Spiritual Simplicity I: All-Acceptance

I have a Brita pitcher with the filter in the top.  When you run water through it, you can’t do it too quickly.  The top well fills up and then it slowly passes through the filter down to the pitcher.

I tend to fill up my brain with words too quickly and they spill over, uselessly, into the parts of my brain that throw the overload into the mental shredder.  Trying to better my life with nothing but words–words written by self-help authors, the Bible, popular meditations is like running the water full blast while the filter backs up and renders most of the words powerless.

When it comes to spiritual simplicity, the formula is probably one part words to five parts meditation.  The words need time to sift through the filter and drip, drip, drip into the pitcher of our spiritual cores, where they have been purified by our reflection to quench our spiritual thirst.

Last night I woke up in the  middle of the night.   I couldn’t fall back to sleep right away.  I don’t mind that, especially when the next day is a day off.  So I just went downstairs to get a cup of tea and play on the internet.

Having felt the spillover of words I’ve read recently and having sensed a great waste of potentially great ideas down the drain, I was resistant to continuing to try to fill the well.  So for the fun of it I googled “spiritual simplicity” which was what I felt I needed at the moment.    The google search uncovered a wonderful gem by a Buddhist contemplative, Reverand Master Daizui MacPhillamy.  Appropriately enough, it was a talk he had delivered in 2002 called “Spiritual Simplicity.”   It was just what I needed, and while I encourage downloading the pdf and reading it in its entirety, I’m going to try to cull it down a little and bring out the main points.  It will take a few blog posts to cover it.

The first point he makes is that spiritual simplicity is about accepting what is.  This finding was a synchronistic idea, as I recently read Byron Katie‘s Loving What Is.  The ideas are the same:  Not resisting what is is key to spiritual simplicity.  All-acceptance cuts out a lot of that mental clutter.  The monk quotes a poem written by Nyogen Sunsaki in 1946, following his release from  a Japanese internment camp in the US after World War II:

Like a snail, I carry my humble zendō with me.
It is not as small as it looks
For the boundless sky joins it
When I open a window.
If one has no idea of limitation,
He should enjoy real freedom.
A nameless monk may not have the New Year callers to visit him,
But the morning sun hangs above the slums.
It will be honorable enough to receive the golden light from the east.

Resistance to this all-acceptance of what simply IS comes in the form of wanting to make things happen. We want to control not just our lives, but sometimes the lives of others–those we know and sometimes those we don’t know, as in those with whom we have ideological differences.  Oddly, sometimes when we fail to control others, we even feel guilty about it.   Think of parents of adult children who still feel responsible for their lives.  Sometimes trying so hard to do what’s right, by trying to change people, actually leads to quite a bit of wrong.  At its extreme, the Monk says, it can lead to crimes against humanity.  The problem, he says, is:

When we try to force or manipulate or—I’m not quite sure of the word, a subtler word than those—influence others to view things in our way, why do we do that? Well, sometimes it comes from what we might call “hating what is wrong,” or not being able to stand what is wrong, and consequently really wishing to bring it to an end. Now where does that come from? Often, it comes from trying ever so hard to do what is right, what is good. And, although hating what is wrong may or may not be a familiar thing to you, simply trying very hard to do what is good is familiar. But spiritual simplicity is simpler than all that.

Sometimes resistance to acceptance is built on deeply ingrained fears that have been somehow hardwired into our brain from a young age.   I’ve heard that fear is a learned response that we acquire in childhood, which is why it is so hard to break with certain patterns.  With that, no matter how well you intellectually grasp a situation, your biology has you beat.  In that case, it takes a lot of work, a lot of commitment, to overcome the resistance to acceptance.  Your spirit is willing but your flesh is weak.   It requires just as much work to get your emotions out of that psychic rut as it does to drive your car out of a deep ditch.  I think once you know that you can get on with the work and not beat yourself up because you somehow can’t just muster up that good old laissez-faire.

What helps me see beyond my own fear of letting go is to recognize that I can’t see the whole elephant.  You can get all zen and learn to look at the suchness of things with no-mind, that’s great, but sometimes a person needs motivation.   A person needs to know why they should do the incredibly difficult work to overcome these primal fears and achieve all-acceptance.

