Simplifying in an Age of Complexity ~ Part 1

Simplifying in a time of seeming chaos may feel counterintuitive.

Who’s got time for the sweet and simple? Don’t we need to work harder, “up our game” and become tougher than ever to survive?
Most people I speak to these days feel a sense of overwhelm. Their lives are filled with pressures and demands. “Busy” has become a socially accepted response when asked the simple question, “How are you?”
Then there is the state of the world.  While some people are so busy and adept at blocking it out – the emotional undercurrent of global anxiety is hard to escape.
While attempts to escape from the world’s clamor may be common, finding ways to move further into the world with different perspectives and energies are not.
However inured to external realities, no one can avoid the major changes happening today that will impact the ways that we work and live. This is certain.
The question is how will we meet those challenges – personally and collectively?
Writing in anticipation of the sweeping changes inevitable in the 21st century, author and sociologist Kingsley Dennis  says, “Some may say we are in the midst of a 3rd Industrial Revolution. Yet rather than referring to this transition as an ‘industrial’ one, I consider this profound shift as a Revolution in Human Being – or rather as a Revolution in Human Becoming.”
Dennis is talking about an internal process that will become the imperative driver for change. We’ve done the outside-in process for hundreds of years and we have the unsustainable results.
These new arrangements, priorities and new emerging forms, says Dennis, will come together “in countless new ways – with innovative changes in our communication, our uses of technology, through conscious awareness, through people-centered action.”
Any sustainable approach to these changes must be met with a sense of personal and collective clarity and calm in stark contrast to the political, economic and social models that prevail today.
In light of the inevitable changes before us, the case for simplification has been called a revolutionary counter-cultural act.  By necessity and intention, simplification compels us to step out of the dominate narratives of the past two hundred years.
It upends the assumptions and expectations that drive our current economic and social systems and the ways of life they have created. It challenges our thinking about what we believe we need to live satisfying and fulfilling lives. It demands new definitions of “success.”
Simplifying the way we live goes deeper than de-cluttering closets and in boxes and using less plastic products. Moving towards greater economic, social and psychological health will need a restructuring of our economic systems – in order to live with greater balance, equanimity and harmony with the natural world. It starts within – but it can’t end there.

Small is Still Beautiful

In his seminal 1973  book, Small is Beautiful, British economist E.F. Schumacher challenged the basic  premise of Western economics that material consumption was the sole end and purpose of all economic activity.  Instead, Schumacher believed deep human satisfaction was more dependent on two core tenets of Buddhism – simplicity and nonviolence.
Drawing on spiritual and moral principles, especially in his chapter on Buddhist Economics, Schumacher wrote, “Economists themselves, like most specialists, normally suffer from a kind of metaphysical blindness, assuming that theirs is a science of absolute and invariable truths, without any presuppositions. Some go as far as to claim that economic laws are as free from “metaphysics” or “values” as the law of gravitations.”
Since the 70’s when Schumacher’s book was published, the trajectory of Western style capitalism, while suffering periods of decline, has produced phenomenal wealth for a few, but a precarious economic future for middle and low-income groups. These conditions, in direct contradiction to the conservative ideology of trickle-down economics – where wealth at the top is expected to raises all boats – have dramatically worsened.
In his surprisingly popular 2014 best-selling book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, French economist Thomas Piketty, points out that the share of income generated by economic wealth has accrued to those with capital  – not wages.  Piketty warns that the long-term dynamics of income inequality are “potentially terrifying.”
He imagines the reemergence of a world familiar to nineteenth century Europeans: he cites the novels of Austen and Balzac where the “patrimonial society” a small group of wealthy rentiers live lavishly on the fruits of inherited wealth and the rest struggle to keep up.
Schumacher wrote that the prevailing economic system, whose success is based on the excessive and endless consumption of material goods, prizes “productivity over presence.” And to many, the acquisition of more and more is equated with human progress.  In that mindset, acquisition in all forms feels like a natural and normal human right in a consumptive culture.
This limitless, unbridled, uninterrupted growth is the foundation of our current system. Every conventional economic prognosis is based on it. Many believe it unsustainable, in fact, on a collision course with natural resources and human population growth and consumption. These underlying assumptions shape societies, cultures and personal lives.

The Way We Work

In the crunch of economic and work demands it’s easy to forget as historian Studs Terkel said “work is as essential to our meaning as our daily bread.”
For most people, quality of life relies on quality of work. For too many people, still trying to recover from the 2008 recession, work has been scare and wages low. Piketty and other economists have stressed that wage growth has been essentially stagnant or flat for the majority of employees.  But even for those employed in better paying jobs, annual engagement surveys continue to find that record numbers of people are unsatisfied at work.
In Your Lifestyle Has Already Been Designed, David Cain reminds us of the costs of creating and sustaining a trillion-dollar economy – We’ve been led into a culture that has been engineered to leave us tired, hungry for indulgence, willing to pay a lot for convenience and entertainment, and most importantly, vaguely dissatisfied with our lives so that we continue wanting things we don’t have. We buy so much because it always seems like something is still missing.”
Cain’s stinging indictment of the structure of most work today is consistent with the growing profiles of low-engagement, low-trust workplaces lacking in leadership and a sense of belonging.

Taking Life Back

While we can’t reshape the world economy, fairly distribute income or change the nature of the workplace – certainly we can (and I believe should) advocate for systemic changes in the culture.
We can begin to simplify our lives and reclaim our time and emotional resources by carefully examining what we do – and how we do it. This almost always starts with a close examination of the beliefs we hold about anything that consumes our energies.
The more that we apply some very useful questions like How much of my life (or the life I really want) am I trading for this (activity, thought, feeling, behavior) and How do I feel about myself when I am doing this to all the things that make up our lives – the closer we come to simplifying our experience.
The keyword to living a clearer, simpler, more peaceful, satisfying life is regeneration. How much of what I do – every day – revives, restores and renews my life energy?
In Part 2 we’ll explore the dimensions of experience each of us can explore to bring us more in accord with what is most meaningful in our lives.  Although our lives are often shaped by external forces that are beyond our immediate control to change, our daily response to those challenges can leave us feeling weakened or strengthened.
How we understand the economic, social and political world we live in – and begin to redefine our values within a new context – the more we begin to simplify our lives.
If happiness lies within the content of moment-to-moment experiences, practicing more intentional responses to external events becomes one of life’s key priorities. After all as author Annie Dillard states, How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”

Louise Altman, Intentional Communication Consultants
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