This is a book about the “why” behind voluntary simplicity. It’s not necessarily a how-to guide or checklist of to-dos. I think that’s why I love it so much. So many books skip straight to the “hows,” but if you aren’t aligned to the “why,” the “hows” won’t stick.
Voluntary Simplicity: Toward a Way of Life that is Outwardly Simple, Inwardly Rich by Duane Elgin was first published in 1981. This book summary is based on the more recent fully revised and updated second edition that was released almost three decades after the original.
If you’re interested in voluntary simplicity or simple living, be sure to check out these previous two posts inspired by the book:
- Humanity is a Teenager — We Will Evolve Through Simplicity
- Top 10 Most Common Reasons for Choosing Simple Living
This book was incredibly impactful for me. So much so, that I even said this about it:
You know those books that resonate so deeply with you that you feel like they were written just for you?
I’m currently reading “Voluntary Simplicity” by @DuaneElgin. It’s one of those books.
— Sloww • Design a Lighter Life (@slowwco) August 1, 2018
Duane Elgin paints vivid visions for the future of humanity and Earth. It’s clear that it’s up to us to decide which vision becomes reality.
Ram Dass wrote the original foreword in 1981. Astronaut Edgar Mitchell wrote the foreword to the second revised edition. It’s amazing how similar the messages are even though they were written almost 30 years apart:
The exploration of new ways of living that support new ways of being is a movement that arises from the awakening of compassion — the dawning realization that the fate of the individual is intimately connected with the fate of the whole. — Ram Dass
The days have now passed when we can ignore the impact of our individual decisions and lifestyles upon the collective. Personal responsibility for the greater good must become the mark of an informed and conscious people. — Edgar Mitchell
So, what’s changed in the 30 years between editions? Well, for one, the way Duane Elgin himself has been described:
Wharton MBA who had gone bad. (1977)
Wharton MBA who had gone green. (2005)
It’s good to see that there’s been a growing acceptance of greener, simpler, and more sustainable ways of living over the last few decades.
In the 1980s, simplicity was seen primarily as ‘downshifting,’ or pulling back from the rat race of consumer society. Several decades later, there is a growing recognition of simplicity as ‘upshifting’ — or moving beyond the rat race to the human race. Increasingly, the mainstream media and society are recognizing how people’s search for happiness is taking them beyond consumerism to a more balanced and integrated approach to living.
With that, let’s get right into it!
What is Voluntary Simplicity?
It turns out voluntary simplicity has a lot of synonyms that Elgin uses throughout the book including:
- Green lifeways, Earth-friendly living, soulful living, simple living, sustainable lifestyles, living lightly, compassionate lifeways, conscious simplicity, Earth-conscious living, simple prosperity
What does “voluntarily” mean?
- “To live more voluntarily is to live more consciously. To live more consciously is to live in a life-sensing manner. It is to taste our experience of life directly as we move through the world.”
- “To live more voluntarily is to live more deliberately, intentionally, and purposefully—in short, it is to live more consciously…To act in a voluntary manner is to be aware of ourselves as we move through life. This requires that we pay attention not only to the actions we take in the outer world, but to ourselves acting—our inner world.”
What does “simply” mean?
- “To live more simply is to live in harmony with the vast ecology of all life. It is to live with balance—taking no more than we require and, at the same time, giving fully of ourselves.”
- “To live more simply is to live more purposefully and with a minimum of needless distraction…To live more simply is to unburden ourselves—to live more lightly, cleanly, aerodynamically. It is to establish a more direct, unpretentious, and unencumbered relationship with all aspects of our lives: the things that we consume, the work that we do, our relationships with others, our connections with nature and the cosmos, and more. Simplicity of living means meeting life face-to-face. It means confronting life clearly, without unnecessary distractions. It means being direct and honest in relationships of all kinds. It means taking life as it is—straight and unadulterated.”
And, when you put it all together into “voluntary simplicity”:
- “When we combine these two concepts for integrating the inner and outer aspects of our lives, we can then say: Voluntary simplicity is a way of living that is outwardly simple and inwardly rich. It is a way of being in which our most authentic and alive self is brought into direct and conscious contact with living.”
What are the Goals of Voluntary Simplicity?
Simplicity can be applied to every aspect of your life. Elgin acknowledges that those who adopt life changes of simplicity often do so after “deep soul-searching.”
