Sunday, April 4, 2010

Voluntary Simplicity

This morning I answered a questionnaire about voluntary simplicity that a student in France sent to Sandhill asking for volunteers to respond (even though the questions were not simple to answer). I liked the questions, and thought I'd share my answers, making the work I did composing responses do double duty by serving as today's blog entry as well. 

1. One can define "voluntary simplicity" as follows: a preference for country life; a desire for maximum personal self-reliance and creative leisure; a certain hostility toward luxury; a belief that the primary reward of work should be well-being rather than money; and a taste for the plain and the functional. To what extent do you identify with this? And to what extent do you live a simple life? 

I don’t think voluntary simplicity implies an agrarian life, though it may well imply a slower, more deliberate one, and that, of course, is typically associated more with rural lifestyles. I don’t link voluntary simplicity with self-reliance or hostility toward luxury, either. I am drawn to the association with creative leisure though, in the sense that one who espouses voluntary simplicity needs to find happiness independent of the accumulation of money or possessions. Better for me though, would be a creative way to find joy and inspiration in everyday things; I prefer the approach of blurring the distinction between work and play. I am drawn, in part, to living in intentional community because of the leveraging possible around accessing resources (through sharing) instead of accumulating the money needed to buy them.

I live a life of voluntary simplicity in that I have little money or possessions in my name, yet believe I lead a life rich in opportunities and experiences. One of the secrets to leading a happy life is to be able to find joy in many things.

2. How has your upbringing influenced you on your path toward simplicity and human evolution?

I grew in a middle class family. While not rich, I never experienced any serious privation as a child and that helped me see at an early age how little money can do for you. Thus, I was able to get off the materialistic treadmill as a young adult. It is very hard to tell people who have not yet experienced the limitations of money that it is not worth pursuing.

3. What does the ideal simple life look like in your eyes?

I think the most important elements are creating a life of joy and stimulation that depends minimally on consumption of non-renewable resources, and has a minimally disruptive influence on the choices of others. For me, opportunities for relationship with and service to others are important, yet I can accept that this may not be so for others. For example, Thoreau at Walden Pond was living a version of the simple life that was much more reclusive and contemplative than mine.

4. Master J. Krishnamurti is quoted as saying, "What you are, the world is. And without your transformation, there can be no transformation of the world." It is a question perhaps as old as the spiritual life itself: Do I change the world or do I change myself? Given our current evolutionary crisis, how do you understand the role of individual evolution versus that of collective change? For those individuals who have a powerful spiritual calling and who also care deeply about the state of the world, where should they put their energy and attention?

I think you need to work at both, yet of the two, only personal transformation is essential. I don’t believe it’s possible to effect lasting social change unless the inspiration and energy for one’s efforts are rooted in personal work and transparency. If you are not living the change you are exhorting others to embrace, it will ring hollow and your efforts will founder, regardless of how persuasive your tongue.

Regarding how much spiritual people should be engaged in social change work, I think that is a personal choice. Nothing works well unless your heart is in it and yet the heart can lead in widely divergent directions. Either social change work is a personal calling, or it is best left to others.

5. How important is spirituality to your life?

I don’t know. While it is not an aspect that I spend much time focusing on, it has gradually become a more welcome element in my consciousness. Increasingly, I see it as interwoven in the fabric of everyday life (rather than as a thing brought out of the closet every Sunday or on holy days), and I like the philosophy of Creation Theology which sees the divine in all of us. The challenge is learning how to access and nurture it. This calls for humility and an acceptance of the unknown that is often uncomfortable. That said, I now believe that my best work comes when I’m spiritually or energetically attuned to what’s happening and what’s called for in a given situation.

6. Do you practice yoga? What kind of physical activity do you prefer?

Yes. I aspire to do Hatha yoga every day. I come close to this ideal when at home (about 40% of the time) and am much poorer at it when traveling. 
I like working with my hands (woodworking, masonry, food processing, cooking). Occasionally I go camping (wilderness canoeing or hiking). There have been stretches in my past where I ran three times a week, but I am not doing so now.

7. One advantage to material wealth is the ability to surround oneself with beautiful objects. How does aesthetics fit into the life of voluntary simplicity?

I believe aesthetics are important, yet just as I wrote above about finding joy in the mundane, so too can you find beauty in the inexpensive.

8. Can the media and the new technologies (Internet, iPods, etc.) be a positive influence in a quest for a simple life? What is your personal relation to new technologies? What devices (TV, computer, stereo...) do you have and what use do you make of them?