And for me, that would be knowing that there is a reason for my walking this path.  I could endure suffering, and I could accept the unacceptable by recognizing that my little pea-brain simply is too limited to know what was to come of it.   “It’s God’s will” sounds like a cop-out to some people.   But for those with faith and all-acceptance, it means that we’re not on earth be in charge.  We’re on earth to work the divinity inside us moment by moment on the high wire of life and we’re not to look down.

Just as Paul McCartney sings in his masterpiece, “there will be an answer, let it be.”

Just as the Thirtieth Psalm says, “Weeping may endureth for a night, but joy cometh in the morning.”

Just as the Zen master Bankei said, quoted by Master MacPhillamy:

Abominating hell, longing for heaven, you make yourself suffer in a joyful world.  You think that good means hating what is bad.  What’s bad is the hating mind itself.  Good you say, means doing good.  Bad, indeed is the mind that says so.  Good and bad alike–roll them both into one ball, wrap it up in paper and toss it out.  Forget it all.  Notions of what one should be doing never existed from the start.  Fighting about what’s right, what’s wrong, that is the doing of the ‘I’.”

So we say fuggedaboutit; we say I accept it all–the good and the bad; we say whatever comes to us can wash over us because it comes from God and who are we to argue; we say I open my hands, dear God, and accept it all.

Simple Home, Beautiful Home, Part II: Stripping of your life

The cart before the horse is neither beautiful nor useful.  Before we can adorn our houses with beautiful objects the walls must be stripped, and our lives must be stripped, and beautiful housekeeping and beautiful living be laid for a foundation…”  –Henry David Thoreau

“…and our lives must be stripped,”:

Years ago, I took this picture of my own dining room table when I saw the irony of where the bumper sticker, a gift from my son who had visited Walden, wound up.

Years ago, I took this picture of my own dining room table when I saw the irony of where the bumper sticker, a gift from my son who had visited Walden, wound up.

If I had a chart that showed the times of my life at its most frenetic, and overlaid it with a chart that showed the times of my life when my house was the least welcoming and the most cluttered, they would line up nicely.   It’s hard, if not impossible, to maintain peace at home, when your life is out of control.

A study, “The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness” by Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers was recently released and highly publicized in the news.  It showed that despite great strides in the women’s movement, women are actually unhappier today overall.  Why would that be?  We have spent the last thirty years bringing home the bacon and frying it up in the pan.  Does that mean we have time to eat it?

Perhaps a correlation could be made in a book about another paradox, “The Paradox of Choice” by Barry Schwartz, which makes the case that too many options does not create feelings of well-being; on the contrary, too much choice winds up being overload for our psyches.  So, the myriad of options that opened up for women in the last few decades has actually left us wondering, “What now?” in a way that is disconcerting and confusing.  And for society in general, we are simply overwhelmed.

Thoreau tells us to strip down our lives, which can be taken to mean, choose!  “Let your affairs be of two or three, not of a hundred,” he wrote.  Choose your value system, choose your day, choose your desires, and leave the rest alone.   Richard Foster, in his book “The Freedom of Simplicity” tells us that the first step is the most important:  “First seek God’s kingdom.”  Seems easy, but what does that mean?

Maybe we can learn from the choices made by some of the more spiritually evolved.   St. Francis sold everything in order rebuild the church.  That was how he sought God’s kingdom.   In one of my posts, “Decluttering, Purging, and Peace Pilgrim,” I talked about the woman who made her life’s work walking across the country time and again for peace.  That was how she sought God’s kingdom.    I was lucky enough last week to see the Zen Buddhist master Thich Nhat Hanh at the Beacon Theatre.  He has made it his life’s work to teach people to be compassionate through mindfulness.  That is how he sought God’s kingdom.  I’ll bet that none of these people have spent an inordinate amount of time wondering whether to buy the LG flat screen TV or the Samsung; whether they should go to Cancun or Paris on vacation; whether they should stay in their marriage or leave.  If you’ve ever owned a good SLR camera, when you focus on something through the viewfinder, the rest blurs out of sight.  I imagine that’s what seeking God’s kingdom is like.

I’m not sure how to begin the life stripping-down process, but here’s a little brainstorming:

  • Let go:  of stuff, of worry, of anxiety, of things you can’t control.
  • Stop being a people-pleaser:  Say no once in a while.
  • Be happy with what you have:  Cut the coveting.
  • Don’t go it alone:  Ask for help, hired or otherwise, to share your burden.
  • Recognize that’s it’s impossible to have it all.  What are you trading off for your life?
  • Be easy on yourself.

