From Spiritual Simplicity
Make Peace With Yourself
Simple living is not trouble free. Simplicity offers no permanent protection against adversity, but it will help you to deal with ill fortune more calmly and sensibly, while giving you the foresight to head off unnecessary setbacks. By establishing reasonable expectations and responsible habits you will no longer be a ready candidate for victimization. You will anticipate ups and downs, but you will not be down for long.
The only sure things in life, we’re told, are death and taxes, but they are the things we worry least about. Only about one American in four frets about dying, but two-thirds of us worry about ending our days in a nursing home because of physical frailty or long-term illness. Worry is the greatest enemy of a satisfied life, followed by lack of preparation for inevitable setbacks. By simplifying your life, you will have less to worry about – not because there is less to your life (there will be much more) – but because you will have refined your expectations and established your priorities. Instead of waiting for tragedies to strike, you will live confidently counting your blessings. You will be a problem solver rather than a victim.
Machines make our lives more comfortable, but they don’t have a gift of being simple and are prone to break down. Nor is human nature simple, so we suffer its contradictions. Simple living nourishes the soul and restores it to its rightful owner: you.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation reports that each year more than 180,000 Americans are arrested as runaways and returned to their homes. These are youngsters, of course; it’s a crime for a child to pick up and leave. For adults it is a different matter: disappearing is a crime only if one leaves legal and financial obligations behind. Oddly, our nation lacks official statistics on the number of missing persons, principally because families and friends left behind do not always bother to report their disappearance to authorities. Private investigators, however, estimate that every year more than 100,000 adult Americans disappear, men and women who walk off to buy cigarettes and never return or whose cars are found abandoned in airport parking lots. Their retreat is a permanent escape.
Suicide, of course, is the ultimate retreat from one’s circumstances, but the adult runaway’s decision to abandon life as he or she knows it – including home, family, and work – is a kind of self-inflicted death, too. Why would anyone want to completely kick over the traces? Short of hiding from a crime or fleeing with a misbegotten fortune to South America, the answer is apparent: life has become unsatisfying or intolerable. No tinkering with the margins seems to make a difference. Instead, it seems time to start over in a new place with a new name, a new job, a new appearance, and perhaps a new family. Private investigator Marilyn Greene of Schenectady, New York, says that “disappearing is a kind of geographic cure” for what unhappy people believe is ailing them – a sick variation on the American Dream of freedom and opportunity.
Not everyone who pulls up stakes totally disappears in the night; he or she may move in broad daylight to a Promised Land – to California during the Depression, or to Australia or Alaska in more recent times. There is always a Brigadoon that promises enchantment if one can only bring oneself to purchase a one-way ticket. For the escapist it is not even necessary that it be an Eden that beckons. Often it is enough for the escapist to pack lightly, hit the road, and follow the highway anywhere just to be away from “here.” English novelist Evelyn Waugh claimed that the Second World War was greeted with a sigh of relief by a generation of his countrymen who rated danger as preferable to their tired marriages and mind-numbing jobs.
Escaping from Oneself
The problem with permanent escape is seldom a lack of opportunity or a shortage of Edens. Everyone believes that the grass is greener somewhere else. (In Scotland and Ireland, where my wife and I take our vacations, the grass is certifiably greener than in Virginia.) No, the problem is not with paradise but within ourselves. Even if we escape our circumstances, we cannot escape from ourselves. We are the heavy baggage that must be dragged to the new place and the new life. If we set out because we are starved of satisfaction, we will carry our malnutrition everywhere we go. Accordingly, the simplifier’s aim is not to escape life but to cultivate and embrace it. But we cannot cut through the chaos in our lives until we have made peace with ourselves.
The escapist scenario of James Waller’s The Bridges of Madison County has a fictional National Geographic photographer on assignment in Iowa coming upon a bored but warmhearted housewife and embarking on a brief, tempestuous affair. On previewing the film version of the book, real-life photographer Bob Caputo confessed that “there’s not much of that kind of romance as a Geographic photographer. But nobody believes that. In fact, it is a great job. You really do get to go places, and do things others only dream about. But like anything in life, there’s a price for all that. And no one wants to think about the price.”
