Query on Simplicity

Responses to the 2007 Query on Simplicity

The Queries:

  • Can we keep our lives uncluttered by things and activities?
  • What conditions of our lives overwhelm us?
  • How may our habits and addictions be caused by things such as media, social expectations, or personal shortcomings?
  • Do we accept commitments beyond our strength and light?
  • How can we center our lives each day in awareness of the Light so that all things take their rightful place?

Responses that have been approved for web publication:

Detroit Friends Meeting – Response to Queries on Simplicity

Approved by the Meeting on December 9, 2007

Our sense is that while it may be possible to live a relatively uncluttered life, we are not very good at it and most of us are too busy most of the time. It was clear from our discussion that good things as well as bad add clutter to our lives: too many volunteer activities, too many options, too many decisions, too little prayer and contemplation. We know that we can find peace and simplicity in silence, yet many of the organizations and activities to which we are committed involve people who need to fill silence with talk or activity. In our daily lives it is helpful if we can find time for our practice of silence or meditation or journaling. In our faith practice, silence can be an end in itself. Some of us carve out early mornings to do this, but it may be at the cost of sleep and activities we also consider meaningful. If we are in a work environment that is hostile to our spirit, periods of silence and prayer may be absolutely necessary to achieve balance and insight.

Modern life gives us too many options. We need to be able to say no to things, to say this is not my path, this is not my calling. Decision making, however, takes a lot of energy. When so many things are possible, expectations also rise dramatically. Perhaps this is the core complication of social expectations. For every choice we make we reject many alternatives. I buy one thing and reject others. I give to a needy person or organization and reject others. While we have many things at our disposal, we are constantly rejecting other options and possibilities.

Meditation and simplicity takes us outside of the box of modern life. But there is also a heartfelt desire to actually know simplicity within the box. Perhaps our greatest challenge is to find a way to keep the good things of modern life within the context of a quieter, simpler way of being. Even our children and spouses whom we love dearly push and pull at us in those moments when we are trying to remain centered. Simplicity is not the absence of struggle or activity, nor is it being at rest. Serving Christ, God, the Inner Light is what simplicity is. For those on this path it is simple because it is what they are led to do. It is not necessarily easy or comfortable.

In considering the problem of addictions we struggle with the concept of “personal shortcomings.” Our needs for security, for approval, and control are fundamental to our human condition. We are on a spiritual path to work with these realities. What matters is that we stay in the process while feeling adequate and aligned with the power of the Spirit. We can choose not to attach a negative valence to this, but rather to say we are human, we are in a process, and we are moving to a unity with the divine.

One model for simplicity is gravity. It always pulls us in the same direction. It pulls us in the direction of the Spirit. It may help to know that on a meta level we are not the only ones pulled towards simplicity and justice. Many are out there being pulled on the same path. We don’t need the energy to do everything ourselves, but we do need to do what we can do, what is possible for us. It is important that we continue to do something–to respond to the pull of the Spirit. We can take heart in the knowledge that in the history of human kind the pull is inexorably towards truth and justice. By putting ourselves in the moment, by forgetting what is coming or what has been, we remain centered in the Light. We can proceed as the way opens, staying focused on the simplicity of God’s will for us. It is in the quest for truth and justice that we will find true simplicity.
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Kalamazoo Friends Meeting – Response to Queries on Simplicity

Thinking beyond the often thought meaning of simplicity (downsizing, living within our means, etc.), Kalamazoo Friends offer the following as both response and further queries about SIMPLICITY.

Simplicity is an opening up of ourselves; it is joy and the expression of joy. As a familiar hymn says, it is a gift from God and certainly a joy to express it to others.

Simplicity weaves into our lives as we seek the kingdom of God first and foremost. We strive for inner peace throughout our transforming lives. In our daily struggle, we pray for wisdom for the journey.

As Friends, we examine how to find and live with “conscious purpose.” Perhaps we can pay attention to those (seemingly) “accidental” things that happen to us. We need to go deep to listen for God’s guidance and “spend time with God” Do we stop to examine how we “fill” our lives? With what? For what? Then what?! Does God fit into the busy-ness and complexity of our lives that seems all too easy to “happen” to us? In clarifying our vision and role in the world, is God present to help us discern and live out our visions? One Friend asked, “What would we do if we were not afraid?” Would we live our lives differently?

