He who knows he has enough is rich.
-- Lao-Tse, Tao Te Ching
Simplicity is not the same thing as destitution, or self-imposed deprivation. The practice of simplicity is all about sufficiency or there being enough -- what the ancients called "the Middle Way" or the "Golden Mean." It has to do with finding a graceful balance in life where we have enough material possessions to provide for our basic needs, plus some comforts and luxuries that may not be required for basic survival but are appropriate to a dignified and self-actualizing life.
As we might expect, there is considerable latitude here in deciding exactly how much is enough, and how much of what sorts of things. This will naturally vary with the individual, to some degree with the culture, certainly with geography, and with our state and stage in life.
Cultivating Discernment of How Much Is Enough
Supposing that we may have made at least one "de-junking" pass through our living quarters, we're faced with the practical question of how not to slide slowly (or rapidly) back into the mire of accumulation. This requires cultivating discernment in how much is enough as well as cultivating the mindfulness necessary to balance on that graceful point without allowing ourselves to be pulled or pushed off.
There are two things that will be of some help in achieving this: First, cultivating mindfulness of our governing values and all those things we most love in our lives. This means developing a regular practice of remembering who we are, why we are here, where we came from, and where we are going. Awareness of our personal answers to these questions, however tentative or hypothetical they may be at this time, is a powerful way of staying connected to our own sources of inner wisdom and meaning. This awareness is what helps us stay connected with what we love rather than letting ourselves become distracted by what others are trying to get us to want.
Another thing that can be of some help in learning to discern how much is enough is developing an understanding of the dynamics of desire, that is, of why we seem to crave more and more without limit.
The Confounding Confusion of Consumerism
One story we tell ourselves about the nature and purpose of human existence is that of consumerism. Consumerism positions the meaning and value of life in the endless stimulation, satisfaction, and re-stimulation of desire for the consumption of material things. As well, consumerism deliberately confounds the satisfaction of non-material (psychological, social, emotional, spiritual) human needs with the production and consumption of material goods and services for profit. Since the "profit motive" is itself a learned desire, there are no built-in physical limits to its satisfaction. Only other social or psychological factors can restrain it or direct its expression.
In our society, an unlimited desire for profit welds the enormous flexibility of human learning to a growth-oriented economic and technical system that feeds upon a physically limited planet. The effects of this system on the Earth are being magnified by a galloping population growth, rapidly developing technology, and the "good-life-through-growth-in-consumption" ideology shared by business, governments, and most ordinary citizens. This combination is inherently unsustainable. We know this. Yet we actively export the ideology of consumerism to the rest of the world. Consumerism isn't what we profess, of course, but it is what we do, and what we do speaks far louder than what we say.
The culture of consumerism grows out of the rather sloppy "philosophy" (if it can be called that) of hedonistic materialism. Modern economics simply states that human beings are, by nature, greedy, self-interested, and pleasure-hungry without limit. Paradoxically, in our pursuit of the satisfaction of our greed and appetites for pleasure we are also supposed to be "rational". Consumerism really doesn't offer any explanation for this state of affairs, being content rather to accept it as being "just the way people are," and proceeding from this premise to devise ways of making as much money as possible from it.
Hedonistic Materialism: A Self-Fulfilling Prophecy
In the process, it preaches the very theory of human nature it assumes and, to the extent that we uncritically accept these sermons, consumerism's theory of human nature becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. If television advertising tells us we are power-hungry, pleasure-seeking, violent, self-interested, vulgar, and unspiritual beings by nature, then perhaps we are; and if we are, then all the stuff they are offering to satisfy these desires seems quite logically to fit in with what we're told we need.
Has this description of human nature ever characterized the majority of human beings? It certainly does characterize an aggressive, powerful, and prominent minority who exercise an inordinate influence over our collective destiny. After some reflection, we can usually cite dozens of examples of other people who behave generously without thought of personal advantage, who extend themselves and sometimes die for the sake of others, who enjoy pleasure but certainly aren't ruled by it, and who do not spend every waking moment of their existence planning ways of extending their personal advantage or expanding their hoard of possessions. Most people of my acquaintance more closely resemble this latter group than the former.
