Voluntary Simplicity

—by Chris Dart

Last spring six members of Hampden Park Co-op participated in a self-study course on Voluntary Simplicity. The course uses a workbook of the same name published by the Northwest Earth Institute that includes numerous essays from luminaries, philosophers, and scholars examining the choice of intentionally simplifying one’s life.

Note: A new Voluntary Simplicity group will be starting in January. Contact Michael McKenna at 651-775-2112 or by email.

None of us was inexperienced in simple living. Perhaps our mutual membership at HPC already selfselected us as interested in the elegance of a life unburdened with excess. Nonetheless, we all came out of the exercise with new insights and a renewed commitment to reducing the unnecessary clutter of our lives: clutter of things, clutter of activities and obligations, clutter of excessive work and paucity of leisure. The capstone of the experience was a rejuvenated awareness of how simplicity works hand-in-hand with social and environmental justice.

Before this course, my conceptions of simplicity were mainly focused on “creature comforts,” but voluntary simplicity encompasses so much more. Materialism is certainly a core focus, but so is the Quixotic attempt to “save time” through the acquisition of “time-saving” devices and activities. We examined how, despite microwave ovens, fast food, Internet shopping, and cell phones, we seem to have less time for genuine conscious engagement in the world. (In fact, how much of this time we have so energetically “saved” is spent watching mindless TV shows and Web entertainment instead of playing a game with friends, taking a walk, reading, writing, or other engaging and creative activities?)

I dare say that the course did not end up providing any of us with grand, lifechanging insights into voluntarily choosing a simplified life. However, like so much of life, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, and experience provides unpredictable insight that words alone fail to describe. By pulling the threads of the several different topics together into a coherent whole, we were able to discover new and unexpected ways of seeing the familiar.

Notably, simplifying one’s life involves changes that are both straightforward and confounding. Within a society that celebrates busy-ness and the accumulation of things, living simply must be a collective enterprise. Rare is the person who does not need emotional, practical, and intellectual support to hold fast to such countercultural values. Knowing that my choices and views are shared and supported by others at the co-op is a source of reassurance and comfort when the temptation to re-clutter and re-busy myself arises.

[Chris Dart lives with four other adults in an intentional community he helped found in 1997. When he isn’t working on computers, he enjoys playing classical guitar, gardening, woodworking, and baking bread.]