Tag Archives: Simplicity

Editing for Greater Than

For the last 1 ½ years or so, one of my main spiritual/emotional quests has been tracing the trail of wanting to be cared about. I’ve been looking at how and why so many of the things I do and the choices I make are completely affected by this haunted feeling that if I don’t do certain things a certain way, nobody will care about me. I guess I have this deep inner fear of being judged “unlovable” based on an ever-shifting set of criteria. I know on level deeper than my mind that my fear is unfounded, so right now I feel like my main focus is to edit the criteria, to really look at all of the things that affect my level of happiness with my life.

The main set of criteria are created by the society I live in, and are a very strong template for what is and isn’t acceptable. I’m not talking about on a moral level. I’m talking on a very physically observable level. Judgment of worthiness in this society is based on material wealth, a particular form for physical beauty, and the acquisition of stuff. The main intangibles of importance are titles, images, brands, and to some very small extent, actual knowledge (I don’t think advanced degrees, wisdom, or experience buys that much cred anymore). Behavior, putting your money where your mouth is, is only important insofar as what your image can support. People can get away with all sorts of crimes if their image portrays them as not being a criminal. Integrity, showing yourself to be exactly as you are, is almost unheard of.

I think that most people, including myself, can’t have full integrity because they’re so confused by image, by our social template, at this point that they have a hard time knowing who they essentially are. We are so dogmatized in the church of stuff and image that many of us don’t even know we’re trapped. Those of us that know we’re trapped can remain in the unpleasant task of sorting dogma from reality for years, if not a lifetime, because the dogma is so all-pervasive in every aspect of our lives. We can easily become so wrapped up in one or a couple of the many socially-tangible angles (politics, religion, economics, pretty much any “ism”) that we fail to ever recognize that all of those things are just a different kind of trap.

Similarly, when we first begin to reject the dogma, I think that a lot of people (again, including myself) go into a kind of psycho-spiritual free-fall where they look for any available cliff to cling to. Often the cliffs we cling to are just another set of “isms,” but they are an “alternative” to the more mainstream “isms.”  The so-called “alternative lifestyles” (they are so ubiquitous now that the public can just refer to them that way and know that people will have a general idea of what is being discussed!) have their very own sets of criteria and dogma, and they can be even more confusing precisely because they offer an escape from the mainstream dogma. Ultimately, some of the tools we learn down these paths as we’re fumbling towards bliss can be helpful. But in the end most of these systems and templates of being just obscure the one key that each of us hold to our own individual happiness: Ourselves.

It’s very common in psychology and alternative spiritual paths to hear the phrase “you are enough” or “I am enough.” I have been thinking deeply about those phrases recently, thanks to conversations with friends and various things that pop up on the web. I think that those phrases are very powerful and real, but I want to make a final edit in this post: I think that they are easily misunderstood as simply “stop beating up on yourself.” I think that they do mean that, and that we shouldn’t beat ourselves up, but that they also mean that we are greater than all the criteria that the world puts on us. It means that I am an essence beyond any image I might feel the need to portray. It means that to find joy all I really need to do is strip away all the layers of bullshit and get back to the very core of who I am (spirit). I don’t need to add more things, more stuff, more practices, and more activities; if something doesn’t feel authentic for me, even if it is something I admire or know that others admire, I am free to reject it. And that, as far as I currently understand, is the way out of any spiritual trap (even if it takes a long time!).

The Only Effective Protest

I’m not a big believer in protests, particularly not in the United States. They rarely accomplish anything, and what they do accomplish is often just some small appeasement to make everyone shut up. Protesters are basically like flies on a cow. They swarm around the massive government and corporations and get lazily and easily swatted down.  I am, however, a big advocate of movements. And what moves people in this country? Money.

I thought that the whole “leave your bank” movement within Occupy had promise. If you’re pissed off about something, the best way to protest now is by not financially supporting it, if you can help it at all. I think that it should have extended beyond banks to all kinds of corporations. Had there been a more organized effort, wouldn’t it have made more sense to just say “hey, a-holes, we don’t like what’s going on. And we are not going to give any more money to corporations that have shipped most of the jobs overseas, or are making greed-based layoffs,” or whatever your grievance may be.

