Beyond Consumerism: Voluntary Simplicity and a New Local Order

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Politicians and CEOs alike are feeling the heat to appear to be doing something – almost anything – to address an economic situation which by any measure is multiplying suffering everywhere.

So, to recover from this nightmare, what dreams might we dream?


Image courtesy of Victor Habbick /

The best one I’ve found is voluntary simplicity. It’s the best one because it addresses so elegantly much of what ails humanity and especially what threatens our future. It is not an answer to everything but it has a great deal to commend it.

From ancient times, while most people spent most of their time in hot pursuit of more, there have been these marginal voices calling from the wings:

“Pardon me! But I’ve tried that ‘more and more’ stuff and it doesn’t make me as happy as ‘just enough’. Life can actually be easier, more peaceable, more environmentally sustainable and much happier. You just have to change how you think.”

Voluntary simplicity has many definitions but what most share is the notion that a good life can be found by voluntarily limiting consumption of material things to that elegant minimum necessary for the maximum of well-being.

From this point of view, it has always appeared highly irrational, and indeed self-destructive, to pursue material wealth for its own sake or consumption without regard for its effects on oneself or others. Material things are the means to sustaining our lives in service of the purposes that give them meaning, not ends in themselves. So simple living rests on discernment of sufficiency rather than the blind pursuit of affluence.

Paradoxical as it may sound, sufficiency assures abundance for everyone, while affluence for some stores up the certainty of poverty and chaos for others.

To work, voluntary simplicity has to be voluntary. That is, it has to arise from a personal and conscious choice to live differently, in spite of public opinion to the contrary, in spite of what our instinctive appetites urge us to pursue.

And it must be voluntary because the historical examples which have persisted for many centuries (e.g., Quaker simplicity – 400 years; Benedictine monastic life – 1500 years; Buddhist monastic simplicity – 2,500 years) have all involved free consent based on reason, experience and personal commitment.

Finally, involuntary simplicity is something we will always be trying to escape from – such as the poverty and deprivation many people are experiencing now.

For skeptics, the most irritating thing about voluntary simplicity is that there are lots of examples of people who have, and are, living it. It’s not a theory or a utopian ideology. Many of these people were, or could have been, “winners” in the general scramble for more:

Gandhi was a lawyer and could have been affluent, but decided to wear a dhoti and build a nation instead.

Siddhartha was already a king, but left it all to find enlightenment.

John Woolman was a successful tailor who had to keep scaling his business back to free enough time for prayer and preaching.

These, and more, were real people.

But lest you think that this way of life is reserved for spiritual athletes, understand that there have been tens of thousands of Puritans, Quakers, Mennonites, Amish, Monastics of every stripe, Cathars and philosophers, poets and social reformers, New Catholic Workers, back-to-the-landers and Hara Krishnaites, wanderers and minstrels, soldiers and Samurai – who have lived this way and found it good.

What most annoys the moguls of marketing are the people who have discovered through their own experience how little is necessary for a rich life.

Simplicity’s spiritual basis 


Image courtesy of Sira Anamwong /

When I teach about simple living, I always begin with mindfulness practice, contemplative prayer or meditation. I encourage people to source their choice of a simpler life from within their spiritual practice, and if they don’t have a spiritual practice, that they consider adopting one.

I don’t mean to say that I’m urging people to become conventionally “religious,” but rather to cultivate the daily practice of some discipline that has the power to change their way of being. It’s not by changing what I think that brings me to simple living but rather allowing myself to be changed from the inside so that I am different. Happily there are a wide variety of practices that are efficacious in doing this like Vipassana, Christian Meditation, Centring Prayer, Yoga, Sufi practice, T’ai-chi and Chi Gong. Also, nearly any activity that can become repetitive, rhythmic and conducive to focusing attention – like drumming, swimming and running – can help a person evolve.

So we begin with mindfulness practice. We simply welcome the emergence within ourselves of a new and compelling intuition, insight and connection. It’s only when we see directly into the nature of craving and the suffering it causes that we begin to seek a way out.

These insights usually don’t happen suddenly. But the steady, dedicated cultivation of this garden of new awareness gradually changes what we want and how we want to be in the world. And this awareness often spontaneously tends toward simplicity, nonviolence, compassion and humility.

As mindfulness deepens, other things happen. Sometimes they can be very unpleasant and even painful. This is surprising to those who assume that mindfulness is a “blissed out” state of awareness.

We do notice more beauty but we can also feel disturbed by ugliness – the intrusiveness, discourtesy and even violence of consumer culture. We notice how often fear or irrational craving motivates us and how often we suffer because of them.

