Favorite Writings on Simplicity

Pure Land Buddhists are devoted to the Amida Buddha, who in his compassion for the difficulties people face in achieving enlightenment in this world, has created a Pure Land which they will enter in their next life. The Pure Land is not Nirvana, but a place from which it is easy to reach Nirvana. Instead of distracting and tempting the faithful away from the path to enlightenment, the Pure Land is a world in which it is easy to pursue that path.

Quakers are not so lucky. We live in a world filled with demands, pressures, temptations, and distractions that serve as constant impediments to our efforts to order our outward lives in a way that nourishes and witnesses to the inward lives we strive for. Early Friends, responding to the outward distractions of their own times, found their way into the practice of plainness, and this laid the groundwork for what today we call the Testimony of Simplicity. It is a testimony that affects many facets of our lives. Most familiar is material simplicity—our possession, use, consumption, and waste of things, resources, and money. We also seek simplicity in our treatment of time—time management and the use of our time in livelihood, recreations, and service. There is simplicity of speech—which has to do both with honesty and with the ways in which we choose to use speech: as ministry, as a tool, as entertainment, as a weapon, or to show off. And, ultimately, there is simplicity of thought and attention: what values or principles organize our inner lives?

The practice of simplicity is one of constantly making choices. Depending on the different ways that people understand simplicity, the standards that govern these choices may be spiritual, religious, moral, political, ecological, aesthetic, or based on efficiency, to name only a few. It is apparent that we understand simplicity in a variety of ways when we look at the different terms Quaker writings have identified as the opposite of simplicity. Elaine Prevallet claims that the opposite of simplicity is "duplicity"; Thomas Hamm says that it is "materialism"; for Richard Foster, it is "anxiety."

From whatever direction we approach it, simplicity is hard. We live in a world where opportunities, responsibilities, temptations, and pressures lure and assault us from every side. Each of us must pick our own way through this jungle of choices. It is a demanding exercise—it requires spiritual searching, serious thought, self-understanding, and discipline.

Learning from the experiences of others helps. For several years now, I’ve maintained a correspondence about simplicity with a friend who is not a Quaker and whose interests in simplifying her life are a mixture of a desire for stress reduction and a desire to be true to her own spirit. Our discussion has ranged from such mundane matters as commuting, dry cleaning, and organizing our file systems to the more lofty ones of inward and outward integrity and making oneself receptive to divine guidance. We are both readers, and in the context of this ongoing conversation, I have developed my own list of helpful writings that I turn to when I need inspiration or practical advice for seeking simplicity in our very complex world.

This list of seven books is not the list that I hand out when I teach workshops on simplicity, although it does overlap somewhat with that one. It is my private list of readings that have helped me personally in my search for clarity, motivation, and guidance as I try to live simply.

Four Quaker Readings

The following writings by Friends ground their discussion of simplicity in the relationship between our outward and inward lives:

(1) Frances Irene Taber, "Finding the Taproot of Simplicity: The Movement Between Inner Knowledge and Outer Action," a chapter in the 1987 anthology, Friends Face the World, edited by Leonard Kenworthy. It’s out of print now, but worth hunting for. Fran Taber writes that early Friends "saw that all they did must flow directly from what they experienced as true, and that if it did not, both the knowing and the doing became false. In order to keep the knowledge clear and the doing true, they stripped away anything which seemed to get in the way." Starting with the spiritual implications of plainness for the first Friends, she relates those implications to present-day efforts by Friends and others to live simply.

(2) Thomas Kelly’s essay, "The Simplification of Life," in his book, A Testament of Devotion, explores the relationship between the chaotic frenzy of modern life and the fact that we contain multiple, divided selves with competing loyalties, commitments, and goals. When the voices of our different roles make their separate demands on our time, attention, and energy, we are like a committee whose members are trying to shout one another down to get their own way. He suggests that "the Quaker method of conducting business meetings is also applicable to the conducting of our individual lives, inwardly." If we can reach an inward unity on our primary intention, that of keeping God at the center at all times, simplicity will follow.

(3) The Journal of John Woolman contains considerable practical arguments for material simplicity and simplicity in our use of time. But it is not John Woolman’s rational explanations that bring me back to him again and again. It is the inspiration of his own example, as he carefully considers the implications of even the most pedestrian of choices. In his efforts to rid his life of what is "distinguishable from pure righteousness," he is a model of putting God at the center.

(4) Richard Foster, "The Discipline of Simplicity" in his book, Celebration of Discipline. The author has written another entire book on the subject of simplicity, and it is a good one. But this single chapter is enough for me. Grounding his discussion in Scripture—e.g., "Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also" (Matt. 6:21)—Richard Foster insists, "The central point for the discipline of simplicity is to seek the kingdom of God . . . first, and then everything necessary will come in its proper order." If outward simplicity is not in the service of inward spirituality, and not a natural expression of that spirituality, it will become mere "legalism." Building on an exploration of the risks of such legalism, and on the relationship between acquisitiveness and anxiety, he then provides ten helpful guidelines for material simplicity.

Three Secular Readings

The following books have helped me in the practical aspects of simplicity, particularly the management of time, money, and leisure.

(5) First Things First, by Stephen Covey, et al., speaks to busy people on the use of time. It is a book about making sane choices when there is too much to do, too much of it important, and too much urgent. It is about identifying your inner compass and remaining oriented to "True North," rather than being a slave to deadlines and to-do lists. The ninth chapter, "Integrity in the Moment of Choice," is a secular guide for clerking that inner committee of your divided self described by Thomas Kelly.

(6) Your Money or Your Life, by Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin. I should begin by cautioning you that there is a premise at the heart of this book that makes me uncomfortable, as I suspect it will many Friends: that having a job costs us too much, and that the solution is to accumulate enough funds to live frugally on the interest. But whether or not you share the authors’ goals, this book offers an admirably hardheaded, clear-thinking approach to the role of money in our lives. Where does it really come from, where does it really go, and what are the hidden costs if we live our lives, maybe not keeping up with, but at least trailing in the wake of, the Joneses? The things I learned from this book about the role of money in my own life were at once liberating and disconcerting.

(7) There Must be More Than This, by Judith Wright. One of John Woolman’s complaints about too much hard labor was that it tempts people to drink rum. I think about this complaint every time I read my yearly meeting’s query on moderation. Even if most of us manage not to drown our stress in alcohol or other substances, there are many more socially acceptable ways of seeking refuge from reality. Examples include zoning out in front of the television or computer screen, gossiping, daydreaming, over-exercising—whatever we turn to for comfort when we need to muffle the intensity of our lives. This book is about weaning ourselves from these "soft addictions," as Judith Wright calls them, and opening our lives more fully to whatever is really most important to us. I suspect the author really wanted to write a religious book, but perhaps to appeal to the broadest audience she uses language that is partly New Age and partly corporate motivation speech. Instead of writing about "God," she uses a term favored by William James and Rufus Jones: "the More." With a little translation, though, this book is addressing something important, and it has been of great help to me.

Beyond Readings

These seven writers have been a great help in my own personal efforts to grapple with the Testimony of Simplicity. But as much as I value their writings, reading can only offer so much. Ultimately, the learning comes from doing, from what we come to know experimentally. As Sven Ryberg writes (quoted by Fran Taber in the first reading above): "The bread of life within has to be harvested, baked, broken and shared by deeds, not read about in a recipe."

Michel Avery

Michel (Chel) Avery, a member of Goshen (Pa.) Meeting, is serving as director of Quaker Information Center in Philadelphia.