Simplicity of Thought and Action

"Our life is frittered away by detail ... simplify, simplify, simplify."
Henry David Thoreau

"Simple in actions and in thoughts,
you return to the source of being."

How difficult it seems to be to live the simple life. Sages and prophets have preached simplicity for thousands of years, yet how many of us have achieved it? Monks have gathered together to live under rules of simplicity. The Japanese brought the aesthetics of simplicity into art and architecture. The Amish achieved simplicity by clinging to 19th century technology and lifestyle. Yet for most of us, the comforts of civilization draw us into habits of thought and action that bring greater complexity and more stress into our lives.

The systems we interact with grow ever more large and complex. Or in the case of technological systems, they may become smaller and more complex. Society and technology bring us more choices, which seems like a good thing, but how much time and attention do we fritter away evaluating our choices instead of enjoying the moment?

One could still join a monastery or build a cabin in the wilderness in search of simplicity, but most of us will not go that way. Perhaps instead, we could develop an ethos that draws us to simplicity while living in the midst of complexity. If we practice simplicity in our thoughts and actions while living in this complex society we can bring calm to ourselves and to those around us.

Here are some suggestions for finding your level of simplicity:

Meditate. Practice the most simple behavior of all. Learn to sit still with a quiet mind. You will learn to perceive more clearly what is important in your life and what is not.

Seek basic truths. The great religions have developed complex elaborations of the usually simple messages of their founders. Rather than concern yourself with the elaborations, look to the basics. The Dalai Lama said, "My religion is kindness." St. John of the Cross said, "My occupation: Love. It’s all I do." These are pretty good places to start.

Prioritize. Look carefully at your life and determine what is important. If it isn't important, do you want to keep doing it?

Be willing to leave things behind. While possessions may give temporary pleasure, they are not critical to a joyful life. Do you own your things, or do they own you?

Practice simplicity in your thinking. Whether learning a language, technology skills, or an art form break your task into its simpler parts. The karate master does not start by trying to break bricks with his head. The programmer does not start with writing an operating system. Start small, and start simple. Persist in your efforts. As your skills grow, you will be able to handle greater complexity easily.

Trust in providence. You don't need to have all the bases covered all the time. Life often progresses through happy accidents. Being prepared and being open to the unexpected can take you farther than worrying about the future.

Back to the Interlude Home Page


© 1999 Tom Barrett