Iplayed on my high school tennis team for one utterly embarrassing day, after which I rendered the team a great service by quitting. That particular escapade is not the subject of this article, but one part is important to mention. What I recall most from those few hours is how the best players on the court had what I thought of as “tennis arm.” Their dominant arm, the one that held the racket, was extremely well‐developed from daily practice, while the muscles of the non‐dominant arm were completely untrained. It left them looking oddly lopsided. The reason I bring this up is that the more I reflect on the question of simplicity, the more I sense that I have developed some kind of spiritual “tennis arm.”
In my September 2018 Friends Journal article “Life in a Box,” I wrote about consolidating my material possessions down to what would fit inside a 23‐gallon bin, the storage limit for the guests of the homeless shelter where I work. It was an exercise in minimalism, restraint, and efficiency, all of which are muscles necessary to embody simplicity. I was exercising all the right muscles but just on one metaphorical arm: the material understanding of simplicity. Focusing only on the material possessions helped me to experience daily life as less cluttered. But it didn’t necessarily help me to think or feel with a less cluttered mind and heart. Material simplicity is no guarantee of what I’ve come to recognize as spiritual simplicity. It is possible to live simply and still have a hoarding, clinging, ego‐bloated mind. We accumulate intangible things—beliefs, ideas, judgments, grievances, etc.—just as much as physical possessions.
Here’s what it looked like for me by the end of my one‐bin challenge: my home was physically neat and in order, but I still acted emotionally sloppy with my family. I had consolidated my wardrobe but still held onto my grudges. I organized and curated my memory box but let my judgmental thoughts about others go unexamined. I discarded old books with the same frivolity that I had discarded old friends and lovers. I had dutifully made more room for that of God in my life, only to realize that God isn’t looking for extra shelving space in my room. God is looking for open space, yes—but primarily in my mind. Unfortunately, when I began to look at that space, I found it to be largely a messy, tangled, egotistical thought system. I was spiritually lopsided.
I had dutifully made more room for that of God in my life, only to realize that God isn’t looking for extra shelving space in my room. God is looking for open space, yes—but primarily in my mind.
I began to wonder about the ways that simplicity is both physical and metaphysical. Material simplicity is the work on our homes, but the work of spiritual simplicity is on ourselves—literally, our multiple selves, the ones we carry around in our minds: the greedy self, the vengeful self, the critical self, the egotistical self. They are our habitual thoughts, unexamined beliefs, grievances, judgments, stories, and excuses. These are our psychological and spiritual possessions. This neglected second arm of simplicity is the process of learning to let go of these possessions—these selves—so that only one remains: the loving self. Metaphysical simplicity in action consists of being able to confront any situation as an integrated, coherent, and therefore wholly simple self: the self purified of all misperception and ego so that what remains is unconditional, unembellished, unequivocal love. What could be more complex than our egos? What could be more simple than love?
This same point is raised in the Christian metaphysical text called A Course in Miracles, which I discovered during my Quaker Voluntary Service year and which has since helped me more deeply access Christian theology. One of the most captivating points the text makes is that Christ doesn’t have anything I don’t have; the difference between us is that he doesn’t have anything else. The Christ mind is clear and simple; our minds, in comparison, are torturous. Within the Religious Society of Friends, we readily recognize and affirm that all people have that of God in them. But perhaps we less readily meditate on all the psychological junk we carry around in our minds that is not of God. In any given situation, instead of thinking about all the things that obscure that of God in others, do we reflect on all the things that make our perception more cluttered than Christ’s would be in that situation? It only takes a moment for us to say how Christ would respond to any difficult circumstance: “With love.” But when given permission to describe our thoughts about any difficult circumstance—well, cancel your afternoon because we might be here a few hours “processing.” Again, I ask myself: What could be more complex than our egos? What could be more simple than love?
The sense I have is that the work of spiritual simplicity is situated inside ourselves. This point deserves emphasis because it is easy to think that what obscures that of God in others is something about the other. For example, when I meet a man experiencing chronic street homelessness, I might think that that of God is what lies beneath his needle marks, body lice, and smell of alcohol, and my work is to look beneath those things to find that of God in him. Wrong. That is spiritual grandiosity. Spiritual simplicity means looking at myself: What about me thinks that that of God could ever be obscured? What about me was distracted by the physical world to such an extent that I lost sight of that of God in this man? Where am I feeling tempted to pull away from him, to judge him, to misperceive him, to belittle him, to disconnect from him? What do I need to give up to see him as God does? Spiritual simplicity means uncovering these aspects of myself and learning to let them go.
