7. Strive for Simplicity, Economise on Energy (1)

By M.K. Styllinski

© Infrakshun | M.K. Styllinski

“Be content with what you have, rejoice in the way things are.
When you realize there is nothing lacking, the whole world belongs to you.”

— Lao Tzu

Reading time: 20-25 mins


What images does it conjure in your mind? Minimalist architecture? A Zen garden? A painting? Perhaps the symmetry of a fir-cone or a statue of Buddha?

It probably took me about 25 years to really get what simplicity seems to be. And even now, I sometimes struggle not to complicate things. I like complexity you see. The more complex something is the more interest I have – be it people or abstract ideas.

But to reach a complexity that is enriching we have to first simplify our minds otherwise we become lost in abstraction, reductive identifications and a multitude of obligations and desires. Next stop – burn out.

Simplicity is a state of mind which has the potential to affect our thoughts and actions in the everyday world. It implies an economy of thought and movement which can to lead to harmony. When simplicity and harmony exist, moral virtue is not far behind.

Simplicity is not just peace or mindfulness, it’s the state of receptivity and creativity working as one. And for that to occur we have to let our 24hr desires abate somewhat; we have to let go and let it Be.

The root meanings of the word derive from the 14th Century listing “singleness of nature, unity, indivisibility; immutability,” and from the Old French simplicité; Latin simplicitatem meaning “state of being simple, frankness, openness, artlessness, candor, directness.”  The Middle English also from French: simplesse, used the word from the mid-14th Century in the sense of “humility, lack of pride,” and later as “wholeness, unity.” By c. 1400 it was also known as “ignorance.”

Obviously, I’m using simplicity in its positive sense: unity, wholeness, openness, clarity, purity, elegance, parsimony, humility, economy, etc. It can just as easily imply black and white thinking, ignorance and stupidity as the 15th Century populace discovered, ironically as humanistic individualism was making itself known.

The West has prided itself on inquiry, reason, rationale and critique (even if it doesn’t quite measure up to those ideals); the legacy of the Enlightenment and the Age of Reason; individualism and humanistic innovations. The influence of the East is the other half of the equation: an understanding of the inner world and the meditative mind; the slow calming of the incessant intellect in order receive what Chinese and later Japanese Buddhists called “The Tao.” As esotericist George I. Gurdjieff  described it: “Take the understanding of the East and the knowledge of the West and then seek.”

The Taoists  have a lot to say about the virtues of simplicity. One of the most famous Taoist texts is The Tao Te Ching (or Dao De Jing) believed to have been written by Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu sometime in the 6th Century B.C.

~ Tao (道) – The Way of Nature ~ “Simplicity, patience, compassion. These three are your greatest treasures. Simple in actions and thoughts, you return to the Source of Being. Patient with both friends and enemies, you accord with the way things are. Compassionate toward yourself, you reconcile all beings in the world.” ― Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching Tao

Here’s the first verse:

Tao (The Way) that can be spoken of is not the Constant Tao’
The name that can be named is not a Constant Name.
Nameless, is the origin of Heaven and Earth;
The named is the Mother of all things.
Thus, the constant void enables one to observe the true essence.
The constant being enables one to see the outward manifestations.
These two come paired from the same origin.
But when the essencEmbracee is manifested, It has a different name.
This same origin is called “The Profound Mystery.”
As profound the mystery as It can be,
It is the Gate to the essence of all life.

A nameless, fluid essence of Truth. “The Profound Mystery” is The Tao, or The Way.  Not “our way” in the same vein that it’s not “my soul” that inhabits me but “the soul” as a mini-outgrowth of the One Creative Consciousness – The Way of all Things.

The Way is the Eastern version of the Western alchemical tradition. It exists as a descriptor for the 4th Way teachings. Through altering our personality and its lower centres toward harmonious order we can set ourselves upon a path that might eventually lead to an alignment with The Tao i.e. God or Oversoul – whatever label is Truth for you.

The gap between such a possibility is about as mysterious as The Tao itself. It may be a long road but whose to say we don’t have many lifetimes to do it?

