(In)Voluntary Simplicity

Sri Swami Chidananda
Sri Swami Chidananda

by Jeff McMahon

I’ve always mistrusted money. That mistrust has helped me steer clear of compromising jobs and situations all my life, but it’s also helped me steer clear of prosperity.

It was the voice I heeded when I decided to become a writer. That’s not an easy decision to make when you’re 18, and it can be even harder to live with 10, 20, 30 years later. Living on the cheap takes a toll.

But the dividends it pays are priceless.

This summer I’m trying to spend less than $10 per day, so I can save for travel. In Chicago, you can find great food on that budget (I’m working on an article about that for Spoonwiz), but you can also find yourself in a bar with friends where a beer costs that much or at a restaurant where plates start at twice that. And yoga teachers, this is why you haven’t seen me at studios where I don’t do yoga-for-trade.

I live simply for Chicago—carless, thriving lately on vegetables that grow in my back yard—but I live in opulence compared to most of the world’s people. Two families could fit into my apartment—though not comfortably, in August, with no air conditioning.

Sometimes, in weak moments, I wish I had followed a more lucrative career path—my timing would have been perfect for personal computers. I might have done my writing on the side. Then I could relax, right? In opulence.

But then I witness those who have followed money—like the frantic hordes in The Loop, angrily rushing home at 5 p.m. And I feel grateful for the simplicity and contentment I enjoy because I haven’t traded my freedom or my happiness for income. I still mistrust money.

I don’t know where the mistrust came from.

It seems rare in the culture. For most of my life it has left me feeling like an outsider in America, where spirituality is entangled in consumer economics, peaking in an orgy of spending around Christmastime. Money is our religion. Swimming against this current, I have come upon hints that I was on the right path—like Ezra Pound’s poems “The Garret” and “Salutation.” Or this stanza from the Bhagavad Gita, delivered from Krishna to Arjuna:

Pleasures from external objects
are wombs of suffering, Arjuna.
They have their beginnings and their ends;
no wise man seeks joy among them.

But the Gita is just hinting at the depths of wisdom I discovered two years ago in an article titled “Your True Purpose in Life” by Sri Swami Chidananda. Chidananda was an Indian yogi, born in 1916, who renounced inherited wealth to become a teacher. Here’s an excerpt in which Chidananda discusses our pursuit of happiness through acquisition:

The individual exercises his faculties in order to obtain things which are calculated to promote the experience of happiness. Unfortunately he does not get happiness. Why? For a very simple reason. He is searching for something where it is not. He is looking for happiness amidst objects of this universe which are imperfect, changeful and impermanent. Since imperfection and changeability are the very nature of external objects, they cause in the mind mixed experiences to ensue from their contact. This is the reason why man’s efforts invariably end in disillusionment, disappointment and total dissatisfaction. Whenever one object fails to satisfy, man will try another and then another and yet another. Thus, during an entire life, man ceaselessly searches to find happiness in objects, changing from one to another in quick succession in order to find the experience of happiness which will put an end to all sorrow….

Objects cannot bring the experience of happiness within; they foment anxiety and bring the experience of unrest and turbulence. Happiness is a state of the inner life of the individual. It is a state of the mind and the intellect. It is therefore a condition of the inner being. It is not in any way related to the external state of opulence, for here the peace of mind is easily disturbed by anxiety, insecurity and fear.

Lucky for us, Swami Chidananda doesn’t just tell us that objects won’t make us happy; he tells us what will. When we stop seeking happiness in external objects, when we stop coveting what others have, when we live in contentment and compassion, he says, we  discover a natural state of happiness.

“It is not necessary to leave one’s family and go to live in a cave or in the Himalayas or in the forest or in a monastery to observe these principles. Your own house, wherever it is, will be a heaven of blessedness if you practice these principles. It will be made into more than a monastery or a cloister. Within its very doors, your life, based upon compassion and kindness, will rise to the highest standards of the moral and ethical ideal.”

By the way, yogis don’t have to renounce external objects or wealth to realize this state, according to some teachers. It’s not required. Michael Brian Baker of The Breath Center says you can have the fancy car, too. You can have it all and still connect to love and happiness in your internal state. (And he will show you how).

But renunciation, in some degree, calls to some of us.

Philip Slater
Philip Slater

America recently lost its own renunciate, Philip Slater, the author who popularized the term “voluntary simplicity.” After writing a critique of American competitiveness in 1970, “The Pursuit of Loneliness,” the Brandeis sociology professor quit the university to live a simpler life.

“He took up acting, wrote novels and began culling his personal possessions down to the two boxes he left when he died at 86 on June 20 at his home in Santa Cruz, Calif,” according to his New York Times obituary. And that Santa Cruz home was a 350-square foot efficiency apartment that he paid for with social security.

“The experience of losing everything and finding I was having a wonderful time opened me to experiences I otherwise would not have had,” he once told an interviewer. “Yet I hadn’t lost anything precious. I’d lost money. I’d lost security.”

Teachers and teachings:

“Your True Purpose in Life” by Sri Swami Chidananda (text)

“Bhagavad Gita” trans. by Stephen Mitchell (book)

Books by Philip Slater

Michael Brian Baker and The Breath Center

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