Why the simple life might be for you

written by Louise Southerden

Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens … Julie Andrews was right (in The Sound of Music): simple things such as walking barefoot on a sandy beach, swimming in the sea, hugs or a cloudless sky are often our favourite things, delighting us, comforting us, inviting us to appreciate what’s around us and rewarding us for paying attention.

Even while writing this, I tried to remember to notice everyday things like the steam rising from a cup of tea, the call of the currawongs, the view from my window. Of course, writing about simplicity must be the ultimate contradiction. What’s there to say about something so, well, simple? As it turns out, there’s more to simplicity than meets the eye.

What is simplicity?

I seem to have been searching for simplicity most of my life, through camping trips (the kind that involve pitching my own tent and taking just the essentials), surfing (most surfers are minimalists at heart) and travelling — when I don’t overpack. But, even when I do, there’s a simplicity in just being “away”, particularly when you’re in natural places with only a few people and without wi-fi or mobile coverage, your possessions reduced to whatever can fit in a backpack. It’s a chance to escape life, which can be overwhelming in this age of always-online connectivity and constant awareness of global goings-on.

In April 2012, Science published the first-ever study on how much information the world is able to keep, communicate and compute — and the results are literally mind-boggling. California-based researchers Martin Hilbert and Priscila Lopez calculated that humankind can store, using digital and analog devices, “at least” 295 exabytes of information (that’s 295 followed by 18 zeroes) or 315 times the number of grains of sand in the world — though that’s 1 per cent of the information stored in all the DNA molecules of one human being, making us inherently complex creatures.

No wonder we’re searching for simplicity, in all sorts of ways: by moving to the country or the seaside (tree changes and sea changes), by becoming more self-sufficient, by retreating to the wilderness — like Chris McCandless, immortalised in Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild, who walked into the wilds of Alaska in 1992 with little more than a bag of rice and a rifle.

A (brief) history of simple living

Human beings have probably been searching for simplicity ever since we stopped being inherently simple cave dwellers, mammoth hunters and fire discoverers. Chances are that, as soon as we started wanting more, we realised the virtue of wanting less. Simplicity lies at the heart of most spiritual practices, religions and indigenous belief systems. Ascetic lifestyles, characterised by self-discipline, abstinence and a renouncement of worldly pleasures — in other words, uber-simple lifestyles — have been practised by Buddhists, Hindus, Jains, Hebrew prophets, Muslim Sufis, the Christian desert fathers and wandering monks, gurus and yogis in ancient India.

Zen Buddhism is often thought to be synonymous with simplicity. Writer, filmmaker and Zen teacher Gillian Coote, who teaches at Sydney Zen Centre, says the simplicity that originated in Japanese Zen temples — raked gardens, empty meditation rooms, inspired brushstrokes on a white sheet of paper — often feels like an antidote to consumer-driven lives: “There’s this idea that if you were a really cool person, you’d live in this extraordinary, spare, austere, uncluttered kind of space. Of course, it’s harder to live like that in our culture than if you’re a monk in Japan, because the whole point of this culture is that it’s an invitation to buy, buy, buy. So there’s something very idealistic and wishful about putting Zen into everything.”

One of the best-known secular advocates for living simply was Henry David Thoreau, who spent two years (from 1845 to 1847) in a cabin he built in a forest near Walden Pond, Massachusetts, in order to experience life more fully. “I went to the woods,” Thoreau wrote in Walden, or Life in the Woods, published in 1854, “because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived … I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life.”

Among those inspired by Thoreau was Russian writer Tolstoy (1828–1910), who also liked to live simply. The Tolstoyan movement started in the 1890s, its followers living in communes of non-smoking, non-drinking and sometimes celibate vegetarians. Tolstoyans, like Tolstoy himself, also advocated non-violence, which in turn inspired Gandhi (1869–1948), who believed that living simply was imperative for public figures.