I read The Tao Te Ching when I was a nineteen-year-old art student and although I found it beautiful and wise, it was too abstract and intangible for me at that time. I was also about a million miles away from the idea of simplicity. I wanted to make my way in the world whilst seeking to handle my numerous inner demons. Simplicity didn’t seem to cut it. It was far too…Well, simple. And simplifying your life requires some experience in order to know its value.

The Sacred Space

In amongst the postmodern virus of conceptual and peformance art I discovered the Taoist’s version of artistic expression which said more to me than any university-mandated concepts. The images went directly to the tiny sacred space in my heart which had hitherto remained untouched by the bewildering forces of Official Culture. It was a bitter-sweet recognition of something I was unable to grasp. But it kept calling to me over the years.

The message lies within the space between recognised objects and events.  It is the space between the inbreath and outbreath; the lull in conversation or the pause before the tide crashes on the shore; the point at which the archer releases his arrow or the briefest moment when two people are poised to kiss.

There is great mystery here; that which is still unformed and pregnant with potential, “…like uncarved wood” (Tao Te Ching, Chp. 15) or the “inherent quality” symbolised by the character Pu. In that space lies access to the Source, essence and the stillness of the Valley of the World, the natural riverbed of consciousness … If it were allowed to flow.

This is essentially what the Taoist Way is about: finding that sacred space of stillness and harmony which always lies within and allowing this extra energy to be useful in the world. It is the foetal-like growth of conscience in its purest form before we accumulated all the useless detritus from society.

To reclaim that innocence of childhood while retaining the maturity of lessons learned in adulthood is a key challenge of The Way. Simplicity creates a lightness of heart as an antidote to suffering and the forging of emotions which strengthen integrity and virtue. As Lao Tzu mentions: “The one who is filled by virtue is like a newborn baby.” It is why Matthew (18:3) says “…unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” To embody simplicity is to be nourished on the “spiritual milk” so that by it [we] may grow up in [our] salvation…” (1 Peter 2:2).

Joyfulness and compassion must sit alongside critical thinking and soul defence. The former is therapeutic and healing and the latter provides a framework for progression rooted in objective inquiry. Simplicity hones our attention and develops perspicacity; it seeks the judicious, proper use of energy and makes it less probable that we succumb to overidentification with an ideology or belief. Simplicity keeps things uncluttered and helps to create order and proper psychic management. It fosters the seeds of receptivity and interconnection with our fellow man.

Simple living and a simple heart is a necessity for The Way. It helps to guard against self-importance and intellectual arrogance as we peel away the layers of conditioning. Yet, it does not mean we shut out life and limit our thinking, our aims and actions, although limitation and non-action play an essential part.  It does not mean a superficial style, fashion or fetish. As the Roman philosopher Seneca writes on simplicity: “…it is better to be despised for simplicity than to suffer agonies from everlasting pretence. Still, let us use moderation here: there is a big difference between living simply and living carelessly.” [1] It is the act of letting go of useless baggage – emotional and material – and the clear signal to create order that determines what is to come.

Such an attribute does not encourage blindness when confronted with cruelty, violence and malevolence but allows unfettered access to conscience and its activation against lies and manipulations. Simplicity is part of a consciousness that sees life as wondrous and awe-inspiring; mysterious and unfathomable. To lead lives of simplicity is an act of humility when faced with the sheer immensity of the cosmos and the unknown. The person who strives to simplify does so as a prayer in honour of the Universe of which s/he is a part. Just as a tiny cell plays its role in an organ of the human body, we might do the same on the surface of the Earth, and the planet itself may be a larger cell in the body of the macrocosmos of the Universe.

To get to know our own personal sacred space is to get to know the spark of God within us. It is the fulcrum between Creation’s chaos and order; where the information field meets billions of years of intelligent design.

That’s quite a precious piece of gold locked up in our personal matrix of flesh and spirit.