Finally, the other night, Thich Nhat Hanh told the sell-out crowd that the kingdom of God is right here.

My dining room table today

My dining room table today

Right now.  Right now you can only be in one place.  Right now you can only do one thing.  Right now you can only think one thought. Be present right here, right now in this beautiful moment and you have found the kingdom of God.

For me, that’s where the stripping down starts.



The cottage

Me, sitting on the steps of the cottage

“If I died and found myself at Madison, I’d know that I’d made it to heaven.”

That’s what I said in my early 20s, speaking of the spot on the Connecticut shore where I had spent my childhood summers.   My mother sent me there to stay with two great-aunts and my grandmother for a few weeks every summer from the time I was about five .  She had spent her summers there, too, so she must have wanted me to have that special experience.  The cottage had been built by my greatuncle and greataunt in 1910.  It was a true cottage, with no insulation, and no heat.  The framing was exposed on the inside, and it had a rustic stone fireplace and Arts and Crafts-style windows.  It was a regal, cedar-shingled 4 bedroom home, sitting back from the beach road, atop a slight incline, where the beach breezes swooped on up and kept the place much cooler than the waterfront cottages across the street.

It was a safe haven.  My own mother had her hands full with four young kids and my alcoholic father.  Life at home was pretty chaotic, and I never knew what each day would bring.  Would I be able to have friends over, or would Dad be drunk?  Would Dad show me how to oil paint the way he did so well, or would he slur insults from the dark corner of the living room?

But at Madison, nothing ever changed.  The “bowl-o-beauty” rose paperweight sat on the same corner of the living room table year after year.  It didn’t move.  The kitchen beams were lined with linaments and oils that had probably been ordered from the Sears catalog in the 1920s.   My aunt could be relied upon to tell the same stories every year–stories about her marriage to her beloved Edwin that always ended with a chuckle.  All her stories had happy endings.  The only story that didn’t have a happy ending was the one she never told–about her son, John, who died of pneumonia when he was three, after it had taken her nine painful years to conceive.  I only knew about John from the sepia photograph of the small boy with the bowl cut and crisp white shirt on her dressing table.


Aunt Florence, knitting.  She was always embarrassed because the wing chair was frayed, so she would drape her sweater over it.

Aunt Florence, knitting. She was always embarrassed because the wing chair was frayed, so she would drape her sweater over it.

The daily routine was… well, routine.  And at that time, I hated it.  I’ve grown to appreciate the luxury of rising at the same time every day, spending the better part of the morning preparing breakfast, served on a six-piece place setting of Victorian rose china.  Then performing the clean-up.   Then taking the trip “up town” to buy groceries and produce.  Then going right into lunch–a large midday meal.  Then again the clean-up.  Then, and ONLY then, did I get to meet my friends at the beach.  That routine probably saved me from skin cancer, because I never got to the beach before 2 p.m., and of the few things that frustrated me about Madison, that was #1.  


Oh, I could say so much more about Madison, but it wouldn’t be interesting to anyone who hadn’t lived it.   It sounds mundane to hear about my evening walks down to the stone pier with a book or a camera or drawing pad with which to watch the sun go down.   It’s not too thrilling to hear about the afternoons which, when they were not spent at the beach, were spent learning how to sew on Aunt Florence’s old black Singer, or stretched across my bed, reading, while raindrops pitter-patted in a magnified way because of the lack of insulation in the ceiling.  Or who would care about the delight of blueberries and cream with sugar sprinkled on top, or slices of summer-ripe cantaloupe.  Or the aroma of salt-laced timber, or enamel pans filled with Ivory Snow and Aunt Florence’s soft, silky slips.

It all seems other-wordly, but at Madison, I was not completely isolated from the world.  When I was young, I was given the privilege of watching As the World Turns with the great-aunts, although they didn’t 100% approve because of the “risque” story lines.  At 17, I watched Neil Armstrong walk on the moon–the same moon that was reflecting in the waters off the Connecticut coast right outside our door.  In 1973, the “Summer of Judgement,” Aunt Florence and I sat glued to the Watergate hearings. 