The price, Caputo explained in a Washington Post interview, is the loneliness, rootlessness, and psychic discontent that come from “too many nights sick as a dog by yourself in some wretched hotel room, scared you’re going to die all alone and no one will ever know how or where or why. . . . It seems to be important to people to think that somewhere out there are people living dream lives with none of the compromises of their own. . . .
“But it all depends on your definition of romance. If you think romance is having a tribal chief in Somalia tell you the meaning of the stars, or hearing some village elder tell you where mankind really comes from, then romance is why I’m in this job. It’s what it’s all about.” Caputo endures the privations of his profession because he has made peace with himself and is open to the romance that can come from even a severely simple life.
Your Simple Sabbath
According to the creation account in Genesis, God made the universe in six “days,” then rested on the seventh – not because he was tired, but in order to assess what he had accomplished with some perspective. The tradition of Sabbath rest is rooted in the need to step back regularly to take the measure of our lives. Accordingly, our weekends are anchored by a religious Sabbath, either Saturday or Sunday, reminding us that the purpose of recreation is not mindless leisure, but re-creation, the conscious endeavor to rebuild our lives. Whether or not you are religious, you need a Sabbath to find the peace and understanding that will nourish your spirit and open you to the simple gifts of life.
In this spirit Jews pray on behalf of all humankind:
Lord of all creation, you have made us the masters of your world, to tend it, to serve it, and to enjoy it. For six days we measure and we build, we count and carry the real and the imagined burdens of our task, the success we earn and the price we pay.
On this, the Sabbath Day, give us rest.
For six days, if we are weary or bruised by the world, if we think ourselves giants or cause others pain, there is never a moment to pause and know what we should really be.
On this, the Sabbath Day, give us time.
For six days we are torn between our private greed and the urgent needs of others, between the foolish noises in our ears and the silent prayer of our soul.
On this, the Sabbath Day, give us understanding and peace.
Help us, Lord, to carry these lessons of rest and time, of understanding and peace, into the six days that lie ahead, to bless us in the working days of our lives.
Americans of my generation can remember a time when there was no Sunday shopping and when “blue laws” restricted the Sunday sale of alcohol and the opening of theaters. But as people’s lives have become more complicated and erratic, many of us can no longer count on a nine-to-five, Monday-to-Friday workweek, and evenings and weekends have fallen victim. Now we live in a world that operates twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. In exurban Virginia, where I live, discount shopping malls stretch for miles across the flat landscape, and many stores never close. Fathers and mothers with conflicting work hours and no babysitting budget now pack their kids in the car in their pajamas at 2:00 am – the only time they are all free to shop.
Viewing these innovations of their American cousins with alarm, Britons have long maintained strict Sunday closing laws, but they too are bending to busy-ness. Half a century ago Albert Camus claimed that solitude had already become “a luxury of the rich.” If you wonder why you need time to make peace with yourself, it is because of late everything has conspired to rob you of your Sabbath. You need to give yourself the luxury of occasional solitude to find inner peace.
To be sure, solitude is not of itself virtuous; it can be nothing more than an excuse for aloofness. Solitude and quiet must be dedicated if they are to yield rewards. In Genesis, God himself proclaimed that “it is not good that man should be alone,” and rectified man’s loneliness by creating for him a helpmate and lover. Francis Bacon claimed that anyone who totally delights in solitude is “either a wild beast or a god,” a sentiment echoed by Robert Burton, who wrote in The Anatomy of Melancholy that “a man alone is either a saint or a devil.” Clearly, solitude can be abused, but, as we might expect, Thoreau was an unabashed partisan of life lived apart from the throng, insisting in Walden that he “never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude.
You and I need solitude not to be antisocial but to find integrity – to pull together the strands of our unraveled lives so they can be lived more fully and consciously. Buddha, Mohammed, and Jesus were not escapists, but they paused regularly to clear their minds and simplify their lives, each time returning with a clarity they then shared with others. That is a busy solitude. You are unlikely to spend forty days and nights in the desert or to climb a mountain to seek simplicity, but you will discover in solitude that “a quiet heart is a continual feast.” (Proverbs 15:15)
It helps to bring faith to your search for simplicity, because then you are not strictly alone but have the company of your maker. Mohammed’s father-in-law found self-acceptance in the wilderness by making God his companion. “I thank you, Lord,” Abu Bakr prayed, “for knowing me better than I know myself, and for letting me know myself better than others know me. Make me, I ask you then, better than they suppose, and forgive me for what they do not know.”
