Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Explaining Voluntary Simplicity

Last night, I was invited to give a ten-minute presentation on Voluntary Simplicity to a community league group on the northside. Talk about a challenge! It's not easy to explain it in a day-long workshop, because it's a philosophy that touches every corner of a person's life. But I did my best. My only regret is that I forgot to mention the importance of being MINDFUL of the impact our choices have on the world and each other. In case you're interested, the presentation is below.


What is Voluntary Simplicity? Well, it’s a way of life that goes back into every human culture throughout history. Chances are, if you’re at this meeting, you might be living it yourself, but just didn’t have the fancy title for it – that was the case with my husband Lee and me. It was only when we attended a Voluntary Simplicity workshop led by Mark Burch, a Winnipeg Voluntary Simplicity expert, that we realized that it was what we were doing and wanted to do more seriously.
Voluntary Simplicity is “a deliberate organization of life for a purpose,” requiring “an avoidance of clutter,” and of “things that are irrelevant to the chief purpose of life.” (Duane Elgin, quoting Richard Gregg, follower of Mahatma Ghandi in Voluntary Simplicity: Toward a Way of Life that is Outwardly Simple, Inwardly Rich. William Morrow 1993, ISBN 0-688-12119-5, p. 23.)
When you think about it, that’s a pretty counter-cultural way to live in this millennium. The last several generations of human beings have grown up bombarded by billions of commercial messages telling us that if we want to live the so-called Good Life, we are what we own, and we can buy happiness... on credit if we need to, 0% financing, no GST.
But what’s interesting is that even as our homes and lives have filled up with all the products money can buy and all the activities we can fit into 24 hours, our happiness quotient in North America has been declining ever since our basic needs were met in the mid-1950s. It’s also interesting to note that since then, both our relationships and our leisure time have taken a back seat to the drive to own more so-called time-saving or luxury items. We’ve also become less capable of providing for ourselves than our homesteading ancestors.
While I agree that owning enough to get by is necessary for life and happiness, I would argue that having excess is making our whole planet poorer and sicker. Unfortunately, marketers tend to ignore the fact that the Earth’s resources are finite, so it’s up to us as consumers to call a halt to the excessive human greed that is taking a toll on many ecosystems and human populations across the globe, often without our knowledge.
So, how do we stop the relentless degradation caused by an excessive North American lifestyle that demands we keep up with the Joneses? By ignoring the Joneses and choosing to live simply so that others can simply live. In my books, living simply means
--less obsession with making a living vs. more leisure,
--less debt vs. more freedom,
--less pollution and noise vs. more harmony with nature,
--less hurry and clutter and stress vs. a more mindful, self-reliant and appreciative approach to living.
For my husband and me, it has meant taking a serious look at how we want to live, and what we value. In choosing Voluntary Simplicity:

--We decided that I should work in the home to provide sanity, stability and sanctuary for our family.
--We’ve chosen to become urban homesteaders (of sorts) growing and preserving as much of our own food as we can, because we know that homegrown and home-cooked meals are healthier than any food-like substances you can buy in packages or fast food places.
--We’ve learned to repair things and to avoid getting caught up in home or fashion trends, cutting consumer culture out of our lives as much as we can.
--We’ve gotten to know our neighbours better, so that we can trade tools and expertise and become more self-reliant rather than seeking store-bought solutions. 
--We try to rely less on personal vehicles to get around because we want future generations to live on a planet that isn’t clogged up by fossil fuel emissions. We are a single vehicle family.
--We’ve found ways to make significant cuts in our energy and water use in over the last ten years, and we support thrift stores.
--Finally, I’ve become a Simplicity Educator of sorts, doing workshops and presentations and organizing Simplicity Study Circles wherever people are looking for better alternatives.

What is wonderful about practicing Voluntary Simplicity is that we’re noticing that there are a lot more people jumping on the bandwagon. The environmental movement has made the population more aware of the impact of human beings on our planet and its inhabitants. The alternate energy people and folks like our bicycle commuters have shown us that there are healthier solutions to our energy needs than burning all our fossil fuel deposits. The Slow Food people have woken us up to more organic food choices, while the Locavores have made the idea of homegrown and local food, and hence, farmer’s markets and community gardens more popular. And people involved in social justice endeavors have made us realize that if we can control our purchasing power and live in solidarity with our brothers and sisters in the developing world, there can be sufficiency for all.
The problem is that governments of every sort seem to be of the mindset that the economy is the bottom line, rather than the people within it. Politicians want to keep their positions, and quite often they do that by sticking with the status quo. But our present status quo, the one based on consumer culture and the overuse of the earth’s resources, is going to make it hard for us to live happily as human beings long term. So rather than sit tight with things as they are, we need a grassroots movement that starts with ordinary citizens like you and me, and ordinary communities, like yours, to start thinking outside the status quo box.
Voluntary Simplicity is one approach to making the kinds of changes that will help us become happier, healthier human beings. By choosing to live more simply, we cut down on the clutter in our lives... and in our world, and focus on the important things in life – community, relationship, and good health for us and our planet. We make choices for the common good of all rather than for greed, and we become active participants in making the world a better place, rather than being passive consumers of what’s left of the planet’s resources.
In my efforts to share Voluntary Simplicity with others since Lee and I discovered our place in it seven years ago, I’ve discovered some wonderful resources that I’ve used with friends, neighbours, different church communities and other folks who are interested in leaving the Good Life behind for the Better Life. If the Better Life is really what we want, our communities need to become a place where neighbours know and help one another, where cars give way to more walkable and bikeable environments, where there are supports for young families and the elderly and everyone in between, and where sun, air, water and soil are cared for and contribute to everyone’s health.
I realize that I’ve been talking too many generalizations, but my time is about up. I can assure you that everything I’ve been saying has been backed up by personal study and experience in the last several years. If you’re interested in learning more, there are many resources available. Perhaps you’d like to start your own Simplicity Circles or hold a workshop to explore the many possibilities. In any case, I’m cheering for you, because I think this meeting shows that you have great potential to be one of the flagship sustainable communities in Edmonton. If anything I’ve said has struck a chord with you, I’m open to questions... I wish you luck in building a Better Life in your community.

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