Sometimes I become obsessed with Madison.  I wish I could go back.  I suspect my memories are hopelessly romantic, and thus, perhaps skewed.   I tend to dream about it when my own life becomes chaos-infested and unsure, and I remember that safe haven and want to go back.  

Yet, I’m not sure I’d want to go back, because the Bowl-o-Beauty would no longer be there, nor the pink Victorian china.   And Aunt Florence’s presence would only be there in ghost-like form.  I’m not the same anymore, either, nor should I be.  But perhaps I can bring a little bit of Madison to my life today–a little of the routine, the simple joys, the beauty.   I can find the Aunt Florence within–calm, and orderly, and cheerful.  If I can do that, then I can create that little bit of heaven, right here, right now.

Foodbyte #5: Eureka! Wild rice is as easy to make as Rice-A-Roni (and it tastes better, too!)

images-2One thing that happens when you start to simplify your eating habits and explore your extended neighborhood for locally-grown produce is you wind up trying new things.    Dropping processed foods creates a void–and it’s a fun adventure to see what winds up filling it.

Last year when I was beginning the journey of exploration of my local food resources in Central New Jersey, I went to the Griggstown Farm Market and made an impulse buy of a bag of wild rice.  It was $7.00, which to me was a real guilty pleasure, considering you can buy those little tubes of Goya rice for less than $1.

It sat there on the middle shelf in my cabinet for months, and then got moved to the upper shelf.  I really didn’t know what to do with this stuff that  looked like the Marlboro Man of rice–rugged and swarthy compared to the Harvey Milquetoast of plain old white rice.

My vegan daughter came for dinner last weekend, and when she foraged in my cabinet she came across the rice.  “Let’s make this, Mom!”  So we invested the 45 minutes it takes to cook wild rice, and used it as an accompaniment to our grilled, skewered veggie-kabobs.

It was great–a bit nutty tasting with a lot of texture.   I was so intrigued by how different it was compared to the standard white rice, rice pilaf, yellow rice, and even brown rice, I looked it up.    According to Wikipedia:

Wild rice is any of the four species of plants that make up the genus Zizania (common names:Canada riceIndian rice, and water oats), a group ograsses that grow in shallow water in smalllakes and slow-flowing streams; often, only the flowering head of wild rice rises above the water. The genus is closely related to true rice, genus Oryza, which is also a grass, and shares the tribe Oryzeae. Three species of wild rice are native to North America:

The other great thing about wild rice is its nutritional content–apparently it compares favorably against even brown rice in terms of the amount of protein, Vitamin E and folate one serving of wild rice has vs. brown.  Here’s a cool site where I looked at the nutritional facts of wild rice.

The barrier that caused this nutritional gem to be relegated to the top shelf of my cabinet for almost a year was because I had the idea wild rice is harder to make than other rice.  That’s not true.  I have a small stockpot, and I used it to sweat some onion, throw in the rice, add water, and then put the whole pot (you can use a casserole dish as well) into a 350 degree oven for 45 minutes.  That’s it!  If you’re in a hurry, maybe Rice-a-Roni is better, but for an extra 20 minutes, you have something really special.

I guess the point is, sometimes it’s worth it to make the effort to try something new, gastronomically speaking.  It’s usually easier than you think.  If you are interested in eating healthier and more sustainably, pick up something you never had before the next time you go to your favorite local or natural foods market.   An hour of time or less invested in learning something new and overcoming barriers of unfamiliarity with a new food may pay off in a great way to fill in a void normally filled in your diet by something processed and packaged.

Foodbyte #4: Feed your body, feed the earth

cater-to-the-earthIn today’s culture, the story of food has grown into an epic, with vast armies of processers, packagers, and people to cart waste away. The whole show appears so well-choreographed that it seems like it could go on forever…but it can’t. When we speak of “sustainable” foods, we mean foods that are grown in a way that maintains the earth’s ability to keep on growing, rather than farming like there’s no tomorrow. This is a whole new way of looking at food, with the earth as a character instead of just a backdrop. This is Catering to the Earth.–From the New American Dream website

New American Dream‘s website recently announced a new section of the site:  Cater to the Earth.   It was designed to inform its readers about the impact their food choices have on the earth.  It’s a really well-designed site with tons of easy-to-read, easy-to-navigate information.  