While electronic gadgets and media allow for connection with minimal travel (saving time and fuel), they come at a cost of complexity. Email and text messages are only a fragment of what transpires in live conversations and I worry about a cheapening of relationship and people gradually not even knowing what they’ve given up. I also worry about a trend I see where people preferentially respond to messages based on the medium through which they arrived, rather than on the urgency or importance of the message.

I rely heavily on my laptop and use email as my primary mode of communication with people I don’t live with. (It is, of course, how I am answering this questionnaire.) The good side is that I am able to easily reuse well written material and to reach many more than I could 20 years ago through just letters, phone calls, and personal visits. Still, I try to be aware of the trade-offs and my mind is not made up about the balance of benefit and damage. I don't live with a television, yet I enjoy listening to the radio and to music.

9. Do you think we should continue to develop faster, smarter, more independent machines?

I think it is inevitable that we will. Whether it is wise is a much trickier question, for the reasons I gave in the previous answer.
10. What are the three most important things you possess?

In no particular order: the ability to feel, the ability to think, and the ability to love.
11. What do you think about the self-help movement’s version of simplifying: for example, a book like Elaine St. James’ Simplify Your Life, which offers a collection of quick fixes, such as how to reduce clutter in your house?

I have nothing against people offering to others what has been beneficial to them. I also have no illusions that any of these offerings are panaceas. Those with personalities and values similar to the author may well benefit; others will not.
12. Voluntary simplicity is not always the easiest choice to make and this way of life can be difficult sometimes. What motivates you to stick with this way of life when it gets tough?

That’s easy: because voluntary complexity doesn’t make things better.
13. It seems to me that time in nature goes on a slower pace. Do you agree with that? Can you feel a difference between time in nature and time in city?

The pace of Nature is all over the map. Some, such as geologic time, is much, much slower than urban human pace. For a hummingbird or honey bee though (both rural and both “natural”), the urban human pace is quite leisurely.

That said, I prefer the slower pace of rural life to the frenetic pace of urban life. It allows more for cycles and protects periods of reflection. The bucolic life also tends to offer easier ways for humans to feel a part of Nature rather than separate from it.
14. Do you feel like you are the master of your time? If not, why?

People face a fundamental choice in how they organize their lives: because obligations and opportunities come in surges (rather than in a steady flow), you can either set up your life so that you will not be swamped in the busy times, or not be bored in the slow times.

I have chosen the latter strategy and that necessarily leads to periods of overload (or at least near overload). I am the master in that I have made intentional choices about what claims I accept on my time. However, that does not always mean I have chosen wisely or that I am always in control.
15. Have you found a balance between your inner biological rhythms (sleep, eat, work/rest...) and the imposed deadlines that each of us has to meet everyday?

I feel I do pretty well in this regard (though I worry about not getting as much regular exercise as would be good for me, as my work has drifted more toward the cerebral and emotional, and away from the physical in recent years). One thing that helps me a lot in this regard is that I have a great deal of choice around how I organize my time and can easily switch from one task to another whenever I get bored or stale with what I’m doing.
16. What are your daily eating habits? And what kind of food do you eat?

In general, I start the day with just a cup of coffee. I eat either once or twice a day, averaging perhaps 10 meals per week. In warmer seasons I’ll drink a lot of milk, tea, or water during the day; much less in the colder times. At night I typically have one alcoholic drink.
Our community diet emphasizes food we grow ourselves, heavily slanted toward whole grains and fresh vegetables. This diet is harder to regularly find when I’m on the road.
17. Do you wake up early? What do you think of the morning hours as opposed to the late evening hours to work? Which do you use best?

I typically wake up around 7 am and go to bed around midnight. Mornings are best for me when it comes to focused mental work, such as writing or problem solving. Evenings work well for routine work and reading.
18. Today many Americans buy organic food because it is healthy, many others are what we call “locavores,” many others are vegetarian. In a way, it has become fashionable to eat organic, and magazines emphasize that trend by depicting famous persons’ vegetarianism, etc. What do you think about it being a trend? 

My community has been committed to growing its own food and growing it organically since we were founded in 1974. It has been heartening to see the dominant culture move in our direction. While I think it’s unclear how much society will continue to focus on organic, low-meat, and local diets (that is, I think there are some aspects of what is happening today that are a fashion trend rather than a sea change in society’s consciousness), I don't think we’ll ever go back to the mindless consumption of heavily processed foods that characterized US society’s eating habits back in the '70s. 