He sums up the objective as:
The objective of the simple life is not to dogmatically live with less but to live with balance in order to realize a life of greater purpose, fulfillment, and satisfaction.
First, we must wake up:
We can awaken ourselves from the dream of limitless material growth and actively invent new ways to live within the material limits of Earth.
With conscious simplicity, we can seek lives that are rich with experiences, satisfaction, and learning rather than packed with things.
You can change your life and change the world:
By embracing a lifeway of voluntary simplicity — characterized by ecological awareness, frugal consumption, and personal growth — people can change their lives. And in the process, they have the power to change the world.
And, connect directly with the world:
Simplicity fosters a more conscious and direct encounter with the world.
In living more simply we encounter life more directly—in a firsthand and immediate manner. We need little when we are directly in touch with life.
How You Can get Started with Voluntary Simplicity and Live Simply:
The simplicity movement is a global “leaderless revolution.” But, there are many ways you can get involved if you choose to do so (and I hope you do!):
- “When people ask me, ‘What can I do?’ I often reply that one of the most powerful things we can do is to start talking with other people about our personal hopes and fears for the future.”
- “As individuals we are not powerless. Opportunities for meaningful and important action are everywhere: in the food we eat, the work we do, the transportation we use, the manner in which we relate to others, the clothing we wear, the learning we acquire, the compassionate causes we support, the level of attention we invest in our moment-to-moment passage through life, and so on. The list is endless, since the stuff of social transformation is identical with the stuff from which our daily lives are constructed.”
- “The character of a society is the cumulative result of the countless small actions taken day in and day out, by millions of persons.”
- “Traditional political and economic perspectives fail to recognize the most radical change of all in a free-market economy and democratic society: the empowerment of individuals to consciously take charge of their own lives and to begin changing their manner of work, patterns of consumption, forms of governance, modes of communication, and much more.”
- “Simplicity is simultaneously a personal choice, a community choice, a national choice, and a species choice.”
- “The outcome of this time of planetary transition will depend on the choices that we make as individuals. Nothing is lacking. Nothing more is needed than what we already have. We require no remarkable, undiscovered technologies.”
- “Our choice is ruin or responsibility.”
- “As we become empowered to take charge of our lives, we feel that no one is to blame other than ourselves if our experience of life is not satisfying.”
- “To live sustainably, it is vital that we each decide how much is ‘enough.'”
- “Conscious simplicity is not an alternative way of life for a marginal few; it is a creative choice for the mainstream majority, particularly in developed nations.”
The History of Simplicity:
Simplicity has been a theme in all the world’s wisdom traditions: Christian, Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, Puritan, Quaker, Transcendentalist, you name it. The Greeks have the “golden mean” and the Buddhists have the “middle way.”
- “Living more consciously seems to be at the core of a path of simplicity and, in turn, makes it clear why this way of life is compatible with Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, Sufism, Zen, and many more traditions.
- “An old Eastern saying states, ‘Simplicity reveals the master.’ As we gradually master the art of living, a consciously chosen simplicity emerges as the expression of that mastery. Simplicity allows the true character of our lives to show through.”
- “Historian of the simple life David Shi describes the common denominator among the various approaches to simpler living as the understanding that the making of money and the accumulation of things should not smother the purity of the soul, the life of the mind, the cohesion of the family, or the good of the society.”
Elgin spends some time highlighting the work of Richard Gregg, who coined the term “voluntary simplicity” in the 1930s:
- “(Richard Gregg) said that the purpose of life was to create a life of purpose.”
- “Gregg saw a life of conscious simplicity and balance as vital in realizing our life purpose because it enables us to avoid needless distractions and busyness.”
- “Simplicity is a relative matter depending on climate, customs, culture, and the character of the individual.” — Richard Gregg
- “Voluntary simplicity involves both inner and outer condition. It means singleness of purpose and sincerity and honesty within, as well as avoidance of exterior clutter, of many possessions irrelevant to the chief purpose of life. It means an ordering and guiding of our energy and our desires, a partial restraint in some directions in order to secure greater abundance of life in other directions. It involves a deliberate organization of life for a purpose. Of course, as different people have different purposes in life, what is relevant to the purpose of one person might not be relevant to the purpose of another…The degree of simplification is a matter for each individual to settle for himself.” — Richard Gregg
Simple Living Myths & Misconceptions:
Elgin says, “Contrary to media myths, consumerism offers lives of sacrifice while simplicity offers lives of opportunity.” In the media, simplicity is often presented as: 1) Crude or Regressive Simplicity (anti-technology, anti-innovation, back-to-nature movement), 2) Cosmetic or Superficial Simplicity (shallow simplicity, green lipstick on our unsustainable lives), or 3) Deep or Conscious Simplicity.