In it you will find the environmental, social, and health impact of foods such as beef and seafood, a food blog, and a glossary of terms to guide you through the complexity of language that surrounds the simple act of eating sustainably.

In keeping with the miracle of the ways of life and nature, what’s good for us is good for the earth.   When we compromise our health by eating “dead” food as well as food that’s been processed away from its natural state, the earth suffers, too.  

So, if you’re not going to eat healthier for yourself, think about your Mother–Mother Earth.  Do it for her.  It’ll come right back atcha.

P.S.  I’m keeping the poll open, so please take it and let me know the main reasons you don’t eat more healthily.

Minimizing Mental Clutter: Being Busy, Zen-style


Work tasks as discrete links in a chain of activity, to be done mindfully, one at a time

Work tasks as discrete links in a chain of activity, to be done mindfully, one at a time

I never know which is more cluttered–my physical environment or my mental one.    It’s like the old “which came first, the chicken or the egg” question.   Do I feel mentally fragmented because all around me is stuff, or is the stuff there because I haven’t been able to focus?

In wondering this today, I recalled a terrific online article I read years ago, and despaired of finding it today, but, wonder of wonders–I actually found it again!   So, click on the title and read the whole thing, because it’s worth it if you relate to feeling like there’s too much to do.   It’s called “Being Busy” by Zoketsu Norman Fischer and it’s a zen take on handling tasks as they come.

The other day, someone asked me how I was managing with all the busy stuff I am involved with. Was it getting to be too much? Well no, it can’t really get to be too much because there are only so many hours in the day and days in the week, and all the time I am only doing what I am doing–no more and no less. Whatever I can do, I can do, and whatever I can’t do, I can’t do.

So I don’t do it. Maybe I’ll do it later. But maybe that later won’t come. Right now, I am doing what I can do, and that’s all that I can do. Whether my list of things to do is long or short, in fact it’s just the same. I am doing what I am doing the best I can do it.

I remember how upset years ago I was when I found out we were having twins. I had for such a long time lived a very simple life–just a suitcase in my car and I was off. Now I had a wife and twins were on the way. It was a source of great anxiety for me until I realized that in the end it wasn’t so different. Before, I’d put one suitcase in the car and was off. Now, I’d do essentially the same thing: Put one suitcase in the car, put one suitcase in the car, put one suitcase in the car…however many there were, it was always just one suitcase. So it was more in a way, but if I looked at it in another way, it was just one thing. A kind of mental yoga. But it worked quite well and it still does.

So there may be a long list of things to do, but really there is just one thing on the list at any time. If you think of it like that, the whole world looks different and you can stay quite calm. Maybe everything will get done eventually and maybe not. You can always have hope. What more does anyone ever have than this anyway?”

I like the way he calls this exercise “mental yoga” because it really is.  It’s very hard for me to slow it down and not mentally jump to two or three other things on my list while I’m doing another.  The cause for this behavior may be anxiety (“how am I going to get all this done?”); or run-of-the-mill worry (“I can’t forget the phone call at 2:00.”) or avoidance (“Ugh, this report is so tedious.  Isn’t there something more interesting I could do right now?”).  In any case, my mind is scrambling like a sprinter at the block imagining herself crossing the finish line before the shot is fired.    How can I slow myself down?  How can I stay in the moment?

Sometimes simple images really help, and Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh has provided me with one that I try to think about when I’m feeling the need to focus.

In his book Peace Is Every Step, there’s a chapter “Nourishing Awareness in Each Moment.”  In it, he describes a moment–just a moment–that sticks with me.  

One cold, winter evening I returned home from a walk in the hills, and I found that all the doors and windows in my hermitage had blown open.  When I had left earlier, I hadn’t secured them, and a cold wind had blown through the house, opened the windows, and scattered the papers from my desk all over the room.  Immediately, I closed the doors and windows, lit a lamp, picked up the papers, and arranged them neatly on my desk.  Then I started a fire in the fireplace, and soon the crackling logs brought warmth back in the room.”