Faith helps because it assures us that we are not totally left to our own devices getting from here to there in life. Because he was buoyed by faith, Dante began his Divine Comedy with the confident confession that he had gone astray: “In the middle of the journey of our life, I found myself in a dark wood, having lost the straight path.” Dante was convinced that the straight path still existed and could be regained. His subsequent odyssey took him through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven, but the adventure was more of a retreat than an ordeal. His pilgrimage to Paradise was fundamentally an inner journey.
With or without the assistance of faith, the process of “finding” oneself requires quiet, contemplation, and a break from routine. Unfortunately we so identify ourselves (and value ourselves) by our daily routines that we feel uneasy with any break in them. Two out of five of our fellow Americans fail to break away from routine even to take a summer vacation; of those who manage to get away, one-fourth admit they take work with them! Lacking the self-knowledge that comes from occasionally stepping aside from our daily routines, whom will we find to fall back on in times of trial? Neither the virtue of self-reliance nor the vice of selfishness will be adequate to the task unless we take the time to make peace with ourselves.
Zoë Heller, who writes every week in the Sunday Times of London about her misadventures in the United States, claims that “with every year that passes, I grow more convinced that happiness or sadness is 95% a matter of internal chemical balances. Excepting instances of great fortune or great calamity, most states of mind seem to have nothing to do with external matters, but only with the mysterious weather inside your head.”
Anyone who has gone through menopause or awakened with a hangover knows how awful that “mysterious weather” can be; but chemistry is surely not the only component. Our happiness and sadness are also the complex products of faith and experience, affection, and contemplation – all spiritual ingredients. Nature alone lacks the recipe; it is our job to combine the ingredients, which is what we do in seeking to come to peace with ourselves. If happiness were the product of Prozac alone, we would all be zombies. Zoë Heller would not bother to produce another column and I would not write another word. You would not read another book.
Experience illustrates that people’s productivity bears only a tenuous link to their sense of well-being. Charles Darwin and Robert Louis Stevenson were ill every day of their productive lives. John Milton and Aldous Huxley were blind. My own three daughters were born disabled but are productive women with a zest for life and no chips on their shoulders. Examples of productivity in the face of adversity abound, and the moral they illustrate is not simply the triumph of the spirit. They prove that self-reliance and success do not need pleasure or even physical well-being to drive them. Not only does peace with oneself steel the soul against adversity; of equal importance, it immunizes us against a craving for bliss. The gifts you will receive from simplicity will be alike and yet different from those I seek, but they will consist of something distinct from “feeling good.” Contentment will come not from pleasure, but from knowledge and affection. When we least expect it we will be surprised by joy. As Montaigne insisted, “The most manifest sign of wisdom is a continual cheerfulness.”
Most of us are in the habit of asking ourselves, “How am I doing?” and “How am I feeling?” This constant self-monitoring gets in the way of real productivity and satisfaction. Instead, we should ask ourselves in moments of quiet reflection, “Is what I am doing truly meaningful and productive?” And “Is what I am feeling truly happiness?”
Lessons from Twins
Recent studies of twins support the contention that nature counts for more than nurture in the development of our characters and predilections. Separated at birth and raised apart, identical twins brought up under both adverse and affluent circumstances reveal remarkably similar attitudes, habits, affections, tastes, and intelligence. My twin daughters, now in their late twenties, live more than a hundred miles from one another, yet on a recent weekend visit, each appeared at the door wearing virtually the same clothing (purchased without the other’s knowledge) down to colors and fabrics. Habit cannot be the explanation for this coincidence, because we made a point of dressing them differently from the time they were toddlers.