I mention the "economic theory" of human desire because it is so ubiquitous in the media and seems to be the fundamental assumption of most economic and political thinking in our society. Moreover, this scheme of human nature has become depersonalized and institutionalized in the form of corporations -- a most ominous development.
Our Genes Make Us Do It
Another theory about why we often feel drawn to acquire more than enough is proposed by the cognitive psychologist Timothy Miller in his book How To Want What You Have. Miller argues that all species evolved the basic genetic program to acquire as much of the prerequisites to successful mating and survival as possible (land, food, power, mates, status, etc.) for the simple reason that any creature that might have evolved with an "enough switch" for these things would have been at a reproductive disadvantage compared to those who had no enough-switch.
Our more or less insatiable appetite for accumulation, therefore, may be biologically rooted, quite natural, and, until fairly recently, have been adapted for assuring the survival of the species. In modern times, however, insatiable desire has come together with powerful technologies and large populations, both of which are threatening ecological ruin if we continue with business as usual.
Miller also observes, cogently, I think, that while this innate biological programming to acquire, accumulate, and protect had a certain usefulness in assuring biological survival, it is inherently incapable of delivering happiness or contentment. It is not necessary for an animal to be happy or contented in order to reproduce and be an evolutionary success. Most of us know from our own personal experience that in terms of some emergent aspects of our human nature (our spirituality, our complex psychology, our social relationships) simply reproducing is not much of a reason to survive. We are more than fish swimming upstream, more than insects just trying to find a place to lay eggs.
Going further, Miller suggests (in the good company of orthodox Buddhist thinking) that when we mistakenly believe that the satisfaction of our biologically rooted desires will lead to contentment and happiness, the way is open for all varieties of competition, struggle, conflict, loss, sorrow -- in a word, suffering. Paradoxically, the way to peace and happiness is not found through the satisfaction of desires for the simple reason that desires cannot be satisfied in a lasting way. Instead, the satiation of desire simply leads sooner or later to another round of desire, or else a fear of loss. Consumerism is actually a social system designed to strengthen desire and heighten fear of loss because these motivate people to consume much more effectively than contentment and peace, even though contentment and peace (satisfaction) are often what consumerism promises will follow from the consumption of products.
Stuff and More Stuff Won't Make Us Happier Than The Neighbors
Desire likely has a biological origin in human nature and is no more a matter for guilt or self-blame than our need to eat or drink. It may be natural to want stuff; it may even be natural to want more and more stuff. The truth is, however, getting more and more stuff doesn't leave us better off.
Yet, the competitiveness that is so stressed in consumer societies implies that it is possible for one person to enjoy a significant advantage of comfort over his or her neighbors, with peace and security to boot. Moreover, consumer societies believe they can maintain advantages of comfort and security at the expense of neighboring societies. These ideas are mistaken because they rest on the illusion that there can be such things as separate individuals and societies when, in fact, everything and everyone is systemically linked.
In its simple-minded way, consumerism just accepts this situation and seeks a way to use it systematically to enrich the minority (who are just as much its victims as anyone else!) at the expense of the freedom and contentment of the majority who are exploited. Miller offers more hope, pointing out that humans are not just bags of chemicals blindly driven about by biological instincts, but that we also have a mental and emotional capacity to counterbalance our innate desires with understanding and insight regarding their truth and consequences.
The Mental Practices of Gratitude, Attention, and Compassion
Miller believes that we can counterbalance the effects of our innate propensity to want more and more by cultivating habits of thinking and ways of paying attention to our experience that are better matched with what we know is the nature of our existence. This involves establishing the mental practice of gratitude (the habit of perceiving and appreciating the positive aspects of our here-and-now experience), attention (the habit of non-prejudicially paying attention to our here-and-now experience), and compassion (the habit of thinking of other people as being just as ensnared in the pain of insatiable desire and chronic fear and subject to the same sufferings as are we ourselves).
