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The simplicity exercises: a sourcebook for simplicity exercises

As spring dawns (in Australia), symbolising new life, it brings me great pleasure to announce the publication of Mark Burch's The Simplicity Exercises: A Sourcebook for Simplicity Exercises.

This special issue from the Simplicity Institute takes us in a new direction, moving beyond the analytical stage of defending simplicity and criticising growth-based, consumer-orintated economies, toward the recognition that our primary task now lies in actively promoting alternative ways of living through education, not simply research and analysis.

While it remains necessary to critically analyse the global situation and describe and experiment with alternative ways of looking at the world, perhaps the most important task before us all today is to continue experimenting with alternative ways of living and being, and in The Simplicity Exercises Mark Burch provides a guiding light. Living simply in a consumer society isn't easy, but it just got easier.

As outlined further below, this text is made up of many "workshop" type exercises and thought experiments which individuals and groups can work through at their own pace and in their own way. It will be particularly valuable to educators, but in so far as we are all students of simplicity, this text will be of immense value even outside formal or informal educational settings. Please take some time to browse this text and get a feel for its depth and insight.

Based on several decades of educational experience, this is truly a major contribution to the literature paving the way to a new world. I offer Mark my most sincere congratulations for this extraordinary achievement. The Simplicity Exercises just might be the most important educational text on the planet today.

I've posted the introductory pages below (footnotes excluded) and the full 200-page text is freely available here.

- Samuel Alexander
The Simplicity Institute

Introduction

It probably sounds strange that anyone would need to learn how to live simply. The phrases “voluntary simplicity” or “simple living”, given our history of consumer culture indoctrination, imply that there’s nothing to it. Anyone can do this. What’s to learn?

I have practiced voluntary simplicity to one degree or another since the 1960s. In the 1970s, for five years I repeated Henry David Thoreau’s experiment in simple living—only it was in the wilderness 50 kilometers north of Thunder Bay, Ontario (Canada), a good deal farther off the map than Walden Pond was from Concord, Massachusetts (U.S.A.).

By the 1990s, I was offering presentations and workshops about simple living to thousands of people across North America. Since 1998, I have taught an undergraduate university course on the subject. Over the years I’ve met many creative, resourceful, and deeply insightful people who have walked this path. I’ve also been challenged by many bright students who have posed excellent questions. All of this has taught me, first of all, that simple living isn’t simple. Second, while many aspects of simple living come naturally to us, we usually forget them almost entirely by the time we reach adulthood. Third, I have had a wonderful opportunity to develop a suite of learning tools and activities that help adults access the spirit and culture of simple living in very powerful ways. It may surprise some readers to learn that most of these have nothing to do with learning to can your own jam or operate a wood stove. At the end of the day, it turns out, the choice to live more simply implies inner change (Kasser and Brown 2009), not just emptying closets or adopting a 19th-century rural lifestyle. It’s the inner change as much as new life habits that we need to learn about.

This book is intended to bring some of these learning tools together in one place so that educators who want to share the rewards and potentials of simple living with others may have some grist for their own creative mills. I don’t offer a definitive curriculum for simple living. Rather, these are examples of activities, exercises, and resources that in my experience have proven track records of releasing tremendous energy, insight, and communion, both within groups and individuals. Happily, the values, principles, and sensibilities that make up a simple living perspective on life are enriched and strengthened through sharing. Given the alternatives we have for the future of humanity, I mean to make me some allies.

For a litany of reasons already thoroughly explored by others, I have also come to the view that continuing the consumer culture delusion of the good life will soon extinguish our species and many others as well. For me, this premise is completely beyond rational dispute. As an educator, as a human being, as someone who has happily practiced simple living for five decades and survives to tell the tale, I think humanity’s main challenge is not teaching people to excel in the general scramble for more. Rather it entails learning to arrange our affairs so we enjoy ever-increasing well-being on a lower and lower consumption of materials, energy, and labor. I also believe that whether we choose this path voluntarily or not, the future we have prepared for ourselves is one marked by economic contraction, environmental calamity, and social conflict. It is therefore skillful and wise to cultivate within ourselves the practical knowledge of how to keep our heads and to make a good life on slender means.

