“The purpose of life is to unlearn what has been learned and to remember what has been forgotten.”
This week, a friend of mine said that she has been finding ‘living simply’ to be really stressful. Perhaps it was the five children whirling around us, or lack of sleep, but whatever it was, when I heard this I didn’t quite know what to say. I looked at her in a way which I hope was supportive (but really I’m not sure), and remained at a total loss for words. At the time, I was unable to understand what she meant. Now, a few days later, I am going to take a stab at a response.
For me, the moments I have which resemble simple living are the best. They are the moments where my heart sings. Moments where I caress the soft rosy cheek of the baby, build a snowman with the boys, or take pleasure in watching the naked limbs of a tree dance against the clear blue sky of late winter. The moments of simplicity are the ones that bring joy for me. They come in the spaces I create between and within my activities. They happen when I am able to be present. ‘Simple Living’ is a goal I’m aiming for, but it’s an elusive one, since ‘simplicity’ is always being redefined for me.
Life is anything but simple, it is a web of emotions, actions and events. I have little control over most of it. What I can control is my reaction to it. I can choose what to engage with and what to filter. My journey toward a more simple life is a slow one. I’m constantly recognizing more ways to pare down; things, activities, mental clutter. I understand what she was referring to now, but I would call it my pursuit of simple living that erupts into inner turmoil. To me, the ‘hard part’ is not the simple living, but the process of letting go of convention.
Transition toward simple living is like a slow journey up a spiral staircase. I often become impatient with myself, wanting to have the changes already figured out, or feeling like they should have be resolved the last time I addressed the issue. I have to remind myself that nature evolves too, and knows no perfect. I don’t want to find myself missing out on the journey, for this is life. My resistance comes, not because I don’t want to grow, but because the growing itself is difficult and often messy. I have had so many times where I have felt overwhelmed; crushed by a parade of ‘shoulds.’ Times of guilt where I have felt like I should have been doing this or that ‘all along.’ Times when I’ve felt useless, like I should know better, or do better because I can’t get it all right, or anything right for that matter. But the feeling that I need to ‘get it right’ only suggests that I’m currently doing something wrong, when I’m already trying my best. Moreover, it suggests that there is somehow a defined ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ in a world that is anything but black and white. Feelings of not measuring up are based on what someone else thinks I should be doing, or even more frightening, what I think someone else thinks I should be doing!
What is simple living anyway? For me it is changing enough ‘out there’ so that I can create space ‘in here.’ It is a reciprocal relationship, because as I create space ‘in here,’ I am able to let go of more ‘out there.’ Since the only thing I can control in this life is myself, for me this process of simplifying my life has become more about my inner journey than the outer one. This is a difficult concept, as most approaches to simple living are based on the outward and therefore more visible changes. These are far easier to quantify. Culturally we are bombarded with messages that we will be successful if we seek happiness outside of ourselves, as if it is something that can be consumed. It makes sense then, that culturally we would be encouraged to seek a simple life by only changing what is outside of ourselves.
Change is hard. It would be a whole lot easier if someone could just tell me what to do. But then, I will not have managed to effectively transition through change at all. I will have only changed which oeuvre of ‘should’ I follow. Our culture also touts ‘experts’ as the solution to my problems. I have been ‘taught’ what to believe by others, which does not allow for the great wisdom I carry within myself to have a voice. It also assumes that someone else could be an expert in how I should be living my life. It takes such courage to listen to my intuition, because I’ve been taught that it has little value, and ultimately that it shouldn’t be trusted. The best and lasting changes I have made in life are the ones that have come out of a communion of information and my intuition. Take cloth diapering for example, I don’t consider my conscious choice to have extra laundry as a burden since it was my inner voice that dictated that this was what our family should do. For me, it would be more burdensome to not live with integrity by using disposables.
We live in an era and culture rich with information, which is both a blessing and a burden. What a blessing that I can consider my overabundance a burden! Nevertheless, it is all too easy to get over-saturated and lose focus. I have become a master at calculated avoidance. I can only let so much in at a time. My life can only change at the pace I’m taking, because that’s all I can handle. I can only change myself so quickly. If I push too hard, I overwhelm. I do the best I can, and forget the rest…for now. I have learned that when I am ready to take something else on, it will still be waiting for me, along with a host of other new challenges.
It seems so much easier to ignore a problem, to pretend its not there and carry on. This is what we’ve been culturally conditioned to do. We are taught to not feel things, to pretend everything is alright and carry on despite ourselves, when clearly it’s not. The truth is, whatever ‘thing’ is creating waves in my life won’t ever just go away, no matter how much I wish it were so. The only way I’ve been able to work through my feelings of guilt, sadness, and overwhelm have been to face them head on. My best learning comes through asking myself good questions, not by the answers I come to.
I am working on my tolerance of sitting with uncomfortable ideas and feelings, accepting them for what they are. When I can accept something, it mysteriously loses its power over me. When I attempt to control the shadows of unresolved issues lurking in the corner, they impact me in deep and unexpected ways. When I try to ignore issues that are nagging at me, it only causes them to shout louder in order to get my attention. I accept my feelings as my teachers. They indicate that I need to pay attention. Often my strongest feelings of resistance come just before a shift of consciousness. Usually it means change is imminent, it’s a good sign…if I can trust it!