Gandhi’s simple life, which he called “reducing himself to zero”, included being a lifelong vegetarian, experimenting with fruitarianism, regularly undertaking long fasts, living in a self-sufficient community, washing his own clothes (a simple Indian dhoti and shawl, woven from yarn he had spun himself) and spending one day a week in silence. He even gave up reading newspapers for three-and-a-half years, starting when he was 37, in his quest for inner peace.

But here’s the rub: we want stillness, stability, peace — but also stimulation, challenges, excitement. We want simplicity without boredom. And, of course, we don’t want to be simple — that is, ignorant, dull-minded, clueless, lacking ambition. Even when we meet supposedly simple people, how often do we appreciate their simplicity? We’re more likely to judge them or, as happened to Chauncey Gardiner (played by Peter Sellers) in the 1979 movie Being There, mistake their guileless demeanour for profound views on the state of the world.

Modern takes on simplicity

Jack Kerouac once said, “As soon as you own a rug you know you own too much” and today’s simplifiers have taken this minimalist credo to heart. Of course, it’s common in religious orders to renounce material things — the 14th Dalai Lama, one of the world’s most recognisable apostles of simplicity, apparently has only 13 possessions — but it’s less common to live with less outside a religious context.

In 2008, Californian Dave Bruno embarked on the 100 Things Challenge, a self-imposed regime of having only 100 possessions — excluding books, tools and communal things such as crockery and furniture used by other family members. When he wanted something new, he had to get rid of something he already had. Although he is a Christian, his motivation for the project was to free himself from the vice-like grip of “American-style consumerism” and “live a life of simplicity, characterised by joyfulness and thoughtfulness”.

As Bruno says on his blog (guynameddave.com): “All the things we own often get in the way of us living satisfied lives … Mass consumerism produces a deeper tragedy than debt, discontent and debris. This is consumerism’s most grievous affliction: it transforms our deep human longing to do something meaningful into a fickle compulsion to buy things temporal … Contributors, not consumers, are what the twenty-first century needs.”

Taking a different, but similar, tack, Irish writer and activist Mark Boyle lived without money for two years, starting on International Buy Nothing Day, November 28, 2008. The Moneyless Man, as he calls himself, lived in a caravan, worked on an organic farm in exchange for land he could use to grow his own food, washed in a river, brushed his teeth with a cuttlefish bone and wild fennel seeds, and cooked on a wood-burning stove. He later set up the Freeconomy Community and said he found those two years “the most fulfilling of my life”, learning that “friendship, not money, is the real security”.

Boyle also makes the point that living without money is closer to our natural state than living with it. “I find it amusing when people continuously tell me it is impossible, en masse, to live without money. For 95 per cent of our time on Earth, we lived without money; it’s only been in the last blink of an eyelid that we’ve actually used the stuff, and not a single other species on Earth uses it. What people really mean is that human civilisation, with all its modern trappings, would be impossible.” And would that be such a bad thing?

Daniel Suelo, a 50-year-old American who lives in a cave in Utah when he’s not wandering the country spreading the no-money word, has lived without money, and without government assistance or charity, since 2000: “My philosophy is to use only what is freely given or discarded and what is already present and already running (whether or not I existed).” And 68-year-old Heidemarie Schwermer has been living in Germany without money since 1996 when she gave away all her possessions, including her home, keeping nothing but a suitcase of clothes. “From this time I lived with other people in their houses. I helped them with their jobs and received bed and food … Living without money means to discover the flow of life, to put in motion a new liveliness, enter into a new quality of life, which happens through attention, carefulness and vigilance … [and] a devotion to life.”

Although people often begin living more simply to find more meaning in their own lives, simplicity can benefit more than the individual, according to those in the “voluntary simplicity” movement.