That having been said, I hasten to add that I don’t think fear, guilt, or greed—the preferred bludgeons of those promoting social change—are any of them good reasons for teaching or learning about simple living. We certainly have things to fear, and to feel guilty about, and to lust after, if we wish; but none of these motivations springs from wholesome emotions or clear insight into the nature of things, and none provides a positive foundation for a good life. Remembering the stories of all those people who, both past and present, have adopted simple living, I’m impressed by the luminous, tenacious vision of a good life based on mindfulness, sufficiency, community, nonviolence, environmental stewardship, self-reliance, and most especially, the freedom, that shines at the heart of this way of life. Even if humanity wasn’t facing the ominous crossroads it is, even if the Earth was pristine and young, even if all energy were green and everything we made was recyclable and biodegradable—even then, a way of living based on being is preferable in my experience to one based on having. Even green growth can choke a garden.

So I come to the task of assembling what follows from the perspective that living simply has been a wonderful experience for me, with the hope that it might also be wonderful for you, and with the conviction that it’s something the world needs anyway. I hope that educators of all stripes—formal, non-formal, informal, and community-based practitioners—will all find something useful in these pages. I especially hope that they may find a catalyst for their own creative process in working with people toward life-giving cultural change.

Approach to Learning

I think most education practitioners who take their calling seriously try to make conscious their approach to teaching and learning. In my own case, the material that follows has been profoundly influenced by the work of others who have thought deeply about what education is, how people tick, and how we develop as individuals and communities. For some readers, making explicit my approach to teaching and learning about simple living will be essential to feeling secure with trying some of these activities with people they know. For other readers—the “concrete operations” folks—diving straight into the hands-on stuff is how they get a grip on the underlying theory. So, for those who share my academic preference for hearing about the model before the application, please read on. For those who learn about the model through applying it, try some exercises on for size and then read this section later.

The first meme that informs my approach to teaching about simple living is the idea that people are curious about voluntary simplicity because at some level or other they desire a change in how they live. So educating about this subject is not in the first instance a matter of transferring information from one person to another, but rather drawing forth (educing) what is already present in learners. It’s about making conscious our predisposition to change, providing a safe setting and relationships within which we can explore the origins, meaning, and implications of our desire to change, offering support and validation for personal change, and hopefully seeding the development of a community where change can continue to flourish. When I meet new students or workshop participants for the first time, I believe they are looking for a different sort of life than the one they have or else they wouldn’t be showing up. I don’t assume that everyone is looking for voluntary simplicity per se, because it sometimes turns out that they are not. Some people want to continue a consumer culture lifestyle but with the bad bits removed, like stress, or debt, or time pressure, etc. They don’t yet see that this is not possible. While no activity can be all things to all people who participate in it, I’ve found it helpful, nevertheless, to hold this work as lightly as possible so that it can be whatever it needs to be for the people who show up.

A second meme that informs the following material is a particular perspective on how people change. Today, the dominance of information technology in consumer culture leads us all to assume that information is what sparks change in our lives. This is a bias shared by many educators as well. Give people enough facts, or the right kind of facts, and they will automatically arrive at the right conclusions; they will be motivated by sweet reason to act in appropriate ways. Especially in a consumer culture which preaches that “more is better in every way”, more and more information delivered faster and faster is supposed to somehow substitute for both the knowledge of how to structure the information in useful ways and the wisdom necessary to discern what information matters and what doesn’t. I don’t ascribe to the view that personal change arises primarily from acquiring more information. For some types of change, information is a necessary condition, but not a sufficient one.

In my experience, it is non-rational factors like dreams, visions, fantasies, and sometimes pre-conscious or wholly unconscious emotional processes that drive change at the personal and even cultural levels. We humans are certainly capable of reason. We often use reason to rationalize not changing our lives. But we can also use reason for creating the changes we have already decided we want based on non-rational inspirations. It appears to me, however, that it is very seldom the case that we make deep change in our way of life solely to conform to the dictates of reason. Rather, making deep change seems to require subjective encounters with powerfully numinous imagery and emotions that exert a strong attractive influence. Related to this is the experience of meeting numinous people whose lived example is literally an inspiration for us—an experience that “in-spirits” us with energy and hope. Once these inner energies are mobilized, we use reason to figure out how to make our inspirations manifest as material facts of our personal and collective histories. Learning about simple living in a way that actually leads to life change thus requires making conscious the deeply inspiring and powerfully attractive visions we already harbor for such a life. The curiosity and desire for change is itself evidence that these inner motivations are already present to one degree or another and are seeking to manifest themselves in consciousness and in action.

