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What Is Living Gently?
Each day many of us look in the mirror and ask ourselves difficult questions about how we are living our lives. Most of us face an uncertain job market; some are concerned about our retirement years; and many are concerned about the world we will live in and the world we will pass to future generations. As a result of this inquiry into our personal lifestyle, some seek an alternate path to the future, a path that improves the quality of life for ourselves and others while leaving a smaller footprint on the natural environment.
For the past three decades there has been a growing grassroots movement in North America and elsewhere toward living a more simple lifestyle, one different from that glorified on television and in magazines, movies and the news. It is a quiet revolution and a very personal one. The movement has grown so quietly and skillfully that it has not attracted much media attention. In addition, the movement is not an organized one, although its many interlinking paths provide a means of support among the adherents, and thus does not often produce rallies or soundbits that catch the medias attention. The movement has been called by many names. Voluntary simplicity was first coined to describe the lifestyle in 1936 by Richard Gregg. Other names include simple living, ecological lifestyle, the conserver society, relative poverty, creative simplicity and the good life.
Duane Elgin in his book Voluntary Simplicity suggests there are many possible ways to define the practice such as a voluntary manner of living that is outwardly more simple and inwardly more rich. Elaine St. James, author of three best selling books on simplified living, defines the practice as reducing the scale while maintaining the comfort of life, and eliminating the complexity while maximizing the time for life.
I call the practice Living Gently. When I look up the words living and gently in the dictionary, I find living defined as: possessing life; a manner or means of maintaining life; a manner or style of life; the pursuit of a positive, satisfying existence. I find the definition for gently to include: considerate, amiable, patient; not harsh, severe or violent; easily managed; moderate; noble or chivalrous. The words noble and chivalrous mean proceeding from a character showing greatness and magnanimity, and having the qualities of gallantry and honour attributed to an ideal knight, respectively.
I thus define Living Gently as a voluntary manner of living which pursues a positive, satisfying life that is considerate, noble and easily managed and that seeks to produce as small an impact on the environment as possible. It is a lifestyle chosen not only for personal satisfaction, but also for the good of our fellow inhabitants of Planet Earth: animals, humans and plants. It involves frugality but goes beyond. Having briefly defined what Living Gently is, I would like to state emphatically what it is not.
It is not poverty. Poverty is an involuntary, repressive, degrading state imposed by others. Gently Livers voluntarily choose their life path. While some Gentle Livers may live on annual incomes well below government-established poverty levels, they may be living among the richest lives of all: healthy in body and mind, rich in friends, love and spirit; having positive goals and endeavours.
It is not anti-technology. While Gentle Livers may choose to abstain from the use of certain technologies, they embrace others as vast improvements over what was previously available. They push for the wise use of technology to improve the human condition and seek creative and ecologically sound uses for new technological advances.
It is not running from responsibility. In fact, by simplifying their lives, many Gentle Livers increase their feelings of responsibility: Responsibility to help their fellow humans lead comfortable, satisfying lives. Responsibility to use a portion of their free time and resources for the betterment of life on the planet. Responsibility to fight injustice and intolerance. Many Gentle Livers give freely of their time to community work.
It is not necessarily moving to the country. Some may choose to leave the cities and suburbs for rural or wilderness living, but the living gently lifestyle can be undertaken in urban and suburban areas just as well as in the country. In fact, there are certain facets of urban living more conducive to living gently than country life, such as the more frequent use of public transportation rather than using a personal automobile or truck.
It is not an austerity movement. It is a quality-of-life movement. It does not require giving up needs but a reconsideration of wants and even some perceived needs. When a gentle lifestyle becomes firmly rooted in our way of living, we find that money and things are not a high priority, former needs become wants and former wants fade from mind. Comfort of living comes without harsh measures or deprivation.
It is not running from the present back to the past. Such thoughts can only be delusions, for the past is gone forever and the good old days never were that good. Gentle livers work within the present culture and level of technology, adopting the best aspects to produce a balanced life for themselves. They also keep the best of the past and seek to eliminate the worst of the present.
Why Choose Living Gently?
Why have so many chosen to live their lives more gently, more simply? Duane Elgin suggests the choice is being driven by the push of necessity and the pull of opportunity. That is, the current rapidly changing economic, social and environmental climate is pushing us to look for a more personal, sustaining and satisfying lifestyle. At the same time, there are emerging many realistic avenues to finding a more satisfying way to live, to move beyond the current status quo into new opportunities for expression and contentment.
The human family is at a great turning point in its lifetime. Social and economic changes abound as the twentieth century grows to a close. Environmental and social crises threaten to race out of control. Governments and large institutions, unable to cope with rapidly changing times, do only the convenient, not the necessary, generally with little long-term planning. The media cries out disaster, war, famine and plague: the end of the world. We are a society at unrest, looking for meaning and fulfillment.