It is strange, at first, to be writing about simplicity while knowing that my ancestors feverishly raced across the Oregon Trail to work in the gold mines of California during the Gold Rush. I think about how many thousands of gallons of water per day they passed through the pans, sluices, and sieves to yield just a few nuggets of gold. There’s something relevant and notable here, though. That of God is like the gold in the sluice. It is small, still, and simple. It’s what we find in our minds when we clear away the muck, grime, and clumps of identity that comprise our ego. Sanity, enlightenment, the Christ mind, personal transformation—whatever you want to call it—is passing our thoughts through a sieve.
Spiritual simplicity, or trying to act only from a place of love, doesn’t mean diminishing your emotional intelligence either. I have found that it makes me more emotionally skillful.
For me, spiritual simplicity doesn’t mean becoming ascetic or fleeing the world as we know it. Christ said you can build your house on sand or you can build your house on a rock—but he doesn’t deny us the right to build a house for ourselves and inhabit the world. The first part of the phrase is very clear: You can build your house. We have permission to build a life and participate in the human experience. What’s also clear is that no matter how organized, decluttered, or simplified the house on sand is, it will fall when the storms come (Matt. 7:27). Of course, we have free will. We choose where to build our house and what to build it from. I can choose to build my sense of self on a complex arrangement of anxiety, fear, ambition, greed, and superiority. But that’s like building sandcastles at high tide and thinking the waves won’t wash them away: utterly delusional. A life of greed may make a stunning sandcastle for a period of time, but when the first wave strikes … The alternative is that I can choose to build my sense of self on love. That sense of self is like the rocky tide pools. The waves will come, but the rocks stand calm and firm. In fact, by embracing the water, they become the basis for an entire ecosystem and allow new life to emerge. A house built on rock—on love—is a mind that is fortified and life‐giving.
Spiritual simplicity, or trying to act only from a place of love, doesn’t mean diminishing your emotional intelligence either. I have found that it makes me more emotionally skillful. Let me give you an example. Part of my job in the emergency shelter where I work involves de‐escalating conflicts that may involve weapons, drugs, alcohol, or simply tense emotions. I have learned that there are two ways to say, for example, “I need you to put the knife down.” The first involves emotional quicksand. My mind is barraged by thoughts of what he might do. What if I get hurt? What if someone else gets hurt? What if I mess up and get fired? How could anyone possibly act skillfully with all that running through their mind? The alternative is spiritual simplicity. I ask myself an extremely simple question: What would the loving response be? I find that I can tell this man clearly and succinctly, “I need you to put the knife down,” and the energy behind it is simple: I care about you, I care about myself, and I care about the other men here; no one here is a monster. To de‐escalate a tense situation, I need a clear mind. Spiritual simplicity gives me that clarity.
I take this to mean that tennis arm works both ways: If the right arm is overtrained, your muscle tone is misaligned; if the left arm is overtrained, your muscle tone is still misaligned. What we want is both spiritual and material simplicity, being devoted neither to the world alone nor to God alone.
I will be the first to tell you that I am far, very far from being any kind of enlightened master (if you don’t believe me, call my former Quaker Voluntary Service roommates). But I have some moments when I get it right, and I know enough to recognize that in the moments when I do get it right, I’m fully grounded in love and only love. It’s when I am experiencing spiritual simplicity and therefore thinking clearly. I mess things up when my mind is disconnected from love and assailed by emotions like fear, anxiety, worry, ambition, and greed. If I base my sense of self—my response to stress, my plans for the future, my conversation with a friend—on those things, then I’m heading down fast like sandcastles at high tide.
In the sacred Hindu treatises known as the Upanishads, it is said that:
the man who devotes himself only to the world condemns himself to darkness, but the man who devotes himself only to meditation condemns himself to an even greater darkness.
I take this to mean that tennis arm works both ways: If the right arm is overtrained, your muscle tone is misaligned; if the left arm is overtrained, your muscle tone is still misaligned. What we want is both spiritual and material simplicity, being devoted neither to the world alone nor to God alone. Devotion to the world alone means living by and for capitalist consumer culture (How’s that been working out for us lately?). Devotion to God alone means living in perpetual retreat at a spiritual center, in a fantasy that you can bring peace to all beings remotely. Either way, we’re left spiritually lopsided.
When I sit with those lines from the Upanishads, I’m left thinking that we are called to be in the world but in a worshipful way. I think both arms of simplicity are crucial to that way. When our material lives are simple, when our sense of self is simply love and we embody that love in daily life, we live a life that is not spiritually lopsided.