I love that paragraph!  I think of myself in the same situation.  If it had been me, perhaps I would have been out because the dog needed to go urgently–otherwise, who would have time to go for a walk?  So, I’d have come in, taken the dog off the leash and rushed back into my office to finish up the report that was probably due in a half hour.  Imagine my frustration to see the pages of my report all over the room!  I’d curse, and run around grabbing them, trying to get the pages right.  The dog, reacting to my heightened energy, would be playing tug-of-war with the stray sheets wrinkled up in my hand, and I’d be yelling for her to let them go.  I’d shew the dog out of the room, curse some more and wonder how I was going to make up for the lost few minutes, oblivious to the half-empty coffee mugs, piles of folders, open day-timer, and overflowing waste paper basket surrounding me.

Wow, so Thich Nhat Hahn shows me a different way to approach the same situation, using mindfulness, and concentrating on one small moment at a time.   He describes another image from a different chapter, “Not Two,” in the same book:

Each day I helped translate about thirty applications.  The way I did it was to look at the picture of the child.  I did not read the application.  I just took time to look at the picture of the child.  Usually after only thirty or forty seconds, I became one with the child.  Then I would pick up the pen and translate the words from the application onto another sheet.  Afterwards I realized that it was not me who had translated the application; it was the child and me, who had become one.  Looking at his or her face, I felt inspired, and I became the child and he or she became me, and together we did the translation.  It is very natural.  You don’t have to practice a lot of meditation to be able to do that.  You just look, allowing yourself to be, and you lose yourself in the child and the child in you.

In those last sentences, maybe we can substitute the word “work” for “child”–because often our work is our child–talents that we grow and nurture.  Like a child, it deserves our undivided attention.  Like a child, it is part of us.  The inspiration that is there in the middle of slow, tedious, relentless tasks can be found simply by paying attention.  I love how Thich Nhat Hanh describes his every motion:  “I would look at the child.”  “I would pick up the pen.”  “I would then translate the words.”  “I arranged the papers neatly on my desk.”  “I started a fire in the fireplace”  His work is not a slurry of activity, it is a chain of individual moments of engaged work, elevated to an act of meditation.

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.

Letting Go of our Comfort Zone (What if Jesus had read What Color is Your Parachute?)


The life of Salvadore Dali also represented a life of contradiction.

The life of Salvadore Dali also represented a life of contradiction.

Today is Good Friday, and I wanted to write something to honor that, so I looked around and found a good question to explore that grew out of insights by two specific authors.  And the question is, in this world where fulfillment is found in Following Our Bliss, Doing What We Love So Money Can Follow, and Finding Our Passion, how do we reconcile the fact that there are countless spiritual leaders who actually wound up doing something completely foreign to the talents and interests they started with?  

Here are just a couple of examples that I can think of, and there are more to follow in quotes I will provide:

Albert Schweitzer:  He was trained as a classical musician and a theologian.  He was a huge success at both, with a great future ahead of him. But at the age of 30 he walked away and became a doctor in equatorial Africa.

Moses:  Had a great political position all lined up with the Pharoah.  He could have worked for his people “on the inside” using his charisma and intelligence and drive.  But he walked away and faced all manner of hardship to see his people out of Egypt to the promised land.

St. Francis:  He was a lover of beauty and fine things, having been brought up in wealth.   But he rejected his wealth and the approval of his parents to take care of lepers and live off the land.

It makes me think of the word we commonly use interchangeably with vocation, and that is “calling.”   But when we are looking for our life’s purpose it is we who are looking for something that will please us, suit our talents, fulfill our needs.  We seek out career counselors to this end, we promote our achievements, we imagine ourselves in one career or another and think about what kind of recognition we will earn as a result.   How can we answer a call when we’re so busy talking to ourselves?

The two authors that have inspired me today are both of a contemplative tradition:  Evelyn Underhill and Richard Rohr.   In their writings, they both bring out the same point:  that sometimes we are the first to be surprised at how God decides to use us, but if we are interested in God’s purpose for us, maybe we should step back and just listen for a while.  Then, when we have listened, we must get up and act.

