Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Voluntary Simplicity

Yesterday, I led a break-out session at the 2009 Women's Leadership Forum at Texas A&M.  I had agreed to do it earlier this year; I sent in my title and a blurb about myself; and I sat back and waited for the email saying no one had signed up for my session and it was being cancelled. I guess I'm not quite used to the fact that people actually want to hear what I have to say, because I was shocked when what came was an email saying that I was the second most popular of the four break-out sessions. Really?

So there I was, dressed up as nicely a simple girl like me gets (kakis and a blouse I've never ironed in the 10 years I've had it) in front of an audience that had filled just about every seat in the room. The topic? Voluntary Simplicity.

I won't go into the entire 60 minute talk, but I wanted to hit the highlights.

What is voluntary simplicity?

At least part of this is obvious, right? The life I live is "voluntary." It's a choice. I don't do it because I HAVE to; I do it because I WANT to.

It's the simplicity part that can be misunderstood. Choosing a life of "Voluntary Simplicity" doesn't mean I reject technology or progress. It's not about being poor and denying myself the luxuries that make life worth living. I don't live in a cave and forage for food. In fact, let me say quite emphatically that I HAVEN'T GIVEN ANYTHING UP THAT WAS IMPORTANT TO ME. Let me say that again: I haven't given anything up that was important to me. 

And that's why I prefer to call the movement "Living Deliberately." Because what Voluntary Simplicity is about is stepping back from the life the world expects of us and doing things because we WANT to do them; not because it's expected of us. It's believing that more is not better; it's simply more. It's about a lighter, less burdensome, effortless life. It's about getting rid of the million and one things that distract us from what makes us truly happy. It's about focus; zeroing in on what is most important in life.

Where do I sign up?

Why don't more people do this? It sounds like the perfect life, right? I truly believe that most people don't live a simple or deliberate life because they've never slowed down long enough to think about what it is they really want out of life. The world has us moving at such a fast pace, who has the time? 

That's why you start your journey of voluntary simplicity by stopping. That's right. You start by stopping. You get out of the flow of traffic so you can identify the big picture. Eleven years ago, when I first started my journey (like all Type A personalities), I made a chart. Literally, I sat down with a pen and a piece of paper and made a chart. The things I enjoyed doing on the left and the things I hated doing on the right. The key is figuring out how to do more of the things I enjoy and less of the things I don't.

This is where the decision making begins.One of the things I hated was cooking (keep in mind this is 11 years ago and my whole family is laughing at me now that I bake my own bread and can my own soups). But at the time, I hated cooking strictly for the fact that it was a "womanly" thing to do and it made me angry that it was expected of me. So I figured out how to eat without actually having to cook - at one point I ate "out" three times a day. I'd order a foot-long sub from Subway (I had limited expenses also, so it had to be cheap) and I'd eat half of it for lunch and the other half for breakfast the next morning. For dinners, I went out with friends and would have a side salad and chow down on the free bread. I kept fruit in the fridge to nibble on and I was good to go.

I also hated driving. So the next time I had a chance to move, I chose a place where I could walk just about anywhere I needed to go (work, post office, bank, grocery, etc). When my car was totaled in a car accident on the one day every couple months I actually drove it, I didn't replace it. Everyone thought I was nuts, but I didn't need it. 

Not needing a car also helped with my reducing my working hours (another thing I disliked). I'd never had a job that fulfilled me as a person. It just paid the bills. So I reduced the bills (including no longer owning a car, eating inexpensive meals, walking everywhere I went instead of joining a gym, getting books and movies from the library instead of buying them, canceling the cable - anything that didn't contribute to that first column of things that made me happy) so I could reduce the amount I had to work. Just before my 30th birthday, I was able to reduce my working hours to only 20 hours a week. That's just 4 hours a day (only 5 days a week) leaving me the other 20 hours a day to do anything I wanted.

An Unending Journey

Today, 11 years later, I don't have paid employment at all. I ended up quitting my job for health reasons. But despite the downturn in the economy and because of all the work I've done over these 11 years to simplify my life so that I could focus on the things that make me happy, I don't HAVE to work. Instead, I'm doing exactly what I love - volunteering in my community, growing a vegetable garden, reading mystery novels, talking long walks, enjoying a hot cup of tea, and snuggling into the arms of my loved ones. That is what matters most in life - to me. 

For you? Well, you have to figure that out on your own. Remember to STOP - get out of the flow of traffic so you can see the big picture. Write down the things you enjoy as well as the things you don't enjoy. Then live deliberately. Make mindful choices in your everyday life that increase the time you spend with the things you enjoy and decrease the time you spend doing the things you don't. 