- Myth #1: Simplicity means poverty
- “It makes an enormous difference whether greater simplicity is voluntarily chosen or involuntarily imposed.
- “Simplicity is not about a life of poverty, but a life of purpose.”
- “Voluntary simplicity is not about living in poverty; it is about living with balance.”
- “Poverty is involuntary and debilitating, whereas simplicity is voluntary and enabling. Poverty is mean and degrading to the human spirit, whereas a life of conscious simplicity can have both a beauty and a functional integrity that elevates the human spirit. Involuntary poverty generates a sense of helplessness, passivity, and despair, whereas purposeful simplicity fosters a sense of personal empowerment, creative engagement, and opportunity.”
- “A conscious simplicity, then, is not self-denying but life-affirming. Voluntary simplicity is not an ‘ascetic simplicity’ (of strict austerity); rather, it is an ‘aesthetic simplicity’ where each person considers how his or her level and pattern of consumption can fit with grace and integrity into the practical art of daily living on this planet.”
- Myth #2: Simplicity means rural living
- “Instead of a ‘back to the land’ movement, it is much more accurate to describe this as a ‘make the most of wherever you are’ movement.”
- Myth #3: Simplicity means ugly living
- Myth #4: Simplicity means economic stagnation
- “Although the consumer and material goods sectors would contract, the service and public sectors (education, health care, urban renewal) would expand dramatically. When we look around at the condition of the world, we see a huge number of unmet needs: caring for the elderly, restoring the environment, educating illiterate and unskilled youth, repairing decaying roads and infrastructure, providing health care, creating community markets and local enterprises, retrofitting the urban landscape for sustainability, and many more. Because there are enormous numbers of unmet needs, there are equally large numbers of purposeful and satisfying jobs waiting to get done. The difficulty is that in many industrialized nations there is such an overwhelming emphasis placed on individual consumption that it has resulted in the neglect of work that promotes public well-being.”
Wake up & break out of Society’s Automation:
- “Simplicity is the razor’s edge that cuts through the trivial and finds the essential.”
- “To live voluntarily requires not only that we be conscious of the choices before us (the outer world) but also that we be conscious of ourselves as we select among those choices (the inner world). We must be conscious of both the choices and ourselves as the chooser. Put differently, to act voluntarily is to act in a self-determining manner. But who is the ‘self’ making the decisions? If that ‘self’ is both socially and psychologically conditioned into habitual patterns of thought and action, then behavior can hardly be considered voluntary. Therefore, self-realization—the process of realizing who the ‘self’ really is—is crucial to self-determination and voluntary action.”
- “If we do not become conscious of these automated patterns of thinking, feeling, and behaving, then we become, by default, human automatons.”
- “An old adage states, ‘It’s a rare fish that knows it swims in water.’ Analogously, the challenge of living voluntarily is not in gaining access to the conscious experiencing of ourselves but rather in consciously recognizing the witnessing experience and then learning the skills of sustaining our opening to that experience.”
- “The capacity to move through life with conscious awareness is central to our species identity. We have given ourselves the scientific name Homo sapiens sapiens, which means that we are a species that not only ‘knows’ but ‘know that it knows.’ We have identified our core trait as a species—our capacity for reflective consciousness. Living ever more consciously goes to the very heart of our species natures and to our core evolutionary journey as a human community.”
- “To the extent that we are able to see or know our automated patterns, we are then no longer bound by them. We are enabled to act and live voluntarily.”
- “As we learn to watch ourselves ever more precisely and intimately, the boundaries between the ‘self-in-here’ and the ‘world-out-there’ begin to dissolve. In the stage beyond self-reflective consciousness, we no longer stand apart from existence as observers; now we are fully immersed within it as conscious participants.”
On Media (TV & Internet):
- “As the Internet fosters a new capacity for rapid feedback from citizens and organizations around the world, the human family is developing a level of collective awareness, understanding, and responsiveness to the well-being of the Earth that previously would have been unimaginable.”
- TV: “Mass entertainment is used to capture the attention of a mass audience that is then appealed to by mass advertising in order to promote mass consumption.”