Immanently useful in this connection is the important tool of journaling. Journaling is a literary form of what the famous 20th-century depth psychologist C.G. Jung called active imagination. Jung thought that by giving some concrete form to the images and inspirations arising within us, we could befriend the unconscious, advance the project of our own development, and access a deep wisdom in our relationships with others. He encouraged people to write, paint, sculpt, or sing whatever was arising from their dream life and waking fantasies. New media are making us a more visual / aural culture, but in the process we are trading away one of the great strengths of literary culture: The act of writing or drawing can take something which is a pure thought and solidify it long enough for us to meditate on it, suck out all it has to say, and in the process, develop a relationship with it. Many of the Simplicity Exercises incorporate journaling, either as a starting place for recollecting our own awareness, or integrating our awareness after some new experience, or as a way of honoring and remembering some new insight. I also use journaling very broadly to refer to any process that helps externalize an internal process so that we can relate to it differently; this need not be limited to writing per se. This process has been immensely valuable in my own journey, especially when inner experiences become emotionally intense.

Another meme that informs this work is the writing of the Brazilian philosopher, social activist and popular educator Paulo Freire (Freire 1995). For Freire, education is not about amassing a larger store of facts than other people have—something he called banking education. Rather, education is a process of social revolution rooted in the development of consciousness. Social change is the aim of real education. Social change is sourced in personal change, which in turn is sourced in the development and expansion of our conscious awareness. It’s by interacting with others that we develop consciousness of our current life situation and how to engage in it as active architects of our own history. For Freire, consciousness is socially constructed, and we grow our consciousness through relationships. Relationships are essential to this process because no single individual has a complete grasp of the historical situation we find ourselves in. Each of us has a partial grasp of what is going on, even in our own lives. When we tell our stories to each other, naming as best we can the realities impacting our lives, and when we listen respectfully to each other’s stories, we come to a more complete awareness of our situation and the opportunities it presents for change.

Freire’s work has had a profound influence on me personally and on how I invite people to explore voluntary simplicity. You won’t find many lists of tips in these pages about how to de-clutter closets or off-load the cottage at the lake. Many exercises, however, invite participants into conversations, simulation games, and reflective activities in which the main content is the story of our lives—what it is like to live in consumer culture right now, what this culture has done to the people and places of our memories, what we hope for ourselves and our children in the future, how we feel about what we experience every day. The aim is not to implant an ideology of simple living. Rather, we aim simply to create a social “space” where everyone has permission and encouragement to pause, reflect, make sense of what is happening to us, and imagine other possibilities whenever it is appropriate. There is also opportunity on many occasions to take this sometimes newly emerging awareness toward practical steps that implement both minor and major life changes. My touchstone is always to help people cultivate changes in consciousness before undertaking changes in their manner of living. Without doing this, we have no idea why we’re doing what we’re doing.

Yet another strand in this book’s DNA is derived from the theory of complex living systems as described by Margaret Wheatley and Myron Kellner-Rogers (Wheatley and Kellner-Rogers 1996). I don’t intend an excursion into full-blown systems theory here. What inspires me from the work of these thinkers is the vision of human beings, both as individuals and as societies, as creative, receptive, actively self-organizing entities. We are self-organizing systems congealing around an identity which, once established, creates a kind of psychological equilibrium that the system then functions to sustain and develop along the lines already defining that identity. We thus selectively perceive new information from the world so that we maintain some minimum level of historical consistency with how we already see ourselves. At the same time, however, we are continually admitting new information which feeds an on-going process of self-re-creation. Considered as complex living systems then, people are at one time constantly maintaining and constantly re-creating themselves. We are strongly motivated to maintain our identities even if that implies changing.

What has influenced me most directly from systems thinking has been the vision of human beings as complex, creative, self-maintaining, and self-guiding entities. We simultaneously conserve and create the identity that defines us, simultaneously maintain some psychological consistency with our history but also openness to new experiences. The lesson for me as an educator is the need to take a humble and respectful approach to working with others. As educators, we cannot transform the lives of others. Only others can transform their own lives. This is probably a good thing. As educators we can, however, frame questions and arrange experiences that seed change in learners precisely because they are also open to such new experiences. Using good strategic questions, we can disturb some of the givens which can so deeply dominate our worldview and behavior. In this process, good questions and invitations to engage in relationships are more potent catalysts than any lecture loaded with statistics or the dry syllogisms of formal logic. What happens to the questions and invitations we offer once they enter the labyrinth of a learner’s consciousness is something over which we have very little control. Therefore, we can always expect surprises during any process as creative as this one is. Thus, much also depends on trust and faith in ourselves and the goodness of others.