That growth [into the spiritual life] and that response may seem to us like a movement, a journey, in which by various unexpected and often unattracive paths, we are drawn almost in spite of ourselves–not as a result of our own over-anxious struggles–to the real end of our being, the place where we are ordained to be…

There are countless ways in which this may happen:  sometimes under conditions which seem to the world like the very frustration of life, or progress, or growth.  Thus… the lover of beauty is sent to serve in a slum, the lover of stillness is kept on the run all day, .. and in these apparent frustrations the life of the spirit emerges, and grows…

St. Paul did not want to be an apostle to the Gentiles.  He wanted to be a clever and appreciated young Jewish scholar…St. Ambrose and St. Augustine did not want to be overworked and worried bishops…St. Cuthbert wanted the solitude and freedom of his hermitage on the Farne, but he did not often get there….In all these a power beyond themselves decided the direction of life.  Yet, in all we recognize not frustration, but the very highest of all types of achievement.” — Evelyn Underhill, The Spiritual Life

In his book Simplicity, Richard Rohr takes the same insight and challenges us with it:

First you have to learn:  what does it mean to be in Christ, or not to be in Christ?   You see this psychologically in every person who grows in his or her faith:  the more you become sure of your own center, the more you can also open your boundaries.  Otherwise you’ll spend your whole life defending those boundaries….

The change we seek has to be very concrete, very immediate and very practical.  Otherwise it’s just an intellectual thing.  For most of us, this means turning to people who are different from us.  This is the only thing that can liberate us from our egocentric attitude.  Maybe it means that as younger men and women we go to the elderly, or maybe as healthy persons we go to the physically and mentally handicapped, or if we’re homophobic we work in an AIDS hospital.  But we all have to set out into a world in which we’re not number 1, where others whom we meet are not just an expanded version of ourselves.”  Richard Rohr, Simplicity

In other words, to grow in my spiritual journey, to take up my individual cross, it seems that I must let go of my comfort zone; let go of my past accomplishments which are so easy to rest on; and I must let go of my ego.  I admit, I have not succeeded in doing that by a long shot.  So, today, on Good Friday, I will try to open myself, and to join Christ in Gethsemane and pray to the Father, “Not my will, but thine be done.”

Note:  Another excellent book that I used to meditate on this topic was Leading Lives That Matter:  What We Should Do and Who We Should Be, edited by Mark R. Schwehn and Dorothy C. Bass.

Foodbyte #2: You want to eat healthily: Poll: What’s keeping you?

One of the reasons I’m interested in highlighting information that has been written by many outstanding researchers and writers in the field of food (among other fields) is that there are many books that go unread because we’re so busy.  Like the title of the classic personal development book, Acres of Diamonds, we are sitting on gems of knowledge and insight, but we don’t have time to mine them!  So when you read a book that actually has the power to change your life, you want to share it.  You tell your friends, “You should read this book,” and they say, “Yeah, I’ll pick it up sometime.”  But they won’t because they’re too busy.  And the fact of the matter is, one of the reasons we are in the dietary fix we’re in is because of exactly that–we don’t have time to pay attention.  We don’t have time to cook, or plan menus.   We take the path of least resistance, not because we want to, but because we have to.    

But if we’re motivated, we’ll try a little harder to change the things we can to improve our health and habits.  And if you can take a couple of minutes to read this post and others like it, you may eventually be motivated to make small changes.   So, I’d like to try to unearth some of the diamonds out there about food and present the information in a way that might be helpful and maybe even motivating.  

In my mind, there are a few main reasons people want to eat better but they can’t:

  • No time to prepare food.
  • No time to plan.
  • Packaged, processed foods are convenient.
  • We all know that processed foods aren’t that great, but they taste good.
  • The things we love to eat, our “comfort foods” are tied in deeply with our memories and emotions.
  • As a family, we are all bound by a common interest in the same foods, so it would be tough to change.
  • Cravings for sugar and/or fat are just too hard to resist.
  • Eating on the run has become a pattern.
  • The perception that eating healthily is expensive.

There may be a lot of other reasons, but many of the ones I listed have prevented me from eating as healthily as I should. But over the course of the year, I’ve learned a few things that have motivated me to take some basic steps to eating healthier.   Lately, I have:

  • Built a small but growing file of tasty, easy recipes that I tested and practiced one by one.  
  • Created a pantry list to take to the supermarket so there are always good ingredients on hand.  
  • Habitually looked at labels and count how many edible single ingredients there are in each package.  If there is high fructose corn syrup in it, or a long list of preservatives and artificial ingredients, I try to find a better choice.
  • Learned to enjoy eating fresh foods, and my palate is reflecting that.   I now refuse to eat canned soups of any kind because making them fresh doesn’t take that long and they are SO much better.  This, from a person whose children do not recall a single home-cooked  meal that I made for them in their formative years (my husband, thank God, is a wonderful cook).  

