A Buddhist story relates the life of the great saint Nagarjuna who moved around naked except for a loincloth and, incongruously, a golden begging bowl gifted to him by the King, who was his disciple. One night he was about to lie down to sleep among the ruins of an ancient monastery when he noticed a thief lurking behind one of the columns.
“Here, take this,” said Nagarjuna, holding out the golden begging bowl. ” That way you won’t disturb me once I have fallen asleep.”
The thief eagerly grabbed the bowl and made off – only to return the next morning with the bowl and a request. He said, “When you gave this bowl so freely last night, you made me feel very poor. Please teach me how to acquire the riches that make this kind of light-hearted detachment possible.”
The call of simplicity is the call of renunciation that can lead us to a better life, a more skilfully-enriched life. It’s what Nagarjuna recognized as his source of inner peace—freeing him from an agitated mind preoccupied with the worry of looking after possessions. But in our modern, shopping culture how many of us are really listening to that call? How many of us are prepared to simplify our lives? How many of us are prepared to tread Nagarjuna’s path?
Western society is increasingly being influenced by a fierce, consumer led, market economy where financial value seems to be attached to everything. Sales forecasts, marketing strategies, production targets and distribution networks are just a few of the terms used in an economic language that seems to penetrate every dimension of our lives, seeking us out, even in our very homes through television, the internet, radio, newspapers, magazines, telephone sales and promotional leaflets. Who can resist the temptation to buy, especially when so many people see their purchasing power as a normal function of everyday living and an expression of their individual liberties? The proliferation of shopping malls and retail parks attest to the effectiveness of this language which insists that we increase our consumption of goods and services despite any reference to real need.
Yet despite the unprecedented level of consumerism, and its implicit promise of a better life, health problems (both physical and mental) are still increasing—sharply in some cases. It seems that although our material needs are being met, deeper, more personal needs are not. Another consequence of this attachment to consumerism is the amount of time that we give up—not only in the activity of buying, installing, maintaining and replacing goods and services, but in the time that we spend at the workplace in order to pay for it all. Time, along with our health, is the most precious commodity that we have so we must spend it wisely. Unfortunately, in our busy lives, which are now rebranded “busy schedules,” we just don’t seem to have the time!
Simplicity, if we really engage with it like Nagarjuna, gives us more time to focus on what’s important in our lives, it provides opportunities for reflection, it provides space so that a more contemplative frame of mind can open up, leading to deeper insights, clearer understanding—panna vimutta (liberation through wisdom ).
Simplicity helps to make our lives more manageable, less stressful with implications for our health
Simplicity gives us time in order to enjoy ourselves more
Simplicity brings greater moments of contentment and well-being
Simplicity helps in our relationships, making them less strained
Simplicity increases our quality of life and enjoyment of life
Simplicity brings a presence of mind that aids clarity
Simplicity cultivates mindfulness, and mindfulness makes us more alert, more sensitized
Gandhi once said that: “Civilization, in the real sense of the term, consists not in the multiplication, but in the deliberate and voluntary reduction of wants. This alone promotes real happiness and contentment.” Wise words for us to reflect upon. Simplicity, in all its manifestations, enriches our lives in proportion to how much we let go. Not reductionism but liberation—taking us away from acquisition and greed that can flourish in our attitudes of control and attachment. However, this is not to suggest that simplicity is easy, that we can quickly and effectively bring it into our lives. Simplicity is a constantly evolving dynamic that needs negotiation, compromise and flexibility. We need to be regularly looking at the finer details of our lives to see if we can make appropriate adjustments and reductions. The quest for a simpler style of life may cause discord with others, and with ourselves, but a rich harvest will eventually follow if we pursue our aims skilfully and mindfully.
The work ethic that has taken root in our society shows no signs of abating. Indeed, many reports highlight widespread increases in the number of hours we officially work. The “overtime culture” that we have allowed to develop in the workplace has now become the norm. Workaholics are now, unfortunately, no longer a rare breed. The prevalent attitude of: “It’s good to work, lazy not to, so carry on and do as much as you can,” is a flawed attitude. Studies show that after 50 hours of work our performance drops by as much 25 percent. Then after 70 hours it drops at an alarming rate where we are not really contributing much and may be even undoing our previous efforts. Another problem with the “work is good” brigade is their non-discriminatory approach. Work is considered good irrespective of its intrinsic merit. This traditionally supports many quite unskilful industries, such as the manufacturing and selling of armaments, because, it is argued, they contribute to the economy and provide employment; but this gives no account whatsoever to the harm and damage that they may cause in a wider context.
Stress-related illnesses have shown a marked increase in recent years and it is our attachments to over-burdened work activity that are causing some of the damage. In our present climate of over-achieving we rush through our days telling ourselves that we can manage, that we may even be able to push our boundaries on performance even further, but can we really? Is this what we want, or are we just being swept up in a competitive neurosis in the name of personal growth and development?
The quest to achieve in a harsh, competitive marketplace may be indicative of deeper, underlying motives. The psychologist Cary Cooper has carried out research in this field and has shown that many high achievers: “…recalled vividly, memories of loss, whether of parents or place, and associated feelings of insecurity.” It seems that where we have been lacking in some areas of our lives, we may try to seek out some form of compensation elsewhere.
Slowing down and letting go are the prerequisites of a simple life that can reward us in so many enriching ways as long as we are prepared to listen to its message. The choice is ours. Do we decide to keep on the treadmill of activity and acquisition, that can cause us so much damage, or do we follow the call of simplicity that can release us into a more manageable, saner world?
Nagarjuna knew the answer to this question and followed the call of simplicity, but it is unlikely that we could ever commit ourselves to his degree of personal engagement—after all, we are not Buddhist saints! However, the path of simplicity does invites everyone, with no exceptions, to journey along its way, and this is what we must do, accept the path, in the knowledge that it is progress that we are seeking and not perfection.