19. Should the responsibility for changing the food system lie more with the consumer, more with the producer, or equally with both?  

This has to be consumer driven. Producers will quickly adapt if customers change what they buy. 

20. What brought you to live in this community? How were your first weeks there? 

I was a founding member of my community and I was seeking to recreate the spirit of stimulation and support that I had experienced in college dormitory life. As I recall the first few weeks, they were filled with wonder of the unknown. As a suburban-raised child, rural life was totally new to me and it was an adventure—like being in a foreign land. 

21. Do you have particular duties to accomplish for the community? If so, what are they? 

Yes. I do the accounting, taxes, electrical work, masonry work, some of the food processing, and generate much of the income through work as an administrator for the Fellowship for Intentional Community (FIC) and as a process consultant. 

22. What are the advantages and the drawbacks of this way of living? 

Positives: Through intensive resource sharing it’s possible to have a great life without making so much money that we have a tax liability. We spend a minimum amount of time doing work we don’t care to do, yet we are not asking others to do our scut work for us. We are creating a model of how to live sustainably, and building quality relationships in the process of getting our work done. 

Negatives: It is very challenging figuring out how, as equals, we can successfully live together, learning how to constructively navigate conflicts and hurts. There is a much higher standard of communication and transparency when lives are shared this closely and it can be exhausting at times. 

23. Have you found a balance between your need for a life in community and your need for solitude? Is it difficult? How do you achieve it? 

Yes. I protect time alone with a number of strategies. My wife does not live with me; she lives in a neighboring community three miles away. That means we’re only together about half the time, protecting many nights alone. In addition, my work in my community is often done solo. Finally, in my job as FIC administrator and as a process consultant I travel to work and events and often go by train (rather than flying). In part I make this choice to protect time for reflection in an otherwise very full schedule. 

24. Do you like reading? Which authors have influenced you the most? 

I love reading! I read a mix of fiction (John Barth, Annie Proulx, Margaret Atwood, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez have been influential) and non-fiction (Malcolm Gladwell, Stephen Jay Gould, James Surowiecki, Bill McKibben, Jane Jacobs, and Tracy Kidder have turned my head). 

25. Do you know Henry David Thoreau’s and Helen and Scott Nearing’s writings? If so, what do you think about it?  

Yes (I referenced Thoreau in my answer to Question 3). They both wrote thoughtfully about rural homesteading and society, while modeling a deliberate balance between the physical and mental planes of life. While I’ve been inspired by what they’ve had to say about balancing, and the responsibility of the individual in society, my life is much more focused on relationship and group dynamics than there’s was. 

26. In “The Good Life”, the Nearings said they were perceived as originals and had never really been part of the community. Does your entourage—outside of the community—happen to think of you as of an original? 

I have little sense of my reputation, yet I know I’m an acorn that has wandered far from the tree I was raised on and must appear mysterious (and perhaps original) to those who knew me earlier in my journey. 

27. Do you write (diary, poetry, other)? If so, what does writing represent to you? Why is it important in your life? And do you have a writing routine? 

Though it was never my intent to become a writer (I was plagued for many years by the question of how to know when I knew enough about a thing that it was worthwhile for me to share my understanding with others), at age 60, I now write almost every day. This includes correspondence with friends, business communications, proposals, reports for clients, and a blog I contribute to every three days. Writing is a discipline that helps me hone what I’m experiencing (where the benefit is personal), and has increasingly become a medium for passing along what I’ve learned (where the benefit is for others). I expect to work this summer on a book about cooperative group dynamics. 

28. Do you do other artistic activities (painting, whatever)? And what does creation mean to you? 

Consistent with my answer to Question 1, there are opportunities to be creative and artistic all around us—not just in what is traditionally labeled “art.” Thus, I enjoy being creative with my cooking (meals should be beautifully presented, not just delicious and nutritious), woodworking, teaching, and facilitating. 

29. Do you think of yourself as an idealist? Why? 

I am in the sense that I act and accept limitations on my choices based on my beliefs. Further, it is my express intent that my behaviors will be inspirational to others. Having said that, there is also a sense in which I am not an idealist. As a nonprofit administrator and as a professional facilitator, I am constantly dealing with what is possible in the moment, and it is not uncommon for practicable solutions to fall painfully short of one’s ideals.  

