  5. op cit., Rohr, p. 61.
  6. Wolters, Clifton (transl.) (1961). The Cloud of Unknowing and Other Works. New York, NY: Penguin.
  7. Kavanaugh, Kieran (O.C.D.) & Rodriguez, Otilio (O.C.D.) (transl.) (1979). The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross. Washington, D.C.: Institute of Carmelite Studies.
  8. Mertagh, Fr. Michael (1974). Personal communication.
  9. Sinetar, Marsha (1986). Ordinary People as Monks and Mystics: Lifestyles for Self-Discovery. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press.
  10. Gregg, Richard (1936). "Voluntary simplicity." In: Duane Elgin (1993). Voluntary Simplicity. New York: William Morrow, p. 23-24.
  11. Cooper, David A. (1992). Silence, Simplicity and Solitude: A Guide For Spiritual Retreat. New York, NY: Bell Tower, p. 106.
  12. Tsunetomo, Yamamoto (1716) Hagakure: The Book of The Samurai. New York: Kodansha International. (tr.) William Scott Wilson (1973), p. 68.
  13. Mildred Binns Young, (1939). In: VandenBroeck, Goldian (1996). Less is More: An Anthology of Ancient and Modern Voices Raised in Praise of Simplicity. Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions, p. 54-55.
  14. Nisbet, Robert (1973). The Social Philosophers. In: VandenBroeck, Goldian (1996). Less is More: An Anthology of Ancient and Modern Voices Raised in Praise of Simplicity. Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions, p. 232-233.
  15. Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass.