Simplicity is a Spiritual Path

By Myra Kibler

This presentation was made before the congregration of Mountain Light UUC on 2008 October 19.

When we think about it, men and women of spirit have always travelled light. Think Jesus, Buddha, Gandhi, Peace Pilgrim, Annie Dillard, Henry David Thoreau, Thomas Merton.

Didn't Jesus command his followers to give away all their worldly goods?

We live in a time and place of material excess. And yet, we consider our accumulation of stuff to be a measure of our quality of life. As Americans, we have more possessions, more food, more stuff, than most people in the world.

Most Americans own cars, sometimes several. Many people have more than one home. A home here and another for vacation – a home away from home. And maybe another to haul behind us on wheels! In our primary homes, we have walk-in closets to hold all our clothes. I have a friend who lives alone who has the luxury of a separate closet full of shelves for her shoes! How many bathrooms does a family of four need? Indeed, how many bathrooms does a single person need? In modern homes, a four bedroom house is likely to have five bathrooms, or at least 4 ½. One for each bedroom and one for visitors.

We are collectors of stuff. I have a friend who collects books – and magazines and newspapers. She has a library with floor to ceiling bookshelves where books are shelved vertically and also horizontally on top of the verticals. And stacked on the floor. And lined up between posts on the staircase. There are bookcases in her bedroom too, and in the landing on the staircase and even in the bathroom. Her kitchen table is full of stacks of newspapers and magazines with tabs for articles she means to clip and send, many of which she does clip and send. But for ones that she doesn't get to, there are boxfuls that she takes to the basement. She is very orderly and clean. Her house is full but not chaotic. However, I've never been allowed to see the basement where I believe she also keeps all her children's (children now grown) outgrown clothes and toys and no telling what else. When her HVAC system went out, she lived in the house for two years without replacing it because she couldn't clear a path for a workman to get down there to take out the old unit and put a new one in.

For some people, collecting seems to be the manifestation of illness. People who buy and buy and buy things that they don't need, things that clutter their lives.

This excess doesn't only include stuff. We also overschedule ourselves. When I wanted to take my grandchildren to see Robin's lambs in April, their mother checked their schedule which she keeps electronically, and told me that a week in late May would be the earliest opportunity. Between early April and late May, there were trips to Florida and New York, and birthday parties committed to. And speaking of excess, birthday parties for even the youngest children are lavish, expensive occasions. A wedding now can run well over $10,000, often closer to $100,000.

People revel in multi-tasking. Picture the woman with kids in the car who is talking on her cell phone and driving. We all have our own versions of multi-tasking.

In so many ways our lives are complicated. The very technological advances that were supposed to make our lives simpler have not. We have added and added things, tasks, responsibilities until we have become overburdened, distracted, and unhappy. We take vacations to get away just for a time, from our lives. And often we take our lives with us.

Why? Why do we live this way? All evidence is that harried lives, multi-tasking, managing cluttered spaces create stress and stress makes us ill. And it leaves us no time for what is truly important.

In Walden Pond, Thoreau spoke of his experiment to determine what was required for happiness. He planned to simplify – to get rid of – things until he found what was really needed to be happy.

To divest ourselves of excess, to get down to the life we value, whether it be things, or activities, or relationships or what – to determine what we truly value and divest ourselves of the rest, is a spiritual path. Keeping excess requires energy, space, time, attention, money for what is not of value. We (in this culture) are T.S. Eliot's Hollow Men. If we can determine what is of value, get rid of what is not, then there is room, time, attention for what we do value. This is a religious exercise. It is a lifelong process of learning to see, of waking to reality, of valuing.

No one, I believe, can tell anyone else what is of value. I think the determination is an essential part of the journey.

This spiritual journey is not an easy path. It requires a high degree of consciousness. Do I want or need this thing? Why? Because it was my mother's? Will it help me remember my mother, will it bring her back? Will it keep her alive? Does it contain her spirit? How about my size 10 jeans? Maybe if I keep them, some day I will lose 30 pounds and be able to wear them again. Should I commit to a job that is offered me? Are the benefits of real value? And a big one for me personally, will the house I want fill my needs? Will it make me happy? What will it cost me in terms of money and freedom? All these questions are the questions Thoreau asked. What is necessary for happiness?

In my life, my father taught me some lessons for this journey. Because we moved every couple of years, his rule was, if you haven't used something in a year, you don't need it. Out it goes. What you have but don't need is a burden.

When my life as a store opener for Barnes and Noble and then for Borders got too hectic, a book was thrust into my hands: A Walk In the Woods. A stupid book. A stupid book. Do not read it. But it was about hiking the Appalachian Trail. And the very thought of putting only what I truly needed into a backpack and walking away had an escapist appeal to me. I wanted to simplify my life. I needed to simplify my life. I was working a rotating shift, sometime 8–4, sometimes 12–9, and sometimes 3–11:30 or midnight. I had no social life, no family life, no life. I was tense, overweight, overworked, under appreciated, underpaid. I needed a break. With not much money, it seemed like the best way to take a break was to go live in the woods. I was mindful of doing a Thoreau-like thing. Go live in the woods for a while and live simply and mindfully. Since I had no cabin and don't do well sitting still on a stump, I decided to hike the AT going north "for the season". I would do it until I felt the effects of simplicity kick in or until the weather got bad in the fall. I wanted to watch what might change in me.

It was truly a life changing exercise. I started out lugging a pack that was a true burden, probably over 50 pounds. At Neal's Gap I sent home some books and some clothes I deemed unnecessary. Later I got rid of the water filter, sent home my steel cook pot and bought a titanium one, left my Tilly hat in a hiker box for someone else. It was a constant exercise in paring down, in getting rid of what I didn't need. Eventually the guide books went home and I kept only the maps. And ultimately, I hiked without maps. I never travelled as light as Grandma Gatewood or Peace Pilgrim. I always carried extra food and water, more than I needed. And I kept the essentials for comfort, beyond necessities. But I learned I could sleep on a Z-rest and didn't require the bulkier, heavier Thermorest. When I lost my comb, I didn't replace it. A chapstick was my only cosmetic. I did carry a small container of biodegradable soap which I used for all purposes, which was more than some hikers carried. As my backpack got lighter, and as my body also got lighter, I felt freer. I moved more easily. I could pack in the dark, each item going in in the same order and the same place. My life became a simple rhythm of breaking camp, in exactly the same order each morning, packing, and walking. My meals were the same each day. I thought about distance and where I might get the next water, where I would camp that night. But otherwise I was free to let my mind range and float. I was free to observe myself. I enjoyed the company of others when I was with them, but made no effort to adjust my pace to theirs. I moved at my own pace. I paid attention to my body and my own rhythms. I lived simply. And I learned the lesson that my father had preached. Anything you don't need is only a burden. It limits your freedom. It restricts possibility. Thoreau is said to have refused the offer of a doormat because of the trouble it would take him to shake it out. Only you can determine the value of each thing in your life. My children urge me to get a larger house than the one I plan to build – but each square foot uses resources, requires maintenance. And what I know and they don't is that there is pleasure in having only what you need and nothing more.

What any two people need on the trail or in life will vary. It is for each person to decide. And the process of valuing, of self-examination, of opening yourself to possibility is a spiritual exercise.

Beyond divesting our lives of burdens, I think we need to make space for something new. So I'd like to keep a little time and a little space free – for something new to come. That space is potential, my optimism for the future.

Reading from Thirteen Moons, by Charles Frazier.