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Lightening Up for the New Millenium
Elisabet Sahtouris, Ph.D.
Tachi Kiuchi's Tokyo newsletter, The Bridge
Sustainable lifestyles often conjure up unpleasant images of "back to the woods" living -- perhaps in Indian tipis, sleeping on animal skins around smoky fires, or in log cabins with cold water in buckets and wood to chop by hand. But the idea is not to go backwards in time. Rather, we need to use our 21st century creativity to redesign the way we live. Sustainable living is a challenge to live lightly on the Earth in what I have come to call "Elegant Simplicity."
I began facing this challenge myself in the 1970s, when my youngest child finished high school and my house in Boston, with its eight rooms plus a full basement, suddenly felt uncomfortably cluttered with too many things among which I was soon to live alone.
I named this feeling "thing-glut;" it was like an unpleasant disease. Just when my childcare years were over and I should be feeling free, I felt stifled and resented the care I had to give all these things, from dusting to repairs.
My cure lay in deciding to quit my job, sell my house and car, sell some and give away most of my possessions, moving to Greece with just a dozen boxes of basic clothing, books, music equipment and light kitchen gear, leaving all else behind except for certain favorite possessions I left in storage, which I later learned were lost -- fortunately at a time when I had so come to love living lightly that I did not mind this news.
My new and very simple lifestyle in a small stone house on a beautifully forested little island in Greece proved enormously rewarding. I had decided to write novels in Greece for a few years because science -- my profession -- had given me no outlet for exploring the really big questions that had always drawn me: Who are we (humanity)? Where did we come from? Where are we headed? After tackling these questions in three novels I went back to science, freed of both possessions and scientific jargon! Writing my first book about our living Earth and our human history within its context in story-telling style (now expanded into EarthDance: Living Systems in Evolution) was the beginning of a whole new professional career, though I would only know that later. At the time it was my sheer joy to be able to concentrate fully on this work in a beautiful natural setting.
Even though I did chop firewood, washed clothes by hand and learned to really honor and conserve water, I did my best creative thinking then. I also learned how good it felt to live in a century-old house with very thick stone and earth walls, a fire easily keeping it cozy in winter while it naturally remained cool in summer with no need for air conditioning. My simple household tasks, including cooking from raw materials, even gathering my own wild greens daily, offered the opportunity to meditate Zen fashion, uninterrupted by telephone calls and other distractions once I taught my Greek neighbors not to call on me during writing hours.
Even after I finally returned to the US from this 12-year midlife "retirement," I maintained a far simpler lifestyle than I had before -- in Washington DC. Living without a car, four blocks from the White House, in a pleasant one-room apartment that I equipped with recycled furniture and green plants, I discovered that city's enormous opportunities for a free education -- in libraries, in volunteering to help at conferences on endless topics from medical advances and environmental issues to economics and international development, in embassy parties, World Bank and IMF tourist center programs, and so on. I was living a life of abundance in elegant simplicity in a leading world city at very little expense.
Four years later, I was still free enough to go spend a year in the Peruvian Andes, once again living very simply -- this time next to a sacred waterfall on the edge of Cusco in a single room where one end was my bed/sitting area, a third corner my kitchen and the fourth my writing space. As in Greece, I found almost all my time free to concentrate on learning yet another language, on analyzing my dreams, on my research and creative writing, and on my friendships and voluntary organizational work with indigenous Andeans, including a boy I informally adopted who is now an internationally known and highly trained medicine priest teaching other young people how to live sustainably and with spiritual riches. My year in Cuzco, including airfare, cost less than three months of frugal living in Washington DC.
Today I live just south of San Francisco, with a bicycle but still no car, in a quiet green town where everything is in walking or biking distance and only minutes of taxi ride from the airport, making my international work easy. My apartment is slightly larger, with both sleeper-couch living room and bedroom so that my grandchildren can visit; my balcony permits more green plants and flowers than can live indoors. My computer is a lightweight laptop, my music system small and my kitchen gadgets few and functional. I recycle everything I can and half my wardrobe is recycled clothing from elegant second-hand shops, the rest bought on sale when prices are low.
I love convenience and comfort, elegance and simplicity around me as a serene background for my intensely active mind. If I need a change of scene beyond where my work travel takes me, I can always go to a new location on my frequent flier miles, as last summer when I did a month's writing retreat in Bali for the same cost as staying at home, including wonderful, pampering massages that would have cost a small fortune here in California.
Many people admire and envy the very interesting life I lead and ask how I can be so lucky. I tell them I have no resources that they do not -- that they are choosing to stay in their big houses, living consumer lifestyles that require working themselves harder than I do, sitting in polluted-air traffic jams while I breeze by on the public train reading a book, paying more for processed and packaged foods than my organic ones, and so on. An added benefit is that I have not seen a doctor in over twenty years, relying only on herbal supplements and enjoy glowing health despite sometimes heavy travel schedules. Though society teaches us to run to doctors at the slightest sniffle, most of us are quite capable of learning self-healing for when it is needed, and of course natural practitioners now abound.
The good news is that more and more people are drawn to the Voluntary Simplicity movement and are sharing their experience supportively with others by forming or joining, for example, Circles of Simplicity (www.simpleliving.net).
Lightening the burdens a consumer society has placed upon us can not only lead us to health and sustainability but can bring us greater harmony and joy, a deeper and richer experience of life, as I have demonstrated. Were I living in Japan, I would draw on the elegance of tea ceremonies that show intense appreciation for every detail of beauty and harmony, on the natural, recyclable materials from which traditional buildings, household objects and clothing were made and the sparse but comfortable ways in which homes were furnished, on the concept of Japanese painting wherein every brushstroke is essential.
There is no need to copy or revive classical lifestyles while being inspired by them, no need to give up our wonderful communications systems and other really useful technologies. The important thing is to shift to a lifestyle of elegant simplicity in ways that make it an improvement on your life, that frees you from restrictions, permits you more time for relationships, increases your health, well-being and esthetic appreciation of life as well as deepening your spiritual experience.