30. Do you have today the same ideals as those you had before? What evolution can you acknowledge? 

This is a good question. I don’t think there’s been much change to my commitment to organic, wholesome food in the last 30 years, nor in my steadfast dedication to living and raising children in an income-sharing community that I hope will be an inspiration to others. On the other hand, I can name three ways in which my ideals have shifted substantially over the years.
—I’m now much more satisfied with incremental success in moving toward the creation of more cooperative culture (see my answer to the previous question). That is, I no longer expect to hit a home run every time at bat.
—I’ve considerably broadened my definition of cooperative culture. Where I used to focus solely on income-sharing communities, about 20 year ago I expanded that to include all forms of intentional community (the vast majority of which do not fully share income). In the last five years I’ve moved beyond that to embrace cooperative ventures in the context of the workplace, neighborhoods, nonprofits, churches, and schools.
—In the beginning of my community experience I thought that success meant that others would join you or emulate you. Now I think that success is an invitation to share with others what I‘ve learned about how to make cooperation work. Instead of hoping people will come to me, I now gladly go where others invite me. 

31. What things have you achieved that you never thought possible?

—Back in the mid-90s I actively recruited Dancing Rabbit to locate their forming community next to Sandhill Farm. While I had a vague idea at that time about the advantages of clumping like-valued groups in one place (and how it would benefit Sandhill socially), I had no clear picture of how successful our enclave of communities would become—we have now grown to three with the addition of Red Earth Farms in 2005, with a combined population approaching 70 people. Today, the adults in our three groups represent nearly two percent of the voting population of our county. In another 10 years, that might become five percent.
—I began volunteering to help groups with their cooperative processes back in December 1987. Today, 
22 years later, I am amazed that I’ve been able to parlay that initial toe in the water into a national reputation that earns as much as $1200/day (if the group can afford it), and I get calls from all over asking for help.
—I began experimenting with writing a blog in December 2007, with the aim of trying to drive web-based traffic to the FIC, using a medium that is more accessible for younger generations. I had no idea at the outset how I would relate to the standard of creating fresh content twice a week. Now 29 months into it, I am astounded to find that I have created over 250 entries and thoroughly enjoy the discipline of posting something fresh on a regular basis. While I’m unsure of how much attention I’m drawing to FIC, it’s been an easy way to keep friends apprised of what I’m doing and it encourages me to practice my craft as a writer. 

32. What are the main values that you try to pass on to others in general, and the next generation in particular, to your children if you have children? 

To be courageous, to be generous, to be mindful of how your actions affect others, to be productive, to be in service to a better world for all, to be loving, to be fair, to be honest, to have fun. 

33. Could you describe what you think life is going to be like in the United States in, say, 2030? 

I think we’ll face a fork in the road before then, where the society either turns toward being much more cooperative or much more brittle. There is a growing squeeze on natural resources (think oil and water, in particular) that means we’ll have to face the music on the limits of the capitalistic model advocating growth, growth, and more growth. If we turn in the direction of learning better how to share more and make do with less individual ownership, there will still be a sense of a world of abundance (though differently defined and more in the direction of voluntary simplicity that is the theme of this questionnaire). To accomplish this we’ll need to become much more accomplished at solving problems cooperatively. 

If we take the other path, there will be a widening gap between the Haves and the Have-Nots, there will be more restrictions on civil liberties, there will be more civil unrest, there will be more guns sold, and the world will be a meaner place to live in. 

In either scenario, I think the US will need to give up on attempting to be the world’s policeman—a role it can neither afford nor successfully accomplish. 

34. The Nearings left Vermont for the Maine woods because they were invaded by the modern world they had fled—a ski resort was being built... At the end of Helen’s life in Maine, modernity was once again transforming her beloved wild landscape into something more tame and urbanized. Do you think it is going to be harder and harder to find wild spaces in the USA for those who loves solitude and stillness?
It is already the case in France, all the more since it is such a small country as compared to the United States, and I wish we could find anywhere in France some place from which you cannot catch sight of a telegraph pole. Do you feel the threat of “over-urbanization” where you live?  

The US is not close to achieving zero population growth, and in any event, I doubt we have the will or awareness to aim for it yet. Thus I expect the population to grow substantially—both through births and through immigration. This will inevitably increase the pressure on wilderness areas. 

To be sure, there are still vast amounts of Canada that offer wilderness experiences (in aggregate, I have spent close to year of my life doing wilderness canoeing in Canada, so I’m thoroughly familiar with what’s available), yet there are few places in the US where I’d drink the water without filtering or boiling it first. Most Americans have never spent a night in a tent in a wilderness area. It’s hard to know what effect this has on the psyche of humans. 

