What does Tax Day have to do with Voluntary Simplicity?

successful-manI missed posting yesterday because of two converging deadlines–one at work and one imposed on me by Uncle Sam.  True to form as a world-class procrastinator, although I had diligently prepared my taxes on QuickBooks and had begun the filling out of TurboTax screens, I still had a couple of hours of work ahead of me yesterday.  I finally pushed the button at 10:37 p.m.–fulfilling my annual requirement as a citizen in the nick of time.

Unfortunately I owed money this year–I started a consultant business in May but didn’t set enough aside along the way to cover my tax liability. 

Thinking about how nice it would be to not have to write out that check, I started thinking about the many people ahead of me who opted out of paying taxes as an act of Civil Disobedience, such as Thoreau.

Other more contemporary folks have conscientiously (and legally) opted out of paying taxes to make a statement about intolerable social conditions, such as homesteaders Helen and Scott Nearing and the environmentalist Jim Merkel.   They did it by choosing a life of voluntary simplicity.  So voluntary simplicity can be many things:  a way of life, a political statement, a spiritual journey, an antiwar protest, an act of solidarity among our poorer brothers and sisters, or a pact with the earth to protect and defend it.

The term “voluntary simplicity” is attributed to Richard Gregg, a Quaker who wrote a little pamphlet called “The Value of Voluntary Simplicity” in 1936.   The pamphlet is published by Pendle Hill and can be downloaded for free here.   In it, Gregg describes what it is:

Voluntary simplicity involves both inner and outer condition. It means singleness of purpose, sincerity and honesty within, as well as avoidance of exterior clutter, of many possessions irrelevant to the chief purpose of life. It means an ordering and guiding of our energy and our desires, a partial restraint in some directions in order to secure greater abundance of life in other directions. It involves a deliberate organization of life for a purpose. For example, the men who tried to climb Mount Everest concentrated their thoughts and energies on the planning of that expedition for several years, and in the actual attempt discarded every ounce of equipment not surely needed for that one purpose.

Not surprisingly, his description ties in perfectly with the path to simplicity outlined half a century later by his fellow Quaker, Richard Foster the book Celebration of Discipline.

In addition to Richard Foster’s classic, another classic was born in the 80s–the book Voluntary Simplicity by Duane Elgin. Although he was inspired by Gregg’s writings, Elgin’s orientation to his own book on the topic is little more focused on the cultural and the collective vs. the more individual approach, while at the same time challenging us to accept our personal responsibility for the state of the world.   This book became THE definitive work for the volunatary simplicity movement of the post-Vietnam era.

I met Duane Elgin last year when he spoke at The Open Center in New York City.  The topic was “The World at the Tipping Point:  A Big Picture View of Our Future”–a program that he takes on the road.  It was quite positive and optimistic, and I was thrilled to get a chance to be a part of this pretty interactive discussion.    It was inspiring to hear his take on the future, which is filled with hope for the human race.  While he stresses that it is the individual choices we make which will prod the world into a transitional, transformative epoch, these choices have to start from a place that we may not even know exists for us:

To act voluntarily requires not only that we be conscious of the choices before us (the outer world) but also that we be conscious of ourselves as we select among those choices (the inner world).  We must be conscious of both choices and chooser if we are to act voluntarily.  Put differently, to act voluntarily is to act in a self-determining manner.  But who is the “self” making the determinations of behavior? … The point is that the more precise and sustained is our conscious knowing of ourselves, the more voluntary or choiceful can be our participation in life… The more conscious we are of our passage through life, the more skillfully we can act, and the more harmonious can be the relationship between our inner experience and our outer expression.

So, if you are really looking for a way to legally reduce your tax liability to the Federal Government next year, one way to do it is to adopt a life of voluntary simplicity–deliberately choosing what will feed your purpose in life, and discarding all the rest.  That may be the best tax shelter there is.

The Greening of Letting Go: Jim Merkel, inspiration for radically simplifying

radicalsimplicitybook2When it comes to inspiration for reducing the number of possessions we come to depend on in our lives, the one that comes to mind for me, because his book is one of my “nightstand books,” is Jim Merkel, author of Radical Simplicity:  Small Footprints on a Finite Earth and founder of the Global Living Project.  I was so disappointed to have missed him in a weekend workshop retreat at Pendle Hill in Pennsylvania in January, that I just looked up his website to see where else I may be able to catch him this year, and I’m thrilled to see that there are a couple of opportunities this spring, particularly if you live in the Northeast.

April 6 in Haverhill, MA, a talk on Radical Leadership

May 15-17 in Albany, NY, a 3 day retreat  focused on lifestyle choices, simplicity and ecological footprints, acknowledging our true wealth, (family, relationships, soil, water, etc) and living a richer life.

Jim Merkel’s story

Merkel had a conversion experience during the time of the Exxon Valdiz disaster, while working as a military engineer and arms trader.   Realizing the responsibility that each of us bears for disasters like this, he quit his job in order to be the change he wanted to see in his world.

He downsized drastically, and determined to live in an income level under $5,000 a year and has done so ever since.  Today he spreads the word around the country.  

For him, letting go meant letting go of habits that will eventually mean the destruction of the planet.  In place of trying to fit these new habits into a culture that supports opposing values, he preaches a shift in global living that replaces power with equity, exploitation with respect, and consumption with sustainability.

In the book he makes a case for a different model for society, and offers very practical information for shining a light on our own habits and how to make a difference in our lives.

Read this book if you are interested in:

  • Exploring some thought-provoking models for a society that supports living lightly on the earth
  • Learning exactly the negative environmental impact that use of every one of your possessions represents
  • Determining your current footprint on the earth so that you can make quantifiable changes
  • Challenge yourself to make these changes

My favorite parts of this book were:

  • Chapter 1:  Building the Case for Global Living
  • Figure 6-7:  Ecological Footprint Quiz (you can also take a version of a footprint quiz online at http://www.redefiningprogress.org)
  • Chapter 9:  Applying the Tools (you actually should  read Chapters 5-6 first, but they’re pretty weighty if you’re not a numbers person)

I would have added Chapter 7,   The Second Tool:  Your Money or Your Life, but I’ve long ago read and reread that book, so I skipped that chapter.  (By the way, the third edition is now available with updates.)

One of my favorite quotes from this book:

Our intuition doesn’t need a factual basis to know what to do; it is a way of knowing without the use of our rational minds.  Intuitive information is like an internal compass, guiding us in considering the well-being of the whole.  Does your intuition and spirituality influence you to share the Earth?  Most spiritual paths include kindness, compassion, forgiveness, and reciprocity.  If your scientific mind looks deeply into natural phenomena, while our spirituality embraces all life, and we pay attention to our intuition, our personal ethics will influence how we make day to day choices.  As we get out of theory and down to practice, some ethical questions might be:

  • Could Earth support all the world’s people at my standard of living?
  • Do other species or people suffer because of my lifestyle?
  • Do good things come from each dollar I spend?
  • Do other species have inherent value?
  • Should my race, gender, strength, taxonomy, education or birthplace allow me to consume more than others?
  • Are wars being fought over resources that I use?
  • Do I support corporations or industries that damage the environment or exploit workers in sweatshops?
  • Is my lifestyle in alignment with my own values?

This gets to the heart of why we should let go of our stuff, let go of our bad energy habits, let go of wants that don’t help us or our planet.