Voluntary Simplicity: Outwardly Simple, Inwardly Rich

Simplicity is not about a life of poverty, but a life of purpose. By embracing an existence characterized by ecological awareness, frugal consumption and personal growth, we can change our lives — and, in the process, change the world.

| July 15, 2010

Voluntary Simplicity book

“Voluntary Simplicity” is a fulfilling alternative to our consumerist society, and it lays out the ways in which we can establish a sustainable future by making conscious changes in our lives: the work we do, the neighborhood in which we live, the housing we choose, the food we eat, the clothes we wear, the transportation we choose, and much more.


The following is an excerpt from Voluntary Simplicity by Duane Elgin (HarperCollins Publishers, 2010). Hailed by the Wall Street Journal as the “bible” of the modern simplicity movement, Elgin’s hopeful, artistic manifesto challenges misconceptions about simple living, reasoning that simplicity leads to balance and happiness, not to regression and poverty. This excerpt is from Chapter 4, “Living Simply.” 

The dictionary defines “simplicity” as being “direct, clear; free of pretense or dishonesty; free of vanity, ostentation and undue display; free of secondary complications and distractions.” In living more simply, we encounter life more directly — in a firsthand and immediate manner. We need little when we are directly in touch with life. It is when we remove ourselves from direct and wholehearted participation in life that emptiness and boredom creep in. It is then that we begin our search for someone or something that will alleviate our gnawing dissatisfaction. Yet the search is endless in that we are continually led away from ourselves and our experience in the moment.

If you were to choose death as an ally (as a reminder of the preciousness of each moment) and the universe as your home (as a reminder of the awesome dimensions of our existence), then wouldn’t a quality of aliveness, immediacy and poignancy naturally infuse your moment-to-moment living? If you knew that you were going to die within several hours or days, wouldn’t the simplest things acquire a luminous and penetrating significance? Wouldn’t each moment become precious beyond all previous measure? Wouldn’t each flower, each person, each crack in the sidewalk, each tree become a fleeting and never-to-be-repeated miracle? Simplicity of living helps brings this kind of clarity and appreciation into our lives.

An old Eastern saying states, “Simplicity reveals the master.” As we gradually master the art of living, a consciously chosen simplicity emerges as the expression of that mastery. Simplicity allows the true character of our lives to show through — as if we were stripping, sanding and waxing a fine piece of wood that had long been painted over.

Simplicity as Balance of Living

A key figure in the history of simplicity in the West is Richard Gregg. He was a student of Gandhi’s teaching and, in 1936, he wrote about a life of “voluntary simplicity.” He said that the purpose of life was to create a life of purpose. Gregg saw a life of conscious simplicity and balance as vital in realizing our life purpose because it enables us to avoid needless distractions and busyness. Gregg understood that the nature of one’s life purpose — or giving our true gifts to the world — will determine how we arrange our lives. For example, if my true gift is to adopt and raise children, then I may need a large house and car. However, if my true gift is creating art, then I may choose to forgo the house and car and instead travel the world and develop my art. Simplicity is the razor’s edge that cuts through the trivial and finds the essential. Simplicity is not about a life of poverty, but a life of purpose. Here is a key passage from Gregg’s writing that describes the essence of voluntary simplicity:

Voluntary simplicity involves both inner and outer condition. It means singleness of purpose and sincerity and honesty within, as well as avoidance of exterior clutter, of many possessions irrelevant to the chief purpose of life. It means an ordering and guiding of our energy and our desires, a partial restraint in some directions in order to secure greater abundance of life in other directions. It involves a deliberate organization of life for a purpose. Of course, as different people have different purposes in life, what is relevant to the purpose of one person might not be relevant to the purpose of another … The degree of simplification is a matter for each individual to settle for himself. 

There is no special virtue to the phrase “voluntary simplicity” — it is merely a label, and a somewhat awkward one at that. Still, it does acknowledge explicitly that simpler living integrates both inner and outer aspects of life into an organic and purposeful whole.

t brandt
8/22/2010 9:02:33 PM

"Simplify. Simplify. Simplify." --Henry David Thoreau Good advice 160 yrs ago. Good advice today.

plain jane
8/17/2010 1:33:06 PM

New packaging for an old life style. Mennonites, including the Amish, have been living the plain and simple life for centuries with much less violence, little crime, many fewer dissolute families and juvenile delinquents. However a strong Christian faith is at the core of their lives and their values are dictated by the Bible rather than TV, movies and the popular culture.

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