For those desiring quiet and solitude, I think they’ll need to settle more for quiet rooms and retreat center experiences, and rely less on access to true wilderness. 

35. What do you think about living in town? Have you ever? Do you like it? Would you? 

I grew up in La Grange IL, a suburb of Chicago, and enjoyed that life fine, though it was the only one I knew for the first 17 years of my life. After I left for college in small town Minnesota, my only urban experience was two years in Washington DC, after graduating from college. After that, my search for intentional community brought me to the country, where I’ve lived ever since. Today, as someone who travels 60 percent of the time, I visit urban areas frequently and have come to enjoy the stimulation and cultural opportunities peculiar to urban life—though I always look forward to going home, where I can hear the frogs and crickets instead of sirens and airplanes. 

36. Emerson wrote that the challenge of a nature lover was to maintain the silent mind obtained in nature while being in a crowded area. I used to ask people if they thought this was doable. I am now wondering if that even is the point. Why struggle to stay serene in town, for example, while you know how your mind can easily turn into a peaceful lake when you reach a wild area, as soon as you just move away from society. Have you found a compromise? Is there one? Is it only worth searching for one? 

I think this is a very personal question and not one to which there is a universal correct response. I think everyone goes through waves of intensity and lull (see my answer to Question 14) and I think everyone naturally goes through periods of action and rest; engagement and reflection. What Emerson is referring to could either be useful when trying to stay centered and focused in the midst of chaos and stimulation (in the action phase), or as an aid for dropping into mindfulness during the contemplation phase. While I’ve no doubt that time and familiarity with Nature can help one in both ways, I don’t think it’s the only way to get there. 

37. If there were one thing you could do today to make your life more peaceful, what would that be? 

Take time for more walks. (It helps, interestingly, that my wife lives three miles away and it’s a nice walk to be with her—which is a serendipitous byproduct of our both choosing the community environment where we’d each thrive best, despite our preference for being together.) 

38. There is today a "schizophrenic" trend among young people who are torn between the appeal of new technologies (computers, Internet, iPods, etc.) on the one hand, and on the other hand, a need for stillness and nature, a need to know who they really are. Can you comment upon this situation? 

I don’t think this schizophrenia is unique to the young, nor do I think that Nature is the only way to access stillness (see my answer to the previous question). I think everyone faces some version of the challenge of knowing who they are and making decisions about how and where to invest one’s life force. Further, I don’t think knowledge is any less legitimate or substantial because it was accessed electronically. There are, to be sure, limits to what can be accomplished electronically, yet it doesn’t necessarily follow that the information or experience is flawed or otherwise at odds with something accessed “naturally.” 

39. For us young people, is it possible to reshape our thinking in baby steps or must we make sweeping changes? 

I think all change is made through discontinuous steps. Though some are baby steps and some are canyon spanning, it is all a sequence of Aha! moments, where you shed the skin of one reality and emerge into a new one. Further, I don’t think this process changes as you age, though it’s not uncommon for people’s enthusiasm and availability for new information to atrophy as time goes by (as people become increasingly prone to defending the reality they’ve already invested in). 

40. What do you think of the new generation's relation to nature; and their involvement or lack of involvement in ecological matters? 

I don’t have a good feel for this, because my field of focus is so narrow. My community, Sandhill, has had an active intern program for 15 years and we see a steady stream of young people interested in organic farming, sustainability, and community living. Also, for the past 13 years I’ve been on the faculty for an annual conference of student co-opers, where I’m teaching 3-5 workshops on various aspects of group dynamics to people 17-22 years old. Based on those highly limited data points, I haven’t noticed any significant shifts in the interest among young people in Nature or their commitment to ecological consciousness. 

41. How can youngsters and young adults be encouraged to stay home and still be fulfilled when they've gotten into the habit of fleeing it, either by traveling or by choosing the virtual reality of a computer screen at the expense of the reality that surrounds them? 

For choices to end well, it’s generally better if they are made thoughtfully and voluntarily (rather than hastily, by whim, or through lack of alternatives). I think the best that can be done to encourage today’s youth to consider the option of a life of voluntary simplicity is to offer them models of people who have had a great and satisfying life through having made that choice. 

For this, they’ll need to have experienced it first hand (mainly through travel that has likely been focused through Internet research). Thus, these parts you’ve provocatively placed in opposition can instead be blended to work collaboratively. And, as a corollary to the point I made about materialism in answer to Question 2, it is nearly impossible to sell the idea of staying at home to someone who has never traveled and understands viscerally the limitations and drawbacks of such an exotic existence.

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