Choosing simplicity

Choice, living “deliberately”, is an important part of this movement. Simplicity thrust upon us by circumstances — changes in relationships or other life events such as divorce, illness or natural disasters — is not the kind of “simple life” most of us want. Most of us don’t want to feel a sense of deprivation or lack in order to live a full life. Richard Gregg, an American social philosopher who coined the term “voluntary simplicity” in 1936, puts it this way: “We are not here considering asceticism in the sense of a suppression of instincts. What we mean by voluntary simplicity is not so austere and rigid. Simplicity is a relative matter, depending on climate, customs, culture, the character of the individual.”

So what is voluntary simplicity? “Voluntary simplicity involves both inner and outer condition,” says Gregg. “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 organisation of life for a purpose.”

In other words, living simply can be meaningful, enriching and stimulating, connecting us to life and to the world. It’s about tuning in, not opting out. Living simply, with few possessions, few desires and free of money, means we are less driven by individualism and motivated by what is good for others, the environment, the Earth and life.

The Life Poets’ Simplicity Collective — founded by Samuel Alexander, a part-time lecturer and doctoral student at the University of Melbourne Law School who is dedicated to promoting voluntary simplicity in Australia and New Zealand — also defines “voluntary simplicity” as “a way of life that is outwardly simple and inwardly rich, a deliberate choice to live with less in the belief that more life will be returned to us in the process”.

Alexander, by the way, lives in a small shed he built in the backyard of a house he once shared with flatmates, using mostly abandoned materials, and spends his time reading, writing and “quietly planning, with youthful ambition, the non-violent erasure of consumer culture”.

Why simplify?

Maybe our need to align with the greater good will keep us on the simple track. Maybe other forces will come into play. For a while, during the recent global financial crisis, “back to basics” was back in fashion. Forced to be frugal, people were buying less, repairing things instead of replacing them, learning to sew, cooking instead of eating out, walking or riding bikes instead of driving. As the Depression-era maxim goes: “Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without.”

Climate change is also changing the way we live, as we consider the environmental impact of our actions and decisions. As the Life Poets’ Simplicity Collective’s mission statement makes clear, “Simple living will improve not only our own lives, but the lives of others, as well as help save our planet from the environmental catastrophe towards which we are so enthusiastically marching.”

Duane Elgin, author of Voluntary Simplicity, first published in the late 1970s, has watched attitudes to simplicity change over the past four decades. In the new edition of his book, published last year, he writes, “Simplicity of living, by whatever name, is moving from an easily dismissed lifestyle fad to an approach to living that is recognised as a vital ingredient for building a sustainable and meaningful future … [As] people’s sense of urgency has grown, interest in sustainable ways of living has soared, and simplicity has moved from the margins of society to the mainstream … [and] there has been a dramatic expansion in the scope of simplicity as it has moved from a personal issue to a consideration vital to our collective future.”

Too often, the demands of a high-consumption lifestyle force us to dedicate so much time to work, so we can afford what we think we need, that we neglect our friends, families and communities. Isolated, we become individualistic, comforted by more consuming (“retail therapy”), which perpetuates the problem. Living more simply, on the other hand, not only reduces individual stress, it allows us to put time and energy back into our towns, cities and natural spaces, our “collective future”.

“The simple act of sharing something with neighbours rather than each having their own is a good example,” says the Simplicity Collective. “Which community is richer: the one where each has their own? Or the community that has less but shares?”

When we have less, we actually have more — more space, more time, more freedom, more connection to others and to life. Of course, we can become attached to living simply or being a minimalist. And life is never truly simple, always taking us on winding roads we’re never quite sure how we ended up on. But the beauty of simplicity lies in the fact that it is accessible to us all — no matter where we’re from, how much we earn or how intelligent we are, simple joys are always within reach. Just above this page, for instance, there might be a face, a bird, a favourite thing. Look out the window at the trees, or the stars, breathe in and out. It’s quite simple, really.


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Louise Southerden

Louise Southerden is an award-winning travel writer and photographer based in northern NSW who has a passion for sustainable, simple living, at home and away. She’s happiest outdoors, preferably in water (she loves swimming and surfing).