If we can begin to harmonise our minds and bodies by first being aware of this space, and second, anchoring our intention to it as opposed to the hurried attachment to external desires, then we start to open the doors to the Way. This is why the original alchemical philosophy of Taoism (Tao chiao) was/is never a religion although myth and storytelling is part of its teachings. It is a practical philosophy growing from the here-and-now which requires no hierarchical intermediary or any doctrine or dogma.

It is a part of natural law.

And we begin by simplifying and economising on energy, because that is how essence best interfaces with reality. This is how we lay the groundwork for what it is to come.

That is how we accumulate creative power.

“Manifest plainness,
Embrace simplicity.
Put others first.
Desire little.”

— Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching 19

“Golden Sun.” Japan, Meiji era, 1878.

Ceramic Artist /Osaka/Japan/ iwasakiryuji.com

I Ching

Another classic of Chinese Confucian and Taoist philosophy is the 5,000 year old I Ching (Yi Jing) or Book of Changes. In order to grasp the significance of what lies behind the word “simplicity” and later, the economy of energy that results, the Yi (“ee”) Ching serves as the perfect gateway.

This isn’t the place to describe the vast background and spiritual pedigree of this extraordinary book, there are plenty of sources and assistance out there that can offer the basics on this metaphysical treatise and divination tool. However, keep in mind this book does not serve a strictly divinatory role – that’s only the start. As 18th Century Taoist master Liu Yiming mentions: “…the I Ching is not a book of divination, but rather a study of investigation, of principles, fulfilment of nature, and arrival at the meaning of life.”

The  I Ching has sixty-four hexagrams with three hundred and eighty-four lines which embody the pathways of yin (negative, dark, and feminine) and yang (positive, light, and masculine) and the choices which deliver balance and imbalance when the two are separate and integrated respectively. The symbols and symbolic language of the hexagrams help us to harmonise the body and mind toward balance.

“Yi” is an adjective meaning “easy” or “simple”, and as a verb “to change”. To have simplicity is to invite change. “Jing” means “classic” in terms of an ancient text (A classic text of changes) which is derived from “regularity” or “persistency”. This shows that simplicity in change is drawn from regular and persistent application of classic alchemical teachings – The Way.  Thus we have three themes running through the Yi Jing:

  1. Simplicity – the root of the substance. The fundamental law underlying everything in the universe is utterly plain and simple, no matter how abstruse or complex some things may appear to be.
  2. Variability – the use of the substance. Everything in the universe is continually changing. By comprehending this one may realize the importance of flexibility in life and may thus cultivate the proper attitude for dealing with a multiplicity of diverse situations.
  3. Persistency – the essence of the substance. While everything in the universe seems to be changing, among the changing tides there is a persistent principle, a central rule, which does not vary with space and time. [2]

The I Ching’ 64 hexagrams (right) The I Ching cosmological connections http://www.biroco.com/

Truth is uncomplicated. Yet, it requires an inflow of energy of the right quality to access and understand and apply. And that’s a process that is as complicated as we choose to make it. And we usually make it so, because stripping away the surplus of the superficial and fake is a generally unpleasant process. The human vessel has to acquire the proper material and correct frequency and resonance so that we attune to it naturally. Receivership capability means that a cracked and leaking vessel cannot house those energies and put them to good use. That means cleaning out and making repairs.

We can use the analogy of the Well (Hexagram 48) which can be blocked and stagnant, the walls falling into disrepair, all of which must be rectified if pure waters are to flow again. We must make sure that we are connected to the Universal Source which supplies the water and thus eventually turns the Well into a resource for all.

The human mind and body are powerfully imbued with a primal spirit that creates and destroys. Although on the surface it may seem as if the Western traditions see the dragon as a force to restrain and conquer by the archetypal hero to attain transformation. In Chinese mythology, it is seen as a positive force from heaven and provides all kinds of life-giving elemental power. It is a case of different perceptions clashing rather than any instrinsic difference in the creative force itself.

The point is, this chaos, this electricity of life, sexual energy and unconscious power can be harnessed and used to transform and transmute consciousness. This is best symbolised by Hexagram 1 – The Creative – the dynamic will of heaven which illustrates a potent idea waiting to manifest, creating the space for action. To approach such generative energy it cannot be tackled directly. We must work up to it so that our inner being is strong enough to handle such a force that could eventually flow through us. That means simplifying to attain balance. In so doing, we allow that energy to express itself through persistence as oppose to ill-applied force.

