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Voluntary Simplicity and Soulful Living
by Duane Elgin

(Adapted from the book Promise Ahead, Morrow, 2000)

Writing in 1845, Henry Thoreau set the soulful tone for the simple life in Walden, in which he wrote these famous lines:

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to confront all of the essential facts of life, and see if I could learn what it had to teach , and not, when I came to die, to discover that I had not lived. . . . I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life. . .

The Hindu poet Tagore wrote, " I have spent my days stringing and unstringing my instrument while the song I came to sing remains unsung." Those choosing a life of simplicity are not leaving the song of their soul unsung. Instead, they are living "deep," diving into life with engagement and enthusiasm. And, in living that way, they are no doubt experiencing what Thoreau discovered—that "it is life near the bone where it is sweetest." To live simply is to approach life and each moment as inherently worthy of our attention and respect, consciously attending to the small details of life. In attending to these details, we nurture the soul. Thomas Moore explains in Care of the Soul:

Care of the soul requires craft, skill, attention, and art. To live with a high degree of artfulness means to attend to the small things that keep the soul engaged. . . to the soul, the most minute details and the most ordinary activities, carried out with mindfulness and art, have an effect far beyond their apparent insignificance.

For many, the American dream has become the soul’s nightmare. Often, the price of affluence is inner alienation and emptiness. Not surprisingly, polls show that a growing number of Americans are seeking lives of greater simplicity as a way to rediscover the life of the soul.

Although the mass media may focus on the external trappings of a simple life, if we look below the surface, we find a powerful new form of personal spirituality motivating the vast majority of these life-way innovators. For many, their spirituality is an individualized form of faith that minimizes rules and absolutes, and bears little resemblance to the pure form of any of the world’s religions. Their experience with the soulful dimensions of life and relationships is so rich and meaningful that a consumerist lifestyle appears pale by comparison.

I have had a quarter-century of experience writing about, speaking about, and living a life of voluntary simplicity. Based on that, here are other priorities (beyond material frugality) that I have found that characterize this way of living:

Sacred relationships—Those choosing the simple life tend to place a high priority on the quality and integrity of their relationships with every aspect of life—with themselves, other people, other creatures, the Earth, and the universe.

Giving One’s True gifts—This way of living supports discovering and expressing the true gifts that are unique to each of us, as opposed to waiting until we die to discover that we have not authentically lived out our true potentials.

Living with Balance—The simple life is not narrowly focused on living with less; instead, it is a continuously changing process of consciously balancing the inner and outer aspects of our lives, an immensely demanding process in our busy, complex, and confusing world.

Life as a Meditation—Living simply enables us to approach life as a meditation. By consciously organizing our lives to minimize distractions and needless busyness, we can pay attention to life’s small details and deepen our soulful relationship with life.

All of the world’s spiritual traditions have advocated an inner-directed way of life that does not place undue emphasis on material things. The Bible speaks frequently about the need to find a balance between the material and the spiritual sides of life, such as in this passage: "Give me neither poverty nor wealth." (Proverbs 30 : 8) From China and the Taoist tradition, Lao-tzu said that: "he who knows he has enough is rich." In Buddhism, there is a conscious emphasis on discovering a middle way through life that seeks balance and material sufficiency. The soulful value of the simple life has been recognized for thousands of years. What is new is that world circumstances are changing in such a way that this way of life now has unprecedented relevance for our times.

Copyright © 2000 Duane Elgin.  All Rights Reserved. 


Duane Elgin is the author of Promise Ahead: A Vision of Hope and Action for Humanity's Future (Morrow, 2000), Awakening Earth: Exploring the Evolution of Human Culture and Consciousness (Morrow, 1993), and Voluntary Simplicity: Toward a Way of Life that is Outwardly Simple, Inwardly Rich (Morrow, 1981; revised 1993). 

He co-authored (with Joseph Campbell, Willis Harman, and others) the book Changing images of Man (Pergamon, 1982). He is also the author of two major reports that were distributed at the 1997 State of the World Forum in San Francisco: Global Consciousness Change: Indicators of an Emerging Paradigm (1997), and Collective Consciousness and Cultural Healing (1997). In addition, he has contributed chapters to a half-dozen books, and has published more than three dozen articles in diverse publications.

Duane was formerly a senior social scientist at the Stanford Research Institute (now SRI International) in California, where he co-authored numerous studies on the long-range future; for example, Alternative Futures for Environmental Policy Making: 1975-2000 (for the Environmental Protection Agency); Anticipating Future National and Global Problems; and Limits to the Management of Large, Complex Systems (both for the President's Science Advisor); and City Size and the Quality of Life (for the National Science Foundation). Prior to SRI, Duane worked in the early 1970s as a senior staff member for a Presidential Commission on the American Future.

During the 1980s, Duane founded and directed the non-partisan and non-profit organization, Choosing Our Future that worked to revitalize citizen participation in the San Francisco Bay Area through the development, for example, of a pioneering "electronic town meeting" process with the ABC-TV station using live polling of a scientific sample of citizens.

Duane has an MBA from the Wharton Business School (1968) and an MA in economic history from the University of Pennsylvania (1969).

Over the past thirty years, Duane has given more than a hundred major talks and workshops on a wide range of subjects for audiences ranging from business and government executives to college students, and the general public.

Visit Duane Elgin at www.awakeningearth.org


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