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When Less is More: A Primer for Living Simply

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Judy Davis never buys anything new if she can help it. A 58-year-old freelance marketing consultant who lives in Red Bluff, California, she favors thrift store clothing and secondhand furniture. Instead of buying gifts, she gives plants from her garden or bags she has sewn from cut-up vintage gowns. Judy is part of a Bay Area group called the Compact. The Compacters have vowed not to buy anything new for a year except bare essentials: food, medicine, cleaning products, and underwear (although not, of course, lingerie from Paris). Although few people take frugality quite as seriously as the Compacters do, more and more of us are voluntarily cutting back on buying and consumption. Many individuals choosing this lifestyle happen to be yogis. The seminal work of yoga philosophy, Patanjali’sYoga Sutra, frowns on materialism, and some yogis find that their asana practice alone helps them be happier with less.

The pursuit of the simple life is nothing new, of course. From Quakers to Transcendentalists, America has always had its share of those who associate simplicity with spiritual growth. Back-to-the-land hippies of the ’60s and ’70s found simplicity appealing for more secular reasons, such as ecological sustainability. But those who practice pared-down living today are not necessarily spiritual ascetics or off-the-grid granola types. Most are ordinary people modifying their everyday behavior-trying to be conscious about what they eat, drive, and buy.

In the past 15 years, “voluntary simplicity,” as it is called, has gained thousands of converts. Many books on the subject have been published, such as Janet Luhrs’s The Simple Living Guide, Cecile Andrews’s Circle of Simplicity: Return to the Good Life, and Linda Breen Pierce’s Choosing Simplicity: Real People Finding Peace and Fulfillment in a Complex World. Dozens of websites have sprung up, and nonprofits like Seeds of Simplicity and Simple Living America champion the cause. When the Compacters publicized their manifesto in January 2006, their Yahoo group swelled from about 50 in February to 1,225 in July, with members across America.

Most spiritual traditions encourage simple living, and yoga is no exception. In the Yoga Sutra, Patanjali< laid out the yamas (moral restraints) and niyamas (observances), a set of 10 principles that are crucial to one’s progress along the yogic path. One of the yamas is aparigraha, often translated as “greedlessness.” But it means more than just taking only what you need, explains David Frawley, founder and director of the American Institute of Vedic Studies and author of Yoga and the Sacred Fire. Aparigraha also means “not having a lot of unnecessary things around yourself and not hankering after what other people have,” Frawley says. In other words, aparigraha also means keeping only what you need and wanting only what you need.

Aparigraha leads naturally to one of the niyamas: santosha, or “contentment,” being satisfied with the resources at hand and not desiring more. Ultimately, Frawley says, “Yoga is about transcending the desire for external things, which is the cause of suffering, and finding peace and happiness within.”

The desire for external wealth causes unhappiness on both a practical level and a spiritual one. In order to afford things, you have to work long hours, leaving you less time for what truly sustains you, whether that’s yoga and meditation, a hobby, or time with your kids. An expensive lifestyle also limits your choice of career, forcing you to take a high-paying job that may not be fulfilling. It’s hard to transcend the desire for external things when we see hundreds of ads implying that happiness lies in a new iPod, laptop, or car. But despite those commercial messages, acquisition doesn’t equal happiness. Many yogis find that if they transcend their material cravings, they can lead more satisfying, albeit more modest, lives.

Les Leventhal was once trapped in the joyless cycle of overwork and overconsumption. He held an investment banking job, toiling long hours with lots of travel, which kept him away from his partner and friends. But his lavish salary allowed him to buy vacations in Hawaii, dinners in trendy restaurants, expensive jackets, and pair after pair of Kenneth Cole shoes. In the past, Leventhal had kicked drug and alcohol addictions, but now he realized he’d simply replaced them with a new addiction: shopping. Yet the high he got from retail therapy never lasted. “Each time I bought something, I expected to feel better, but the emptiness inside was still there. Then I’d buy something else. “

As Leventhal’s experience shows, materialism can be a form of self-violence, cutting you off from what makes you happy. It thus violates the yama of ahimsa, or nonviolence, as well as aparigraha. Materialism also hurts others, since overconsumption leads to taking an unfair share of the world’s resources, exploiting developing nations for cheap labor, and destroying the environment. Darren Main, a yoga teacher and the author of Yoga and the Path of the Urban Mystic, says, “We understand the obvious part of ahimsa—not killing…But we need to look at more subtle stuff. Driving a gas-guzzling car drives the U.S. to war—but because this is a step removed, we tend to be unconscious of it.”

