Beginning simplicity

Categories of logic so dominate Western thinking that they often exclude real thinking about reality. Contradiction and opposites illustrate this. For example, black and white are considered contradictory and opposite. Black text on a white background is obvious in contrast, but if the background becomes black, it does not mean that the text no longer exists. Thus our perceptions as sense data of opposition and contradiction are not wrong as far as the senses go, and not delusion as far as logic and judgment, but seriously lack a contextual point of view to accommodate things as they are or can become.

Beginning efforts at simplicity carry these same volatile concerns. The foreground of our daily lives is our functional self, while the background is the context of our lives. This context is social, cultural, ideological, and material. While we may ruminate about what someone said or did, this is an idle introspection that does not focus on the larger configuration of the background of our lives. Most people live without examining this background or its relationship to their selves as foreground. Yet such an examination is essential for an authentic sense of simplicity because simplicity will not arise exclusively from the background if it is to be genuine.

Simplicity is lately the subject of books, magazines, counselors, marketers, and consumers. Simplicity is a fresh marketing idea ripe for new products to consume and old products to refurbish. This spin on simplicity takes advantage of the background of our lives to tap the unconscious desire to consume, conform, and identify ourselves with the culture and society around us. These motives, from marketers to consumers, from background to co-opted foreground, have little to do with true simplicity.

One angle that misleads the average person interested in simplicity is the logical concept of opposites, which, as mentioned, is a false or at least incomplete view of reality. Simplicity is not the opposite of complexity, so that when people assume that their cluttered and overwhelmed lives are too complex and that they need simplicity, they unwittingly assume that simplicity means to escape something rather than to change something. The background of our lives — the society, culture, material conditions, technology — does not disappear, even for the solitary. Our lives as householders, spouses, parents, children, workers, consumers, students, artists, dreamers, etc. continue. The background of our lives may wane but remains in existence, even as we simplify.

What we need to do is to disengage from that background and not merely let it fade in priority or pressure. We need to have the foreground merge with less obvious elements of the background, so that those parts of the background that dominate daily life for most people are given up and left to drift away from us. There is no point in fighting them. Fighting them is reentering the maelstrom and assuming that we are, godlike, able to transform realities and conditions around us and around others. We need merely to disengage from them, so that those less obvious elements, those less noticed by the mass of society can emerge, those elements we call values, which can then reshape our lives in simplicity.

Simplicity is the process of disengaging from the material, cultural, social, and ideological context of our lives. Simplicity takes values based on the consensus of society and culture and winnows them to what can exist in the context of a set of values based on nature and harmonious processes of nature and the universe. These values will certainly intersect with many values of what we are calling the background, but they will be stripped of their second-handedness, their cultural accretions and bias towards violence, power, and structure.

Simplicity retains all of the wonderful complexity of nature and the universe, for simplicity is not the opposite of complexity. Rather, simplicity identifies the core processes of complexity and reduces the contrived input of society and culture, the faceless pleasure-driven, power-oriented fabrications that serve only the captains of the world of red dust and their minions.

Authenticity consists of each individual matching the deep core of the self with the corresponding harmonies of nature and the universe. We preserve the complexities of self but rid ourselves of what is moribund. We preserve the complexities of life and nature but rid ourselves as much as possible of the bad habits and dependencies on society and systems.

The tradition of wabi-sabi shows us that simplicity is an art. Today beginning simplicity requires the input of science and information in order to recognize what is going on in the background of our lives and how it affects the foreground. We don’t want this material background to overwhelm our foreground due to not paying attention to the world around us.

Yet that is the situation for the vast majority of people, nowhere close to an authentic appreciation of simplicity. Guided by the values of simplicity, we are more likely to cultivate the values that will enhance our lives. The solitary cannot “witness” these values but only live them, and if others notice, so much the better. We have only to recognize that nature and the universe are already at a teachable level of simplicity, and that complexity is not the opposite but the complement of simplicity and can accommodate even our complex selves yearning for simplicity.