Contemporary biographers routinely look for traits “inherited” from their subjects’ genetic provenance. The evangelist Matthew went farther than most, beginning his Gospel by tracing Jesus’s heredity twenty-eight generations back to King David, then fourteen more to the patriarch Abraham. There is no doubt that heredity provides the mold that shapes our physical and mental selves to a certain extent – a discouraging prospect if that inheritance is weak. Many of us felt compelled to make enemies of our parents in adolescence, rebelling against their authority and example. But the beginning of self-knowledge often comes from scrutinizing our parents to discover clues to our own character.
Psychotherapist Thomas Moore reports the frequency and intensity of his adult patients’ complaints about their parents, and how resistant they are to seek clues to their own difficulties in traits they share with mother and father. A troubled son is quick to insist that “I am not like my father and don’t want to be.” I myself am prone to this very perversity. Despite my affection for my parents, from an early age I considered them to be losers in life – poor, undereducated and uncultured, friendless, and narrow-minded. As an only child lacking siblings in whom I might see my parents’ genetic imprints, I grew up determined to be different from them. Yet I was ashamed of my condescension. As you might guess, it was the education and advantages they sacrificed to give me that made it possible for me to enjoy a fuller life than they could afford. The older I get, the more apparent are my similarities to them that I should have noticed sooner.
For starters, I look like them both. Moreover, I share my father’s shyness and anger and doggedness; my mother’s haste, impatience, and distraction. But I cannot blame my parents for flaws that I have long since cultivated as my own possessions. As gifts I also inherited my father’s optimism, dependability, and love of beauty; and my mother’s perspicacity, generosity, and democracy. Only later in life have I come to appreciate the special devotion my Jewish friends have to their offspring. Lacking the Christian hope for an afterlife, they experience eternity in their children now.
Seeking One’s Sources
News stories have made us aware of the poignant attempts of many people to locate their natural parents. In some cases the quest is practical, as when a person wants to know whether he or she has a genetic predisposition to a disease or carries a defective gene. But more often it is simply the quest for the foundation of self-knowledge: “Where did I come from?” Or rather: “From whom did I come?” Here again, religious faith can prove to be an asset in such a quest, because God is the dependable, generous father of us all.
Eastern cultures that believe in reincarnation are spared this search for origins. They hold that parents provide only the occasion for the rebirth of a fully formed soul unrelated to them. In Western society, we feel the need to break away from our parents, while we continue to discover their traces in us. This is not a dilemma to be solved or avoided but simply one that we should be aware of. Our genetic inheritance is not only a mystery to be unraveled but is itself a simple gift.
Ironically, our insistence on independence and individuality can actually impede our search for simplicity. Not only do we carry the characteristics of our forebears, but many of us were conceived along with an identical twin who failed to survive to birth. As Lawrence Wright explains in The New Yorker (August 7, 1995): “Although only about one out of 80 or 90 live births produces twins, at least one-eighth of all natural pregnancies begin as twins.” He quotes Professor Charles E. Bakloge of the East Carolina School of Medicine, who affirms that “somewhere in the vicinity of 10% to 15% of us – and that’s a minimum estimate – are walking around thinking we’re singletons when in fact we’re only the big half” that survived.
This revelation is humbling to those who feel threatened by anything short of their total uniqueness and freedom, but it is reassuring to those who are serious about their search for self. Lindon J. Eaves, a Virginia Commonwealth University geneticist (and Anglican priest), runs one of the world’s largest twin studies. He suggests that human freedom could be what makes twins alike: “I think freedom means something about the capacity of the human organism not to be pushed around by external circumstances. I would argue that evolution has given us our freedom, that natural selection has placed in us the capacity to stand up and transcend the limitations of our environment. So I think it’s a way forward.” Peace with oneself is the discovery of that freedom.
Lawrence Wright concludes:
It may be threatening to see ourselves as victims of our genes, but that may be preferable to being victims of our environment. To a major extent, after all, our genes are who we are. A trait that is genetically rooted seems somehow more immutable than one that may have been conditioned by the environment. This seems to leave aside the possibility of free choice – or even the consciousness of choice at all. And yet people who are aware of their natures are constantly struggling with tendencies they recognize as ingrained or inborn. It makes little difference how such tendencies were acquired – only how they are managed. If it is true that our identical clone can sort through the world of opportunity and adversity and arrive at a similar place, then we may as well see that as a triumph of our genetic determination to become the person we ought to be.