Stripping away of superfluities of life can be easy or daunting. Some find the accountability to others to be sufficient motivation. Some face the constant challenges of undone projects, responsibilities, those things that tend to fill and clutter our days. God does not want to fill us with guilt, shame, embarrassment, inadequacy, frustration, powerlessness. These qualities may be the result of our self limited thinking.

If we cultivate the yearning to discern with God both individually and corporately, we can center our lives each day in awareness of the Light so that all things take their rightful place. The constant quest! The seeking which keeps us growing.
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Kent Friends Meeting – Response to Queries on Simplicity

Simplicity, or living simply, is not a “simple” matter.

We began our discussion with the Shaker hymn “Simple Gifts” which, along with the thought provoking “Quotes & Advices” provided by LEYM, gave our discussion a starting point.

Several Friends expressed their feelings of inadequacy and even guilt when first contemplating the query. We all feel challenged by lives full of clutter – both in activities and possessions. We all have faced times in our lives when conditions of everyday living have overwhelmed us. We are each challenged in our individual ways by habits and addictions as a direct result of media, social expectations, and our feelings of inadequacy in dealing with or “measuring up” to the societal “norm”. So how can we change ourselves to live simply?

We were reminded in our discussion of the often artificial picture many of us have of a simpler life – living off the land, being self-sustaining, living an environmentally balanced existence, and so on – and how the reality of this existence to some is not simple but much more time-consuming and overwhelming. “Simplicity” is different now in our society than it was a hundred years ago.

One Friend expressed his dilemma of being a sports fan and how time consuming it is and how it can interfere with interest in other activities. Yet, this interest has led this Friend to very valuable friendships and meaningful relationships.

Another Friend expressed the concern that personal good is taking precedent over the “good of the whole” as individuals in our society strive to obtain material possessions and discard them at a more and more rapid rate. “Shedding” possessions was explored as a valuable exercise but having possessions was also seen by some Friends in a more positive light when those possessions represent love and wonderful moments.

The topic of Friends sometimes trying to do too much good was explored in our discussion. This can be overwhelming and we can easily feel guilty for not being able to do more. We, even in our Quaker communities, allow others to define for us what we ought to do or what a simple life is. Social expectations exist within our own communities of simplicity.

We as Friends feel we need to be continually conscious of our relationship with everything else. We need to do things for a reason – “thoughtful mindfulness” – as we focus on our spiritual leadings rather than societal influences. As Friends, we feel the responsibility for our meeting and ourselves as seekers of the Light with no minister to take care of that for us. This empowers us to focus more clearly on our individual and corporate leadings.

As all of these aspects were discussed, it started to become clear to those present that striving for simplicity is a continual, individual, spiritual process, rather than a lifestyle. We need to come from that spiritual core to discern where we are supposed to go and how we are supposed to get there. We each choose things to focus on, as we feel led, to simplify our lives, whether it be choosing to use less technology or more technology, whether it means eating lower on the food chain and supporting local businesses and farmers or buying from the large chain-store because it fits our budget better. What is most important is that we work to sift away what others, as well as ourselves, are imposing on ourselves and allow us to listen to God’s leadings for us. We need to make time, perhaps even schedule time, each day to reflect so that our time on “auto pilot” is limited. We need to shed ourselves not only of excessive possessions but also of fear and anxieties, so that we might be open to the leadings of the Spirit.

This ability to listen and discern the leadings of the Spirit can lead us to simpler living, individually and as a Friends community, yet we remain aware that there is no simple path to simplicity.
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Oberlin Friends Meeting – Response to Queries on Simplicity

The difference between possessions and activities is noted. Stage of life is something that changes the importance of some of these challenges. Moving from a house to a unit in a retirement community (or a college dorm) imposes its own need to reduce possessions and thus simplify.

There are times when we do feel overwhelmed by activities. At these times we can seek guidance from the Inner Light. Responding to a leading usually brings with it the energy and commitment to carry through on a task. A task that seems to be too much of a burden is a signal that it is beyond our strength and light.

We need to seek a balance between those activities which serve others and those which nurture us and give us joy. Wanting to be useful and having joy are related. Serving others often brings us joy.