Strangely enough, by simplifying, attending to the small stuff without an eye to the future we align ourselves with the right moment for action. Non-action facilitates awareness of timing, the space between the inbreath and outbreath. When we ignore the subtle ebb and flow of energy within ourselves and in external life, we become prone to fatigue, stress and exhaustion. Creative power can manifest all too easily in any one centre as a seductive quest for power or the ceaseless activity of thwarted desire.

Without the cultivation of guidance from the quiet voice of conscience, the ego happily takes over and immerses us in chaos. It doesn’t like simplicity. The ego in pole position always likes to be busy, busy busy as an end in itself. That way, the silence, contemplation and self-observation is never allowed to go too deep…The quiet voice encourages simple things as ends in themselves because it allows us to face the unknown with a warrior’s integrity and the knowledge to make chaos work for us.

By accepting and being receptive to life’s currents when it is not always right and correct to act, we embody the passive principle of Hexagram 2 The Receptive, the flipside to the active prinicple. The Receptive teaches submission, to yield in the face of overwhelming and destructive. It cautions to yield and serve. It is the magnetic field of the Earth. When Heaven and Earth combine it leads to a dynamic magnetism that is generative.

If The Creative is the crucible then The Receptive is the furnace that gives forth material and spiritual substance. It seeks expression through balance as symbolised through Hexagram 3 Difficulties at the Beginning. These difficulties are representative of a third force, a birth from the marriage of active and passive and the friction and obstacles that emerge from such a union.

These three hexagrams symbolise a tripartite foundation to the hexgram sequence as a whole. The rest of the teachings show us how to tread the path these three open up for us, which is really the story of the human condition and its awakening to conscious transformation.

“The more simple we are, the more complete we become”

— August Rodin

Two sides of the yin-yang coin

The dark/ negative dances with the light/positive

The dark spot in the light represents the dark/negative in the light/positive

The light dot in the dark represents the light/positive in the dark.

There is dualism but only fleeting since they are each part of each other, connected and interelated.

In the same way, simplicity and complexity are two sides of the same coin and they shouldn’t be looked at as two different things. Each emerges out of the other and is often based on awareness. Simplicity begets complexity and vice versa.

There are limits to the amount of information we allow into our consciousness (We might say that “consciousness” is an information field focused in physical terms in the central nervous system). As such, in this age of information, our consciousness/nervous system can easily become overloaded with complexity and usually of a nature that feeds into the endless circularity of pointless thoughts and desires.

Our awareness is dependent on how much knowledge and learning experiences we can ‘accumulate’ so that it nourishes and purifies, thereby changing the system. Which means we have to be extremely careful what kind of information enters our system in the hope of being transformed into applied knowledge. What we allow into our consciousness determines the quality of that consciousness and thus our quality of life.

Our mind-body system is integrated into a varied community of systems or “holons” each containing the above “duality”, be it ecological, social, cultural or ideological. Each system thrives on a fluctuation between order and chaos the amplitude of which is subjected to oscillations from within and without. In other words, creative tension.

The level of complexity within a synergistic order will define its integrity, the capacity to evolve and an ability to adapt in the face of challenges and threats. Our individual system repeats a process of meeting the unknown and the known. Whether we tip into blind disorder and psychic entropy is no different to the larger micro and macrosocial web in which we are embedded. The individual psychic components of an individual or a large social system can emerge into creative opportunities rich in diversity and complex non-linear dynamics of change.

The emergent properties of growth in nature apply equally to our personality and the development of soul qualities. Such behaviour can arise spontaneously and simply, through the interactions between its constituent parts and the surrounding environment. That’s why our home, our social circle, the workplace and our very bedroom are indicators of what’s going on inside us and where we have our focus. Emergent systems can be greater than the sum of our parts. Just like us.