Somewhat reiterative of the Freire and complex systems strands of my learning model is the importance of first hand, personal experience in learning about simple living. It is more deeply stimulating and inspiring to hear first-person accounts of simple living, or to tell our own stories, than it is to hear presentations, no matter how skillfully constructed, about simple living. It’s the difference between seeing a picture of a beer and actually cracking one open. So in many of the group activities I will present, emphasis is placed on getting this personal involvement even when it may result in incomplete or inaccurate information. People have a way of rounding out what they know about a subject after they get seriously engaged with it and my primary aim is always to spark further and future engagement with the exploration of simple living. It’s for this same reason that I consistently stress the importance of face-to-face, real life activities rather than setting up websites, creating PowerPoint presentations, or even publishing books or articles. The chemistry, complexity and immediacy of real world relationships simply cannot be duplicated at the present time by any virtual proxies.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, is taking a positive, creative approach to everything we do. It is very often the case that those working for positive change in the human situation get mired down in dissecting and criticizing the deficiencies of consumer culture. This is an especially honored pastime in academia where it is believed that criticizing something is tantamount to actually doing something about it. But the exercise can be incredibly tiring. It feeds cynicism and despair and at the end of the day is both sterile and profoundly conservative. Finding fault with consumer culture is incredibly easy. Moreover, why would you waste your breath pursuing such a conversation unless you assumed deep down that consumer culture is worth saving if only it can be reformed in ways suggested by your critique? In the exercises that follow, we visit critiques of consumer culture only long enough to conscientize ourselves as to the effects it is having on us, and even then, not too often.

In my view, a more radical and positive approach involves ceasing critique, or at most, confining it to its role in conscientization (Freire’s term for growing consciousness), and fixing most attention on the good life we want to create through this process of exploration, discovery, and change we are embarking on. As I said above, I believe consumer culture is already dead and beyond resuscitation. The dead should be left to bury the dead. Those interested in living should be taking up the task of creating a life-giving culture and should do so immediately. Why spend time parsing the failures of the dead except perhaps to learn the lessons of history not worth repeating?

So these are the key principles that guided the development of the exercises and activities included in this book:

  • people interested in simple living already desire change at some level in their lives
  • deep personal change is motivated by trans-rational (not necessarily irrational) psychological and spiritual factors
  • journaling can be a powerful aid in working with trans-rational content
  • we change our lives by first changing our consciousness and consciousness is socially constructed in symbiosis with others and can change through collaboration with others
  • people are complex, self-regulating, conservative / creative systems who actively create and re-create themselves along the lines of their already established identities
  • first-hand personal experience is the foundation for growing consciousness in face-to-face symbiosis with others
  • all exercises should arise from, or lead back to a creative, life-affirming and positive place; mere critique is vain and ultimately sterile

The Simplicity Exercises

What follows is intended to be a practical tool for teachers and group leaders who have a specific interest in voluntary simplicity and adult learning. There are already a great many resources for group facilitators that offer a wide range of tools for conducting basic group introductions, problem solving, fostering creativity, and promoting personal development in a myriad of ways. I don’t plan to repeat any of that material here, preferring instead to focus specifically on suggestions designed to nurture interest in simple living. I also assume that readers will have previous experience leading groups and therefore won’t require an orientation to basic group dynamics, group psychology, principles of adult education, or the like.

This resource is divided into exercises, each one of which represents a separate group activity. They can also be used in combination to create workshops or retreats of longer duration than any single exercise. In general, these activities were intended for adults, although some can certainly be adapted for elementary school-aged children, families, or community groups. The exercises can also be supplemented with more formal information sharing, lectures or presentations, field trips, and so on, which I am leaving to the individual discretion and particular competencies of each educator. In the Notes section for each exercise, I have sometimes included some brief background material.

