“My Experiment in Forced Simplicity”

Sometimes we get what we ask for without knowing it. And sometimes we don’t like what we get, even though we asked for it. This is what happened to me a few days ago…

Joyce and I just made our annual autumn pilgrimage to Assisi, Italy where, with a small group from four different countries, we were uplifted by the powerful legacy of Francis and Clare. Francis especially inspires me to discover the joy of simplicity and celebrate the divine in nature. After a week absorbing the heavenly energies of this place, along with all the love in our group, I am inspired for many months. I’ll never forget the first time I saw the movie, Brother Sun, Sister Moon, in 1973. I left the theater with an overwhelming desire to give away all my possessions, and live the heavenly simple life of a wandering monk. Even without going through this extreme change, I have held Francis’ model of simplicity as something to continually guide my life.

So, returning home from Assisi last week, my heart yet again called out for the gift of simplicity. And here is how my heart’s call was answered. The weather was so hot that, one day, I took our dogs to a local beach. We all had a great time, me walking and the dogs retrieving tennis balls from the ocean. I got back to my truck and knew at once something was wrong. Someone had broken in and stolen my phone and wallet from the glovebox. It’s funny how my mind refused to believe what my eyes saw. I had to open the glovebox several times to make sure these precious possessions were actually gone. They were.

For someone so inspired by the poverty and simplicity of St. Francis, it’s embarrassing for me to admit how dependent I am upon my smartphone. I have loads of apps for just about everything. It used to be that my brain was in my head. But now it’s too often in a six inch long little metal box with a screen.

And then there’s my wallet, with credit cards, driver’s license, medical insurance cards, and all manner of items just ripe for identity theft. Within 15 minutes of the theft, the burglar had charged a large amount at a local gas minimart.

Yes, I was shocked. Yes, I felt violated. And yes, I felt discouraged by the many hours and days of work involved in protecting my identity. What a concept, identity theft! Used to be, our identity could not be stolen. But, alas, now it can be, on paper anyway.

Yet I couldn’t help feeling another part of me. Somehow, I can’t quite imagine St. Francis with a smartphone and wallet full of credit cards, meeting a leper on the road and saying, “I’d love to give you something, but please wait while I find an ATM.”

I’m certainly not St. Francis, but I now had a rare opportunity, even for a little time, to be unplugged from the high-tech pace of the twenty-first century. When I could momentarily separate myself from the work and discouragement, there was a certain feeling of freedom, and yes, simplicity.

I must confess, even walking the dogs on beautiful trails I have built leading right out our door, I have my cell phone with me (at least it’s on airplane mode) to listen to music or an audiobook. I know better. Walking the dogs in nature could be an opportunity for reflection and silence, or listening to the natural sounds of the wind or the birds. So that’s the first thing I did (after cancelling my credit cards). I went for a long technology-free walk with the dogs. It was liberating! I imagined Francis, in the early thirteenth century, walking everywhere in Italy and beyond, mostly barefoot, and often singing praises to God. I started singing too. It was wonderful!

When I got home, Joyce said she had texted our three grown children about my misfortune, and asked them to comfort me. They reminded her that they couldn’t text or phone me. She had forgotten. Texting especially has largely replaced phone calls in our lives, especially with our kids. So I walked two minutes down the hill to Rami’s little house, where I could visit with her in person.

Simplicity is a key to spiritual growth. Gandhi understood the secret of simplicity. The Shakers sang, “Tis a gift to be simple, tis a gift to be free. Tis a gift to come down where we ought to be.” Two months ago, Joyce wrote her column about clearing clutter as part of her spiritual retreat. There is stagnant energy in not-needed possessions that keep us from our freedom.

Simplicity is being directly connected to nature. The Native Americans understood this well. Haridas Baba, one of our early spiritual teachers, said, “For those that wear shoe leather on their feet, the whole world is then covered by shoe leather.” It’s a metaphor for the layers we put between ourselves and the natural world, separating us from this essential, life-giving connection.

This is one of the reasons Joyce and I must spend time outside, preferably in nature, every day. It’s also why I crave the wilderness. At least once a year, in addition to camping and river trips with Joyce, I go on my own form of vision quest, usually an extended trip on some remote river, where I typically don’t see another person for days at a time. Recent research is finally proving what we’ve intuitively know all along. In one study by cognitive psychologist, David Strayer, 22 psychology students scored 50 percent higher on creative problem-solving tasks after three days of wilderness backpacking. Doctors around the world are calling it “The Nature Cure.”

I just spent an hour waiting in line at our local DMV to get a new driver’s license. Over 90 percent of the people around me were glued to their smartphones. I probably would have been too, catching up with office work. But now all I could do was stand in line. It became a meditation for me. I was aware of my breathing. I started to notice the goodness and beauty of the many people in this busy place. Then I started singing. No, not out loud. Just very quietly to myself. I didn’t want to draw attention to myself. But I was truly happy and at peace, enjoying my experiment of forced simplicity.

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