We live in an era defined by and revered for its immense availability of choice. We grow up told we can be anything, achieve whatever we want, we need only work hard enough, dream big enough. We can walk into a shop and choose from a selection of hundreds of variations of the same product. We may have fifty teas and ten shapes of pasta in our cupboards. We can learn anything we so desire from tens of thousands of online courses, many of which are free. We can access literally millions of films, books and podcasts from a device in our pockets, from almost anywhere, at any time. The question, therefore, is what the hell do we do? How do we choose from such a vast (and frankly overwhelming) selection of daily potentialities? Of possible selves? In our society, the word ‘limit’ has very negative connotations, ensured and driven home by marketing campaigns and global measurements of success. Continuous growth is good. More than that, it is the only way, the ultimate good. More is always better and any argument otherwise can be powerfully (often convincingly) shot down.
Many of these choices are veiled in ways that feel almost foolish to decline (and are often made more so by the economic factors involved). I can have thousands of photos stored on my phone and countless friends on Facebook. I can have all the music I could ever imagine at my fingertips, instantaneously, for an affordable price. But what would happen if I instead carefully select and buy a CD or record from time to time, delve into its every note and lyric over and over, really know what is being said? I could take a photo when the moment is truly right, carefully considered and caught to capture a special memory. I could print it and look at it when I feel the need or desire, show it to my friends at the pub to help tell a story. I could spend my time nurturing truly deep and meaningful relationships with those that surround me in the present moment. These are all elected limitations that question the benefits of limitless choice. They are simplifications of life that may have benefits outside of our realms of assumed thought. Maybe I am wrong, but something inside me is screaming for such simplicity.
It is my belief that overpowering choice disunites connections to who we are, to what we watch, eat, listen to, what we say, do and learn. Limitless choice creates a chasm that leaves us as individual human beings stuck on a lonely canyon’s edge with nature, love and self-respect on the other side. Simplicity, when carefully understood and enacted upon, forms part of the bridge to unite these broken connections. First world problem? Absolutely. Does that make it less true, less real? Is it somehow respectful to those with less for us to earn and spend as much as we can because others cannot? The limitless choice is (largely) a first world problem, it is a big one indeed.
The voluntary simplicity movement is the inevitable reaction to overwhelming choice. It has elected, amidst the complex systems of choice, to consciously ignore the vast majority of these choices. Through the slow, mindful acquisition of self-knowledge, we can become aware of what it is that we truly desire. We can learn who our deepest, most wild selves are and begin to eliminate the noise of consumer culture and develop honest connections to what we surround ourselves with. We consciously set our own limits, based on personal morality and awareness of the self, who we are. We take into account the planet and live within the very real and tangible limits set by both the available resources and the requirements of all life on Earth. We humbly decline choice and accept all that we have with vast gratitude and love. The two reflect and compound each other: as we learn to meditate, appreciate what we have study ourselves we begin to desire space, nature, quiet and simplicity. As we spend time in nature, silence and mindfulness we learn who we are and we appreciate what we have.
Turning down the distorted noise created by too much choice allows one to hear the dawn chorus, to really listen to a friend’s story, to appreciate the depth of a great album and to glimpse the truth of our wild-selves. It is an integral way on the path of a connected life. Sam Harris calls it waking up.
Food as Voluntary Simplicity
What we choose to eat is paramount to our ability to become nature connected. Simplifying what we eat can be profoundly respectful to the world’s ecology and resources, and to ourselves. To connect to your biosphere and taste the benefits of voluntary simplicity means to eliminate the intense complexity of globalised industrial agriculture and instead buy local, seasonal fruit and vegetables. This is an eco-spiritual choice. It is political activism at its finest, most gentle and humble. We can visit local farms and feel, intuitively, which one will provide our bodies and souls with nourishing food and which one acts best as nature protector, not destroyer. Accept the limits of the seasons with heartfelt gratitude and be present with each and every meal, every mouthful. This is a profound practice.
***Given the present situation- Billions home-isolated due to the Corona Virus outbreak- we are in a unique situation to truly consider the functioning of our global economic and social systems. They are immensely complex and quickly proving themselves deeply non-resilient and destructive to the planet we live on. We are faced with an opportunity to consider what truly matters in life. An opportunity to make some changes, to put systems in place to create resilient local food systems, to decrease our need for long-distance transportation, to find new ways of working to create more time with our families and friends. In doing so, we can simplify, voluntarily, to simultaneously build meaningful lives and avoid climate catastrophe. There is an old Buddhist adage: ‘to be reborn, first, we must die’. Perhaps this is the death of our fragile and destructive system. We can now decide in what form it is going to be reborn.***