“This we know: we’re stressed out, debt-ridden, exhausted. We have less time for our families than we feel we should have. We take fewer pleasures from our entertainments and consumptions than we expected to take. We feel less connected to our communities than we ever did. In our workplaces, we subject ourselves to routines and duties which at best seem pointless, at worst unethical or immoral. Yet we also feel like hollow citizens, too weary to respond to any political entreaty with anything other than a shrug. In short we are workers.”

— Pat Kane, Writer, musician

So, how can we begin to slowly introduce more complexity thus creativity in our lives? Paradoxically, by simplifying. As psychologist Edward de Bono mentioned: “Simplicity before understanding is simplistic; simplicity after understanding is simple.” And something that appears simple is often complex and therein lies its beauty. But it may take time to get there like any craft; harmonising our lives is an art form. When we are receptive to assistance and humble in the face of the unknown we reduce the interference of the chattering ego and open up more space psychically and materially for positive changes. As learn and fail, learn and fail and succeed (repeat) we might say that new clusters of neural connections are formed and along with it, an ability to approach greater complexity – an enrichment and refinement of the mind.

A complexity that is separative, isolated, reductive and selfish feeds chaos since it is often bureaucratic and devoid of meaning led by ethical and moral purpose. It is specialisation gone mad.  Instead of a multi-dimensional and multidisciplinary approach, we have a singular dimension which always seems to produce the same results, often because it is tied to singular paradigm into which it is manifests. Then we lose the practical nature of SEE and end up lost in intellectualisations which buffer us from actually taking command of our own destiny. Complexity of this kind dissects, analyzes and reduces truth into ever smaller digestible components until there is nothing left of the original harmony and Big Picture vision.

Sergio Caldarella’s essay on Simplicity includes this passage which illustrates the point:

“Robert A. Heinlein published a book by the title “Time Enough for Love” where he magnificently expressed the concept of how a multidimensional being should be: A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.’

We’re not insects, [are] we? So why should a human life be compressed into only one or two aspects? If you can learn fast and accurately and repeat all of that to your supervisors but you are unable to feel, to love, to admire, to listen, to enjoy a walk or the simple beauty of a flower or a cloud, who are you?” [3]

We are not one-dimensional in the same way we do not inhabit a one dimensional plane of existence. We are multi-dimensional that are programmed to discover. And discovery works best through persistence and variability; of adaptation and creativity. All things are in a state of flux and simplicity in action allows us to make sense of it, to manage it and thereby find the currents which match our essence of Being. That is practical and pragmatic. We master the material plane according to our innate and learned skills in order to begin accumulating enough knowledge which equates to vital energy and the ability to manage further levels of complexity. But not before we embody simplicity so that all actions and non-actions become a seamless expression of creative endeavour.

The first task is to simplify what we take in; to economise on the energy expended on a train of thought and its action. We need to reflect on past experience and pinpoint patterns of thought that give rise to actions which repeat diminishing returns or those that promote constructive change and harmony through and ordered consciousness.

Order doesn’t mean brittle restrictions, only voluntary limitations and personal rules that promote growth through structure. Such a system naturally incorporates flexibility and adaptation that engenders greater complexity – at specific thresholds of competence.

Without simplicity of intention and a streamlining of will to that end, complexity is a mass of tangled thoughts or bursts of energy without direction that stagnates the nervous system and creates cumulative tension. And that tension is prey to our reward circuitry and the dopamine loop – we are on a perpetual but unconscious cycle of feeding a biochemical and energy hunger that has nothing to do with our true nature. As we will see, once we can become aware of these cycles – from food, sex, intellectual obsessions to emotional dramas – we can begin to access key components of creativity which underlie simplicity and economy.

When the Self grows it is due to increasing complexity within and towards the wider world. The cultivation of simplicity promotes the freedom of mind and body so that creativity can emerge. SEE, tied to will, encourages order to harmony to creativity. Such a state of mind presents new opportunities to contemplate and observe that which was hidden from us by our over-stimulated minds.