On personal levels, living costs seem to be increasing out of control, even as governments assure us that inflation is minimal. Job security is a thing of the past, the modern fairy tale; whole career paths are diminishing or ending for both blue- and white-collar workers. There seems to be more crime, unrest, dissatisfaction with education and health systems, instability in personal relationships. Demands on our time increase daily as more and more products, diversions and activities vie for our attention. The Dream and the Reality of the Good Life have never seemed so far apart.
Under such conditions, what are individuals or small family groups to do? I have long believed that when things go bad or times are tough, it is time to go back to the basics, to refocus, to center, to balance. We need to take Ockhams razor and pare away the unnecessary, leaving only the simple and basic. People around the world are seeing the light. We need to simplify and bring our individual lives back into balance and control.
While this may work for balancing personal lives, how can it bring balance back to regional or global social systems? The secret has been known to scientists and philosophers for years. The whole is the sum of the parts. Small actions taken by an individual when simultaneously undertaken by many others within the society will affect change, for the character of a society is but a mirror of the cumulative actions of its members.
The Living Gently movement is not limited to any one group. It crosses all cultural, generational, economic and educational groups. It goes beyond the stagnation of governments and large institutions who have no time to look for creative, paradigm- shifting solutions to problems. Each of us must change the path we collectively take. Each of us is responsible to restore the balance, for there is no one else but you and I. That is why small is beautiful, why simplicity is beautiful. While our actions seem insignificant in isolation, by moving forward together, we change the world.
Living Gently and Personal Change
Above all else, Living Gently is a personal program. By personal, I mean both individual and family-sized groups. It is about personal empowerment, a compassionate approach to life, the ability to make change, seek balance, reconcile wants and reconsider needs. Each individual has their own personal reason for choosing this pathway. Among these are concerns over the fitness of the environment for healthy living; the depletion of non-renewable resources; the realization that happiness cannot be obtained through the narrow pursuit of material wealth; the plight of millions in the world who live with malnutrition and attendant poor health; and the desire for inner peace and balance.
I attended a workshop many years ago where psychologist John James put forward the question: What if change were easier than you thought? What if it were? Why isnt it? What does it take to change? Why do I/we resist change?
First, to make a change takes energy. It is, therefore, a proactive process. We cannot wait for it to happen, we must make it happen or at the very least, move into the flow of change going on around us. In physics, energy must be applied to change the direction of movement of a body or to start or stop a body. Similarly, with a change in lifestyle we may have to stop our current patterns, build new ones and then restart our life on the new path. This requires energy on our part. Or we may find that we currently have many aspects of a simple lifestyle and need only apply a small amount of energy to nudge ourselves further into the new path.
Second, we resist change due to a lack of information on how to change. However, there are a number of excellent books, tapes, lectures and guides available today on how to begin changing toward a gentler lifestyle. Living Gently Quarterly is, of course, one such source of information. Recent books by Amy Dacyczyn, Duane Elgin, Marilyn Ferguson, Gail Sheehy, and Elaine St. James can help to show the way as can the teachings of the great masters, Confucius, Lao-tzu, Jesus, Mohammed, the Buddha and many others.
Third, making change is a mind-set. If we want to change, we must reprogram our thinking to the acceptance of change rather than the avoidance of it. This may take time, because change is rarely undertaken without a great deal of personal turmoil, doubt, anxiety and self-questioning. Therefore, change is best made gradually in an ever-advancing process, one that unfolds over a period of months or years. If the change out of old ways is too abrupt, a return to the old ways may come just as abruptly. A number of slow, incremental changes thus has better success than one large, fast change.
On the positive side, successful changes open the door to further successful change. This is the basis for the self-fulfilling cycle. Positive feedback extends the satisfaction with change and prepares the ground for the planting of additional change. Living Gently is therefore a self-fulfilling cycle. Each new cycle begins with the positive step of living a little more gently. As we find each step in simplifying our lives increases our enjoyment of life, it encourages us to further increase our quest for simplicity. Soon the crawl becomes a walk and the walk, a run.
How Do We Begin To Live Gently?
Living Gently is about personal growth and achieving balance in life, expressed by outward actions to reduce consumption and impact and inward growth as human beings. The outward expression is most obvious and visible: reducing consumption of energy and resources; using products and services which are more gentle on the environment; finding alternatives for more complex and wasteful products and activities; improving our relationships with others; and seeking to make valuable contributions to our community. Inward expression of gentle living includes seeking personal meaning for our place in the universe; developing personal skills and beliefs; enhancing close relationships; developing a natural quietness of mind and spirit; and learning to live with ourselves.
Put simply, the inward expression of gentle living is to take charge of our lives and create a more workable and meaningful existence. It is the realization of personal power and expression beginning within us and radiating outward to our visible lifestyle. In doing so, we develop a balance between the inner life that gives us peace of spirit and the expression of that inner life in our external life. Living Gently is a journey, not an end result. It is a journey of a thousand miles, begun with a single step in our lives.
