Dharma Topic: Voluntary Simplicity

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Dear Still Water Friends,

Last week’s discussion of the Five Mindfulness Trainings ledus to the critical question of when is it the right time to ask ourselves (orothers) to let go of something enjoyable in order to attain something of evengreater value. During the discussion, Sandy paraphrased a story told by RichardGregg about what Gandhi had told him concerning giving up his books, which stillgave him joy.

This Thursday evening, Oct 20, we will continue ourjoint exploration of the benefits and perils of letting go of that which isenjoyable by exploring the story Gregg told and the context in which he toldit.

Richard Gregg was a Quaker labor lawyer who worked withGandhi in the 1920s and 30s. His 1934 book, the Power of Non-Violence, was oneof the five books Martin Luther King listed as influencing him most in creatinga nonviolent movement.

In 1936, Gregg, who was then the Acting Director of thePendle Hill Study Center near Philadelphia, wrote a small essay entitledVoluntary Simplicity. (Available in full on the web at http://www.pendlehill.org/pdf%20files/php003.pdf.)

In the essay, Gregg noted that the individuals who have mostinfluenced our spiritual development have been people of few possessions, suchas Buddha, Jesus, Moses, Mohammed, Socrates, St. Francis, Confucius, and,Gandhi. Gregg called their way of life Voluntary Simplicity:

Voluntary simplicity involves both inner and outer condition. It means singleness of purpose, 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.

Like Thich Nhat Hanh, Gregg focused attention on theenvironment we create for ourselves – what does it nurture?

Observance of simplicity is a recognition of the fact that everyone is greatly influenced by his surroundings and all their subtle implications. The power of environment modifies all living organisms. Therefore each person will be wise to select and create deliberately such an immediate environment of home things as will influence his character in the direction which he deems most important and such as will make it easier for him to live in the way that he believes wisest. Simplicity gives him a certain kind of freedom and clearness of vision.

Gregg also realized, to his credit, that while desirable,simplicity is often not easy. Forcing simplicity upon ourselves or others, whilesometimes tempting, is most often counter-productive. It just doesn’t work.

If simplicity of living is a valid principle, there is one important precaution and condition of its application. I can explain it best by something which Mahatma Gandhi said to me. We were talking about simple living and I said that it was easy for me to give up most things but that I had a greedy mind and wanted to keep my many books. He said, "Then don’t give them up. As long as you derive inner help and comfort from anything, you should keep it. If you were to give it up in a mood of self sacrifice or out of a stern sense of duty, you would continue to want it back, and that unsatisfied want would make trouble for you. Only give up a thing when you want some other condition so much that the thing no longer has any attraction for you, or when it seems to interfere with that which is more greatly desired." It is interesting to note that this advice agrees with modern Western psychology of wishes and suppressed desires. This also substantiates what we said near the beginning of our discussion, that the application of the principle of simplicity is for each person or each family to work out sincerely for themselves.

You are invited to join us this Thursday for ourmeditation and our program. The best times to join us are:

  • Just before the first sitting at 7 pm

  • At 7:25, at the beginning of walking meditation; or,

  • At 7:35, at the beginning of the second sitting. (To allow others to maintain concentration and continuity, we ask that practitioners not enter during the walking meditation.)

Warm wishes,

Mitchell Ratner
Senior Teacher