Having sufficient freedom means the ability to hone our attention and use it efficiently. Attention is an energy, a resource through which we order everything from thoughts to feelings to confident decisions and choices. It’s here that our aims and objectives are set in motion. It defines our future experience the moment we decide to be responsible.

In that sense, when we have decreased activity, drawn back and exerted conscious direction over what enters and leaves our mind, focused the will purposefully and with attention toward the correct use of our psychic energy and awareness of timing and cycles, then quality of consciousness is increased. Allow the unconscious to steer emotions and instincts and to create random actions from undisciplined or circular thoughts which are familiar but essentially meaning-less, then energy is frittered away until your tank has run dry. How your energy is invested will determine how your life proceeds.

Rewnable energy and economics isn’t just for the stock market.

Illustration, ‘Glade and stream’ ©1999 M.K. Styllinksi

’There is no ‘complete’ or ‘perfect’ with learning. There is just learning.’ …’There is no single perfect career path. There is only the one we are constructing as we go.’

Beth Kempton, Wabi-Sabi: Japanese Wisdom for a Perfectly imperfect Life


Intimately connected to the dynamics of nature, art and even the meditative practice of tea rituals, wabi-sabi has immense importance in Japanese culture – even in today’s hi-tech economy.

Wabi-sabi was originally two separate words rising like sap from aesthetic values in culture and religion. By observing nature and tuning into natural beauty and the rhythms of life, the Japanese inspired by Zen Buddists, were able to translate these experiences into concepts and symbols designed to introduce a more harmonious state of being.

According to author and business coach Beth Kempton both words have a variety of meanings. Wabi means a lack of material wealth, or quite literally “poverty”. It means letting go of the need for social status, possessions or anything that implies overidentification with things. Sabi refers to the kind of solitude and loneliness that arrives from one’s quest for meaning and silences during times of contemplation. It’s the occasion of reverie and meditation connected with the passing of time. “The word sabi,” she states: “…means ‘patina, antique look, elegant simplicity’. The same character can also translate as ‘tranquillity’. The adjective sabishii means ‘lonely’ ‘lonesome’ or ‘solitary’. [4]

Perhaps more than any other nation, bar ancient China, Japan has embraced simplicity as an aesthetic ideal in literature, ritual, art and design. Kempton who has been immersed in Japanese culture for 25 years believes: “Wabi is about finding beauty in simplicity, and a spiritual richness and serenity in detaching from the material world. Sabi is more concerned with the passage of time, with the way that all things grow and decay and how ageing alters the visual nature of those things.”

In a nutshell: “It’s less about what we see, and more about how we see.” And when these concepts combine we have a gateway into the human condition and how to live our lives simply and with dignity. [5]

I can relate to the concepts of wabi sabi as it’s something that pulled at my perception of the world and my sense of self. As a child and young adult there would be occasions where I would literally lose time and be lost in the imagery of a stained-glass window or the swaying of corn in a field. There were moments where I’d feel something was hidden behind the material world as if it were replaying a complex iteration of truth. It was always the barren, forgotten and lonely places within cities which seemed to possess something exquisitely serene as well as sad. There was a beauty in the mundane and the ignored; that which was hidden in plain sight with its inherent majesty forgotten.

It is especially poignant when nature and urban life combines. There are times when I used to spy a plant in a darkened alleyway, surrounded by trashcans with a hint of sunlight on its leaves and it would stir something inside me that was a mixture of sadness and love. I think it was something about the fact that no one appeared to see that plant in the midst of squalor and no one seemed to care. Yet, here it was despite utter indifference: growth and abundance, adaptation and vibrant life – persistent and programmed to BE. This is repeated in the human world.

To my mind it seems to have something to do with the space between the inbreath and outbreath, the fulcrum between happiness and unhappiness; the creative tension we seek and the loss of meaning and purpose when we don’t find it. (The Dancing plastic bag from American Beauty (1999) is a good example of this re-discovery of truth and beauty in everyday life).

The loneliness of all of us as prodigal sons and daughters is sometimes captured by nature and the urban; by the forgotten corners in our cities which still thrive and still cling to life, much the same as our own minds, weary and parched from a lack of spiritual meaning and a glut of candy-floss fiction and casino-glow.