Most important to remember is that though we continue to work toward goals of a simpler life in the future, happiness is experienced right now; in the moment you slow down and start living deliberately. It's no so much about the light at the end of the tunnel, because the journey doesn't ever end; it just gets better as we grow.

For me, canceling the cable, giving up my job, walking/biking instead of driving... all these things weren't really given up because I didn't enjoy them in the first place. Perhaps you do. The simple life will be different for each of us. Don't do what I do because it worked for me. Discover your own path. Figure out what makes you happy, then make it happen. Before long, you won't be able to imagine life any other way, because you'll begin to see the world a little differently. You'll begin to experience the things that you missed in all these years of rushing from point A to point B - a child's laugh, the brilliant blue of a morning sky, the joy in a loved one's face... When we live simply, deliberately, we open ourselves to discover all the world has to offer us, letting every single day be the beautiful adventure that it was meant to be. 

A special thank you for those of you who came to my talk yesterday! Welcome to Simple-Green-Frugal. May every day be your very own beautiful adventure...

P.S. At the end of my talk, I offered to host one of the Northwest Earth Institute's Discussion Courses on Voluntary Simplicity. To host a course, I need at least 8 people interested. If you're local to the Bryan-College Station area, and would like to join a group to explore more about Voluntary Simplicity, please let me know. They have many more wonderful courses we could explore in the future as well. Discussion guides are $20. I hope you'll join me!


Farmer's Daughter said...

What a wonderful post. I completely agree that what is simple for one of us might not be for the next.

I've just always believed that my life is what I make it, and if I want to be happy, then I have to do things that make me happy.

Melissa ~ Mom to 6 said...

Excellent post. Well thought out and easy to duplicate. I have stopped my life (due to outside factors) this year and realized I want off the treadmill. I think I'll make a chart too - since I'm such a visual person, it'll help to have it right in front of me. Wish I lived closer, I'd partcipate.

Michelle said...

Wonderful post. I loved it and I think it is great that you are sharing your vision and journey and encouraging others to find their own way.

I think one reason people hesitate is that they (or at least I have at times) think that it will be more work at first, at least while you are making the transistion. Change is work. Especially if you are dragging along four kids and a spouse who may not necessarily see your way as a good idea.

One thing that has worked for me is a testing period. Try the thing you are considering giving up - say, cable is off limits for 1 week. See how it goes. If it goes well, give it two weeks. Then consider if it works for you. Approaches like that have encouraged my family to give it a try, since they knew it was not necessarily going away for good - we were just seeing how it goes. Somethings have gone without much fight (once they tried it) and other things have stayed once we realized that at this point we still like being able to have those conveniences. It is a give and take - especially when you are dealing with six different people! But that does not mean you should not at least try.

Michelle said...

I just had to add more - it is like your garden, Heather - you did one square and went from there. It worked (probably largely in part because you were not too overwhelmed) and then you added more.

Being Type A also, I have learned that if I take on too much at once, I get frustrated and am tempted to quit or at the very least I no longer enjoy it.

Anonymous said...

Your blog is so inspiring and encouraging. thank you!

hmd said...

Farmers' Daughter - absolutely. Our journey will all be different, but it's all about finding happiness. Once we find happiness we are able to spread it to others (and funnel it into care for the Earth).

Melissa - I like the treadmill analogy! I forgot all about that one. Good luck with your list. Once I got mine ready, I made a book mark with my goals on it. Since I always have a book with me, now I also have my goals where I can see them.

Michelle - Excellent point. Trial periods are great. We did that with the cable for Dave. Once he realized how great it was without the TV on in the background, he loves it! But it had to be his decision too, not just mine. Marriage means compromise and we've been able to find middle ground on our lifestyle choices. It's important to make them together as much as is possible.

Green Resolutions - Thanks!

EnviRambo said...

This was a wonderful post, Heather! Very well thought out and good advice to follow. As irony would have it, I have been so caught up in the traffic that this is the first blog post I have read in weeks. Ha! It's like your arms came through my computer screen and shook me. Snap out of it!

Thank You!

hmd said...

greeen sheeep - we all need a nudge every once in awhile, me especially. Glad I could be your nudge :)

Melanie said...

I can't even tell you how much I admire you after reading this post. I wish I knew how to do it with me being the only provider for the family (hubby is getting a PhD, which is a full-time job in itself). I always think "someday" to myself....thanks for the post:)

hmd said...

Melanie - Working to support your family (especially when one of you is trying to get though school) is tough. I've actually been there. Feel free to email me if you just need to talk, need some moral support, or want some ideas on cutting back. I have a post coming out on Friday (I just finished it) that might help as well. Hang in there!