It simply isn’t a simple task to define voluntary simplicity. Like every lifestyle choice, it is highly individual and a work in progress. As I sat down and thought about it, voluntary simplicity boiled down to two things: awareness and balance. Awareness of who we are and what surrounds us. Awareness that everything is connected, so that every action has a consequence. Awareness of what is given to us and how we use it. Awareness that there has to be balance for everything in life to ensure universal wellness. There needs to be balance between our inner and outer life. There needs to be balance in what we take and what we give, between what we build and what we inadvertently destroy. Without balance and awareness we are in for a rough ride, and we are taking many with us on that bumpy journey whether they want to come along or not.
Many years ago, when I first was introduced to voluntary simplicity, I read Janet Luhr’s The Simple Living Guide. It was a good start. Luhr exchanged her career as a lawyer for a simpler and more satisfying life, and The Simple Living Guide is the product of her experience and desire to share with others the principles and joys of living mindfully and sustainably. The common misconception is that simple living is about deprivation, being frugal, living on a tight budget, a minimalist aesthetic and denial of all pleasure. Living with less sounds like… well, less. And there is less. Less debt. Less stress. Less responsibilities. Less impact on the environment. But there is also so much more: more joy, more freedom, more of the things that really matter. Living simply is about being fully aware of the choices we make and the life we live. It is about knowing ourselves and living with and acting on this knowledge. Page by page, I was drawn into the process of simplifying and how it leads to a richer life. Each chapter of this book addresses a different facet of daily life. And it is written in such a warm and personal manner that it feels more like having a conversation with the author than reading a text.
An excellent complement to Janet Luhr’s book is Stepping Lightly by Manitoban author Mark Burch. He begins by raising the question of how people can best lead a life in harmony with themselves, other people and the Earth. To answer this question he explores the history of the simple living philosophy and how the concept is evolving beyond personal enrichment into a powerful tool for making a better world shared by all. He shows that a personal commitment to voluntary simplicity can form the basis for liberating time, money, and creative energy to allow for both individual activism and collectively addressing the challenges humanity and the planet are facing now and in the future. This book offers excellent guidance to start the thought process for those who have decided that they want to make a commitment to mindful sufficiency.
Mark Burch’s latest book, The Hidden Door, builds on the foundation laid in Stepping Lightly. He gives a short refresher of the simple living philosophy and then expands on his previous analysis of the connection between mindful sufficiency, communication, education, economy, technology, and human rights. Without being disrespectful, this book is a damning indictment of our consumer culture with its shameless promotion of excess, waste and a shallow life ushering in our extinction. But it also invites the reader to open the hidden door of fashioning a way of living well in harmonious community while having the smallest environmental footprint possible, and thus it promises hope. This is not a self-help book that offers a set of prefabricated stepping stones to a better life, but a book that encourages introspection and the process of building an individual life as a member of the global community. The Hidden Door is not a fast read, as it requires thoughtful engagement, but it is a book to be returned to often if you want to reap the benefits.
A good number of authors have been writing on the topic of simplicity for decades. For those who want to learn more but don’t know where to start, Less is More is a collection of different authors covering a myriad of topics under the headings “Simplicity Defined”, “Solutions” and “Policies”. Featured are Jim Merkel, Bill McKibben, Duane Elgin, Juliet Schor, Ernest Callenbach, John de Graaf and many more. Books by all of these authors are available at the Winnipeg Public Library. All you have to do is pick the author who intrigues you the most and search the library catalogue to find and enjoy more of his or her writings.
Duane Elgin’s Voluntary Simplicity is considered the “Bible” of the Simple Living Movement. First published in 1981 and revised in 1993, it has by no means lost its relevance. Like many others, Elgin invites the reader to join the trend toward downshifting, to adjust thoughts, habits, and goals and embrace the key elements of simplicity: frugal consumption, ecological awareness and personal growth.
Jim Merkel quit his job as a military engineer following the Exxon Valdez disaster and has since worked to develop tools for personal and societal sustainability. His book Radical Simplicity presents a lot of numbers and statistics for those who have a mathematical mind. If philosophy is too “vague” and you need a solid basis of science and refined tools for measuring your ecological footprint and how much nature is needed to supply all you consume, as well as what it takes to absorb all your waste, this is definitely the book for you. However, it is by no means dry reading. It combines narrative, compassionate advocacy, and science to convey a practical, personal answer to twenty-first century challenges that will appeal as much to activists seeking to change our culture as to spiritual seekers, policy makers, and sustainability professionals. Radical Simplicity builds on steps from Your Money or Your Life by Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin, in which the reader is guided to design their own personal economics to save money, get free of debt, and align their work with their values.
John Robbins is the author of the million-copy bestseller Diet for a New America, which even became a PBS series. In his book The New Good Life he passionately talks about finding meaning and happiness through redefining success based on values and life experiences, looking to the future confidently by planning for and protecting yourself from economic downturns as we have seen in recent times, improving your health by eating a better diet as well as going easier on the environment by making better transportation and housing choices.
And in the end, no thoughts on simple living are complete without Henry David Thoreau’s classic Walden.
With that I leave you to making your own choices, in literature as well as in your daily life. May it be blessed with happiness and peace.