Leventhal’s unhappiness drove him to quit his job last year. Reflecting on what truly satisfied him, he realized that every time he left a yoga class, he was filled with lightness and happiness. “I got a rush from yoga, exactly the rush I was looking to get from drugs and alcohol but never quite could,” he says. Pursuing teacher training meant radically scaling back. Leventhal stopped shopping for clothes and very rarely eats out. He donated most of his Kenneth Cole shoes to charity, and these days he wears clogs, flip-flops, or tennis shoes. The sacrifice has been worth it because he’s gained time to immerse himself in interests he loves.

Many of us fail to make the connection between everyday shopping and what members of the Compact call “the negative global impact of U.S. consumer culture.” Darcy Lyon, a 36-year-old yoga teacher in Berkeley, California, leads a simple life (although she’s not a Compacter). She bicycles or takes public transport, wears the same clothes for years, and takes her own bags to the grocery store. She decided to cut down on her consumption six years ago after trekking along Nepal’s Annapurna circuit. Tourists had the option to bring a water filter and purify their own water, but instead many bought water en route, using 50 to 70 bottles each. “I saw piles of hundreds of thousands of plastic water bottles that visiting Westerners had discarded, ” Lyon recalls. “The piles are just left there, since the Nepalis have no means to recycle them.” The destructiveness of this lifestyle was vividly driven home.

Focus on the Positive

Most people on a spiritual path eventually recognize that happiness can’t be bought. To find the peace we truly seek, it’s necessary to stop mindlessly acquiring possessions—and embrace simplicity. How, exactly, do you do that? The first step is to figure out why you want to simplify. Bruce Elkin, the author of Simplicity and Success and a life coach who helps clients simplify, distinguishes between “reactive” and “purposeful” simplicity. “If you clean out clutter to declutter, it’s a temporary fix,” he says. “But if you clean out the clutter to make a meditation space or a reading area, then you have a clear purpose. The clutter doesn’t return.

Andrews compares simplifying to dieting. Self-denial will backfire. “Don’t say to yourself, ‘I’m not going to have this or that.’ Instead of focusing on what you’re denying yourself, focus on what’s really healthy or, in this case, on whatever gives you true satisfaction. “

Leventhal is focused on what he has gained: time to volunteer for community service and time with his partner and dogs. Davis doesn’t miss shopping either. She’s too busy concentrating on her essentials: “writing, reading, dreaming, socializing, music, dance, sunshine, exercise, cooking.” She also makes movies in her spare time. And Lyon doesn ‘t pine for a nice car or fashionable clothes, because her modest lifestyle allows her to pursue her passions: teaching yoga and working toward an M.A. in psychology.

Allow Yourself Luxuries

Those who embrace voluntary simplicity sometimes take it to extremes. Some members of the Compact, for example, restrict their consumption so much that they make their own deodorant from baking soda and water. Some even refuse to buy toilet paper mdash;in an email exchange on the Compact’s Yahoo group, one member advises using squares cut from cotton
T-shirts and laundering them weekly.

But voluntary simplicity doesn’t require you to make a fetish of frugality. In fact, if you take that attitude, you set yourself up for a relapse. Instead, the keyword is moderation. You can have toilet paper (thankfully). You can even go shopping. Living simply means selecting what luxuries truly matter to you, rather than giving up frills altogether. “For example,” Luhrs says, “I like clothes. Looking my best makes me feel good. But I try to shop like the French. I buy fewer things that I really, really love. “

The list of “essential luxuries” is different for each individual. Lyon splurges on massages, flowers, and dry-cleaning her precious cashmere sweaters. Leventhal cut back on treating friends to dinner but plans to buy a hybrid car. Main treasures his iPod. But he has given up vacations abroad and having a place of his own (he shares a rented apartment). Main says that simplicity is a little more complicated than it was in Patanjali’s time: “Yoga was developed for people living very simple lives. Most people practicing yoga today are not drawn to or willing to live that lifestyle.” Instead, people must decide how far they are willing to go what they can give up and what they truly want.

