While there’s a lot of talk these days about decreasing our environmental footprint, it might be time to recalibrate our lives in general. There’s a lot to suggest that for a bigger and more fulfilling life, what we really need to do is live smaller.
Yes, it’s official our economy is in dreadful shape, and the environment is in serious need of help. While these issues can be attributed to a number of complicated factors, the unfortunate truth is that unless you’re incredibly wealthy (or own real estate on a healthier planet), there’s no choice but to deal with what’s happening. Despite what’s going on, there’s some great news: While it does no good to ignore reality or to give in to despair, a fabulous opportunity exists to consciously choose to look beyond the negative aspects, and to see this particular time in history as one of opportunity and positive change. We’re not suggesting this will be easy, of course. Refocusing our priorities requires a shift in perspective, and a deep change in the paradigm of life as we’ve probably known it so far.
For most of us, having lots of stuff whether or not we need it feels familiar and comfortable, and is even an active social objective. As members of a generally affluent Western culture, we tend to collect belongings, even hording them, as tangible evidence of our success or social standing. Perhaps what we’re really doing, at least some of the time, is filling up spaces in our lives that might otherwise be uncomfortably bare, whether in career satisfaction, spirituality, connection to the natural world, or our personal relationships.
Long before the entire nation became concerned about failures within our economic and eco systems, a movement called Simple Living took hold. Launched decades ago by author, educator, and lecturer Duane Elgin, the tenets of simple living include a strong focus on an authentic way of life that honors and values deep, personal relationships between other people and the natural world, rather than on glitter and material trappings.
A highly respected leader in the area of consciousness research and ecology, Elgin is the author of a several books including Promise Ahead: A Vision of Hope and Action for Humanity’s Future (2000), Voluntary Simplicity: Toward a Way of Life that is Outwardly Simple, Inwardly Rich (HarperCollins, 2009, now in its 3rd edition), and, with Joseph Campbell, Awakening Earth: Exploring the Evolution of Human Culture and Consciousness (William Morrow, 1993). Elgin’s work urges us to examine our own lives, and to devote our energy to what’s truly important.
“Happiness is largely a networked social phenomenon once a sustaining level of material well-being is reached,” explains Elgin. “Worrying less about the material appearances and more about the soulful connections with others, we could put our life-energy into creating the most robust, healthy, and rewarding relationships that we can. The more we learn about the ‘science of happiness,’ the more we see that focusing on material acquisition and status is not serving us well and that it would be enormously helpful to redefine progress.”
Dealing with economic crisis, both on a national and personal scale, requires not only spending adjustments, but an adjustment in outlook and expectations as well. Mel Schwartz, L.C.S.W, is a psychotherapist, professional speaker and educator, and the founder of the Emergent Thinking® process, an approach to personal evolution. He is the author of The Art of Intimacy, The Pleasure of Passion (Quantum Press, 1999), and is currently at work on a new book, titled A Shift of Mind: Rethinking the Way We Live.
“Our worldview is ridden with material consumption as a false pathway toward happiness,” says Schwartz. “We need only look at the prevalence of anxiety, depression, and general malaise to understand that it’s not working. I fervently believe that all crisis presents opportunity. The opportunity in this economic crisis is to reconsider where we look for meaning and purpose, to free ourselves from the mindless pursuit of bigger and more, and open to the contemplation of a more authentic way of being. A recession is an opportunity to come out of the habitual groove of consuming, and still ourselves in a more mindful way.”
Somewhere along the way, we’ve become not only a culture of consumers, but also a society that has almost completely lost touch with the source of our goods. We buy a wool blanket at a chain department store, but have no concept or real interest where the wool came from, who cared for the animals, or how those animals were cared for. This disconnect can be a dangerous thing, separating us from the natural rhythms of the planet and our place in the ecosystem. Getting in touch with these aspects of consumerism encourages us to embrace the concept of living our lives on a smaller scale, and helps us to understand that lives all around the planet are inextricably connected.
If you live in a city environment or in a very small town you may already appreciate the value and satisfaction of doing business with familiar shopkeepers. Chances are you know one another by name, or even share a common history based within the neighborhoods that surround you. For much of the country, though, it’s necessary to drive to a retail center to shop for groceries and purchase goods, or to get to school, work, or other obligations. So, while the old model of shops centered around a village green, within easy access of residents, is a rarity these days, you can still take steps to build a sense of community with those with whom you do business and encounter socially.