In the process of simplifying our lives, we become aware of our natures and direct them toward “becoming the person we ought to be” – men or women at peace within ourselves.
Voltaire wrote that “the happiest of all lives is a busy solitude.” To which I would add that much can be accomplished when you are alone. Indeed, there are some occupations that demand solitude. But for your pursuit of inner peace you will also need quiet, which is something else altogether. Quiet is the absence (however temporary) of worry and distraction, which allows you to concentrate clearly. Transcendental meditators make a habit of quieting themselves for at least twenty minutes twice daily, concentrating on a word or object – not to analyze or understand it, but simply to focus their attention, thereby calming themselves. Although you will not find any prisons listed among the retreat sites recommended at the end of this book, historically many heroes and villains have used their involuntary captivity to simplify and redirect their lives. While they were incarcerated, Gandhi planned the liberation of India, Anwar Sadat plotted the future of Egypt, and Nelson Mandela dreamed of a South Africa free from apartheid. In my book, Breaking Through God’s Silence, I devoted the better part of a chapter to the meditations of men held hostage in the Middle East and to a pacifist priest imprisoned in North Carolina. These captives each emerged from their ordeals with clearer minds and simpler, more motivated lives.
As a boy, the novelist J. G. Ballard was interned with his parents in a Japanese camp outside Shanghai. Reminiscing in the Sunday Times of London on the fiftieth anniversary of V-J Day, he recalled wandering around the camp, curious about how the adults were adapting to confinement:
Many of the British in Shanghai had been intoxicated for years, moving through the day from office to lunch to dinner and nightclub in a haze of dry martinis. Sober for the first time, they lost weight and began to read, rekindled old interests and organized drama societies and lecture evenings. In retrospect, I realize that internment helped people to discover unknown sides of themselves. They conserved their emotions, and kept a careful inventory of hopes and feelings. I often found that taciturn or quick-tempered people could be surprisingly generous, and that some of the missionaries who had devoted their lives to the Chinese peasantry could show a curious strain of selfishness.
As Ballard illustrates, the transformations wrought in solitude are not always benign. Dr. Jekyll’s long hours in the laboratory turned him into the murderous Mr. Hyde. Dr. Frankenstein’s solitary labors created a monster. But these perversions of solitude only serve to dramatize the power of concentration that is one gift of simplicity. Celebrating a personal Sabbath, in any case, is not meant to be an ordeal; it can sometimes be pure pleasure, as when Wordsworth begins to see life through
that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.
Inner peace, you will find, readily translates into external joy.
In Praise of Silence
If silence is only a component of spiritual simplicity, it is nonetheless golden – a virtue claimed for it in the ancient Babylonian Talmud. The psalmist had a divine purpose in mind when he counseled: “Be still and know that I am God,” a sentiment echoed in T. S. Eliot’s prayer: “Teach us to care, and not to care;/Teach us to sit still.” In his “Intimations of Immortality,” Wordsworth mused: “Our noisy years seem moments in the being/Of the eternal silence.” More mundanely, the philosopher Spinoza argued that “the world would be happier if men had the same capacity to be silent that they have to speak.”
In ancient times, ascetics often fled civilization to pursue a solitary life in the desert, embracing silence and denying every possible distraction. Predictably, many of them became cranks and eccentrics; the most renowned was Simeon Stylites, who lived atop a sixty-foot pillar for thirty years. People who have experienced floating in isolation tanks report that the mind, starved of external stimuli, soon starts to play tricks and create hallucinations. Likewise, the desert is famed for its mirages.
The monastic movement made a point of gathering the ascetics into prayerful, economically self-sufficient communities, responsible to an orderly rule of life and to their brothers’ and sisters’ care. Discarding the crankier aspects of solitary life in favor of a working, caring, and praying community, Saint Benedict and his followers retained the essential feature: silence.