The space behind railway sidings that no one sees or visits; the dusty books in a long lost derelict cabin; the broken window and a shaft of sunlight picking out a cracked tile and pack of cards lying scattered. These glimpses of past activity now in a state of decay and disuse evoke memories of what was; it implies a micro-history and ultimately the rapid passing of time, where all is transient and nothing stays the same. Maybe it is a reminder that we will all return to the Earth.

In that sense, am I or any of us so different from those seeds and sprouting plants in nature? What is that process other than the journey of the soul to attain liberation? Such metaphors and symbols abound in everyday life.

Which is why the light and shadow of these hidden places and the meeting of nature’s growth and man’s urban footprint imply tension and conflict as much as they do irrepressible beauty and symmetry, form and meaning. As Kempton mentions: “Wabi implies a stillness, with an air of rising above the mundane. It is an acceptance of reality and the insight that comes with that. It allows us to realise that whatever our situation, there is beauty hiding somewhere.” [6]

Yet, rather than “rising above” the mundane there is a strange dichotomy: we strive to be apart from it and dive into deeper meaning and purpose, yet it’s that premature desire to elevate ourselves from matter and the mundane that causes us pain. We are still part of nature and the mundane duties expressed by the Zen aphorism of: “chop water, carry wood.” Until such time we can live in two worlds with equanimity, we are lost in the underworld inhabiting neither.

Recognising beauty in the mundane (as opposed to the more human-induced mediocrity) is a widening of not just an asethetic perception but a deepening sensibility of the heart. It’s in that sense that wabi-sabi is not so much about admiring the beauty in nature but our response to it. When we are confronted by any authentic beauty, it is a Truth which rises up through a feeling in our mind and body. It is potentially transformative and it is precisely its simplicity that allows access to a part of ourselves that lies beyond the intellect – it goes to the heart and in turn, to the essence.

“Smile, breathe and go slowly.”

— Thich Nhat Hanh

Attend to your garden

One of the greatest gifts we have is our attention. We have the ability to zero-in on a subject/object and lose ourselves in it, for better or for ill. This has implications for how we process time as well as how we process our state of mind.

In our overstimulated simulacra world it is very difficult to find that attention, and even harder to find the authenticity of beauty that makes your heart leap for joy. We too often give it away and focus on the easy and instant whilst eroding our capacity for more refined states of attention. But it can be rediscovered in the mundane as much as it is found in the Mona Lisa or the majesty of the Zambezi Falls.

Beauty is all around us if we shift our attention and widen our field of awareness.

Wabi sabi is about the contentment that comes from decreasing our attachment to externals and increasing our attunement to the eternals of simplicity, truth, goodness and beauty in everyday life. It means letting go and receiving. Just stopping and soaking it up. If cultivated, it allows us to be more connected and authentic. We begin to treasure what we already have rather than constantly seeking to fill that void with what we think we want or have been told over and over that is what we need.

In the philosophy of Taoism, you do more by doing less.

You are more likely to succeed because you let go of trying to succeed. Embracing non-action and passivity as opposed to perpetual action and activity with no respite. Non-action does not mean lying on your couch all day watching reality T.V.  It’s all in the timing and respecting the cycles of change which fluctuate like all cycles and seasons in nature.

You have to learn to intuit your particular seasons and cycles.

Which is why the metaphor of the garden is so useful. When we plant the seed, we don’t spend 24hrs lying on the ground next to the little hole you dug watching its every minute move. We prepare the ground, give it a water now and then and let it grow. We keep and eye on the weather and the weeds and otherwise leave it alone and let the sun and the rain do their work.

But we do have to create the right environment for optimum results.

Part of that process is unhurried, methodical streamlining, decluttering and reducing our tendency to complicate, usually via unregulated emotions. Or…Getting rid of all those weeds and brambles which have been choking our inner ecology.

So, think of simplicity and economy as gardening. The only difference is YOU are that seed or plant at various stages of growth.