“Our predominating worldview is still rooted in the 17th century thought of Isaac Newton,” continues Schwartz. “His paradigm, of a mechanistic universe, comprised of mere objects and things [that are]only causally connected, is at the core of the problem. Given his model of the universe as a giant, lifeless machine leaves humans as mere cogs in that machine. Therefore, we are without any meaning or purpose. We become disenchanted, living in a dead universe. This leaves us bereft of a sensible existence and we thus turn to material consumption.”
Schwartz’s Emergent Thinking® approach, founded on the discoveries of various emerging sciences, is an approach to life that mirrors the messages of an inseparable, flowing and participatory universe. “From this perspective,” he adds, “our lives unfold in meaning and with purpose, and we are no longer manipulated to consume, but free to create and experience life from wholeness.”
Green and eco are popular buzzwords today, and an increasing number of people are expressing a deep and personal interest in contributing in the healing of the planet. With limited disposable income as a factor, it’s the perfect time to get very choosy about where you spend your money. If you live in a place where meandering to the local shops isn’t an option, and the nearest retail choice is a mall complex with chain mega stores selling mass-produced products, you can still make wise choices that connect you often quite affordably to sustainably produced goods.
“Now may not be the time to get that fancy new hybrid, but there are still plenty of things you can do to live more sustainably which has never been easier,” offers Mark Spellun, publisher of the former print version of Plenty Magazine, which helped guide consumers to ecologically viable and sustainably produced goods, services, and lifestyles. “Even if you shop mostly at the big box stores like Walmart and Target,” says Spellun, “there are more and more sustainable options. The trick is that you have to look for them. They aren’t all in one section. Ask the store staff where [to find]the new organic clothing lines, or what locally grown produce they can suggest.”
How can getting in touch with these aspects of consumerism encourage us to embrace the concept of living our lives on a smaller scale? According to Elgin, we can accomplish this by coming to what he defines as “an ecology of mind.”
“This type of ecology,” he explains, “literally sees through the prism of wholeness as opposed to the fragmented parts of Newton’s worldview. When we learn to see in wholeness, it becomes quite natural to see the origins and flow of process, not simply the end product. The rupturing of wholeness removes us from nature, and has us only as manipulators of nature as we utilize it to our own ends. Shifting how we think and see, resisting the tendency to fragment, can restore our ability to see ourselves as an inseparable co-participant in and with nature. When we accomplish this, larger is no longer better, and more is no longer preferable.”
Downscaling our lives might even be the catalyst for finally achieving that elusive state of balance we all long for, where we can realign our goals and energies to properly reflect both our physical beings, and our true, spiritual selves.
There are a number of effective strategies for living smaller that we can take immediately in our own homes and lives. “There’s a simple idea to keep in mind: Think less,” advises Mark Spellun, former publisher of Plenty Magazine (now a website). “What if you turned down the thermostat a degree or two, or took shorter showers? Eating less meat can lower your carbon and your water footprint. Try to save leftovers, and either eat them later or compost what you can. Even if you can’t use the compost yourself, a local farmer’s market will probably happily take it from you.”
Live smaller and bigger at the same time by trying some of these other approaches: Read all the latest bestsellers. Remember the library? If you love to read, but hesitate to indulge in new books because of the cost, treat yourself to a library card. And don’t forget great neighborhood used bookstores, where you can stock your own private library for a fraction of the cost of new books.
Go on vacation. The world is a wide and wild place, filled with fascinating cultures and landscapes making it easy to forget that old jewel about happiness being in our own backyards. If your budget doesn’t currently include India, why not stay in the comfort of your own home, and make day trips to all of the nearby places you haven’t ever had the time to explore? Map out routes for area botanical gardens, museums, parks, and galleries, and enjoy becoming familiar with them.
Have a gourmet meal. One you cook yourself, that is. Dust off all those cookbooks you’ve collected, and spend some quality time in your own kitchen experimenting with your favorite comfort foods. Invite neighbors or friends to share the results with you, and you’ll begin to redefine your home as a true sanctuary filled with joyful companionship.
Free fitness membership. Getting and staying fit doesn’t require a membership to a fancy gym. You can walk, hike, and skate for free by stepping outside your front door. Prefer a kickboxing class or tai chi session? Buy a DVD, trade one you don’t use for one you find more interesting, or borrow one from the library. The bonus? No crowded shower room.
Trade it. Need a dogsitter or cat watcher while you’re away on business, but worry about the expense? Make friends with a dog-owning neighbor, and arrange to trade pet-sitting services with him or her when it’s their turn to travel. You can do the same thing with babysitting, snow shoveling, gardening, and any number of things.