Cultivating Spiritual Simplicity

The death of his wife from cancer at the young age of 37 had a profound, life-changing impact upon Ron. A driven, corporate executive, Ron decided he wanted to establish other priorities in his life and live more simply. So, he quit his job to become a consultant who was paid on an hourly basis. That eliminated his 70-hour workweeks and provided him with increased discretionary time. He sold off his luxury car and traded down his house, reducing his monthly payments significantly and easing his financial obligations.

More interestingly, Ron applied the same “attachment reduction” to the emotional and spiritual areas his life. A highly opinionated, argumentative type, he reduced his need to dominate conversations. He started listening more and speaking less. People began to like him more and more. Likewise, he reduced his need to collect wealthy and influential people as “friends,” choosing to enjoy the company of people from a broad spectrum of society. For the first time in his life Ron was attracting some real friends. Little by little, he discovered that he liked himself better and was experiencing serenity and contentment in life.

Unhealthy Attitudes

Much has been written about the importance of living a more simple life. Usually that means cutting back on materialism. However, not as much attention is given to the importance of spiritual simplicity, the type of steps Ron took — cutting back on attitudes which are unhealthy, negative, divisive and even toxic to ourselves and to those around us.

Yet, reducing and eliminating unhealthy attitudes is something that Jesus consistently instructs us to do. Consider these citations: Stop judging others (Mt 7:1); Why worry about a speck in your friend’s eye when you have a log in your own? (Mt 7:3); Stop criticizing others (Lk 6:37). The apostle Paul reinforces this teaching of Jesus when he writes: Get rid of all bitterness, rage, anger, harsh words and slander, as well as all types of malicious behavior (Eph 4:32). Here are some ways of reducing our unhealthy attachments and moving toward greater spiritual simplicity.

Reduce the need to win. Consider this invaluable lesson from actor and martial arts expert Chuck Norris. Recently, after a day of filming in Texas, Norris went alone to a small restaurant. As he sat in a corner booth, a large man towered over him and declared with an angry edge in his voice that Norris was sitting in his booth. “I didn’t like his tone or his implicit threat, but I said nothing and moved to another booth,” Norris said.

‘Why Didn’t You?’

A few minutes later, the large man headed back toward him. “Here it comes,” Norris thought to himself, “a local tough out to make a name for himself by taking on Chuck Norris in a fight.” As the man stood before Norris, he looked directly at the actor and said, “You’re Chuck Norris.” The actor nodded. “You could have beaten me up back there a few minutes ago,” the man said. “Why didn’t you?”

“What would that have proved?” Norris asked. Silently, the man thought that over for a moment and then offered Norris his hand. “No hard feelings?” he said. “None,” Norris responded and shook the man’s hand. “I avoided a confrontation and made a friend. I won by losing,” Norris says.

Reduce all forms of selfishness. Jump start this process by reflecting on a prayer written by Henry Alford, a 19th century British minister and author: “O Lord, give us more charity, more self-denial, more likeness to thee. Teach us to sacrifice our comforts to others, and our likings for the sake of doing good. Make us kindly in thought, gentle in word, generous in deed. Teach us that it is better to give than to receive; better to forget ourselves than to put ourselves forward; better to minister than to be ministered unto.”

Reduce anger. We currently live in a very angry age. Road rage, for example, is a new term coined to describe people who explode with anger over minor traffic irritants. All of us can help restore civility to daily life by reducing our need for anger.

Here is an ancient parable for helping deal with anger. A farmer on a boat was delivering his produce to a nearby market. As he made his way upstream, another boat was coming downstream and headed directly into his path. As the boats came closer, the farmer began trying to veer away. All the time he was shouting: “Be careful. Get out of the way. We’re going to collide.” As his voice grew stronger so did his anger toward the other boatman. When the boats collided the farmer was furious and turned to yell directly at the other boatman. His anger evaporated when he saw the boat was empty and that it had simply come loose from it’s mooring. Calming down, he gently pushed it aside and continued on his journey. According to the parable, the man never lost his temper again because from that time on he treated everyone he met like an empty boat.