So if I can do it, you can too–and I aim to help break down every one of those barriers I cited above, and then some.  To help me, please take the poll and pass it along to a few of your friends.   

By the way, I forgot to mention another author to add to the reading list in last week’s Foodbyte post.  I can’t believe I forgot, because she’s a leader in the field of food politics.  Marion Nestle is Professor of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University.  She has written several books that are dense with information and give a million reasons to think about why you eat what you eat.   To get started, read Food Politics.   She also has a terrific blog at www.foodpolitics.com.  Check it out. 

Here’s a parting quote from the Introduction of Food Politics:

Humans do not innately know how to select a nutritious diet; we survived in evolution because nutritious foods were readily available for us to hunt or gather.  In an economy of overabundance, food companies can sell products only to people who want to buy them.  Whether consumer demands drives food sales or the industry creates such demands is a matter of debate, but much industry effort goes into trying to figure out what the public ‘wants’ and how to meet such ‘needs.’  Nearly all research on this issue yields the same conclusion.  When food is plentiful and people can afford to buy it, basic biological needs become less compelling and the principal determinant of food choice is personal preference.  In turn, personal preferences may be influenced by religion and other cultural factors, as well as by considerations of convenience, price, and nutritional value.  To sell food in an economy of abundant food choices, companies must worry about those other determinants much more than about the nutritional value of their products–unless the nutrient content helps to entice buyers… Thus the food industry’s marketing imperatives principally concern four factors:  taste, cost, convenience, and … public confusion. — Marion Nestle, Food Politics; p.16

Letting Go of the Need to Talk: Dealing with Word Pollution


Words, words, words–I’m so sick of wordschp_magpoetry2
I hear words all day through, first from him now
from you
Is that all you blighters can do?
                                  “Show Me” from My Fair Lady

Emporer Joseph II:  Your work is ingenious. It’s quality work. There are simply too many notes, that’s all. Just cut a few and it will be perfect. 
Mozart:  Which few did you have in mind, Majesty? 
                                   From the movie Amadeus

I haven’t heard of the term word pollution, but I think there’s a language smog in our culture that we seriously have to address.   

Think about it:

  • You wake up in the morning to 24-hour news shows–either Fox, or CNN, or maybe you watch international news such as the BBC.  
  • You pick up your paper at the door and read another 40 pages of words.
  • You go for your morning jog and listen to an audiobook.
  • You get in the car and turn on the radio–and hear news, or banter, or call-ins, or NPR political analysis.
  • At work, you have to keep up in your profession so you spend the first half hour scanning print and on-line trade news.
  • You go to three meetings and talk.  You listen.   You take notes.
  • You go back to your desk and read 20 emails and respond to half of them.  
  • You take 15 phone calls.
  • On the way home you stop at Barnes & Noble for a book to read on the plane for your next business trip and you’re faced with a choice of thousands of titles.
  • You eat dinner watching Bill O’Reilly, or Keith Olberman, or Greta Van Sustern or any other of the hundreds of news commentators, reporters, and pundits.
  • You work on your blog.  You contribute some of the 71,810,645 words WordPress.com is boasting on that day.  
  • You go to bed and pick a novel from your nightstand to wind down.
  • And then you can’t get to sleep because of the words swimming in your head.

When–WHEN–do we have time to actually do anything?

Or more importantly, when do we make time to just be?

I have reached my saturation point with words.  I feel like the fountain I have in my office, overflowing with the sound of words, the look of words on the page, the words turning around in my mind, the choices of which words to read and which to ignore and which to recycle and which to file and which to delete and which to respond to and which will make me a better person and which will make me smarter and which will make me mad.

I have been trying to think about how to address word pollution in my life, and how to pull myself off, like a suction cup, from the reliance on the constant presence of words.    I think I’ve hit bottom.  

So here’s the first step:  We admitted that we were powerless to live our lives wordlessly.  

The test:  Give up words for just one hour.  Give up thinking in words, reading words, listening to words, writing words.  Just try it.  I did.  It’s not easy.  It leaves a void.

So, in that void, be still.


Breathe again.  Deeply.

Meditate.  Wordlessly.