Voluntary simplicity, simply defined, is a state of mindfulness. It’s being mindful of how much we save or spend, conserve or consume, protect the Earth or plunder her. It’s being mindful of whether we see life through a lens of abundance and gratitude or a lens of scarcity and resistance. It’s deciding for ourselves, on our own terms, what we want to surround ourselves with: clutter or calm, money or richness, smog or fresh air.
People find their way to voluntary simplicity for different reasons: money, time, stuff, health or environmental concerns. They choose to let go of something that drains their energy (such as debt or busyness) in order to have more of something that feeds their spirit (like a sense of purpose, or more time to be creative). Too much stress is often an underlying motivation. Dig even deeper and you’re sure to find a spiritual yearning as well.
When Dick and Jeanne Roy, founders of the NorthWest Earth Institute (www.nwei.org), wondered why the notion of voluntary simplicity is so attractive to North Americans, they discovered that, “like a beacon shining in the darkness, simplicity provides a focus for people with very diverse motivations.” According to the Roys, these include frugality (by lowering our financial needs, we are better able to respond to changing circumstances in a time of economic uncertainty); finding the time for what is important to us; concern for the Earth (“simplicity is an easy, enriching way to reduce human impact on the planet”); slowing the tempo of technological change; religious or spiritual discipline; and the search for a dignified alternative to the meaninglessness of consumerism.
Voluntary simplicity can be viewed as a movement, a practice, an ethic, or one’s essence. Duane Elgin, the father of the voluntary simplicity movement, explains it in his 1981 book, Voluntary Simplicity, as a movement “toward a way of life that is outwardly simple, inwardly rich.”
Doris Janzen Longacre, more than anyone, has offered voluntary simplicity as a practice. Living More with Less (1980) has become the movement’s bible as well as its credo. Her book provides a pattern for living with less and a wealth of practical suggestions from around the world (especially Mennonite communities) in chapters on money, clothing, homes, transportation and travel, celebrations, recreation, and eating together.
Vicky Robin, who wrote Your Money or Your Life (1992) with the late Joe Dominguez, expresses voluntary simplicity as an ethic: “It is about something everyone knows. Living within your means. That the best things in life are free. That it is better to give than receive. That the privilege of existence is not consumption but self-expression and contribution.’’
In order to make simplicity a part of our essence, we just have to start making small—but mindful—changes, like turning the phone off during dinner, or not turning the computer on until we’ve had a brisk morning walk.
Choosing our changes (or, at least, our attitude toward change) and our focus is what makes simplicity “voluntary.” Simplicity should never feel like hardship, deprivation or impoverishment. Followers choose it willingly, joyfully (if with a pinch of trepidation), even if the catalyzing factor is an imposed change in life’s circumstances (such as a need for frugality due to job loss or illness).
Through simplicity, life is enriched — in a mindful way. Come join the movement.
Julie Johnston is a Pender Island teacher and adult educator with a special interest in environmental education and sustainable development learning.