We must make the most of what time we have left. Each day is a gift, that is why it is called “the present.”
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Pine River Friends Meeting – Response to Queries on Simplicity

Simplicity results from being in touch with the Spirit within. It is a discernment of what is needed and what is “just stuff”. Simplicity is not about superficially dealing with the material world of objects or good activities but rather about learning to live from our spiritual center. It is not just getting rid of things or activities, but rather putting things in “right order.” Simplicity is about learning to shed those things that interfere with our ability to live in the Light. It is not poverty, nor is it sacrifice. Rather it is about intentionally choosing the life we want.

Many of our possessions and activities do contribute meaning in our lives. When we put ourselves into building or creating something, it is particularly difficult to shed. Emotional attachments to things can mean building more storage shelves or renting storage units. One individual shared a story of having the family home burn down and living in a motel for several months while it was being rebuilt. It was a drastic lesson in learning what was really needed and important.

There is a need to intentionally let go of attachments and not own them (or have them own us). The mass media (radio, TV, newspapers, DVDs, etc.) can be very seductive in how we use time. Habits and ideas formed here are often unconscious and difficult to change. Even those things that give meaning can interfere with our desire to live simply because caring for them requires time. We need to ask ourselves if this is the way we can use our time most effectively.

What we eat and how we eat are parts of whether we are living simply or not. We uphold the notion that we should live simply so that others may simply live. Living simply leads to right sharing of resources.

Sometimes we can be so busy doing “good” and working for Quaker “causes” that we lose our focus and feel overwhelmed. Living beyond our resources emotionally can also be a problem and mean that our health becomes compromised by stress and concerns. We then do not take good care of ourselves and are unable to give ourselves to those things that we consider important.

The process of taking on and shedding leads us to understand that it is often easier to take on than to shed. The ways in which things clutter our lives is a life-long struggle. Simplicity as a guiding principle does not change, but its application to changing life conditions does, e.g. aging, new children, marriage, death of loved ones, etc. These may change our roles, all of which affect the obligations involved with them and affect our time and energy. As a result, understanding the practice of simplicity needs to be an on-going process, not a state one arrives at permanently. It can be very different for different individuals and for one individual at different times in life.

Quakers have practices and processes that can help us in our desire to live more simply. Living simply requires discernment for us as individuals and as meetings, and finding our spiritual path to simplicity can be aided by clearness committees, support or anchoring committees, spiritual formation groups and other sharing practices. Queries considered carefully in worship can help us gain insight. Time spent in worship and meditation is a necessary part of living from our spiritual center and the Light within. It is where we are challenged to live simply with joy and peace. It is where we discover the true spirit of simplicity.
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Wooster Friends Meeting

On November 4, 2007, Wooster Friends dedicated a generous period, after the regular meeting for worship, to the consideration of five queries posed by LEYM Ministry and Nurture Committee.  It had been suggested that the queries be considered in a worship sharing format so as to fully probe their depths. Time did not allow for all to speak to each query out of thoughtful silence. Nor does a lifetime of experience and discipline yield complete answers to any of these or other questions as they may present themselves to us, either as individuals or as a religious society.

In distilling the essence of oral sharing, it became evident that, of the five, the answer to the question, “how can we center our lives each day…so that things will take their place?” holds the answers to all the others. It was easy to identify words and phrases familiar to all of us which have become tired and worn from usage. Even “habit, addiction, expectation, shortcoming, cluttered, overwhelmed…” in the queries touch tender nerves. And with the successive mention of “business, busyness, responsibility, guilt, obligation, priorities…” it becomes apparent that we, as individuals, cannot by ourselves, reconcile the myriad messages we receive as to the “rightness” of anything.

So, we look to the ‘Light’. We find this light either accidentally, or through resolve; we find it independently or from example. The Light may be from without or within. It may include that of God in man or, more purely, that of God itself. The search takes many paths: meditation, literature, reflection, self—challenge, intellectual and physical exercise, contemplative activity, imagination, gratitude, humility…

The Light makes transparent that which blurs our vision but reveals our personal truth.  We are enabled to discern, to identify leadings, to visualize, to recognize openings, to become energized, to be empowered and validated. And, prayerfully, we can center each day in this Light to allow all things to take their rightful place in our lives.

Wooster Friends
Eleventh Month, Fourth Day, 2007
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