My own enclosed seminary experience, which occupied most of the decade of my twenties, exemplified much of the original monastic spirit. Unlike many of my confreres at Saint Paul’s, I felt comfortable with silence, although in retrospect I realize that I filled it as much with daydreams as with devotion. Nevertheless, just as one can walk and chew gum at the same time, you and I can contemplate or pray while we are working or eating – on condition that there is silence. Silence breeds simplicity and nourishes spirituality.
Silence was pervasive during my year as a novice in rural New Jersey. On one occasion it was put to the test and failed, but not due to human frailty. The novitiate’s kitchen was supported by a collection of turkeys and ducks, as well as two hogs, none of which were kept as pets. We city-bred boys were expected to slay and clean the birds and to manage the grisly proceedings while observing prayerful silence. Our victims felt no such restriction, but protested loudly, their screams shattering the holy silence. After that experience, I suggest adding slaughterhouses to jails as places uncongenial for your quest for silence and inner peace.
The search for simplicity is not only a retreat from everyday routine; it is also a pilgrimage. Bear in mind: you are not escaping, you are going somewhere. Moslems go to Mecca, Jews to Jerusalem, Catholics to Rome, Hindus to the Ganges. Four centuries ago, Protestant Puritans journeyed to the New World and remained to make it America. A neighbor of ours makes frequent pilgrimages to battlefields and has created a consuming hobby of reenacting Civil War battles in uniform on the field and through detailed computer simulations.
Author Madeleine L’Engle is now in her late seventies. Her imaginative books, starting with A Wrinkle in Time, provided pilgrimages of fancy for my three daughters when they were young. Although she admits that one can successfully seek simplicity and spirituality in one’s own home or garden, L’Engle concedes that “sometimes we need to make a journey in order to put things together.” In a recent summer, she traveled to Iona, a remote Scottish island renowned as the home of Celtic spirituality. “If there’s a place to contemplate the mysteries of life,” she says, “Iona – if you can get yourself there – is it.” She admits that pilgrimages “come from following your passions, your enthusiasms.” But, as you simplify your life, you increase your capacity for passion and adventure.
Psychotherapist M. Scott Peck, author of The Road Less Traveled, actually takes less traveled roads in his search for spirituality. His recent pilgrimages to prehistoric sacred monuments scatter through the British Isles led to a contemplative book, In Search of Stones, which reads like a conversation with his soul.
Writing a book is itself a pilgrimage because when I begin I don’t know exactly where I am going and why. I seem to need to make this journey continually, because I have more questions than answers. Most of my religious feelings are in the form of questions. The things you can prove are often not very interesting. You can’t prove you love your child or your husband or your friends. So much of life is a great and wonderful mystery.
In his masterpiece, Orthodoxy, G. K. Chesterton asked the question that underlies every pilgrimage: “How can we contrive to be at once astonished at the world and yet at home in it?” To illustrate, Chesterton contrived the story of an English yachtsman “who slightly miscalculated his course and discovered England under the impression that it was a new island in the South Seas,” and proceeded as a patriotic explorer to plant the Union Jack in the Royal pavilion in Brighton.
“His mistake was really a most enviable mistake; and he knew it, if he was the man I take him for,” Chesterton argued. “What could be more delightful than to have in the same few minutes all the fascinating terrors of going abroad combined with all the humane security of coming home again?” Chesterton used the story to illustrate his adult rediscovery of the faith of his childhood. Faith aside, it is a good story for anyone seeking a simple life and the spiritual gifts that come with it. In any adventure, we go off to better understand what we already have and can better appreciate when we return home.
Steps in the Right Direction: Start a Journal
Not a diary, but a journal, more like a captain’s log, as if your life were a journey on the starship Enterprise. You will want to record not merely your daily appointments and activities, but also your reactions and revelations. At day’s end, you need to assess what happened of note and how it might favorably affect tomorrow. Keeping a journal is neither an exercise in vanity (you may never publish your memoirs) nor a surefire strategy for getting in touch with your “inner child.” It is not a wastebasket for trivia. But it is a good way of determining whether your life has become so homogenized that every day seems the same, and it’s an honest guide to the people and things that are important to you right now. A journal will record your adventure into simplicity and spirituality, and describe your progress.
Keep a spiral notebook on your bedside table and assess your day before you say good night to it. You will get to know yourself better.