Thoreau’s call to “simplify, simplify” resonates deeply with me; I have contemplated it often. When I first encountered his words, I wondered why he repeated the phrase. Now I am convinced that his repetition points to the on-going effort needed not only to simplify our lives but to keep them simple, to live simply.
One of the things people discover when they attend a meditation retreat is the pure joy of a simple environment. Most retreat centers provide only the basic necessities. After some initial wondering if all will be well without familiar conveniences, most people settle into a sense of peace with so little to care for or distract their attention. Simple housing accommodations combined with the beauty of nature, few interruptions to quiet reflection, and a focused schedule create an environment that helps to clear the mind and nourish the body and soul. Many times I have left a meditation retreat with a renewed commitment to simplify, simplify! Only to be reminded when I returned to the complexities of life at home and work that a simple life is not just arranged by tossing out a few nonessentials or eliminating some tasks. It is a way of life that requires clarity of purpose and regular discipline. The spiritual path of yoga offers three key practices that support a simple way of life: living with purpose, nonacquiring, and contentment.
The essential key to simple living is dharma, living in harmony with our spiritual nature and with all of life. Dharma refers to the inherent divine order and purpose of life. Our over-arching purpose is to awaken spiritually, to realize our essential nature and live in accord with it. This divine purpose provides the necessary “polestar” to guide our choices. There are so many choices to make every day and choice-making takes energy. Clarity about our central purpose provides a ready reference point, narrows the field of possibilities, and facilitates ease in decision making. We can ask: Will this choice support my purpose? Will it support spiritual awakening, or will it take me further from my goal? This inquiry helps us live intentionally, avoiding the accumulation of things or involvement in situations that are not in alignment with our purpose.
It takes insight and vigilance to not accumulate more than we need. It is easy to collect things, more difficult to keep our lives clear of superfluous possessions. The practice of nonacquiring can help. To practice nonacquiring is to renounce or eliminate nonessentials. This doesn’t mean we can’t have things we enjoy, it means we acquire only what we actually use—whether that use is simply appreciation of the beauty of something or its utilitarian nature.
A lesson in nonacquiring came to me through travel. Almost every special destination whether it is a sacred place, a natural wonder, or historical site has a souvenir shop attached to it. I’ve carried a few things back home and noticed that the luster is lost over time. It becomes something else to dust or find a place to store. I started asking myself why it was so tempting to buy something in those shops. What I discovered was a desire to hold onto the experience. While things may jog our memory of something, it is not possible to hold onto experiences. Things cannot do that for us.
This discernment process can be applied to everything we have or intend to acquire. What is it that we expect it to provide for us? Can it do that? Even Thoreau found himself confronting this desire to acquire, when he brought some lovely pieces of limestone into his cabin. He said, “I had three pieces of limestone on my desk, but I was terrified to find that they required to be dusted daily, when the furniture of my mind was all undusted still, and threw them out the window in disgust.”
The third practice to support simple living is the cultivation of contentment. This is the practice of consciously abiding in our true nature and experiencing our essential wholeness. Superconscious meditation makes this possible. When we regularly sit for meditation and our minds become quiet, the inherent fullness of the divine Self is revealed. We do not need to add anything to the Self. It is whole and complete. To touch this wholeness and experience freedom from desire, even for just a few minutes a day, introduces us to the unconditional happiness that is always with us. Once we know this, we are naturally inclined to live simply.
Yogacharya Ellen Grace O’Brian is a spiritual teacher, poet, writer, and founding Acharya and spiritual director of Center for Spiritual Enlightenment—a Kriya Yoga Meditation Center in San Jose, California. Her published works include “Living the Eternal Way: Spiritual Meaning and Practice in Daily Life”; “Living for the Sake of the Soul”; and three volumes of poetry including the award-winning 2017 release: “The Moon Reminded Me”. She is editor of Enlightenment Journal and host of The Yoga Hour, a weekly podcast. She teaches and leads meditation retreats both nationally and internationally. This article originally appeared on her website.