The most encouraging aspect of what Miller has to say is that an "enough switch" may not come as part of our inborn biological equipment, but that we can install one. We can learn contentment. We can learn "how to want what we have". We are not necessarily condemned to inevitable personal burn-out, social conflict and inequity, and ecological ruin for lack of choices. We can cultivate an awareness of how much is enough and live accordingly, though not without some effort to maintain mindfulness, and not without practice.
We live in a consumer culture. We simmer in its broth day and night. When there is very little, if anything, in our social milieu, in the media, in economic and technical development, or in political discourse that in any way suggests that moderation might be a comprehensible, even desirable way of life, it is hard for individuals to keep any sort of grip on how much is enough. Therefore, getting an inkling of what "enough" might mean almost inevitably implies getting some distance (intellectually and emotionally) from life as most of us live it. This is not easy.
Turning Off The Propagation of Consumerism
No evangelizing faith, no conquering army, no plague of nature has ever been more pervasive than consumerism and its propagation system -- advertising. The entire planet is now bathed in microwave, television, and radio signals 24 hours a day. The medium of television itself has the power to alter brain functioning and, after gradually lulling the viewer into an uncritical state of diffuse semi-awareness, it implants semi-conscious images and messages that have been psychologically designed to "trigger" consumption in the presence of the appropriate stimulus.
It has been estimated that by the age of 20, the average American has been exposed to nearly one million advertising messages, that he or she will spend a total of one year of his or her life watching television advertising. Two-thirds of newspaper space and 40 percent of our mail is unsolicited advertising. The advent of telemarketing and internet marketing as well as the gradual commercialization of public spaces allows for even more intrusive advertising in our daily lives. These developments and many others establish the "background reality" (and often the "foreground" as well) in which we live and raise our children.
Fortunately, all electronic media still come equipped with "off" switches and allow the user a choice of channels. Stopping the influx of marketing propaganda is relatively easy. It is much more difficult (and often impossible) to select the entertainment and information portions of the media stream from the glut of advertising, "infomercials", and "entertainment" programs that are really thinly disguised advertisements. Separating the wheat from the chaff thus requires considerable time and no small amount of technical ability.
Mindful Awareness of How Much is Enough
In such a social environment, coming to a personal awareness of how much is enough to provide for our well-being requires mindfulness to be sure, but also a measure of "self-defense." Those who succeed in identifying a gracefully sufficient way of life for themselves often say they maintain it at the cost of feeling that they stand amid a social current constantly rushing in the direction of renewed consumption, a current that always inclines to pull them along with it. This brings to the practice of simplicity, in our current social reality, something of the quality of a struggle.
Helpful in this contest is giving ourselves extended periods of retreat to solitude to reconnect, again and again if necessary, with our personal sources of value in life, to regain a sense of proportion and sufficiency, and to deepen gratitude for what we have. Also helpful is the practice of exercising a fairly ruthless selectivity in our choice of entertainment, our use of media, and our willingness to endure the come-ons of all sorts of marketing people.
Discerning how much is enough also involves placing our personal consumption of things in the context of environmental sustainability, social justice, and inter-generational equity. In this realm, we move beyond considerations of what may be expedient or comfortable in terms of our individual lives and consider ourselves to be part of a much larger whole.
The Current Level of Consumerism Is Not Sustainable
Current rates of consumption could not be sustained if everyone on Earth participated in the consumer economy to an equal degree. Deciding how much is enough for us, then, must also involve some awareness that for most North Americans our "enough" must be found somewhere below about 30 percent of our current consumption of resources and energy. For some North Americans, living on their "fair Earth share" ? the amount of resources available equally to every person on Earth -- might involve a 90 to 95 percent reduction in their consumption, while for others, it may actually represent an increase.