Practice Conscious Buying

Train yourself to reflect before you buy something. Why do you want it? Do you really need it, or are you trying to escape negative emotions? Yoga can help you do without retail therapy, Main says: “The word asana means ‘sit’ … Yoga teaches us to sit with uncomfortable physical sensations, to breathe and relax into them. So when a negative emotion arises, instead of trying to bury it under a new pair of shoes or an iPod or whatever, let it bubble to the surface, look at it, and let it go.” Davis says her yoga practice of 14 years helps her stick to the Compact. “Yoga makes you deal with what’s really going on inside, instead of medicating it through shopping.”

Luhrs says she loves clothes but not as much as she loves the freedom of being debt free. In order to avoid running up credit card bills, she asks herself five questions before buying anything: “Do I have the cash to pay for it? Do I have room in my closet for this outfit? Do I want another outfit? Do I want to care for more clothes? Will I really wear this item a lot? ” You can run through a similar checklist of questions whenever you’re considering buying something new. If it’s an item for the home, Luhrs suggests, “Ask yourself if your eyes need one more thing to look at, or would they rather rest in open space?”

Of course, after reflection, you may decide that you genuinely need something. Before you buy it new, consider alternatives. Can you mend yours? Can you borrow it? Can you buy it used? The obvious places to look for secondhand stuff are thrift stores, garage sales, and secondhand furniture stores. But you can also try craigslist or Freecycle, a network of local groups whose members give each other unwanted items. In San Francisco, Compacters use Building REsources for salvaged architectural material like windows and doorknobs, and SCRAP (Scroungers’ Center for Reusable Art Parts) for low-cost fabric and art supplies. You may be able to find similar resources in your area.

Be Creative

Simplicity requires creativity. Some Compacters make their own nontoxic household cleaning products from baking soda and vinegar. And a homemade gift or card is often more meaningful than one that is store bought. Lyon has found a creative way to spread Christmas cheer without putting herself out of pocket. Each year, she sells simple candles to her friends for them to give as gifts. There’s nothing special about the candles, except that each one has a label explaining that for every candle she sells, Lyon gives a homeless person a gift-wrapped sweater or pair of gloves she strives to knit herself.

And Davis says living simply has taught her to be creative with junk. For example, when she saw an almost-new wheelchair poking out from a Dumpster, she rescued it and turned it into a wheeled dolly for her cameraman to perch on while shooting one of her movies.

Get Support and Stick with It

Living simply is not easy. Elkin says the pressure to conform is the biggest cause of relapse. It can be embarrassing to have a smaller house than your peers or drive an old banger or wear secondhand clothes. When your friends invite you to dinner, it can be hard to insist on preparing food at home instead. Leventhal says that initially, when friends invited him to expensive restaurants, he felt shame at having to say, “I can ‘t afford it.”

When challenges arise, a like-minded community can offer support, Davis says: “It helps that I can go online every day
and read emails and share ideas on how to save money and help the environment. ” Andrews recommends starting a “simplicity circle,” whose members can share ideas. She launched the first one in Seattle; now they exist across the country.

Living moderately often requires extra time and energy. Lyon says, “I get tired bicycling home from teaching class at 9 at night and then making my own food from scratch. “But, she says, the effort is worth it. In addition to the obvious benefits, like having time for what matters to her, living moderately gives her something else: “The more I simplify and do my practice, the more I find strength and certainty within.”

The good news is that voluntary simplicity grows easier over time. Leventhal no longer feels the impulse to shop for shoes. As you do more of what matters to you, you will gain a deep satisfaction that renders buying and consumption less interesting. Luhrs says that with the clutter and distraction cleared away, she has a deeper appreciation for the pleasures that remain. “I taste my food more. I inhale the scent of lilac or I luxuriate in the way a shower feels. That gives my life depth, so I don’t have to fill myself up with overconsumption or buying entertainment. “Saying no to the things you don’t need—practicing aparigraha—means that you recognize the abundance at hand. Paradoxically, once you truly embrace simplicity, you end up with richness.

Helena Echlin is the author of Gone, a novel.