For every exercise, I provide:

  • a description of the purpose of the exercise, and usually a framing statement that helps situate the activity within existing personal or cultural identity elements that may help the participants more readily associate the meaning of the exercise with values that are already familiar to them
  • an estimate of the time required to conduct the exercise and recommended group size
  • materials or equipment required
  • a step-by-step description of the group process
  • notes based on my own experience of leading the exercise, what insights can be drawn from them, potential pitfalls and opportunities, and any background information I think might be helpful to a facilitator in preparing the exercise or variations on it
  • suggested resources consisting of references, readings, websites, and the like which can be used to inform the exercise or start a reading list for academic purposes if desired. I have not Googled every topic in order to pad out the Resource section since I hope this is something readers can and will do for themselves. Websites also change frequently and it would be impossible to provide a current list of active sites in a print-based resource such as this one.

Some exercises require supplies like food, writing materials, pens, flip chart paper, markers, or art supplies, etc. It is essential to procure these materials in the most environmentally sensitive way and to make sure that containers for recycling and composting are available and highly visible. As much as possible, everything should be zero waste, or else fully recyclable or compostable. Foods should be, as much as possible, organic and locally sourced. Attention to potential food allergies is essential these days and offering nut-free, gluten-free, dairy-free and / or vegan options is very desirable. Avoid bottled water and disposable dishes or cutlery. Supplies like markers should be water-based, odorless products, as some participants may have allergies or some history of exposure to solvents which should be managed with the utmost respect and discretion. People attracted to classes or workshops about simple living also tend to be both conscious of, and scrupulous about, their consumption of environmentally damaging products and are sensitive to any lack of this awareness on the part of organizers of events they attend.

In a related vein, I think it is essential these days, and perhaps it has always been so, to manage group expectations respecting what can actually be accomplished in workshops or classes about simple living. People always seem hungry for panaceas or silver bullets that can solve all their problems in one fell swoop. Writing about simple living is often found in the “self-help” sections of bookstores, further reinforcing this hope. In addition, for several decades now, popular culture has conflated self-improvement with psychotherapy and there is no shortage of psychotherapists who are ready to encourage this mix by citing the therapeutic effects of education and the educational aspects of psychotherapy. I want to emphasize that none of the exercises that follow is intended as any form of psychotherapy whatsoever, and they should not be engaged as such. Neither do they represent any warranty, implied or expressed, that by participating in these exercises, people are guaranteed a better life or that all the problems they’ve accumulated from living in consumer culture will somehow instantly be resolved. Group leaders can be assured that there will almost certainly be some people showing up for workshops or classes expecting exactly this, especially those whom therapy group facilitators call “group wise”. These are people with long experience in therapy groups and therefore with a clear set of expectations about what will or should happen when things get underway. My intention in publishing these exercises is to make available an educational resource that can support and inform positive change both in the lives of individuals and in our culture. This mission certainly overlaps various systems of therapy as both aim to add quality to people’s lives. The emphasis here is learning about simple living in a way that is rooted in personal experience, not working through past traumas to resolve current conflicts or problematic feeling states. I would recommend therefore that facilitators or educators using these materials be mindful to correctly frame these activities both in promotional materials for specific events and during the orientation phase of the events themselves so that participant expectations can be realistic and accurate.

Finally, it is incumbent on everyone who leads groups to take all steps appropriate to secure informed consent from participants, assure that participants are well apprised of their responsibility for their own behavior and their obligations to other group members, and setting whatever ground rules seem necessary to assure respectful interaction and a safe learning environment. Especially important these days seems to be the issue of privacy. Clearly, there are generational differences in understanding the boundaries that demarcate our private lives from the lives from the public ones we live in the company of others. I’ve been unpleasantly surprised on more than one occasion, and at least once downright angered, by the liberties taken by some group participants to stream video or audio to the Internet or social media sites without my prior consent and when clearly the matters being discussed were personal and private for the speaker. I’ve come to the conclusion that nothing at all can be assumed in this regard and group facilitators need to make the boundaries of privacy and celebrity crystal clear from the outset. While in no way specifically requiring it, many of the exercises covered in the following pages can prompt disclosure of personal and sometimes emotionally delicate information. Assuring that everyone respects and protects these disclosures for what they are is essential to creating the atmosphere of trust, safety and collaboration that makes deep change possible.

The full 200-page text is freely available here.

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