One of the greatest challenges of voluntary simplicity is in creating a rich and meaningful way of life not only by finding a personal definition of how much we think is enough, but by fitting that harmoniously into how much the Earth can provide in a healthy and sustainable way.
Balancing How Much "My Enough" Exceeds "Your Enough"
The other aspect to consider is that of justice. Mahatma Gandhi made it a personal principle to own nothing that was not equally available to the poorest person on Earth. He considered any consumption of luxuries to be tantamount to theft from the needy as long as there was anyone who could not meet his or her basic needs in life or who did not enjoy equal access to the luxury in question. We might consider this position to be so harsh that few could hope to practice it, but it addresses a perennial issue that is growing in urgency.
Just as the Earth displays biophysical limits to its productivity and regenerative capacities that must be taken into account as we develop mindfulness of how much is enough, there are also social and economic equity limits on how much my "enough" can exceed your "enough" without creating intolerable social tensions. What use is it to own a luxury home that must be surrounded by guards, dogs, and electric fences? How much can one enjoy a new limousine or Bentley when it must be made bullet-proof and outfitted with seats for guards and gun ports? What can possibly be gained by a gated, idyllic existence when just beyond the fence one cannot walk in safety or let one's children play? Who, after all, is the prisoner in this situation?
The world we inhabit is something we will be passing along to future generations, whether or not we can precisely calculate the economic significance of this gesture by "discounting" the value of natural resources or placing a "premium" on our hopes for technical breakthroughs. What we leave behind -- both our wisdom and our trash -- will have its effects on future generations. It is only a hopelessly self-centered and spiritually impoverished people who could ignore this responsibility or even seriously ask, "What have future generations ever done for me?"
Understanding What Will Really Bring Us Peace and Contentment
To summarize, voluntary simplicity is a way of life based on "enough", on the middle way of sufficiency in all things. It appears that we are not innately "wired" to be satisfied with sufficiency. Whether our tendency to want more and more without limit is the result of natural evolution or a spiritual malady, it is a fact of life. Happily, however, we are capable of understanding the nature of incessant desire, its destructive effects on our lives, relationships, and the environment, and we are capable of developing other ways of thinking and living based on a truer understanding of what will really bring us peace and contentment.
In the current North American social reality, putting these insights into practice requires that we continually swim against the prevailing current of advertising, social custom, and what passes for "common sense" in our day. Developing mindfulness about the nature and dynamics of innate desires, cultivating "defenses" against commercialism intruding into our lives, and staying conscious of how much money, time, and energy we spend and the value we receive in exchange for them, are all helpful ways of identifying how much is enough and then letting that awareness guide our life choices.
Reprinted with permission of the publisher,
New Society Publishers. ©2000, 2011.
Stepping Lightly: Simplicity for People and the Planet
by Mark A. Burch.
While the voluntary simplicity movement has grown by leaps and bounds in recent years, it is still often stereotyped as being mainly concerned with a thrifty lifestyle. But simple living has much deeper implications than just cleaning closets or selling off a second car. In Stepping Lightly, Mark Burch considers the deeper rewards of voluntary simplicity for individuals, and how the practice of simple living can be an essential part of the solution to our social and environmental problems. Thoughtful and eloquent, this book will appeal to a wide range of readers interested in committing themselves to stepping lightly into a more sustainable future.
Info/Order this paperback book and/or download the Kindle edition.
About the Author
MARK BURCH is a freelance educator, writer and workshop facilitator. He currently teaches courses on voluntary simplicity as an adjunct faculty member of The University of Winnipeg and offers workshops on simpler living and adult environmental education across Canada. He has been a featured guest on CBC TV "Man Alive", CBC Radio "Ideas" and in the Knowledge Network documentary series "The Simpler Way". He is the author of Stepping Lightly as well as of Simplicity: Notes, Stories and Exercises for Developing Unimaginable Wealth. Mark Burch cultivates stillness, gathers Chi, and tends a garden in Prairie Canada.