The economy, as far as I can understand, is still supposed to be pretty circular. Businesses can’t bring money in if they’re not putting money out (in the form of wages). Well, our current economy shows that they CAN do that, at the cost of private citizens.  They can do it because they can get cheap labor elsewhere, and people will still pay the same amount for the final product. This is how our country got so top-heavy: people (individuals – don’t even get me started on corporate personhood!) getting richer and richer without actually contributing anything to society. So, if you feel truly passionate about putting this country back together, stop putting money in to businesses that aren’t functioning like good citizens. You can yell all you want, but nothing talks as loud as money. If you cut the money off, they’ll get the picture eventually.

So, this is where we get back to the generations analysis. People in American society really like their “stuff.” For various reasons, we have a really difficult time with the idea of not having a lot of stuff, or using stuff until it wears out, or putting any real thought into what kind of stuff we buy. The last generation in this country that really had to pull together, or really knows what it’s like to live without a lot of stuff, is still around, but is slowly passing on. My grandmother (of the Greatest Generation) knows how to make almost everything she needs to survive, and she knows how to fully use the things that she does purchase. She only purchases items that have real value to life, and ideally they are high-quality items that will last forever. My dad (baby-boomer) retained some of her values, in terms of quality of items, but is mainly interested in convenience, and bigger-better-faster-more. The boomers really created the culture of stuff, and began molding that mentality into self-worth: “you are nothing without your stuff.”

Gen Xers I think are a little less interested in convenience than the boomers (they’ll go the extra mile to recycle, or whatever), but still have enough of the boomer values in them to crave “stability” – a certain level of comfort that is directly related to owning a home and the correct furniture, car, techie gadgets, etc. We still have a bit of the bigger-better-faster-more mentality, and a lot of it is wrapped up in image. We’ve continued to press the agenda of stuff.  Now, of course, generation Y is completely obsessed with image. They have grown up entirely indoctrinated into dependence on corporations. How can they create an image if they don’t have stuff? Who would they be? How would they make themselves special and unique?

I guess I went into all the stuff with the different generations as a way to better understand why the hell people don’t just act on their anger. People prefer to bitch, not act, because acting is too hard (and I am not excusing myself from this behavior!). It is inconvenient. It is uncomfortable. It is scary because we might have to actually face ourselves and each other has human beings, rather than image projections. It is scary because we don’t know what to do with ourselves without our stuff. It is scary because we have never lived without. But the totally irrational piece is that there are still people living, like my grandmother, for whom none of the above was ever a problem! It is demonstrably true that we won’t die from the act of financial dissent! Furthermore, unlike my grandma’s time, there are now lots of businesses that make totally cool, totally ethical STUFF! You wouldn’t even have to totally give it up! All you have to do is think before you buy. If you can’t afford the ethical stuff, than just don’t buy the stuff.

This is what I mean by “financial freedom.” It’s not just getting out of debt, getting out from under the thumb that holds you down; it is also the ability to have a say as a citizen (because if you think that our political process works, you have on glasses so rosy you can barely see). I am still hoping that I will see a time where the members of each of the currently-living generations get over their disparate and selfish reasons for not acting, and actually decide to do some serious rebuilding of the country from the ground (individual) on up. You know – old-school American style.

What is Voluntary Simplicity to Me?

There seem to be a lot of definitions out there for the simple life. The fact of the matter is that there really are just a lot of ways to define it. The common thread is that people want to get rid of some of the trappings of modern life in order to make room for more of the non-material good stuff in life. The things that people choose to get rid of, and the non-material pleasures that they seek, are as varied as people are. There are definitely some common categories for the things that people are seeking in this whole adventure: health, financial freedom, spirituality, time with family or other loved ones, creativity, and ecological health are common. I would love to have all of those things!  But what am I willing to give up out of the typical American lifestyle to have those things?

Well, I’m not going to be choosing the path of the Amish anytime soon. Nor am I interested in asceticism. There are definitely some things that I am actively trying to remove from my life right now: processed food, cigarettes, alcohol, caffeine, excessive “stuff,” over-socializing, going out to eat, etc. We’ve given up one of our two cars. However, I don’t completely agree with the definition of voluntary simplicity that implies that seekers of simplicity are trying to get rid of anything that isn’t necessary to sustain life. What is life-sustaining? Is it just basic food, water, clothing, and shelter? What kind of food, water, clothing, and shelter? Does emotionally sustaining count? What about beauty? What about pleasure? This is where any attempts to define voluntary simplicity become murky and are left at the discretion of those who choose it.