Reduce attitudes of self-importance. We need to eliminate all feelings, thoughts and impulses which cause us to believe we are more important, more busy and more needed than others. If this is not done, we create barriers between ourselves and others which results in dissatisfaction with our lives. Reducing the need of self-importance is not difficult to do and brings unique rewards.

Consider the example of best-selling author Bernie S. Siege, M.D. In his book, Prescription For Living, he tells of an important step he took. It happened in 1974 while he was a pediatric surgeon at Yale. He had a prestigious career, a “wonderful wife and five beautiful children. By most standards I was a success. But I was unhappy,” he writes. Like many doctors, he was trained to maintain an emotional distance from his patients. “I treated people’s diseases but shielded myself from their lives. I was so miserable behind the wall I’d built that I considered leaving medicine.”

But, before abandoning the practice of medicine, Seigel decided he would first try a different way of doctoring. “I’d allow myself to show concern for those in my care. Once I took that step, I began to see how bizarre it is for physicians to stand apart from patients. So, literally, I came out from behind my desk and asked patients to call me by my first name. My world changed. It was now rewarding being a doctor and helping people live better, longer lives.”

Reduce bitterness. Life brings us a variety of hurts and wounds. This is just a part of being human. We do heal from those hurts and wounds; however, some people carry with them the burden of bitterness, anger, even hate and rage at the person who caused the hurt. Such emotional baggage becomes a very heavy load to carry around.

An ‘Old Brick’ Relationship

One woman discovered this through an unusual suggestion from her therapist. She had sought out the therapist because she was extremely unhappy. The source of her unhappiness lay in her inability to let go of her broken marriage. She harbored a great deal of anger and animosity toward her former spouse. Since traditional therapy was not working, the counselor chose a unique approach. At the conclusion of a session, he handed her a brick and said that it symbolized her old relationship. He instructed her to carry it around in her purse for the next seven days.

As the week went on, the woman’s purse seemed to grow heavier and heavier, providing her with a clear understanding of how burdensome the weight of her unhealthy attachments had become. By lugging the brick around all week, she soon understood what the therapist was trying to help her see: that holding on to negative feelings was not in her best interest. Before long, she was ready to relinquish those feelings, and she symbolized that healthy act by crushing the brick with a hammer and scattering the pieces. She was able to let go of the relationship, the excess emotional baggage that went with it, and move on to write a new chapter in her life.

‘Wooden Shoe’ Thoughts

Reduce self-negating thoughts. Interestingly, the word sabotage comes from the French word sabot, which means wooden shoe. In the last century, when a labor dispute arose, workers would often throw their wooden shoes into the machinery thereby damaging the machine. Thus, the word sabotage is now applied to any destruction of factory machines, railroads, bridges, etc. Too many people are guilty of self-sabotage. They view themselves in harsh, negative ways. When it comes to their own unique gifts, talents and abilities, they sabotage their minds by convincing themselves they are unable, unworthy, incapable, inadequate and even incompetent. Of course, this is never the truth, yet they persist in perpetuating self-negating thoughts.

Do your best to reduce and eliminate all self-sabotaging thinking. If you have made a mistake or a blunder or acted ineptly, forgive yourself as readily and quickly as you would forgive someone else. Perhaps this idea from D. Patrick Miller can help: “Never forget that to forgive yourself is to release trapped energy that could be doing good work in the world. Thus, to judge and condemn yourself is a form of selfishness. Self-prosecution is never noble; it does no one a service,” he writes in A Little Book of Forgiveness.

By intentionally cultivating spiritual simplicity, we will experience, on an increasing basis, more harmony, equilibrium and balance in daily living. Life itself will be come a greater source of pleasure and joy. Ironically, we gain more by having less.

REV. PARACHIN, a minister, journalist, and teacher of meditation and yoga with his wife, writes from Tulsa, Oklahoma.