Simplify, Simplify

by William R. Carey

Simplify, simplify...  How, how?  Every time I hear that "simplify, simplify" quote from Thoreau I think: "Easily said, Hank, but aren't you making it too cut and dried.... a bit too "simplistic"?   Life's pretty messy these days, and we're running out of Waldens.  Those few people living as squatters in handbuilt cob houses are getting evicted when the developers buy the land.

And look at the only famous American who's written about and lived your philosophy: Ted Kazinsky, the "Unabomber." He may have a cultish status among the neo-anarchists, but that's about it.  Then there are the squatters, survivalists, the neo-primativists (extreme eco-anarchists) and a number of nomadic Deadhead types. All of these people have documented and rational philosophies...more or less. 

And let's not even talk about adult men still living in their Mom's basement.  Let's just call them the Survivally Challenged. .  

For the mainstream person, it's getting tough to live a modest life outside of a monastary,  intentional community or having the luck of being born Amish..  The austerity of Ghandi and Thomas Merton is admirable, even desirable by many.  But it is an extreme in spiritual discipline.  The majority of us must work in the world as it is, especially if we wish to have a decent home and be responsable parents. 

But I've come across several books in the last few months about that "middle ground."   One had the title Do Less and Accomplish More, written by a Chinese-American business consultant. [Colleen: I must double-check this title] It was, indeed, a book on business management.   Her book begins with a parable that the metaphysical psychologist Carl Jung was fond of telling:

A rainmaker comes to a village that is suffering from a great drought.  (Much like my region, the Pacific NW at this time).  They have tried all sorts of rainmakers without results.  They all put on a good show, but no rain.  So this particular rainmaker simply promises rain and retires to his tent for four days.  On the fifth day it begins raining.  He comes out of his tent and demands payment.  They refuse, accusing him of doing nothing.  "Ah, but I did!" he says, "I came here and saw that heaven and earth were out of balance in your village.  I spent four days bringing them back into balance."

And that seems to metaphyscial and simplistic, too. But if you start reading other best-selling management books, they tell much the same story.  Covey's Seven Habits philosophy addresses the need for proactive thinking, not the harried busy-ness of "crisis management." With foresight and planning, problems can be avoided or easily fixed. 

One of my favorite philosophers of Sustainble development, Bill Mollison, preaches design thinking in "living food systems" or Permaculture:  With proper alignment of the design elements (plants, landscape and animals) we establish a self-regulating and self-regenerating system of agriculture. He calls it a "lazy man's" farming.  But if you've seen his books or taken a Permaculture course, you know that "complexity" is the by-word in this philosophy and practice.  But it is a complexity that is governed by an ecologically-applied principal of "cooperation."  All sustainable systems are cooperative communities, each individual is interdependent.

And this is like those new business managment philosophies.  The one I'm reading now is Don't Worry, Make Money by Richard Carlson, PhD. Yes, he's the "don't sweat the small stuff" guy. His books are "devotional-friendly." You know; short chapters that fit into a daily meditation and reflection time.  I use a number of them, a page or two a day. A couple days ago, I was reading chapter eight on transcending problems.  It smacked me right between the eyes.  I was fretting over my struggling business problems. His advice: don't work on them.  Let your problems solve themselves. 

This is blasphemy in America.  But it makes sense the way he describes it: problems "...trigger emotional reactions... we spend our time and energy dealing with these reactions instead of the actual issue.... when we are frightened, angry or impatient, we lose our bearings and get in our own way.  Deep down, we all know that for every problem there is a solution. ... we cannot see these obvious solutions... trapped in our emotional reactions and habitual way of seeing life.

He uses an example of having a wound that, left alone, healed itself.  The Natural Healing bestseller by Dr. Andrew Weil offers the same philosophy.  We can heal most illnesses by creating our own good health.  But our society offers us a mega-billion dollar health care system to treat our ills.  We get used to the Big Fix.  Allowing a more natural process to work things out means changing our perceptions, listening for our wisdom to emerge and trusting in the natural order of things. 

A traditional style of Chinese painting is a vertical landscape: very different from the horizontal frame we Westerners use to view our environment.  In the Chinese landscape, there is also a lot of human activity, usually a village at work and tradesmen on the road.  Simple people, living simple lives.  They are portrayed as living halfway between a distinct sky, hills, mountians above and fields, ponds, open land below.

Living there in a humble dance of balance between heaven and earth, they bring those two cosmic forces into harmony by doing their work and living their lives. It's that simple... no retreat to meditation mountain or building a Unabomber cabin in Catswinger, Idaho.

We Westerners have a tradition of Heaven and Hell, which are in constant conflict.  Our cultural construct is based on a cosmic struggle and victory over chaos.  Calvinism has a lot to answer for. Piety, Frugality, Austerity and Saintliness seem to be the only ways to create a holiness in the world fraught with corruption and Sin!  We gave this innate need to live in this world in a fury of virtuous competition or to withdraw completely in isolation or a sanctuary or sorts. 

There is no Western pattern for a life that brings heaven and earth together.  Even our environmental organizations are part of the paradigm of Eternal Conflict.  Defending the Whatever, Stopping the Whatever and Saving the Whatever are part of this rhetoric of struggle. In the NW here, we are headed for the Federal Courts this summer because we don't have enough rainfall for both the migrating Salmon and for our Hydroelectric Dams.  There are more complications arising from federal policy on energy generation, regional equity, jobs versus environment, urbanites versus farmers, farmers versus fish, sports fishermen versus commerical fishermen, native fishing rights versus any other fishing activity at all.....  You get the idea. Complex issues with no real winners and no real solutions. 

Personally, I'm praying for rain and doing my work.  My work involves giving people simple, long-range solutions by putting the tool into the right hands.  Like setting up farmers to generate electricity from manure byproducts. People are starting to listen.  I think things will work out.
Wake Up & Live!
WILL CAREY is Managing Editor of Simple Planet.  Contact Will at
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Will Carey