“Live simply so that others may simply live” is a saying most often attributed to Mahatma Gandhi, Indian political leader and to many a saint. And simple living is a cornerstone of Quaker practice, with images of Quaker dress and books of straightforward language serving as reminders of traditional roots.
Years ago while living in my grandparents’ country cabin on the edge of a small city, I was introduced to the possibility of a simply life through the writings of Thoreau from his cabin on Walden Pond. I fantasized about homesteading and, like many others, collected a good-sized pile of Mother Earth News. Articles about gardening, making a musical instrument from a recycled can, and digging a functional outhouse were dream material for a young mind. After frugal living and physical labor as a sheet metal worker, coal breaker, and construction crew member, I had saved enough money to take off hiking on the Appalachian Trail toward the wilds of Maine. In a campfire ritual of simplicity, I burned a driver’s license and other links to the complex, modern world. After months of hard travels and some blissful moments of solitude in nature, I was back in the same cabin waiting for the good life to begin.
Eventually, I came to live the country good life (growing food, baking bread, heating with wood) in a yoga ashram in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania, an area popular for resorts and skiing. Here also came an introduction to seeing that the simple life is often not easy or really simple at all.
I lived with a group of others, sometimes as many as 30 young people from various backgrounds. We were interested not only in back-to-the-land country living but in spiritual experiences rumored to occur through yoga disciplines such as a vegetarian diet, hatha yoga exercises, study, and contemplation. There is a saying in the yoga tradition: “Everything you need to know is already inside of you.” This is the mystics’ path that I was attracted to. Along with many others of the time, we sought not only peace and understanding, but freedom from addiction, suffering, and the complexities of a sped-up information age. Many of us did find peace, good health, and some wisdom in this type of living and sharing of experience.
But I watched over the years as we aged and culture changed. Even most of the good folks who visited or stayed with us for a while were pulled away to more normal lifestyles. It seemed that although living a simpler life might generate peace, there were certain types of knowledge (like learning to fix frozen water pipes, change engine oil, get along with a mate, raise children, and pay a mortgage) that did not come from yoga practices or contemplation. Interaction with the world around us was unavoidable, and cultural norms affected even what was considered the good life.
After years of simpler physical living, I needed to catch-up on what I called finding the long-lost left brain. I had many practical skills, along with some mind-training and good health from yoga practices, but little formal college education or money to pursue anything but basic pay-the-bills survival. It occurred to me then that there was a price to pay for living that simpler life. There was also some guilt for not having spent enough time and effort to get out of the working class, or create a career capable of supporting a family. Good physical work does take energy and can be rewarding but will not usually lead to a PhD or professional career, so desired in this information age.
Although part of the good life for some does involve doing old-fashioned cut-the-wood and feed-the-animals labor, but I now believe the Self (as the soul is referred to in yoga tradition) is complex: we are asked to develop intellectual, social, communication, and practical skills, along with spiritual understanding. Perhaps even some understanding of pop culture and other odd, fun, or profound aspects of modern life are useful, even necessary for grounding us in time and place.
I continue to reflect on what it means to live a simple or good life. While attending a meditation at the nearby Buddhist Center, I heard the Lama, an experienced monk, give a talk about the value of simple living. Rather than nod my head in agreement or smile about the good times experienced cutting and hauling firewood, I felt discomfort and conflict. Later, I kidded Lama Tsoni about helping to “push my buttons.” He explained that his simplicity is more a state of mind than a fixed way of living. He and his wife seem to have a simple life in some ways, but he occasionally teaches in Europe rather than living as a traditional forest sage or Buddha with begging bowl.
While both my friends and Quaker Friends romanticize the simple life, most have or had careers, and their kids go off to good colleges, getting educations that ensure they are not likely to come back very often to help cut firewood or bake bread. It would be honest to accept that Quaker tradition does not ask us to live the really simple life of farming, such as Amish communities are known for.
I recently became a member of Maury River Meeting near Lexington, Virginia. It’s a nice group that I’ve known at least ten years. I enjoy the quiet, shared meals, and second-hour classes. But as for romanticizing the simple life, I’m cautious. I think we have good examples in Gandhi; Thoreau; a wandering, early George Fox; and my friend Lama Tsoni.
I hope to get my life simpler soon by selling a house. As a single person and former monk, I developed a love of sleeping on the floor of one little room, rather than owning or maintaining a large house filled with really good stuff. A simpler, outer life can be a sacrifice to help us develop a richer, more complex inner life. But I won’t get rid of a computer soon and can’t give away my carpentry tools yet. I also love being a passenger in any vehicle, from a hybrid Prius to a beat-up pickup with farm-use plates. Rides out to the meetinghouse and further out in the county are accepted with gratitude. Some of the good life and simple life is a way of living. Often simplicity, however, is a state of mind: free of too much stuff to care for, free of too much to do.