Let me state that there is no single or right way to live gently. The practice may be undertake in many different ways by very different people, in many different places and at many different paces, and still have a positive effect on the world. How we simplify is a very personal affair. A person who gives up their second car has taken as large a positive step as a person who gives up their only car. A person who refrains from eating meat two days a week has as important an impact as one who fully refrains from eating meat. In each case, the individual has taken the first forward steps in the journey of living a more simple and gentle life. Each of use will have our own expression of it. In living gently, the journey is what is important, not the size or rate of steps, not even the destination, if there is one. And once some progress is made, further progress becomes easier, quicker and more obvious.
The process begins with us reconsidering what our real needs are: food, shelter, love, a sense of purpose, etc. When we have determined our real needs, we may further reconsider the level of our needs. Is a large dwelling necessary for our comfort or can we live comfortably in less space? Is steak and champagne a daily food need or a once-a-year treat? Is assisting minimally with a dozen organizations really helping the world, or would the time be better spent focusing on one or two? These are the types of questions we must ask ourselves when reconsidering our needs. We must also ask ourselves if our level of need is one that satisfies us personally or one that is undertaken to enhance ourselves in the eyes of others.
Those items outside our needs are our wants. We may relegate what we once believed to be needs to the status of wants. That is, once we begin to see the benefits of living gently on our lives and happiness, we may see that what once were needs are no longer important items on our list. Similarly, some old wants are now seen as totally superfluous.
Some of us initially approach living gently from a desire to live a more environmentally sound life and in the process learn that we can do it with less money and greater peace of mind. Others approach the practice from a need to live more economically and find that as we achieve our goal, we reduce our environmental impact and many unnecessary demands on our time, thus achieving greater inner peace.
I personally have been living a gentle lifestyle in certain areas when in the late sixties at the beginning of the environmental movement I decided to live a lifestyle which reduced my environmental impact. However, a layoff and reduced demand for my field of specialty a few years ago forced me to reduce my expenditures and reconsider my life. Having less money but more time, I found that I became more content with what I had and needed less. My priorities changed, some subtly, some drastically, but beneath them I found greater inner peace and focus.
Living Gently as a Social Movement
As I have stated, living gently is not an organized social movement, but the confederation of thousands and thousands of personal movements. However, as a result of the summed impact of these practitioners, we see the beginnings of change. Change in social and economic patterns. Changes in political actions toward more democratic principles. Changes in attitudes toward the environment.
While the movement has no fixed doctrine, it does have a number of common principles, beliefs and concerns. By developing a compassionate approach to individual living, we enhance our compassion for the poor and disenfranchised of the world, whether they live around the corner or across the oceans. We also share a compassion for nature and the right of all animals and plants to life. Gentle Livers see the need for conservation of resources and energy so that others may live more comfortably. Overriding all is the desire to leave future generations a legacy of a clean, safe world with the guarantees of basic freedoms and comforts to all humans as declared by Thomas Jefferson: Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
And the movement is growing. A 1995 Merck Family Fund survey showed one third of Americans had, in the past five years, voluntarily changed in some manner how they earned and spent money because of alterations in their personal priorities. The Trends Research Institute reported voluntary simplicity as one of the top ten trends in 1994. In addition, 75 percent of American workers between 25 and 50 would like to see a return to a simpler society with decreased emphasis on material wealth.
People around the world are discovering that the human financial economy depends on the economy of the whole planetary ecosphere. Therefore, to sustain it the people of the Earth and especially those in the developed nations must address their habits of consumption and reproduction and willingly live in peace with one another, with other creatures and with the Earth.
The time has come to celebrate living and gentleness rather than death and aggression. To learn from others and to listen to the voice within. To act with compassion to minimize local and global impacts. And most of all, to act now. Tomorrow may be too late to save the future.
How Big Is the Movement?
The Trends Research Institute of Rhineback, New York has determined that simplifying lifestyles is one of the leading movements of the 1990s. They estimate that by the end of the decade, 15% of the 77 million American Baby Boomers will have made significant movements toward living simpler lives. A 1995 survey showed that about 30% of Americans had downshifted voluntarily, many working fewer hours for less pay so that they could spend more time with the family. Other surveys have shown that 60 to 80% of workers would be willing to accept reductions in pay if they could work fewer hours.
In 1995, the Merck Family Fund commissioned a major study into the issues of consumption in the U.S. It showed that when people were asked to describe what they were looking for in life, their aspirations rarely centred on material goods. The things they really wanted were non-material. Topping the list, 66% of the people surveyed said they would be much more satisfied with their lives if I were able to spend more time with my family and friends. 55% said they would be more satisfied if there was less stress in my life, and 47% said if I felt like I was doing more to make a difference in my community". Just 21% answered by saying if I had a nicer car, 19% by saying if I had a bigger house or apartment", and only 15% by saying if I had more nice things in my home".
What Is Living Gently? by Keith C. Heidorn, PhD . ©1996, All Rights Reserved.
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