It doesn’t matter what psychological label you think you have for various neuroses, everyone can simplify and economise because the (non) actions are simple to adopt and they largely take place in external reality to give all that nervous energy an outlet. Part of the solution is to let go of all that’s unnecessary and obstructive, though our monkey mind may believe it to be essential.

Start with a simple aim, create a routine and give yourself time to switch off. So many of our problems are solvable in a short space of time if we create a simple structure whereby incremental progress could be measured. Once you have a yardstick you can let it go until the next time. This is an exercise in truthfulness. And it starts by simplifying life into managable chunks of routine.

This is how Jordan B. Peterson sees it:

“Truth reduces the terrible complexity of a man to the simplicity of his word, so that he can become a partner, rather than an enemy. Sometimes, however, the counter mechanism can go wrong. Erratic habits of sleeping and eating can interfere with its function. Uncertainty can throw it for a loop. The body, with its various parts, needs to function like a well-rehearsed orchestra. Every system must play its role properly, and at exactly the right time, or noise and chaos ensue. It is for this reason that routine is so necessary. The acts of life we repeat every day need to be automatized. They must be turned into stable and reliable habits, so they lose their complexity and gain predictability and simplicity.[7]

Unregulated emotion makes us a prisoner of our desires, thus a personalised invitation to chaos. As Peterson reminds us: “It is then that we see what focused intent, precision of aim and careful attention protects us from.” [8]

Once you have some predictability and simplicity in your life then you have self-created reliability. Once you have reliability you attain stability, when you have stability then you can start to access creativity. Which means you can be useful to others because you have set your house in order and you have first been useful to yourself.

The simple truth often shines out but it never draws attention to itself. Simplicity exudes confidence and beauty but is never needy or brash. But our imagination fuelled by artificial constructs and a wild ego naturally shuns simplicity because it’s never enough. The imagination is either sabotaging us with draining fantasies of the future based on the hurt of the past or liberating us with creative inspiration drawn from the present. If we learn to recognise when to retreat and when to advance then we are already simplifying and economising in the face of challenges.

Allowing your essence to blossom – despite all the layers of garbage means shifting our attention and focus. We bring out what is constructive over what we believe is destructive and negative. It is quite shocking to discover how we are frequently the architects of our own misery. Rotten luck may unfortunately be what we need to awaken from repetitive patterns of behaviour.

So, you have a shed-load of steaming manure lying on your freshly-dug garden and you have no idea how got there. It stinks to high heaven. So, what are you going to do with it?  What does manure do anyway? Promote growth…So, dig it in and scatter the rest so that it no longer crushes. Too much manure on your garden and it stifles growth and just becomes a stinking, steaming mess. Disperse righteous indigation and rally around a central aim that is simple in execution and takes care of many little problems along the way.

The pile of steaming shit in our life is there for a reason. Sometimes the mess is horrible and horrific. Other times – easily managable. But these obstacles all test our will and push us to activate all that is good within us or excentuate victimhood and bring out more of the bad. Some stress is good, too much is bad. Some challenges make us stronger, too much and we break under the strain.

With moderation comes quality over quantity and extremes. Degrowth, decluttering and economy bring out the best for peace and presence of mind.


In the next post we will look into the sociocultural possibilities of this philosophy and finally, some specific ways we can introduce simplicity into our lives.



[1] Seneca. On the Shortness of Life (Penguin Great Ideas) (p. 103). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.
[2] Zheng Xuan Critique of I Ching and Commentary on I Ching of Eastern Han Dynasty.
[3] Simplicity By Sergio Caldarella, October 2018, Istituto Mediterraneo di Studi Universitari, Jewish Studies.
[4] Kempton, Beth. Wabi Sabi: Japanese Wisdom for a Perfectly Imperfect Life (Kindle Locations 326-330). Little, Brown Book Group. Kindle Edition.
[5] Ibid. Kindle Location 237.
[6] Ibid. Kindle Locations 318-319
[7] Peterson, Jordan B.. 12 Rules for Life (pp. 57-58). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.
[8] Ibid.p. 266

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