A Return to Simplicity
There is little that you can do to affect the uncertainty and complexity of your environment. But you have almost complete control over the extent to which you simplify your life.
If you want to see happiness embodied, watch a young child at play. Focused on only that which is directly in front of her, the child is perfectly present. Unconstrained by worry or regret and unrestrained by what comes next. This state of joyful presence is something we all had access to early in life, albeit if only for a short period of time. It was pure, unadulterated innocence.
As we age, life becomes more complex. We begin to plan, hope for, and expect. We experience anger, frustration, and sadness, along with moments of joy and happiness. There is, of course, a richness to this unfolding complexity. But we lose the capacity to just be. And with it, the joy and wonder we experienced in our youth. This process is so subtle that we don’t see it happening. It just becomes the way things are and should be.
Why is it that this state of joyful presence is reserved for the first few years of life? Is it possible to return to this earlier time while still functioning effectively in the world? I believe it is. And that the key to doing so is to embrace the wisdom of simplicity. There is little that you can do to affect the uncertainty and complexity of your environment. But you have almost complete control over the extent to which you simplify your life.
The last nine months have been a wake-up call for me. I started to see how much complexity I had added to my life and how much agency I had to simplify it. I have begun to gradually say no to things that I had automatically said yes to. I now more consistently question and avoid the material things I had previously considered desirable or essential. I have started to eliminate habits that weren’t adding joy to my life. Slowly the things that matter to me most have become clear, as has the capacity to be truly present for them. And, not surprisingly, I am now beginning to see that it is a small number of simple things that actually bring me joy. Quality time with family. A hot cup of tea or coffee in the morning. Reading a great book. Focusing on doing one thing consistently well professionally. Walks with friends. Time spent outdoors. Exercising each day. Eating simple, healthy foods. My meditation practice. Stretching each day. And sleep. Boy, has sleep made a difference.
To be sure, not everyone is in a position to make all of these choices. Many of us have intense jobs. Kids at home attempting to learn virtually. Aging parents who require care in a time that is made more difficult by the ongoing pandemic. Financial pressures and job insecurity that compound all of these challenges. And yet, all the more reason to simplify. In some ways, life's goal may be to find complete joy in the most basic of conditions. Everything else is upside. From this place, there is no basis for fear or worry or anxiety. To simplify, then, is to be free.
As you look at your current life, what unnecessary things can you strip away? And how will you use the resulting space to enjoy that which matters to you most? Perhaps in this holiday season, the true gift will be letting go of whatever it is that may be getting in the way of what really matters most.
1. Keeping it simple is one of the qualities of Japanese businesses known as “shinise”, companies that have been around for more than a century. According to this wonderful New York Times article, Japan is home to 33,000 of them, including 140 that have been operating for more than 500 years and 19 that have been in business since the first millennium.
2. Cal Newport is one of the great thinkers on the state of work and the importance of deep work. His piece in The New Yorker is definitely worth a read.
3. If you like this newsletter, I’m guessing you’ll be interested in this recent book review of Ars Vitae: The Fate of Inwardness and the Return of the Ancient Arts of Living. It’s high on my must-read list.