Most disconcerting of all, we start to feel connected to everything and everyone. No longer is it possible to sustain the narcotic delusion that we are merely little isolated monads bouncing around in a disconnected aggregation of seven billion other monads all imprisoned on one tiny planet.

No longer are we convinced that anything can be purely our business. Instead, we start to notice that we are knitted into a web.

Of course we’ve been living in this all along, but now we start to notice it, and for the first time perhaps, we are truly in a position to choose how we will behave. It’s a sort of spiritual Internet plugged directly into our brains and to which we are constantly logged on. It is then that we come to truly appreciate what Swami Sivananda means when he says: “A peaceful mind is your most precious capital.”

So, as you might imagine, this gradually ripening awareness has spin-offs. We start caring about community again. Because everyone is “logged on,” as it were, caring for others is just another way of caring for oneself. Not only humans but also all life is part of this web of being so our caring naturally extends to the Earth and all its inhabitants. It extends to past and future generations because we notice a connection with them as well. All that we do starts to seek nonviolent channels of expression. This is because violence toward any is violence towards all – and violence to self as well.

Since it is impossible to care for that which we do not know, we become interested again in what is local – what is here. Focusing on what is local is what keeps us grounded and mindful. So we begin to think about rebuilding local economies and local networks of self-reliance and mutual aid. This keeps the source of goods and the people involved in providing them in view. It makes it possible for us to live in harmony with nature and each other.

All of this starts to add up to a different way of living. And it turns out to be vibrantly luminous, timeless, layered, loving and rich. There’s so much to do that there’s simply no time to go shopping!

Dreaming the good life

So what is this alternative dream of the good life called voluntary simplicity?

In my imagination I picture a future of people who prize lightness of being, simplicity, beauty and ecological trusteeship. They look something like this:

  • Their lives are slower than ours, more mindful and appreciative.
  • They use technology to efficiently provide for what is essential, but in the spirit of William of Occam, they don’t “multiply gadgets beyond necessity.”
  • Their dwellings are modest but comely and well made. They walk a lot and cycle.
  • All that is essential and can be made locally is made locally, employing local people to meet local needs from local resources. This is economically “inefficient” of course, but no one cares.
  • There is trade, tourism and travel that broadens the mind and refreshes the soul.
  • Those who die with the least toys win, and those who have learned to live happily and lightly are the most revered.
  • There is much time for relationships. Lovemaking is an art and much attention is given to it. Conversation has been renewed, and the arts of entertainment and conviviality are widely practiced.
  • The economy serves people instead of people serving the economy. It has, by collective agreement, been designed to operate in a steady state well within ecological carrying capacity.
  • Children are welcomed as new life in their own right. They are trusts whom we nurture to mindful awareness and deep relationship.
  • Most people don’t spend much time working because not much work is required to provide what is needed. The economy is smaller and there is less money – but more wealth in the form of well being, health and joyfulness.
  • There is less war, less crime, less stress and less hurry because the race of the rats has passed away.
  • There is much exploration of theuniverse, of human potential, of healing and the meaning of beauty. There is a lot of laughter.

Learning simplicity the hard way

In May of 1995, I was laid off from a full-time, tenured position with the Manitoba Department of Education. My boss urged me to see this as an “opportunity to re-invent myself” and gave me a glowing letter of recommendation. I went home to face being a single parent of two expensive teenage children, living in a town that offered few opportunities for a person of my training and former income level. In the ensuing months, I burned through my severance, used up most of my EI and savings and lost my house. Living simply became a
survival necessity.

But a funny thing happened in the process. I came gradually to choose the simpler way of life that at first had not been my choice. I came to choose it because it was better.

Despite how bitter I felt when hearing that losing my job was an opportunity to re-invent myself, it turned out to be precisely that. And maybe what was true for me as an individual back in 1995 will also turn out to be true for us collectively going forward through this mess consumer culture has landed us in.

Maybe this situation represents an opportunity for us to decide if we want to try again to get consumer culture right or try something different. Personally, I tried something different and have never been sorry.

In closing, I’d like to paraphrase a prayer written by one of the greatest sages Canada has produced, Red Green of the Red Green television show: “I’m human – but I can change – I guess – if I have to.”

Appeared in The Aquarian Newspaper, Summer 2009

mark burchWinnipeg writer and educator Mark Burch is the author of two books on voluntary simplicity, including Stepping Lightly: Simplicity for People and the Planet.  Website.


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