As I’ve mentioned many, many times on this blog, my reasons for simplifying are health, creativity, spirituality, financial freedom, ecological health, and general experience (which I think is really the point of it all – to experience life fully as it’s happening). It’s up to me to decide what each of those things really means. I don’t have any answers right now. I’m still trying to figure it all out – vacillating wildly between placing more importance on one thing or the other. I’m still struggling with where to place my focus. Food seems natural, as I’m a person who has always been obsessed with food, for better or worse. But there are other things that I really ache for – time to be creative, for example. Given that I can’t just up and quit my job to give myself more time, it’s hard to know what my approach should be. Small steps in all areas, as I have been doing? Small steps in most areas and big steps in one? I’m  obviously still trying to figure it out.

Getting Rid of Stuff

A big part of trying to simplify one’s life consists of owning less stuff. The less stuff you have, the less time you have to take maintaining it. The more you move away from accumulating stuff, the less money you are spending, and the less importance stuff is going to have in your life. This creates more space for the non-material good stuff, like inspiration, in your consciousness. It is just really good for the soul to remove as much oppressive clutter as possible.

I wouldn’t say that I am currently a very stuff-centric person. However, my lack of focus on it is still a relatively recent development. I’ve never been stuff-centric in a blatantly materialistic way. I’ve never been a huge shopper. I’ve never had a big tendency towards retail lust. But I have been, in my past, a bit of a pack rat. There were two prongs to the tendency for me: one was emotional attachment, the other was the fear that I would get rid of something, and then need it later.

On the emotional side of things, I  always kept a ton of memorabilia. This started when I was about five. How weird, right? What five-year-old is worried about remembering being five when she’s old and gray? I have to say, that in some ways I kind of like that about myself. I’m a recorder. It’s a blessing and a curse. Part of the curse has been the actual physical baggage that my memory compulsion has created. Imagine being 25 years old and having kept every little thing with any kind of memory attached to it for 20 years. That’s a lot of crap.

Right around the age of 25 I started to get really sick of hauling all that crap around. By 25 I had moved six times in four years. My parents were sick of storing stuff for me. It was exhausting. I had also begun to realize that I never looked at any of my memorabilia, and yet I still had strong clear memories of everything that I wanted to remember. I became aware of my freakishly good memory. Seriously, my friends comment all the time on the type of detail my memories from years ago have. That realization made me start feeling O.K. about getting rid of some things.

At this point, my memorabilia is limited to one box of stuff (my grad tassels, articles, certificates, etc.), one box of journals (I journaled like a fiend from ages 7-22. I kind of wish I was still that dedicated!), and photo albums. That is a significant improvement! My emotional attachment to stuff is currently a little more affectionate. It is really hard for me to get rid of books, for example. I very rarely re-read anything, but I just love the fact of them.

One category of stuff that is particularly hard for me to get rid of is clothing. It’s hard because clothes have both an emotional significance and the possibility of future utility. I still have clothes from from sizes 8-14 (14 is my current size). On the plus side, I at least accepted that I will probably never be a size 4 or 6 again, and got rid of those clothes a few years ago. The emotional bit is tied to my body image issues. I really pine to be small again. I still do. The utilitarian bit is that I am hoping that one day I will be, and then I can use those size 8 clothes. Overall, though, keeping my skinny clothes usually just depresses and demotivates me when they catch my eye. So I guess they’ll have to go.

In general, the greater recent fear has been that I will regret getting rid of things once I get rid of them. What if I get rid of that serving tray (that I have never used once) and then need it to host a party some day? The answer is that I will serve the food on a regular plate. I’ve realized that a lot of that fear of need actually has to do with keeping up appearances. If it was something I really needed, I would use it more often. My “need” for a lot of these things actually adds up to my “desire” to look good.

There are a lot of layers to the process of de-cluttering one’s life. I’ll probably be writing a lot about it as I go along. So far I’ve significantly weeded out our book collection (ah yes, “our;” being part of a cohabiting couple adds yet another element!), and have picked out the low hanging fruit in my clothes closet (things that are worn and/or damaged, or that I just don’t like anymore). I’ll deal with the skinny clothes when I’m feeling a bit stronger about it. I’m not trying to cause psychological trauma to myself, either! Slow and steady…