- “Because television’s being programmed to achieve commercial success, the mind-set of entire nations is being programmed for ecological failure.”
- “The most precious resource of a civilization—the shared consciousness of its citizenry—is literally being prostituted and sold to the highest corporate bidders.”
- “Because the overwhelming majority of prime-time hours on television are devoted to programming for amusement, we are entertainment-rich and knowledge-poor.”
- “The hallmark of a balanced simplicity is that our lives become clearer, more direct, less pretentious, and less complicated. We are then empowered by our material circumstances rather than enfeebled or distracted by them. Excess in either direction—too much or too little—is complicating.”
- “When we engage in ‘identity consumption,’ we become possessed by our possessions, we are consumed by that which we consume.”
- “We begin a never-ending search for a satisfying experience of identity. We look beyond ourselves for the next thing that will make us happy…But the search is both endless and hopeless, because it is continually directed away from the ‘self’ that is doing the searching.”
- “It is transformative to withdraw voluntarily from the preoccupations with the material rat race of accumulation and instead accept our natural experience — unadorned by superfluous goods — as sufficient unto itself.”
- “A self-reinforcing spiral of growth begins to unfold: As we live more consciously, we feel less identified with our material possessions and thereby are enabled to live more simply. As we live more simply and our lives become less filled with unnecessary distractions, we find it easier to bring our undivided attention into our passage through life, and are thereby enabled to live more consciously.”
On Inner & Outer Alignment:
- “Simplicity has as much to do with each person’s purpose in living as it does with his or her standard of living.”
- “Voluntary simplicity, then, involves not only what we do (the outer world) but also the intention with which we do it (the inner world).”
- “The ecological crisis we now face has emerged, in no small part, from the gross disparity that exists between our relatively underdeveloped inner faculties and the extremely powerful external technologies at our disposal.”
- “Throughout history, few people have had the opportunity to develop their interior potentials because much of the human journey has been preoccupied with the struggle for survival.”
- “Simpler living integrates both inner and outer aspects of life into an organic and purposeful whole.”
- “Given the drive to find meaningful work coupled with the shortage of such work in today’s economy, it is not surprising that many choosing a simpler way of life are involved in starting their own small businesses.”
- “When our work is life-serving, then our energy and creativity can flow cleanly and directly through us and into the world without impediment or interruption.”
- “Overall, people viewed work in four primary ways:
- As a means of supporting oneself in activity that is meaningful and materially sustaining
- As an opportunity to support others by producing goods and services that promote a workable and meaningful world
- As a context for learning about the nature of life—using work as a medium of personal growth
- As a direct expression of one’s character and talents—as a celebration of one’s existence in the world”
On Money & Materialism:
- “Once a person or family reaches a moderate level of income, here are the factors that research has shown contribute most to happiness: good health, personal growth, strong social relationships, service to others, connection with nature.”
- “Until the last few generations, a majority of people have lived close to subsistence, so an increase in income brought genuine increases in material well-being, and this has produced more happiness. However, in a number of developed nations, levels of material well-being have moved beyond subsistence to unprecedented abundance.”
- “The more materialistic values are at the center of our lives, the more our quality of life is diminished…reported lower levels of happiness and self-actualization and higher levels of depression, anxiety, narcissism, antisocial behavior, and physical problems such as headaches.” — Tim Kasser
Questions to Ponder:
Elgin poses many thought-provoking questions throughout the book. Here are my favorites that are worth thinking about:
- “Who are these people who want to slow down, lighten their impact on the Earth, and grow the quality of their relationships with the rest of life?”
- “Why would an individual or couple adopt a way of life that is more materially frugal, ecologically oriented, inner-directed, and in other ways removed from the materialism of much of Western society?”
- “What is the pathway from consumer to conserver?”
- “If the material consumption of a fraction of humanity is already harming the planet, is there an alternative path that enables all of humanity to live more lightly upon the Earth while experiencing a higher quality of life?”
- “Instead of visualizing how material limitation can draw out new levels of community and cooperation, many people see a life of greater ‘simplicity’ as a path of sacrifice and regress. Living within the limits that the Earth can sustain raises a fundamental question: Can we live more lightly on the material side of life while living with greater satisfaction and meaning on the nonmaterial side of life?”
- “They all share 3 concerns:
- How are we to live sustainably on the Earth?
- In harmony with one another?
- And in communion with the universe?”